Exploring the Pilanesberg

Posted on 30 September 2014

It’ll only take one date for you to fall for Kruger’s attractive younger cousin. Here’s what makes the Pilanesberg special.

elephant, pilanesberg

While you’ll see more of the Pilanesberg’s animals in the dry winter months, the rainy season provides for a landscape full of life. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

The scarlet back of a southern red bishop is the most striking naturally occurring colour on Earth. I realised this on a balmy afternoon in Pilanesberg National Park as a gentle breeze swayed the bird’s perch. It was joined by the yellowest of weavers (southern-masked, lesser-masked or of the village variety – don’t ask me, I’m no twitcher). Together they sat like Christmas baubles against the deep green of an acacia.


bishop, birding, pilanesberg

Mankwe Dam is a favourite for birders – the reeds teem with life, none more eye-catching than the southern red bishop. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

There’s nothing manicured about their home reserve. In all directions, rugged mountains rise from the archetypal African earth, second in its redness only to the bauble bishop. These are the slopes of the Pilanesberg Alkaline Ring Complex, and they give the park a romance you won’t find anywhere closer to Africa’s economic hub.

Two-and-a-half hours northwest of Johannesburg, this place is like an idyllic island among the mine lands and depressing dorps of the North West province. Driving along the R556 past industrial towers and mounds of dumped dirt, I’m sceptical about the direction I’m headed, but by the time I’m surrounded by the Pilanesberg’s ridges, all thoughts of the harsh realities of industrial capitalism vanish.

The mountains (which took their name from Pilane, a Tswana chief who ruled the area in the 1800s) have a sense of impenetrability, rising 700 metres in four concentric circles. Their rocky outcrops and grassy slopes, speckled with acacias and weeping wattles, have a sense of mystery – you can never really tell how far they stretch or what’s hidden in the next valley or kloof. They surround a 1500-million-year-old volcanic crater which the aeons have transformed into broad plains, green and lush during the summer rains. When people use the expression ‘deepest darkest Africa’, I imagine a landscape just like this. With grasslands sprawling out in front of me to the feet of towering hills, I feel I’m in the heart of the continent.


Young lion in Pilansberg

A young king-to-be stares us down on a drive through the park’s wilderness area from Bush Thorn Lodge. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

Grass has always held only one value for me: to be eaten by things that are then eaten by other things. Surrounded by such abundance and variety though, I can’t help but learn to spot one or two of the 70 species which grow here: towering turpentine grass with its spiky punk-hairdo seed clusters, or spear grass, which has seeds that contract in a swivelling motion when wet, drilling their sharp heads into the soil as it rains. But don’t worry if the finer details bore you; this is Big Five territory and plains game thrives.

The park falls in a transition zone between dry Kalahari thornveld and wetter lowveld bush, allowing species that would usually live exclusively in either of these habitats to co-exist. So it’s one of few places in South Africa you can see impala and springbok side by side. You’ll also enjoy numerous rhino sightings, their big barrel bodies stained rust red from wallowing in the plentiful summer mud. Another quirk is the potential for seeing brown hyena (the bigger, badder spotted hyenas that out-compete them in other parks are among the few creatures you won’t see here). There’s an unmissable big red boulder-mound just off the tar road to the south of Mankwe Dam (the park’s centrepiece) which houses a den. Despite checking it at dawn and dusk, however, I leave disappointed. Even here, there are no guarantees in the bush.


rhino, pilanesberg,

Although official rhino numbers aren’t published in these dark times, they seem to be thriving in the small, secure park. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.


What makes the Pilanesberg tick?

On an early-morning game drive from Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge in the southwest of the park, a big one-tusked elephant bull moves slowly towards the road, legs completely obscured by the tall thatch grass. His temples cry tears of musthy sexual frustration and he shakes his head aggressively at a passing safari truck, packed to the brim with clamouring tourists. This bullish show triggers a chorus of wows, surpassed in volume only by the click of camera shutters. The illusion of paradise somewhat shattered, I’m reminded that South Africa’s temple to kitsch, Sun City, is right at the foot of the reserve, drawing high-rollers from around the world.

To escape the masses, I head for Moloto Drive in the northwest, at 19 kilometres the longest named road in the park and one of its quietest. It climbs to and circumnavigates the broad, beautiful Moloto Plain, taking me closer than any other road to the wilderness area (the third of the reserve which is inaccessible to public vehicles). There’s more chance of seeing Pilanesberg’s illusive buffalo along this road as they live predominantly in the mountains and valleys of that inaccessible third.

