For many of us, especially eco-enthusiasts, Botswana’s Okavango delta is a major bucket-list destination, a safari paradise with amazing sunsets, endless jaw-dropping wildlife, pristine wilderness areas and people who seem almost supernaturally generous, courteous and kind. (They might or might not be sitting on a vast cache of vibranium; I can’t confirm.) What I can say is that it’s a very dry place (the Okavango river system is a seasonal flood plain in the middle of the Kalahari desert) and look, you’re going to get thirsty. And in some places the local tap water is high in salinity or rather alkaline, or, occasionally, contains elements that might… disrupt your microbiome, if you’ve come from far away. So luckily, it’s also a diverse drink destination.
For the record, this list is definitely “safari camp” and not hyper-locavore-focused. Botswana has plenty of funky local brews (homebrewed ginger beer is a staple of many a family get-together) but if you stay in the delta at a safari lodge you’re going to be offered a lot of cosmopolitan stuff. Possibly even a Cosmopolitan, though that didn’t happen to me.
What to drink in Botswana’s Okavango Delta
Photo via Libreshot
Botswana was a British protectorate and while people certainly drink coffee, your better bet is often tea. Specifically, the South African Rooibos, which is technically not tea at all but a member of the same plant family as the fava bean. A native of the Cape, this plant is dried and oxidized to produce an herb tea with a distinctive redwood hue (the name means “red bush” in Afrikaans) and a flavor something like yerba mate. It is often served with either milk and sugar or honey and lemon-I personally prefer it black. Or, red. Though un-caffeinated, rooibos is gently stimulating, possibly due to its wealth of polyphenols. It’s considered good for your skin (possibly due to high zinc levels) and bones (calcium) and is considered anti-inflammatory, relaxing, and generally anti-aging. Any of those things would be a reason to drink it but the biggest might be that it tastes really good.
One word: Stellenbosch. South African wine has an ancient lineage, world-class quality (Napoleon’s drink of choice was a Cape Muscat), excellent price to awesomeness ratio and a level of sustainability and fair trade / fair labor practices you can feel good about supporting. Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch area is one of the things you’re likeliest to be served (and lucky you!). Brisk without being mouth-puckering, fruity without being overwhelming, Stellenbosch Chenins are the dictionary definition of “refreshing” and a welcome happy hour friend (or one that will make all the hours happier). Brands to look for: Ken Forrester, Spier, Jordan, Simonsig.
There are beers brewed in Botswana, both traditional “clear” lager types and more feral “opaque” beers (sometimes based on sorghum and sometimes acquired-taste-grade sour) but what everyone was drinking where I was staying was Windhoek, a lager from Botswana’s western neighbor, Namibia. I’m the first to admit beer isn’t my thing (making me a bit of a weirdo at this particular publication) but Windhoek makes a very nice, easy-drinking, not overly complicated Euro-lager with a gold-amber color, a pretty frothy, fast-dispersing head and a grassy character that might make you think of a German pilsner. It’s crisp, bitter up front with a herbaceous finish and definitely a great hot weather drink.
Gin and Tonic
Photo via Flickr
No, really, it’s for medicinal purposes! In the cool season, Botswana is really a pretty dry place (the Kalahari is a serious desert) and mosquitoes aren’t especially numerous, but Okavango is a river system and malaria can break out. So, in case you needed a justification for your sundowner, tonic water, while it doesn’t really contain enough quinine to prevent or cure the sickness (unless you’re drinking over 60 liters of it per day), is technically called “tonic” for a reason. The cinchona bark that gives it its distinctive flavor is 100% absolutely antimalarial. Just not the amount in one drink. As for gin itself, the science is sketchy on this point but I was told more than once that the aromatics used in gin (which can vary but always include juniper berries and citrus) do change the aroma of human skin in a way mozzies do not fancy. You may not blame me if you substitute gin and tonics for actual anti-malarials and find yourself in a bit of a sweating situation. I am just reporting what I have been told.
This South African liqueur is kind of like the love child of caramel, black raspberries and Bailey’s Irish Cream. That might not sound like something you want a glass of, but trust me, you do. It’s extremely seductive. Made from the marula fruit, a tree fruit native to South Africa and a favorite with elephants (the colloquial name for the marula is “elephant tree”) Amarula is a rich cream liqueur that’s really delicious on its own, a treat in coffee (hot or iced) and splendid drizzled over ice cream. You can also use it to make a “South African White Russian” or experiment with blending it with rum or cachaça (it has an affinity for sugar cane). Served plain in a chilled glass was the preferred delivery method where I stayed. Fine with me.