Everybody has heard of Pilanesberg and Madikwe, but there are 13 more parks in the north-western corner of our country that I didn’t know much about. So I set out to uncover the ‘secret gems’ travel writers dream of finding. I visited eight; four were great, but the rest, although lovely in terms of the landscape, made for unsettling travel, especially for a woman alone. First, these are the four places that shone.
1. Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve
Go for: unfenced accommodation and the Big Five
I had an incredible stay at this rustic camp in the enormous Big Five reserve – at 750 square kilometres, it’s one of South Africa’s largest. The camp is unfenced, except for an elephant wire that prevents the jumbos from pulling up trees around the lodge. Eco-friendly facilities include ventilated pit loos and donkey boilers for hot showers. The camp sleeps up to 16 in nine log cabins on stilts, which have canvas sides that can be rolled up for al fresco sleeping. The food is homely, complementing the camp’s unpretentious feel, and this is easily the most affordable and authentic bushveld experience for South Africans looking to stay in the park.
Getting to Madikwe Game Reserve
Distance from Joburg 324 kilometres (four-hour drive)
Closest town Zeerust
Park fees R160 per person
Cost R1 795 per person on SADC rates, including all meals and two daily game drives.
2. Safari, Lerako And Sentry Hill Bush Camps at Botsalano Game Reserve
Go for: an affordable taste of the Kalahari
This reserve is a prize – a Kalahari thornveld escape that’s close to Joburg and has an abundance of springbok, gemsbok, buffalo and giraffe. With luck, you might even spot a white rhino. Four rustic camps, each with basic ablutions (cold showers), are scattered around the park in unfenced bush where blue and violet-eared waxbills busy themselves in the acacias. As I was travelling alone, I was a bit nervous about security, but the reservations manager confirmed they’d had no incidents of theft or harassment. The management added that due to regular anti-poaching patrols, if an undesirable person was on the reserve, they would know about it. My car alarm went off during my stay, but rangers suggested monkeys were to blame.
Getting to Botsalano Game Reserve
Distance from Joburg 320 kilometres (four-hour drive)
Closest town Mahikeng, close to the border of Botswana
Park fees R35 per adult, R20 children (two to 12 years) and pensioners, R5 per car and R26 per minibus
Cost R200 per campsite per night for up to eight people
3. Vaal River Campsites at Wolwespruit Nature Reserve
Go for: waterside camping and fishing in the Vaal River
Each of the 32 campsites has a long drop, a braai area and a rubbish-collection point. Bring cash, as there are no card facilities. Sites are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so gun for camp number six. The rapids here make for better angling and the site is also close to new ablution blocks that are due to be fitted with geysers. There’s nearly a kilometre between each site. The rustic Stone House cottage was being renovated and fitted with solar power and should be ready by the time you read this. It sleeps six (R250 per night) and has a stove, small fridge, a heated shower and lights. Bring towels, crockery, cutlery and pots.
Getting to Wolwespruit Nature Reserve
Distance from Joburg 260 kilometres (three-hour drive)
Closest town Wolmaransstad
Park fees R30 per person, angling R20 per person per day
Cost R50 per campsite per night for up to six people
4. Manyane Resort at Pilanesberg National Park
Go for: hassle-free camping in a rugged setting
The Pilanesberg remains one of the best spots for an easy weekend getaway and promises sightings of the Big Five and wild dog. Its geological history as an old volcano gives it interesting topography. Manyane, which has a pool, easy-access water points, dustbins and braai pits, is my favourite campsite in the area. Bring a braai grid, as some are broken, plus a lock for your tent because clever baboons unzip them to get to your food. The resort is just outside the park, so you can leave after work on a Friday without worrying about making it before the park’s gates close.
Getting to the Pilanesberg
Distance from Joburg 190 kilometres (two-and-a-half-hour drive)
Closest town Rustenburg
Park fees R65 per adult
Cost From R270 per campsite per night for up to six people.
The other four parks (and why we don’t recommend staying there right now)
Travelling alone in some parks and reserves is not always easy as a woman. Safety, for all travellers, is a priority and the reality is that there are still places where your safety cannot be guaranteed. Then, of course, there is the issue of maintenance and positive guest experiences. I know for a fact that the following parks used to be worth a stay (my grandparents can testify), but when I visited them, they were simply not up to scratch.
