Botswana cultural tourism: Tsodilo Hills and Maun

Those who know Botswana know it as a wildlife destination. Safari. The Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert. The world’s greatest concentration of elephants. Almost 600 bird species. African wild dogs. My recent visit there also included examining efforts to bolster Botswana cultural tourism, specifically around the city of Maun and at Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For everything that Botswana offers as a destination, it’s narrow. Aside from the wildlife viewing – which is unsurpassed anywhere in the world – there’s not much else. Botswana also suffers from a lack of awareness, particularly in North America. What percentage of Americans, Mexicans and Canadians, even the avid travelers, could point out Botswana on a map? While I knew it was in Africa, I couldn’t before I visited.

“In order for us to grow as a group we need to look at areas that are developing and also the government is very keen to see new areas – things outside the hardcore wildlife areas – to see them developed,” James Wilson, Desert & Delta Safaris Marketing Director told me when we sat down to discuss how Botswana’s tourism product could be broadened to appeal to a wider range of visitors.

I stayed at Desert & Delta Safaris properties on my trip to Botswana. The Botswana-based company operates nine lodges in its portfolio, eight in the country and one just across the Chobe River in Namibia.

Included in my stay was time at its recently acquired Nxamaseri Island Lodge, the closest overnight accommodation to Tsodilo Hills. This remote corner of a remote country gives visitors access to the most well-preserved site of ancient rock art in southern Africa. I wrote extensively about this powerfully sacred place at Forbes.com.

Checking in at Nxamaseri Island Lodge in Botswana.

Tsodilo Hills excursion

Despite receiving designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site more than 20 years ago, tourists on safari in Botswana have mostly yet to discover the place.

“Botswana is a wildlife destination. People have limited time on holiday, and so the focus is to be in those prime (wildlife) areas having your epic safari,” Wilson explains of tourist motivation for bypassing Tsodilo Hills. “Why then spend two or three more nights to go and see some rock art? That, pure and simple, is why it hasn’t received (more visitation).”

Understandable.

As an American traveler, I can see remarkable pictographs and petroglyphs in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. I don’t have to travel 30 or 40 hours taking five different flights and spending over $10,000 to see that. I do if I want elephants in the water and the Okavango Delta – experiences that can only be found in Botswana.

With Nxamaseri Island Lodge, 90 minutes by vehicle or 20 minutes by helicopter from Tsodilo Hills, Desert & Delta is hoping to convince guests they don’t have to choose between wildlife or Indigenous culture. They can have both.

“I see Nxamaseri as a place you can go and decompress a little bit. Those who have a little more time, it’s still stunning Okavango Delta, and it’s a completely different part of the Okavango Delta to enjoy the peace and tranquility,” Wilson said.

I agree.

My limited safari experience has centered around bumping up and down in a Land Cruiser three or four hours each morning and evening, seated, looking for animals. I wouldn’t trade these dusty, variously hot and cold game drives for anything, but again, it’s a narrow product.

Situating two nights at Nxamaseri Island Lodge in the middle of my Desert & Delta Safari circuit was a welcome, watery respite. Nxamaseri offers only nine rooms, assuring guest privacy, peace and quiet. Slide through the Delta at water level on a sunset mokoro ride. Watch the sun come up over the Okavango River. Revel in the birds and butterflies. Listen at night for the hippos as they come out of the water to graze.

Tsodilo Hills white pictographs. Photo by Chadd Scott.
Tsodilo Hills white pictographs. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Then take a half day to visit Tsodilo Hills. Nxamaseri staff gets you there and brings you back with on-site lunch included. Be sure to ask for the sweet and gooey house made cornbread muffins prepared daily by the lodge’s on-site baker. I’ve lived in the Deep South for over 20 years and these cornbread muffins stack up with anything I’ve had in Alabama, Georgia or Florida.

Enjoy stretching your legs and hiking the trails around Tsodilo Hills. I love safari, but physically, it’s very passive. Unless you’re on a walking safari which are few and far between, you’re riding in a truck most of the day. At Tsodilo, I reveled in being back on my feet moving around. Active travelers could easily spend a full day there on the various trails.

As Desert & Delta works to develop Tsodilo Hills as more of a tourist draw, Wilson assured me it will do so only in collaboration with the area’s local community. He also promises the company has no interest in making the spiritual shrine a site of mass tourism.

“We don’t want to see a sky rail or anything like that because then it’s not Africa,” he said. “You need to try to transport yourself to that feeling of those many years gone by.”

My Nxamaseri Island Lodge water safari experience plus Tsodilo Hills provided the perfect change of pace for my visit, allowing me to reflect on the wildlife I’d seen at Chobe Game Lodge, cleanse my visual palette, engage with the country’s cultural heritage, then recharge my batteries for a last wildlife push at Savuti Safari Lodge.

Maun cultural tourism

Mural art in Maun. Photo by Chadd Scott.
Mural art in Maun. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Most Botswana safari-goers are likely to access their lodges either by entering or exiting through Maun. This frontier town of almost 60,000 people has historically had a Wild West feel with Indigenous residents mixing alongside the rough and tumble expats drawn to the bush making their living occupying some role along the chain of the safari economy.

Increasingly, however, Maun is boosting its cultural offerings as well, attempting to become – if not a destination itself – more than just a weigh station for international travelers between their arrival in Johannesburg and safari in the Okavango Delta. A cultural tour of Maun through Your Botswana Experience takes guests on a three-hour trip around the city via van and on foot where stops include market stalls selling everything from food and clothing essentials to fine art and souvenirs. Learn about the Tin Men, Orange money, Semausu (tuck shops) and why car washes are so much more – and so important – here.

You’ll meet Prince, a local artist operating his own market stall selling postcards, t-shirts and paintings with his vivid, expressive coloring. He dreams of seeing his work at Art Basel Miami or MoMA and takes inspiration from Salvador Dalí.

Another highlight is meeting Mma Kushunya, a local master basket maker who has combined her artistry with entrepreneurship and now operates Matlapana Quality Baskets. The traditional baskets take over a week to complete – sometimes months – and what started with 11 employees has now grown to 120 – all single mothers in the area – to meet tourist demand for their work, which is exceptional and exceptionally reasonably priced. A fine handmade open basket suitable for decoration can be purchased for $30 USD.

Mma Kushunya also shows guests how to weave the palm tree strands into baskets by giving each one a small basket to start on. From personal experience, I can assure you it’s every bit as difficult as it looks. Her skill with basketmaking has allowed her to travel the world, going so far as the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, NM.

Mma Kushunya working on a basket at her retail location in Maun. Photo by Chadd Scott.
Mma Kushunya working on a basket at her retail location in Maun. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Your tour concludes with lunch at Akacia Café where a full meal sampling local food is included in the price ($110 USD). The dried mophane tree caterpillars won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed them.

As with Tsodilo Hills, a Maun cultural tour isn’t a reason to visit Botswana by itself, it does, however, add welcome depth and perspective to the experience.

“We believe tourism shares animals, but culture as well,” Nxamaseri Island Lodge General Manager “Kevin” Bame Bethia said during my time there.

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