The Ultimate Guide to the Pilanesberg
In the north-west region of South Africa lies the spectacular Pilanesberg Game Reserve, tucked between the dry, arid Kalahari Desert and the lush, tropical Lowveld region. It is a small wildlife reserve compared to its big brother, the Kruger National Park, and its resorts are not as high-brow as its counterparts in the northern parts of Mpumalanga.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve does not try to be anything more than it is, but its endearing appeal sneaks into your heart and makes you wish you could stay for longer.
How the Pilanesberg got its name
Pilanesberg was named after Chief Pilane, the forefather of the Bakgatla (Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela) people of the North West province of South Africa and Botswana. This clan is a break-away group of the Tswana people and survived centuries of conflict and tribal hostilities in the era of the Difaqane (the Scattering) in the early 1800s.
Their lands were situated in the platinum-rich Bushveld Igneous Complex and, today, the Bakgatla Royal Family shares in the wealth generated from mining and tourism. Bakgatla is a derivative of the word Kgabo which means monkey, the totem animal of the Bakgatla.
In the mid-1800s, the Bakgatla tribe was living in the area near the site where the Sun City Casino & Resort complex was built. A large part of the area had been leased to the Boer (Farmer) Republic, and part of the lease agreement was the Chief would provide farm labour to the Boers who would also join them on raids on other tribes.
In the 1870s, Commandant Paul Kruger (who later became President Kruger) approached Bakgatla Chief Kgamanyane and demanded free labour to build a dam. The Chief refused and Kruger was so enraged, he had him publicly flogged. A large contingent of the Bakgatla tribe left the Pilanesberg area and resettled in Botswana.
The flogging was never forgotten and during the Anglo-Boer War, Kgamanyane’s son (who had since become chief of the clan) joined forces with the British and sent his men to fight against the Boers. The clan lost a large part of their land during this troubled time but they slowly re-settled in the Pilanesberg and reclaimed what was rightfully theirs, including the land around the Pilanesberg mountain.
In 1924, there was a massive platinum find that meant the Bakgatla’s land was suddenly very valuable. Deposits of chrome and platinum were found and the leaders of the Bakgatla tribe entered into joint ventures with different mining groups. This incredible turn of events secured the future of this embattled tribe.
History of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
The earliest inhabitants were from the Middle Stone Age. Hunter-gatherers traversed the area long before the first Setswana-speaking people settled in the area as cattle and grain farmers.
During the Iron Age period, the ancestors of the Batswana and Basotho people lived a subsistence existence but they discovered copper and iron in the area which they used for implements and trading.
The late 18th century gave rise to the Tswana period. The peaceful existence of the Tswana tribe living in the area was shattered in the late 1820s when Mzilikazi occupied the region. Mzilikazi sought refuge in the Pilanesberg for his rebel Zulu warriors who had fled the wrath of Shaka, the Zulu king. He had destroyed the villages and crops of the Tswana people and they were forced to live under the rule of the Ndebele for a period of time.
The first European settlers to the area were missionaries. They established a mission station in the north-western part on a farm called Driefontein that was wedged between a large section of land traditionally owned by the Bakgatla tribe. A Magistrates Court was built close to the base of the Pilanesberg mountain and offered a much-needed service to the people who descended on the area as development took off.
The southern section of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve was originally agricultural land which was sold to farmers by the Transvaal government in the 1860s. The farmers needed a permanent water source and built Mankwe dam, which is the Pilanesberg’s largest standing water reservoir.
The farms were bought back by the government in the 1960s and members of the Bakubung tribe were resettled on the land. The land was then given to Bophuthatswana, a large bantustan or ‘homeland’ that was established under the South African Apartheid government.
The Bophuthatswana authorities initiated a project to re-introduce wildlife to the region and the area was eventually proclaimed a wildlife reserve in 1979. The Bakgatla tribe agreed to the inclusion of the mountainous region that belonged to them, and 60-plus families living in that part of the reserve were re-settled in a town to the east of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.
At the time, strict anti-gambling legislation was in place in South Africa and property tycoon, Sol Kerzner, saw an opportunity to build an elaborate resort in Bophuthatswana that centred around a massive casino.
Kerzner’s company, Sun International, obtained a 99-year leasehold on a farm adjacent to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and built the magnificent Sun City complex. Bophuthatswana had no restrictions on gambling and this unique opportunity attracted hordes of tourists and day visitors to the resort and neighbouring attractions.
