How to spot a lion in the Pilanesberg

Posted on 26 August 2013

Recently I’ve been craving a trip to the bush. I took a week of leave and escaped to the Pilanesberg; South Africa’s fourth-largest national park and a place that I hold very dear. My mission was simple – to recuperate from zombie flu (I was starting to resemble a creature from World War Z), eat good food, read a book, soak up some sunshine and spot a lion. The Pilanesberg is known for housing the elusive Big Five and cat sightings are common, so I figured I had a pretty good chance (have a look at some beautiful photos of a lion hunt).

We stayed at Kwa Maritane – translating to ‘Place of the Rock’, this lovely resort is positioned at the foot of a rocky outcrop and boasts a wonderful array of accommodation. We had our own eight sleeper cottage with a patio positioned under various obliging trees, with a view of the plains and hills. During the day numerous animals frequented the area, with big herds of skittish impala congregating by the waterhole, alongside hungry warthogs, a dazzle of zebras and the behemoth pachyderms of the savannah. I immediately took up occupancy of an extremely comfortable lounger and spent many a blissful hour reading and watching busy woodpeckers above my head. Someone should really invent aspirin for these poor creatures – I imagine that flurried pecking causes some severe headaches! (Find out why woodpeckers can do without aspirin here) A violet woodhoepoe was also an occasional visitor, stealing the show with his long tail feathers and cleverly-shaped beak.

We started our trip feeling extremely optimistic; the last time I was in the Pilanesberg we followed a pair of courting lions for ages as they padded along the road. Following that, my parents had visited the park and spotted a leopard dragging its kill up a tree inches away from the car. Yes; we were feeling rather cocky – we were in familiar territory and we thought we knew exactly where the cats were at. Armed with binoculars, a map and some snacks, we hopped into the car and got our game faces on. We came upon a great herd of ellies reveling in a playful dust bath with a tiny baby sticking close to its mom; we saw a family of rhinos trotting through the long grass with tails curled up as they ran; we startled a majestic kudu secreted in the thicket and witnessed a bright green chameleon doing press-ups on the branch of an Acacia. But no cats. We weren’t discouraged – we had plenty of time. We headed for home and resolved to try a new part of the park the following day.

Elephant dust bath

The next day we went north and drank in the astonishing landscape, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for cat-shaped shadows in the grass. The Pilanesberg is unique in that it traverses the transition zone between the Kalahari and the Lowveld, thus hosting an incredible diversity of terrains. Dry grasslands intermingle with dense pockets of vegetation, giving way to crimson rock faces and sloping hills. We spotted a stretch of giraffes (we love this collective noun – read some other crackers here), long necks peeking out above the Acacias and came upon a caracal, with its pointed ears just visible in the tall grass. Four rhinos basked in the sun and a pod of hippos risked sunburn in pursuit of lunch. A statuesque heron stood on the banks of Mankwe Dam and a timid terrapin peeped up to say hello. But no cats. Nary a whisker.

Rhinos crossing

Day three. We woke up early and went for a pre-breakfast game drive. They say that the early morning is the best time for spotting kitties. We did not find this to be true. In fact we saw barely any animals on our drive. They were undoubtedly all still sleeping as all sensible creatures should be at that hour. Back at home, we were munching a consolatory breakfast when we heard a great deal of commotion coming from the restaurant. Racing up to the hotel, we saw a happy elephant standing in the pond, practically on the porch of the restaurant. A group of astonished tourists were gathered all around him snapping away, but that didn’t phase him one bit. He sucked up large trunkfuls of muddy water which he then sprayed all over himself with a satisfied smirk (yes, elephants can smirk). He stayed there for about half an hour, putting on quite a show and enjoying all the attention before lumbering off into the bush. I heard the man next to me say that it was one of the most amazing experiences of his life and it made me feel so proud; this is the Africa that I lovefull of fascinating, achingly exquisite unpredictability. So no cats, but a bold elephant instead.

Cheeky ellie

On day four we started hallucinating cats. Cat-shaped rocks, cat-shaped anthills, cat-shaped impala… it was becoming a problem. I spotted an entire springbok hanging off the high branch of a tree, but no leopard was in sight. We decided to come back in the early evening when we thought the cat would return. By the late afternoon, we couldn’t wait any longer and returned to the tree. The entire carcass was gone. I have no idea how the leopard did it, but no trace was left and our chances of seeing the sleek hunter in action vanished as well. Despondent, we were on our way home when we came across a herd of elephants drinking at the waterhole. A tiny calf kept trying to get in on the action but was shouldered out of the way by its older siblings. Undeterred, it joyfully played with a stick and kept slipping down the hill, looking terribly indignant. It was comical to watch and a lovely way to end the day.

Elephants by the waterhole

On the last day, we were sure we would see our lions. We had heard them hunting the night before and they sounded close. Very close. So we drove out the Kwa Maritane gate in hot pursuit, nursing high expectations and last hopes. Alas, no cats. I saw a very promising cheetah-shaped anthill but that was the highlight of the drive. They eluded us again.

So how do you spot a lion in the Pilanesberg National Park? I have no idea. Good timing, patience and keen eyes I suppose. But in the end, it didn’t matter. We saw ellies, rhinos, giraffe and an array of other creatures great and small. We immersed ourselves in the beauty of the area and got deliciously toasted in the warmth of the African sun. I finished three books and recovered; body and soul. And I will return – I’m sure I’ll see a lion next time.

For proof that lions do in fact live in the Pilanesberg, have a look at this account of an exciting sight from 2011.

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