Following Moloto on to Sefara Drive, I turn off onto the Lenong View loop which goes up, and up, and up, to a viewpoint. The only thing reminding me I’m not alone is the shrill cry of a Steppe buzzard, and looking out over the whole of the crater valley I understand exactly why it made the mission all the way from Russia.


view, lenong, vista

The world is at your feet from the topmost point of the Lenong Loop – take a sundowner and snacks. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

As I navigate the 200 kilometres of roads which criss-cross the 57000 hectare park, I’m struck by how identical the stone signposts look to those of Kruger. The only difference, of course, is the distances they display. You could drive every road in the Pilanesberg at leopard-spotting speed – in the space of a weekend. On the flip side, this means the risk of getting a little bored and frustrated is real – you don’t have the sense of never-ending new terrain packed with sighting possibilities that you get in a place like Kruger. The sheer vastness of South Africa’s premium park puts it on a whole other level, but that doesn’t mean that its smaller cousin shouldn’t be lauded in its own right. It is to Kruger what an episode of Friends is to The Godfather trilogy. It’s lighter, requires less commitment and prior planning, takes less of an emotional toll and can be visited at more regular intervals without being overwhelming. It isn’t an epic, but it’s top of its class.


Getting there

Head northwest from Johannesburg / Pretoria, taking the R556 via the N4 to Sun City. If you’re taking the R512 north from Jozi, you’ll have to circumnavigate Hartbeespoort via either the R512 / R560 or the R104; these routes are similar in length, but the former has a more scenic view of the impressive dam. You can enter the park through any of four gates: Bakubung and Kwa-Maritane to the west and east of Sun City respectively; Manyane on the eastern border and Bakgatla in the northeast. A conservation fee of R65 a person and R20 a vehicle applies.


Where to stay in the Pilanesberg

1. Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge

Shepherd's Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg

Cool off in the pool at Shepherd’s Tree Game lodge – a swim with a better view will be hard to find. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

Nestled in the foothills of a private concession on Pilanesberg’s western edge, just off the R565, Shepherd’s Tree is a luxurious option perfect for couples. Thirty generously spaced semidetached units (which can be turned into family suites) are strung along an undulating road that starts at the pool, lounge, restaurant, spa and bar. Tirelessly friendly staff will take your bags and shuttle you in a golf cart to a room that feels like a suite in a posh hotel. You’ll enjoy cups of tea on a private stoep overlooking the valley. DB&B from R2760 a person a night sharing, including two game drives daily.

2. Bakubung Bush Lodge

Paths weave across perfect lawns at Bakubung Bush Lodge on the park’s southern border. The 76 upmarket hotel suites have big beds and en-suite bathrooms, with some rooms boasting views out to the hippo pool. The restaurant serves buffets bordering on the absurd in their variety and deliciousness. Self-catering timeshare units occasionally end up in a rental pool, but these are hot property so you’ll need to be quick off the mark to snag one. Tennis courts, a pool and a playground will keep the family busy during downtime between game drives. DB&B from R2960 a person a night sharing.

3. Buffalo Thorn Lodge

Buffalo Thorn Lodge, Pilansberg

The high thatched roofs and broad doors of the Buffalo Thorn Lodge combine to let in the light, sights, sounds and smells of the bushveld. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

Located in Black Rhino Game Reserve (a private reserve attached to the northwestern corner of the Pilanesberg), Buffalo Thorn Lodge is a luxury self-catering lodge that consists of five grandly roomy units dotted around a central lounge and dining room, boma, plunge pool and Jacuzzi. An army of egg cups in the kitchen and full DStv will make you feel like you’re at home – only everything is slightly nicer. Plan to stay at least three nights so you can spend one day taking a game drive along the beautifully lush road through the wilderness area and into Pilanesberg proper. From R8150 a night for 10 people, including gate fees and drives.

4. Manyane Resort

Manyane Resort, Pilanesberg, safari tent

Acacias provide ample shade for the simple safari tents at Manyane Resort. Photo by Christoph Hoffmann.

If you’re a happy camper, Manyane Resort on the eastern border of the park is an affordable option. A big, shady camping area boasts sizeable sites, with or without electricity, and dedicated space for caravans. Only consider the simple chalets in the self-catering four-sleeper variety; in the two-sleeper units, you’ll have little option but to eat in the overpriced restaurant. Camping from R110 a night, caravan sites from R150. B&B in a four-sleeper chalet from R1575 a night.

5. Tshukudu Bush Lodge

Tshukudu Bush Lodge is the park’s most exclusive lodge, and has six cosy, stilted, luxury cottages hidden among the trees atop a little koppie in the southwestern region. The view over the plains is second to none and there’s a real feeling of romance and adventure as you pick your way between the branches, past cliff-hopping dassies. Full board from R7660 a night for two people, including two game drives daily and local drinks.


Where to eat in the Pilanesberg

Bakubung Lodge’s restaurant is open to day visitors and has lovely views. Kids can kick off their shoes and enjoy the manicured lawns while you wait for a meal from an a la carte menu as varied as it is reasonably priced, with portions to satiate the hungriest of lion-spotters.
Tel: 014 552 6005, www.legacyhotels.co.za

If the kids go crazy sitting in the car for hours on end, they’ll love the 180-metre tunnel at Kwa-Maritane Lodge. It leads to an underground hide on the rim of a waterhole that provides a unique ground-level game-viewing perspective. The hide can get stuffy, especially in the summer, so combine a visit with lunch on the restaurant’s airy deck.
Tel: 014 552 5100, www.legacyhotels.co.za

This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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