When Bophuthatswana gained its independence from South Africa, its president at the time, Lucus Mangope, set up a planning committee to re-introduce wildlife to the area in the hopes of boosting tourism to generate much-needed revenue for his people.
The creation of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve was one of the most ambitious programmes of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world. Operation Genesis was launched in the 1970s and involved the re-introduction of wildlife that had long since vanished from the region. All non-indigenous plants had to be eradicated at the same time. Today in excess of 10 000 animals roam the plains and hills. The numbers of indigenous birds grew in the quiet sanctuary of the reserve.
All buildings in the area were demolished, including the mission church on Driefontein. The Magistrate court building, a lovely Cape Dutch style structure, was saved. The historical landmark burnt down in an accidental blaze in the 1980s but was later rebuilt.
Tourism to the Pilanesberg really boomed in the 1990s with the fall of the apartheid government and after Nelson Mandela was released. The reserve was a hive of activity with the building of camps and lodges and, in 1993, the little reserve established itself as a Big 5 destination with the introduction of predators. Lions from the Etosha National Park in Namibia were brought it, even though there were serious concerns for the safety of people living in the surrounding communities.
At the dawn of a new democratic era, Bophuthatswana was reincorporated in 1994 into the Republic of South Africa, and the entire Pilanesberg Game Reserve now falls within South Africa’s borders.
By the early 2000s, the reserve had increased in size from 552 to 572 square kilometres. As part of a 10-year plan to establish a corridor between the Pilanesberg and Madikwe Game Reserve, an additional 20 square kilometres was added on the north western side of the Pilanesberg. Several private game farm owners dropped their fences and game from Madikwe could safely traverse the new game corridor.
Growth of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
The park covers an area of 55 000 hectares and boasts over 200 kilometres of tarred or gravel roads for guided or self-drive game viewing. It is home to the Big 5 (elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo and lion) but they are not the sole attraction.
Over a period of almost 20 years, an assortment of luxury and budget-friendly accommodation was built, and a selection of excellent restaurants and holiday attractions were established.
Before it was proclaimed a game reserve in 1979, the area was degraded and depleted from overgrazing and unchecked agricultural activity. The scars of human settlement have long since vanished and the eco-system has been rehabilitated to world-class standards.
The original bounty of 6 000 animals brought to the park were released into a quarantine area for a few weeks and then the fences were dropped. Lion and cheetah were not brought in at that time, but leopard and brown hyena were already there. Today, the game reserve has the highest concentration of hyena.
A young group of elephants was relocated to the area from Kruger Park but the herd did not include any mature bulls as they were too large to be transported. This created havoc as the young bulls had no ‘adults’ to keep them in check. The bad behaviour of the youngsters was sorted out when 6 older bulls were brought in from the Kruger National Park.
The Pilanesberg Game Reserve has received worldwide acclaim and recognition for meeting the challenge of developing and managing the reserve in such a way that the conservation initiatives, cultural needs of the original tribe, and recreational and economical programmes benefit current and future generations.
Although most of the reserve roads are not tarred, they are well-maintained and easy-to-drive even in the rainy season. This means self-drive game drives are manageable in all types of cars, and not just for those with robust 4×4 vehicles.
Day visitors to the reserve are welcome and there are several places to stop to stretch your legs or get a bit closer to the wildlife and birds that visit the many dams.
Mankwe Dam is the most popular stop-off spot – it is a man-made dam that looks like it was created by Mother Nature herself. A drive up Thabayadiotso, otherwise known as Proud Mountain, offers visitors panoramic views of the valley below.
A geologist's dream destination
The Pilanesberg mountain is circular in shape and rises from flat surrounding plains. It is formed by three concentric ridges or rings of hills, of which the outermost has a diameter of about 24m. It is mistakenly thought to be an extinct volcano but is actually a very rare formation called a ring dyke complex.
It is the site of an ancient volcano but it did not erupt. The magna cooled under the ground before it erupted, and later the centre collapsed forming a crater that later became the base of Mankwe dam. Millions of years of erosion left a hard rock behind that became the mountain Pilanesberg is most famous for. There are only three ring dyke complexes in the world and Pilanesberg mountain is the best preserved by far.
The Pilanesberg mountain is geographically located within the Witwatersrand range. Different types of syenites, including a number of rare minerals, have been found in the crater area. The geology is unique and one of only a few similar alkaline volcanic structures in the world.