1. Molopo Nature Reserve
The park itself is wonderful. Waterholes were rich with gemsbok, kudu, black wildebeest and birds. Phiri Camp was lovely, with neatly raked, private shaded campsites, but the shower taps had been shut off and there was little firewood for the donkey boiler. No ranger was present on arrival to arrange camping, collect payment or give me a map to explore the park. I set up camp and stayed the night without seeing a single park official; it was only in the morning that there were staff present. Considering it’s a long drive (630 kilometres) from Joburg, I’d honestly rather push on another 200 kilometres to Mabuasehube in Botswana, which has similar facilities but also has lions.
2. Barberspan Bird Sanctuary
Barberspan Bird Sanctuary, near Delareyville, is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) – a BirdLife International concept denoting places of global significance for conservation. This reserve regularly supports more than 20 000 birds, holding more than 320 species. As it is perennial, Barberspan is a sanctuary for waterbirds in winter when other vleis in the area dry up. It’s definitely worth a day trip but the toilets around the pan were revolting, and although the two self-catering cottages and campsites weren’t the worst accommodation I’ve seen, I struggled to see why even the most dedicated twitcher would choose to stay here.
3. Borakalalo National Park
Local fishermen lined the banks of the large Klipvoor Dam at Borakalalo, a beautiful 14 000-hectare area of woodland and open bushveld, and waterbuck and wildebeest drank at the water’s edge as pairs of pied kingfishers danced in the reeds. However, while the environment was beautiful, the same couldn’t be said about the reserve’s shabby Moretele and Phudufudu camps. Most tents were full of holes and barely standing, and an ablution block had a broken geyser. There were also troubling reviews on TripAdvisor about theft. As a result, my night, while thankfully uneventful, wasn’t restful. The angling campsite, however, seemed in good nick, occupied by satisfied fishermen.
4. Kgaswane Mountain Reserve
I didn’t stay at this park because it was just too risky. Even the booking agents I spoke to warned me against going, saying that ‘criminal activities around the area are making it hard for the reserve to guarantee the safety of the campers – they target bicycles and electronics’. For the first time in my three years with Getaway, I had to acknowledge that travelling alone in my own country can be dangerous.
So, what’s up with North West Parks?
I asked North West Parks Board regional manager Johnson Maoka for more information.
‘The protected areas [now] managed by the North West Parks Board are born from the amalgamation of the erstwhile Boputhatswana Parks Board, the Cape and Transvaal Provincial Administrations and Bophuthatswana Tourism Council. One will appreciate that each amalgamating entity brought with it a number of personnel across the ranks, equipment and infrastructure of various stages of use and age – and all these had budgets with the old entities that did not necessarily accompany the functions and activities taken up by the new entity.
‘Budgets had to be drawn up from scratch, and not every request was accommodated by the provincial government due to the diverse responsibilities it had.’ The request for funding for infrastructure development and upgrades by the North West Parks Board to the provincial government ‘though it forms part of the list of priorities, is often overshadowed by people-oriented requests for funding.’
According to Dinah Rangaka, PR manager of the North West Parks Board, ‘an increased budget to take of infrastructure development in all the 15 parks and reserves’ is on the cards.
Maoka acknowledged that crime in the area has increased lately. At both Kgaswane and Borakalalo, the problem was reportedly concentrated during busy weekends – and despite increased security at both parks, ‘both reserves have few security staff in relation to their size – security operations are more against wildlife crime such as poaching as opposed to common acts of crime.’
Reserve managers are working with both the Jericho and Rustenburg SAPS to curb criminal incidents. ‘Private security firms are an option,’ says Maoka, ‘but the issue again remains the lack of funding. We are, however, determined to restore the safetyand credibility of the reserves to the public.’
Until then, we say do support these wilderness areas with day visits but book to stay elsewhere.
For updates on the situation, or any queries and comments, contact North West Parks & Tourism Board through its Conservation PR page on Facebook.
This story first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our August issue features Mana Pools, great North West parks, and best trips for women. On shelves from 25 July.