Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

14:    Tourism

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Notes and Comments

Provisional version by Neil Parsons April 1999

Long-distance travel for purposes of trade goes back a thousand years in Botswana. Shells and beads from the east coast of Africa were being traded as far as the Tsodilo hills, in north-western Botswana, by the 8th century AD. In the later 18th century Kgosi Motswasele of the Bakwena, in the south-east of Botswana, was famous as a well-travelled man because of his journeys to Maputo Bay and back. But modern tourism is an outgrowth of industrial society, offering temporary recreation abroad - first in the later 18th century to aristocrats and gentry on 'grand tours', and later to bourgeois and proles on 'package tours'.

Plans for tourism on the Chobe were laid in the 1930s, but did not really materialize until the 1960s - receiving great international publicity in the early 1970s when the film stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton re-married at Kasane. The first modern safari camps on the Okavango delta were also constructed in the later 1960s, and the boom for high-cost/low-density tourism in the swamps began in the 1970s.

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Tourism is at present largely confined to the northern half of Botswana, and really indeed to the north-western quarter where lie of the marshes of the Okavango delta and the Chobe river close to Victoria Falls. Most of the web-sites on Botswana are dedicated to these areas, which have little practical connection with the rest of Botswana. Safari camps are enclaves in remote parts patronized by foreign tourists and run by white South Africans from northern Johannesburg, or by former "pink elephants" from East Africa.

Just as the visitor to New York City may conclude that everything there is culture created by humans with no nature left surviving, so the visitor to the Okavango marshes may get the impression that all there is wild nature untamed by culture. Both visitors, of course, would be wrong.

Only a few hundred years ago the Okavango lake and marshes stretched almost up to the Tsodilo hills, which were occupied by fishing people and cattle herders and crop farmers. The climate has changed, with less rainfall coming down river from the Angola highlands. The very nature of the Okavango marshes has changed too. The primary agent of change was the hippo. Hippos congregated and bashed their way through the papyrus, opening and closing channels. One result was that water flowed in quantity down the eastern side of the delta to form what was called Lake Ngami (Nghabe). But over the past century and a half, with the rise of commercial hunting with firearms, the hippos have thinned in number. The channels to Lake Ngami, and more recently down the eastern side of the delta to Maun and the Boteti river, have become choked with papyrus and have dried up. The impact of human culture has remade the nature of the Okavango delta.

The very savannah itself seems in part to be a product of human culture. For up to a million years people have been burning it, to make it grow new grass for the grazing livestock they cherish so much. One result has been the proliferation of thorny fire- resistant bush almost everywhere. The situation has grown ever more acute over the past two thousand years, particularly along water-courses, because of people's firewood and building-wood needs. Extensive farming cutting into surface of the earth has also increased the run-off of sandy soil into river beds. Hence all those sand-bed rivers that are marked as dotted blue lines on the map.

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The rest of Botswana is not really set up for tourists. There are few thatched luxury lodges along the lines of northern Botswana. Though there are some good restaurants in the capital city, Gaborone only has conventional hotels modelled on Holiday Inns and Sheratons. Hotels elsewhere are often pretty run down. People in eastern Botswana are unused to tourists and their habits. Many officials and policeman cling to outdated ideas of infiltration by apartheid regime saboteurs. You are still not allowed to take photographs outside parliament and government offices (including post offices!).

The golden rule, as in any other tourist-unfrequented place in the world, is to first greet people politely and then ask their permission to go here or there and to take a photograph. Once they are given your respect, people are friendly and helpful.

The tourists who come to Botswana are wildlife tourists, who also take in neighbouring parts of Southern Africa. The brand-names that attract them to Botswana are Okavango and Kalahari, presenting contrasting images of marsh and desert - and to a lesser extent Chobe, the river that connects with the Zambezi and thus with Victoria Falls.

Cultural tourism remains almost unexploited. The only internationally recognisable brand-name is Bushman. Apart from conjuring up imprecise and distorted 'ethnic' images, the name is intensely embarrassing for the government of Botswana - because it denotes the neglected poorest of the rural poor in a free enterprise democratic society.

Historically-oriented tourism, on the other hand, poses no such threat. Botswana has significant attractions for tourists interested in the stone architecture of Great Zimbabwe, the life and travels of Dr. David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes' invasion of Zimbabwe (1890-93), the Jameson Raid (1895-96), the South African War (1899-1902), and the German war against the Nama and Herero (1904-05). All of these overlap with neighbouring countries, but there are also great narratives of Botswana history with which the world needs first to be familiarized by books and films.

For an indication of how a historically-oriented tour by car might be planned, see the Missionaries' Road supplement to this page.