At its zenith, the volcano towered 7 000 metres in height. More than 1 200 million years ago, a series of underground volcanic eruptions occurred and magma was squeezed into fractures that developed in its formation. The end result is several ‘onion rings’ of rocks of different ages. What we see today is a cross-section through the magma pipes that were located deep below the mountain’s summit.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a geologist’s dream destination and is rich in geological finds. Various sites that originate from the Iron Age and Stone Age are scattered throughout the reserve and show the presence of man from those periods.
The ancient hills of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve offer panoramic views over grasslands in the valley below and incredible bird and wildlife sightings. The Elands River flows south of the Pilanesberg in an easterly direction and hides built at the man-made dams dotted throughout the reserve offer tourists to the Pilanesberg an opportunity to leave their cars and enjoy stunning game and bird viewing at the edge of the water.
The delinquents of the Pilanesberg
Extracts from a story published by the Kota Foundation tell the story of the remarkable memory of an elephant. It is a clear example of just how much an elephant’s past history imprints on its current behaviour.
“In the early 1980’s Kruger National Park in South Africa decided that they had too many elephants so a plan was devised to cull (to kill) a significant number of the park’s population of elephants. At this time they didn’t have the technology to transport large, fully-grown elephants so they were killed. However, they chose to keep the younger elephants alive and transported them to other parks in South Africa as well as American and European Zoo’s.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve was a newly-established wildlife reserve and its management was thrilled when they were offered some of the young elephants from the Kruger Cull as well as a large group of black and white rhinos in the hopes of saving them from extinction. However, a few years after they arrive, park rangers began to notice something disturbing.
Several of the rhinos were found mutilated and killed. At first the rangers thought it was the work of poachers but the wounds inflicted on the rhinos were unusual and their horns were still intact, something a poacher would never leave behind.
As time passed the number of killings grew and experts were brought in to try and figure out what was happening to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve’s rhino population. All of the deceased rhinos had unique lacerations in their upper shoulder and back area – caused by, what was later discovered to be, the tusks of elephants.
At first the park rangers and officials didn’t believe it was possible that the elephants could be killing the rhinos so they set up a massive stake-out. Hidden cameras were placed in regions throughout the park and some of the rhinos were collared and tagged so they could be followed more easily. To everyone’s shock they soon discovered a small group of bull elephants harassing, chasing and then killing the rhinos in the park.
But why? This was the question that plagued everyone. Researchers had never seen this before and it just didn’t make any sense.
Soon some amazing scientific discoveries were exposed that shed light on what might be driving the elephants to react in such a puzzling way. First of all, the young gang of elephants were all in a heighted sexual state of musth.
This was completely baffling because the elephants were between the ages of 13 and 18 and, although a young bull elephant will begin producing sperm in their early teenage years, a bull elephant had never been spotted in full-blown musth until the normal age of 28 years. These young individuals had gone into this heightened state of sexual maturity nearly 10 years early.
When a bull elephant is in what’s known as the musth stage, they have testosterone levels that spike to 30-60 times higher than normal. They become incredibly aggressive with each other and any other animal that stands in its way.
In the wild, male elephants stagger their musth periods. They don’t all enter this phase at once, which is a phenomenon still under investigation. Perhaps it is to increase their chances of mating. If all of the bull elephants entered the musth stage at the same time, they would kill each other before they had an opportunity to mate. This way a few elephants enter the musth phase and the rest simply avoid the ones who are in this volatile state.
The young gang of teenage bulls were all in a musth state, and this perplexed everyone. The gang leaders were identified and two seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time at nearly every killing documented. One of them was named Tom Thumb and the other was called Maphuto. They were kept under surveillance until the park rangers could decide what to do.
Oddly enough, Tom Thumb was spotted “recruiting” other young individuals in a neighbouring park. As soon as he was seen inside the park, trouble began there as well. Several young bulls left the herd and joined Tom Thumb and his gang inside Pilanesberg. Researchers had never witnessed such deliberate coordination. It resembled the mafia in elephant society. A decision was taken to kill the main members of the gang, including Tom Thumb and Maphuto, in order to save the parks remaining rhinos.
A professional hunter was hired to separate Tom Thumb and shoot him but as he was sneaking up on the wild elephant, he lost sight of him in the thick underbrush. Somehow Tom Thumb sensed he was there and came up behind the man, killing him before he got off the first shot. A second group of professional hunters set out to kill the elephant gang and in a hail of gunfire Tom Thumb once again escaped the hunter’s bullets.
