Sun, 25 May 2003

Loneliness and the special fascination of the Bostwana outback

Andrea Loebbecke Deutsche Presse-Agentur Kasane, Botswana

The jeep fights its way meter for meter through the sand. It is around midday and the sun burns pitilessly into the savanna.

But after two difficult hours, the tortuous route through the Chobe National Park in the north of Botswana has been negotiated. And then it is just a matter of few kilometers to the green wetlands of the Linyanti River and the overnight accommodation: A small camp with fire places.

In Botswana, safari fans can still do what in other parts of Africa belongs to the past: Take extended individual tours through national parks, without fences and mass tourism - even in the relatively well-visited and professionally organized parks of Chobe and Moremi in the north. Lions, leopards, elephants, hippopotamuses, crocodiles and varieties of antelope frolic in the open.

There are fewer animals in the large central park of the Kalahari Desert. It takes about four days to cross the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. On the way you might come across a handful of other adventurers.

The scenery as you drive over the dusty tracks is impressive even without elephant herds and giraffes. Umbrella thorns are silhouetted against the hazy sky as the heat waves shimmer above the ground.

A little to the north of the Makgadikgadi Pan Game Reserve a bizarre granite island with huge baobab trees rises out of the plain, which was once a lake.

Loneliness and freedom in the parks has its price: For an individualized trip, travelers need a well-equipped four-wheel drive vehicle. There are no petrol stations on the way. Neither are there grocery shops or supplies of drinking water.

The few economic centers such as Kasane and Maun in the north or Lethlakane in the central region, are lively. Eight ethnic groups live peacefully together in Botswana and form a colorful mix of languages and dress.

Conspicuous are the Bushmen or San, as they are called in Botswana. These aborigines of the Kalahari and the Namib Desert are authentic survival artists, even in extreme desert conditions.

Botswana is relatively safe for tourists by African yardsticks. The biggest danger is when tourists misjudge nature or wild animals. On the land roads, vehicles should not be driven faster than 50 miles an hour because of the risks of hitting cows or donkeys which might stray on to the roads.

In the national parks, there are strict rules when night has fallen: lions are curious animals and often roam near camps. Travelers should use a torchlight and not move more than a few meters from the tents.

The former British protectorate has some of the world's richest diamond mines. Annual production amounts to more than 20 million carats.

Botswana is threatened by desertification and the country is badly hits by HIV infection. Credible estimates say every fourth person has the HIV virus.

Botswana became independent in 1966. Its standards of health care and education rival South Africa's.

To preserve natural assets are preserved, Botswana is not encouraging mass tourism. Instead its policy is to encourage well-heeled tourists. Numbers down, income up.