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The grandaddy of environmental organizations in Botswana is the Gaborone-based Kalahari Conservation Society (with very brief pages on the people of the Okavango etc.).

Conventional tourist sites aimed at high-cost package wildlife tourists are headed by, apparently South African sourced. Its Botswana page has informative text without pictures on wildlife parks and reserves (Chobe national, Gemsbok national, Khutse and Central, Ngami. Makgadikgadi and Nxai, Maun, Moremi, Okavango, and Tsodilo) plus links to safari lodges, safari companies, and park reservations. Its main human concern is with Bushmen or San people. Package tours are listed with prices in US dollars and titles like 'Botswana a la Hemingway'.

GORP (Great Outdoors Recreation Pages) has a grandly named GORP - Botswana Resource Listings page which lists eleven links with US travel agencies (in New York, Houston etc.) offering deals to Botswana. Plus two extra pages: one about wildlife watching extracted from the South African book 'Engen Guide to Adventure Travel in Southern Africa',and one from a Texas source about birding (sic - here meaning watching rather than catching) in the Okavango delta. "Africa's Savage Oasis" at National Geographic turns out to be an Okavango video.

While we're on Okavango and Chobe, don't forget the Maun-based Okavango People's Wildlife Trust, and the Johannesburg-based Okavango Wildlife Society site, with lots of links which takes you to news stories on controversial topics like the impact of Veterinary Fencing. It was that page which alterted me to the International Rivers Network Okavango Delta Campaign page with lots more links.

If you are interested in the peoples of the Okavango, with the strange exclusion of the old Tawana ruling group at Maun, go to Okavango Delta Peoples of Botswana. It covers, in fascinating detail, the culture and history of Bugawe, Dxeriku, Hambukushu, Wayeyi,and Xanekwe peoples. This web-site was constructed by John Bock in 1992, and was last modified on 3 April 1999.

The Botswana page at Africa Safari.Com out of Massachusetts has pictures but little text, with links to safari lodges in the Okavango, Moremi, Savuti and Linyanti, Chobe, Makgadikgadi, and Zimbabwe.

The Muchenje Safari Lodge at Kasane on the Chobe has its own web-site.

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(See other pages on this site...)

Botswana's Hotels Association and Department of Tourism contribute forwards to the Botswana Focus site, which includes maps of Gaborone, Gaborone district, and Tuli Block, as well as the Kalahari, Okavango, and Chobe. For tourist lodges and smaller hotels with good food and local connections see the listing of Commercial Sites under Info.BW Local Resources.

Lonely Planet's web-site has two pages on Botswana, with a much broader focus than just Okavango and Chobe. Its Destination Botswana has well-intentioned notes on environment, history (for comments see Botswana History Page 2 ), economy, culture (a little confused about traditional religion), public holidays, current accomodation and restautant costs, etc. It even covers Gaborone ('Los Angeles without the budget options') and can this really be Serowe ('a few decent hotels')? Mention of Gcwihaba caves etc. implies the traveller has independent access to a rough country vehicle. Lonely Planet also has a useful Travellers' Reports on Botswana page contributed by adventurous travellers from recent experiences.

Karen Fung's Botswana Guide includes tourism links under "Travel".

For Gaborone try the Digital Travel Agent Guide to Gaborone and Encarta on Gaborone.

The Norwegian Council for Africa'a Botswana page has a substantial list of links on Botswana, including Tourism - concluding with a site boasting five photographs in and around Gaborone railway station, masquerading as 'Pictures of GabArone' (misspelt).

A German web-site, with a very useful list of links in English and German, is Forschungsprojekte Botswana constructed by F.Kruger and making reference to the German Friends of Botswana Society.

See the US State Dept's Botswana - Consular Information Sheet.

For something really different try Botswana Bike and Build. It is the detailed story of 40 Habitat for Humanity cyclists from the US who in 1996 biked from Gaborone to Kasane and built housing at Francistown, before going on to do likewise in Tanzania and Malawi. Staying with village and township people on the way, a good time was had by all, with plenty of friendship and food.

Excite Travel Destinations' Botswana, aimed at the U.S. and run by the Excite search-engine, lists a few links, including a universal "English for Travellers" site which makes no reference to Botswana at all.

The Interknowledge Botswana Page is brief.

For details of the numerous publications of the Botswana Society see their publications page.



(14a) Michael Main, Kalahari: Life's Variety in Dune and Delta (Johannesburg: Southern Books, 1987) ISBN 1 86812 001 5

(14b) Karen Ross, Jewel of the Kalahari: Okavango (London: BBC Books, 1987)

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

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Last updated 19 August 1999