Maphuto was not so lucky and as he lay dying, like a scene right out of The Godfather, was comforted by his sister who refused to leave his side even after his death.
The hunters decided to let Tom Thumb live for the time being and the killing stopped for a period of time. Tom Thumb stayed close only to Maphuto’s sister and everything calmed down. However, the rhino killing started up all over again. This time the rangers discovered through their hidden cameras that the killing wasn’t provoked by Tom Thumb. Another young group of bull elephants was responsible for the latest rhino deaths.
As soon as the next young male entered sexual maturity and then went into musth, others followed and a new gang simply replaced Tom Thumb’s. All of the experts were baffled as to what to do. With nearly 10% of the park’s total rhino population killed by teenage elephants, park officials decided to try something never attempted before.
More than 15 years after the elephant culling in Kruger National Park, they had discovered ways to transport full-grown elephants. A decision was taken to bring in several large bulls and females from Kruger National Park that were in their mid to late 40’s as an experiment to see what the younger generation would do with an older, more dominant elephant watching over them.
The largest bull, named Amarula, was among them. In an elephant society, an older male keeps a younger male in check because the younger male isn’t strong enough to fight with an older, larger one. Because of this, his musth stage ends much sooner than that of an older, larger sexually-viable male.
Almost immediately the younger males approached Amarula. Smaller elephants tend to hero worship those in a herd that are larger and older than they are. However, when one is in a musth state a young elephant may be brave enough to provoke even the largest.
Amarula wasted no time and hit the younger elephant so hard in the stomach that he flew several feet up into the air. This served as a warning to the younger group, that they were no match for a male the size of Amarula, musth or no musth.
The killing of rhinos stopped literally overnight. The adult elephant experiment worked with incredible precision. Soon all of the younger males were forced out of their musth phase, simply by the fact that here were now older males in the group. With no older males to serve as role models, any of the young bulls had come into musth ten years earlier than expected and the musth phase lasted a lot longer than it would in a normal elephant society.
This was a significant finding since it showed that it is necessary to have older, more mature males within the elephant hierarchy to keep the juveniles in check. It also ensures their musth stage does not last indefinitely and occurs further apart than what was witnessed in Pilanesberg Game Reserve at the time of the tragic rhino slaughter.”
Where to stay in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
There is something for everyone’s budget at Pilanesberg Game Reserve; you can opt for self-catering accommodation or treat yourself to a few nights at one of the many luxury 5-star lodges. Pitch your tent or park your caravan on a well-maintained grassed site or “rough it” in a luxury safari tent. A choice of timeshare chalets and bed-and-breakfast bush lodges is very popular among locals.
The internationally-acclaimed Sun City resort is a mere ten minute drive from Pilanesberg Game Reserve but those wishing to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the bush usually opt to stay in the reserve and take a day trip to the fabulous entertainment resort.
This is the largest and most-popular destination for families and budget-conscious travellers, and is located close to the reserve’s entrance gates. The thatched African-style chalets sleep up to 6 people and are equipped with all the modern comforts, complete with a TV, air conditioning, kitchenette, private patio and braai area.
For a more authentic bush experience, choose to stay in safari tent for 2 people. It is extremely comfortable, with electricity, a refrigerator, coffee and tea-making facilities and good beds.
The resort also boasts a well-kept caravan and campsite area with access to all the resort’s amenities, such as a large sparkling pool, launderette, convenience shop and restaurant.
Nestled at the foot of Garamoga Hill, this popular resort offers all the comforts of a great family holiday without breaking the budget. Sleep closer to the wild outdoors in the comfort of a tastefully-decorated safari tent or opt for one of the colonial-style chalets with a private patio, kitchenette and braai area. Well-appointed caravan and campsites are nestled in lush surroundings and visitors have access to the resort’s swimming pool, restaurant and conference facilities.
Pilanesberg Tented Safari Camp
This owner-run safari camp offers an exceptional way to get up-close and personal with nature. The safari tents offer comfort and style, and are warm and cosy on cold winter evenings. Electricity and standing fans add to the overall comfort. Guests can enjoy a morning and afternoon open-vehicle game drives, full English and continental breakfasts with dinner under the stars at the braai area. There is also a swimming pool on site.
