To the rookie traveler, Maun holds little interest. At face value, it’s an outback town of tour operators and nondescript buildings sprawled out over kilometers with not much of a discernible center. The cows and dogs will look both ways before crossing the dust-laden roads ‒ but donkeys and goats don’t give a tinker’s damn.
Maun may be many things, but a pretty face it is not. It takes a seasoned adventure traveler to see the town for what it is – Southern Africa’s own ‘Wild West’. Founded in 1915 as the tribal capital of the Batawana people, this frontier whistle-stop is where contemporary cow-boys with bush battered 4WDs begin their trips south to the Kalahari Desert or north to the Okavango Delta. And, although the rise of luxury safaris has stripped away some of the ye-old charms, the rough-and-tumble feeling of being at the crossroads between wilderness and civilization remains.
The semi-arid desert air is still heavy with rural charm. Only now, traditional thatched huts sit next to modern shopping centers, garages, banks, and bars which cater to a confounding mix of bush-pilots, locals, and dusty backpackers savoring a cold beer after days exploring the surrounding wilderness.
Maun has a strange kind of magic that leaves you spellbound. If you’ve been here once then you’re sure to return but if it’s your first time exploring Botswana’s safari frontier, here’s a helpful guide to get you started.
Best Trips Starting in Maun:
Things to do in and around Maun:
1. Learn traditional weaving at Botswana Quality Baskets
Art is at the heart of Botswana’s historical-cultural life; from the San, who painted the world they lived in on the rock walls of their shelters to poets by the likes of Barolong Seboni who pioneered the country’s contemporary literature scene. Of all mediums, Botswana is most famous for the basketry produced in the northwestern regions of the Okavango Delta by Wayeyi and Mbukushu women.
These intricate baskets have, for hundreds of years, been an essential component of life in the watery environs of the Delta. The work is incredibly skillful and the weaving so tight that some of them were also used as beer kegs.
One of the best places to purchase a basket is the Shorobe basket Cooperative in Shorobe, north of Maun. But, if you wish to get to know the community better and give back then spend a day learning traditional weaving skills at Botswana Quality Baskets. You may not be able to finish a whole basket during your class, but you will have the materials to continue weaving after the lesson is over.
2. Visit the Nhabe Museum
From WWII surveillance post to artist’s hub, the Nhabe Museum is a must-see while you’re traveling in Maun. Situated in the town’s northern district, this historic building is one of Botswana’s best-kept secrets, abounding with an interesting collection of displays about the history of the Ngamiland district and its people.
In addition to having artifacts such as traditional clothes used for ritual, music instruments and hunting tools on display, the museum hosts poetry slams and exhibition space for local contemporary artists to promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
3. Get a taste of Botswana’s cuisine
If you are what you eat then the Batswana are bursting with vibrancy. Whether you’re a steadfast vegetarian or prefer to put your canines to use, Botswana’s cuisine has a little something for everyone.
Two main dishes are considered local. Seswaa is meat (beef, mutton, or game) that is boiled for hours until tender, then served with maize meal (called pap) and greens. Herbivores will find plenty to graze on in the open-air markets where farmers sell an array of freshly plucked wild vegetables, as well as delectable fruits such as wild melons and baobab, which grows on the ancient, majestic trees indigenous to the region.
For the more adventurous palate, there are mopane worms, which are pinky-size caterpillars of the mopane moth. This local delicacy is first boiled then fried and taste, at least to me, like dirty leaves. You can find them from street vendors that sell food under small canopies.
4. See the Thamalakane River
En route to the famous Moremi Game Reserve, you’ll find a long winding river with no discernable beginning or end. This is the Thamalakane River, which began to form about two million years ago by the geological process of rifting that is currently splitting Africa apart along the East African Rift.
Just 19kms away from Maun, this reed-lined river is your first glimpse into the beauty that awaits in the Okavango Delta. The tree-lined Thamalakane River is as scenic as it is abundant with wildlife. A large variety of wildlife roams the reserve, including giraffe, zebra, kudu, eland, gemsbok, springbok, impala and ostrich, all of which are easily approached while on a horseback safari.
5. Explore the outdoors
The frontier appeal of Maun makes it an adventure travelers haunt. In every direction you turn, once-in-a-lifetime experiences abound. To the east of Maun, rising dramatically from the Kalahari scrub bush, the Tsodilo Hills beckons with remnants of the San, the original inhabitants, and the Hambukushu who have periodically occupied the hills for the past 200 years.
In the north, the Moremi Game Reserve boasts the most spectacular game-viewing areas in southern Africa. Known as “Predator country” these lush lands are teeming with the world’s most popular hunters – cheetah, wild dog, lion, leopard and hyena – and a plethora of ever-elegant antelopes. Large herds of elephant and buffalo also roam the areas, seeking water and refreshment, and over 560 recorded bird species grace the blue skies.
At the heart of it all, the majestic Okavango seamlessly holds together this thriving ecosystem. Coming from the Angola Mountains, there’s nowhere else on Earth quite like this UNESCO World Heritage site. And, the best way to take it all in is by sitting in a canoe, pulled along by an African gondolier.
Best time to travel:
The best time to visit Maun is during the winter months from May to October when there is little or no rainfall and the days are warm and cloudless. The nights can be cold, so take something warm. Moremi, Okavango, and Chobe are the most popular destinations around Maun and offer year-round wildlife viewing. They are at their best during the dry season (June to October) when wildlife is easier to spot, and the Okavango is flooded. November to April can be very hot, with most of the rainfall between December and February.
Getting around Maun:
Maun is a fairly small town and the core of it, from Riley’s Hotel to the airport, is easily explored on foot – if you can take the heat. Any further than that, you will want to get a ride. There are plenty of local taxis and combis about that will get you around town.
Banks and money
Many places in town will accept credit cards; very few will take travelers’ cheques. The main banks all have ATMs that accept most international cards, including Visa and MasterCard – which is usually the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to get cash.