Tucked away behind a veil of dramatically beautiful mountains a mere two hours by road from South Africa’s bustling commercial capital of Johannesburg lies one of the Rainbow Nation’s best-kept safari secrets and one of my personal favourite game reserves – the Pilanesberg.
Spawned by an ancient volcano which still sleeps beneath it some 1300 million years ago, the Pilanesberg was the location of the dramatic 1979 game relocation project known as “Operation Genesis” which saw indigenous fauna returned to their natural habitat in the heart of the Bojanala region of what is now North West province.
The unsung success of that project speaks for itself along the 200 kilometres of gently winding roads and tracks which snake between the towering peaks, gently rolling hills and rocky outcrops which cover the 55000 hectare reserve… The “Big Five” are abundant, as are all of the major “safari” species like giraffe and antelope as well as the rarer drawcards like wild dog, cheetah and hyena (spotted and brown).
The Pilanesberg is also a bird lover’s paradise, with all of the usual suspects as well as intra-African migrants keeping tick-lists full to the brim.
With dams and waterholes all over the park, and some fantastic viewing hides, it’s also possible to see some great water birds, and other creatures which make the water their home, like crocodile and hippo.
When it comes to relaxing and enjoying the park at its best, there are a variety of accommodation options available, from camping and self-catering facilities at the Bakgatla and Manyane camps (located at the two main entrances to the park) to luxury safari lodges at Tshukudu and Shepherd Tree and larger, upmarket resorts like Ivory Tree, KwaMaritane and Bakubung.
And next door to the reserve, literally, is the glitzy Sun City resort, with four hotels, a casino, entertainment and adventure centre, with everything from elephant-back safaris to hot-air ballooning over the Pilanesberg available to guests.
Perhaps the best thing about the Pilanesberg, for me at least, is that it is close enough to the major urban hubbub of downtown Joburg and the nation’s capital, Pretoria, to be enjoyed as a day-trip destination on a self-drive or day-tour basis.
Facilities in the park are excellent, from picnic areas, viewing sites and hides dotted along its routes at regular intervals to the Pilanesberg Centre with its restaurant overlooking a small waterhole and the magnificent views the park affords, which is open from gate opening to closing time, serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks, as well as providing a curio shop and small shop for provisions like bread and basic commodities.
It’s a visually stunning place, and one steeped in history too, with sites of historical and cultural interest clearly marked. The map of the park, which is available at its entry gates, explains the significance of these sites and the fascinating tribal heritage of the area. It also gives a translation of the names of all of the routes inside the park, which are in the local SeTswana language.
The Pilanesberg may not have the glitz and the glamour of some of South Africa’s more exclusive private reserves, but it certainly makes up for it in both geographical beauty and the fact that it is packed with game of all shapes and sizes, making a visit, whether for a day or a few days, a truly special experience.
For me it holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because I saw my first leopard in the Pilanesberg. And like first love, your first leopard is an experience never forgotten!