MID-RANGE LODGES & TIMESHARE UNITS
Bukubung Bush Lodge
Bakubung means the ‘place of the hippo’ and the resident hippo pod is a tourist delight. The resort offers the best of both worlds; the solitude of the bush and the luxury of modern amenities that make it an unforgettable holiday for the whole family.
Local South Africans usually book in for a whole week as part of a timeshare scheme and can self-cater or enjoy a mix of local and international dishes prepared at the restaurant, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day. A coffee shop and bar are also available, and room service is another option.
The resort offers guided safari tours, flood-lit tennis courts, a stunning swimming pool and panoramic views from every room. A shuttle service takes visitors to and from Sun City and the local airport. There is a flat-screened satellite TV in each tastefully decorated room and guests have access to free WiFi.
Kwa Maritane Lodge
This hotel and timeshare resort is a mixture of relaxation and adventure. The lodge has a game viewing hide situated on a private waterhole, with hippos in residence. Bush braais are organised for a spectacular dining option under the African night sky at the resort’s popular Bush Boma.
Black Rhino Game Lodge
This luxury lodge is nestled in a thicket of Tamboti trees on the private Black Rhino Reserve. Days begin with a private game drive, followed by a delicious breakfast prepared by the lodge’s private chef. The lodge is located in a private concession with its own entrance and only about 1 800 hectares in size. A ‘fence drop’ initiative with the North West Park & Tourism Board allows guests traversing rights throughout the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.
The Tamboti trees attract the elusive black rhino and a wide variety of bird species which makes it a game and birding paradise. The sweet veld vegetation of this low-lying reserve complements the Pilanesberg predominately mixed sour veld and sightings of elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard are common.
Ivory Tree Game Lodge
This spectacular lodge lies snuggly in a natural amphitheatre and is known for its award-winning Amani African Spa. The lodge is surrounded by foothills and immersed in riverine woodlands that are dissected by ancient elephant trails. A large pool, spa, outdoor dining and luxurious suites make this an ideal tourist destination for the discerning traveller. Warm and earthy tones create a welcoming feeling, while a covered patio and outdoor shower offer respite on blistering hot days.
Morokolo Game Lodge
Morokolo Game Lodge is situated on the northern slopes of the Black Rhino Reserve portion of the Pilanesberg, in one of the most remote and exclusive areas of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Morokolo is the Setswana name for the indigenous num-num tree, which is said to have healing powers.
Guests have the choice of two camps, each with eight luxury double suites with modern bath, en-suite facilities, a private courtyard and outdoor showers. Early morning and evening game drives are part of the package, and offer guests the opportunity to see a range of nocturnal animals. High tea in the bush is just one of the many enjoyable features that leave guests wanting to stay longer.
Pilanesberg Private Lodge
The lodge sits on the western border of the Pilanesberg National Park with access limited to the exclusive use of its visitors. It is a private retreat that has recently been established in the Black Rhino Reserve and lies at the foot of the majestic Pilanesberg mountain.
The lodge has 5 luxury units connected via paved pathways and bridges to the communal area, each designed to offer spectacular views of the surrounding bush. It’s quite common to see elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo, eland and the endangered wild dog roaming past the lodge. A favourite feature is dinner under the stars at the bush boma.
Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge
Visitors to this lodge have the exclusive use of this part of the Black Rhino Reserve. Private game viewing, gourmet dining under the African skies and magnificent views combine with the luxury of an award-winning health and beauty spa. This state-of-the-art establishment was recently built in a private concession adjacent to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. The featured architecture and interior design are the hallmark of the whole lodge, and flawless finishes leave no detail overlooked.
The lodge offers commanding views of the distant bushveld amphitheatre and offers guests exciting walking trails in this untouched environment. Guests can enjoy 2 game drives daily with a qualified game ranger in an open game viewing vehicle. The game drives take between three and four hours, with a sundowners stop at sunset and a coffee stop in the morning.
Tamboti Game Lodge
Contemporary elegance combined with the ultimate in safari luxury makes this a much sought-after lodge in a private concession adjacent to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. You have the choice of dining under the stars around a raging fire in the boma or you can have a delicious meal brought to your private suite. This intimate lodge promises luxury and every occasion is thoughtfully planned and memorable. The luxury suites are surrounded by striking Tambuti trees and offer spectacular bush views.
