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"Orapa - and why you SHOULDN'T visit!" Orapa by CatherineReichardt

Orapa Travel Guide: 1 reviews and 2 photos

This is probably about the only town I will write about on VT with the intention of telling you why you shouldn't go!!!

Orapa is one of the largest towns in northern Botswana, with a population of about 15,000. It owes its origins entirely to the discovery of a series of diamondiferous kimberlite pipes in the late 60s, which have made it one of the world's largest and most profitable diamond mines.

Geological exploration commenced in this area in the 1950s, and finding diamonds under up to 50m of Kalahari sand cover was quite a feat. Orapa first opened in 1971 as the Debswana joint venture (with equity held 50/50 by those old diamond hands De Beers and the Botswana government), and provided a huge jolt to the Botswana economy, which up until then had been almost wholly dependent on beef production for foreign exchange.

Four years later, Orapa's sister mine, Letlhakane, was opened, which is much smaller, but economically significant because of the high proportion of gem quality diamonds it generates: 80% gem quality and 20% industrial diamonds (as opposed to Orapa, where the percentages are pretty well reversed). In 1982, Botswana's diamond production was further enhanceed when Debswana's third mine - Jwaneng in the south of the country - was commissioned.

How do I know all this? Well, on first arriving in Africa in 1987, I was despatched with almost unseemly haste to Orapa to oversee a water supply project, and worked there off and on for the next two years.

As introductions to Africa go, it was a fairly gentle transition. However, I still managed to get locked up in jail for a couple of hours - until I was bailed out by the mine manager - for a road accident in which I lost control of my vehicle, bounced off a tree (quite an achievement to find one in this arid part of the world) and collided with a passing cow, who then picked itself up, looked at me balefully and wandered off into the bush. My first - and hopefully my last - collision with an animal on an African road!

So why shouldn't you go?

Quite simply, Orapa is a 'closed' town, which means that you need a permit to live, work, or even visit there.

These restrictions were originally based on security concerns, amid fears that uncontrolled visitors would smuggle out rough diamonds. However, this argument doesn't really seem to hold water, as Jwaneng - Namdeb's other megamine in the south of the country - isn't a closed town, and one would think that the risk of theft would be similar from both operations.

More likely Orapa has remained closed in order to preserve its enviably high standard of living and low crime rate and to prevent inmigration to what is undoubtedly one of Botswana's richest towns.

Virtually all amenities and services in the town are provided by Debswana (the mining company), and understandably they don't want to become the de facto service provider to non employees for services such as healthcare and education. Also Orapa is located within an extremely arid area, where water resources are extremely scarce and agricultural productivity is extremely low, so limiting the number of people who settle here probably makes sense from an environmental viewpoint.

So why am I writing this at all?

Well, because of the size of the town (and the absence of much else in the region), Orapa is a very big dot on the Botswana map. It would therefore be natural to assume that this might be a good place for overlanders to refuel and reprovision, which is entirely incorrect and potentially dangerous.

People without permits will simply not be allowed past Orapa's security gates, so you will have to fill up at either Mopipi to the west, or Letlhakane to the south east, which are both several tens of kilometres away.

Fortunately other attractions in the area - such as the stunning Kubu Island in Sua Pan pictured above - do not fall within the restricted zone, so you can access these freely.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Prosperous, neat and well serviced by Botswana standards
  • Cons:You're not allowed to enter the town
  • In a nutshell:Off limits to all visitors, so plan accordingly
  • Intro Updated Nov 10, 2011
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CatherineReichardt Visits Here Frequently!


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