Tshukudu Bush Lodge
Tshukudu Bush Lodge offers unforgettable luxury and is one of the most romantic settings in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Nestled high within the crater of an ancient volcano, visitors enjoy an intimate and romantic safari adventure. Spectacular views and five-course African-inspired cuisine is a feature of each night spent at this luxurious safari destination.
The lodge overlooks a waterhole with the savanna plain stretching out in the distance. Sightings of the Big 5 are common and can be viewed from the comfort of a sunken bath, open-plan lounge or luxurious bedroom in your private suite. Tshukudu Bush Lodge is renowned for five-star service and its unique African-inspired cuisine.
Buffalo Thorn Lodge
The exclusive use of this fully-serviced intimate, five-star lodge comes complete with a private safari vehicle, a personal game ranger, outdoor boma and housekeeper. A swimming pool at the edge of the bush offers a glimpse of the Big 5 poolside. The lodge can accommodate up to 10 guests in spacious suites.
Bakubung Bush Lodge: Children stay free when sharing with adults. Children are kept busy on the Junior Rangers Programme special kids’ game drives, which are an exciting introduction to the wonders of nature for the little ones. A children’s adventure playground keeps active young travellers busy.
Black Rhino Game Lodge: Children five years and under stay free, and children 6-11 years stay at half price. The thatched family suites are spacious and well-equipped and lazy days are spent next to the sparkling swimming pool.
Buffalo Thorn Buffalo Thorn Lodge: Two family chalets in the exclusive-use Buffalo Thorn Lodge offer sleeping lofts with two single beds which are ideal for children. The swimming pool is perfect for lazy game viewing but still child-safe for your peace of mind.
Ivory Tree Game Lodge: The lodge caters for young children with a daily bush bumble that focuses on the little things in the bush, and they can try their hand at archery while learning about ancient Bushmen.
Kwa Maritane Lodge: Children stay free when sharing with adults. The Junior Rangers Programme offers a fun, exciting introduction to the wonders of nature. An adventure playground, trampoline, a putt-putt course in the bush, two swimming pools (and a baby pool) and outdoor chess keep the whole family busy.
Bakgatla Resort: Children 11 years and under stay free. After a long morning’s game drive, children can safely play at the large swimming pool, miniature golf course and children’s playground area.
Manyane Resort: Children 11 years and under stay free. Families with children love the miniature golf course, large swimming pool and children’s playground.
The following lodges offer world-class conference facilities, with sophisticated dining options:
• Bakubung Bush Lodge: for up to 120 delegates
• Ivory Tree Game Lodge: for up to 80 delegates, hosted in a beautiful thatched-roof conference facility
• Kwa Maritane: for up to 264 delegates
• Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge: for up to 70 delegates
• Bakgatla Resort: for to 350 delegates
• Manyane Resort: two conference rooms, for up to 100 delegates
What to do in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
Self-drives or private game drives with Moafrika Tours
The 57 000 hectare reserve is brimming with an abundance of Africa’s indigenous wildlife and birds, and offers a unique mix of fauna and flora. It lies in the transition zone of the arid Kalahari Desert and the lush, tropical Lowveld. A morning or evening game drive offers close encounters with not only the Big 5 but a spectacular array of endangered species, such as wild dog and cheetah.
The Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a birders paradise with more than 300 bird species to tick off your birding list.
It is best to set off in the cooler hours as predators tend to hunt at dusk or dawn. Visitors have the luxury of choosing between driving their own vehicles on the well-maintained reserve roads or they can opt for a game drive with an experienced guide in an open-top safari vehicle. The latter is a unique experience as the rangers are always eager to share their extensive knowledge of the bush and can guarantee your safety at all times.
Visitors can take a break from a game drive at one of the many game and bird viewing hides. There is nothing better than spending an hour relaxing close to the water’s edge; watching the game saunter down to drink and patiently waiting for a possible predator kill while sipping on your morning cup of coffee.
Hot air ballooning
Pilanesberg Game Reserve has developed a reputation for game viewing from the air. Hot air balloons offer an incredibly tranquil experience and the only noise you will hear is the occasional firing of the burner. Elevated high above the Alkaline Ring Complex, you will marvel at the magnificence of this ancient setting.
A hot air balloon excursion involves a one-hour flight over the reserve, sparkling wine after landing, a full English breakfast and a first-flight certificate. The ballooning operators provide transfers to and from your lodge.
Rhino tracking in Letsatsing
Mankwe Gametrackers offer visitors a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the Big 5, and in particular the endangered white rhino. Walkers accompany an experienced field guide who is employed to monitor and track white rhino in their natural environment with the help of a telemetry device. The group sets out at first on a vehicle and then approaches the rhino on foot.
The African rhino population is extremely endangered and under threat from exhaustive poaching, so it is a rare and life-altering experience to get so close to these magnificent animals. The field guide will share his extensive knowledge and enlighten visitors on the plight of these beautiful beasts.
Guests are picked up from the Sun City Welcome Centre and driven the short distance to the privately-run Letsatsing Game Reserve. Some of the rhinos at Letsatsing are fitted with radio frequency collars which make it easy for the field guide to find and track them; otherwise he will use his knowledge of bush tracking.
Tracking the rhinos is strictly controlled and although they are habituated to humans, they are still wild and dangerous. The purpose of the activity is to raise much-needed finances to support the project and a percentage of the money raised goes towards anti-rhino initiatives in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.
Guided hiking trails
Sometimes watching game from inside a car is just not good enough. For the intrepid adventure, there is nothing quite like experiencing the sights and sounds of the bush on foot. An experienced, qualified guide shares his extensive knowledge of the vegetation, insects and reptiles that are not found in the guide books.
The bush comes alive when you experience a safari using all your five senses. It’s a great opportunity for novice and experienced photographers to capture the perfect wildlife or birding shot and each experience is unique. The guided hikes are available 7 days a week, all year round, regardless of the weather. Contact Pilanesberg Hiking Trails for more information.
Self-guided camp walk
Manyane lodge has a huge enclosed area where zebras, tsessebe, ostriches, wildebeest, impala and warthog roam freely. It is not necessary to book beforehand and you can get a map of the area from the information centre. It’s a lovely opportunity to get up close to the animals but just remember to take a hat, bottle of water and wear comfortable walking shoes. Don’t forget lots of sunscreen in summer and winter.
Picnic on the hills
There are five picnic spots in the reserve and three of them are located high up on hills, with magnificent views of the plains and dams below. The Fish Eagle picnic spot overlooks Mankwe dam and there are two picnic spots on Baile Drive.
All picnic spots have braai (barbeque) facilities, lots of shade, clean toilets and are securely fenced to keep dangerous animals out.
Bird-watching in walk-in aviaries
If you’re a dedicated birder but haven’t seen everything on your list, you can visit two walk-in aviaries that are filled with an incredible array of indigenous birds. The one aviary is at Manyane Resort and the other is in the beautiful grounds of Sun City. You can get a perfect shot without needing a long lense or you can just spend the time enjoying their magnificent colouring with your naked eye.
Places to visit when planning a trip to the Pilanesberg
The North West region of South Africa is known as the platinum belt, an area that is rich in mineral wealth. The region produces the bulk (95%) of the country’s platinum yield.
After mining, the North West province is the second most popular region for bushveld escapes (after Mpumalanga). Endless swathes of grasslands are punctuated with magnificent foothills that are part of the Magaliesberg range of mountains. It is a wildly-popular tourist destination for international visitors and a bolt-hole for South African outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts.
There are a number of excellent tourist attractions enroute to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, and a trip to the Pilanesberg usually involves stopping in at a few of them along the way.
Barberspan Bird Sanctuary
This is a protected site and refuge to thousands of bird species from around the world that are threatened, including mainly migratory and inland water birds.
Barberspan Bird Sanctuary is a large wetland that spans some 2 000 hectares and is divided into two parts: the southern part for birds and the northern part for angling and boating. Here you will find flamingos, African spoonbills and pelicans lazing on the banks of the protected wetland. Well-positioned bird hides attract enthusiastic bird watchers.
Borakalalo National Park
This is a less well-known game reserve that is renowned for its bird life and unusual eco-diverse terrain, which is a combination of acacia woodland and riverside forests running along the banks of the Moretele River. The park does not have any big cats so visitors are welcome to get out their car to stretch their legs.
“Harties” as the locals call it is a popular destination for outdoor and adventure enthusiasts. Private homes and secure housing estates line the edge of this massive dam and it’s a great spot for fishermen, boaters and golfers.
Kgaswane Mountain Reserve
This reserve lies on the western edge of the Magaliesberg range of mountains and is popular for day visitors interested in hiking, mountain biking and bird-watching. The scenery is spectacular and it’s a peaceful respite away from the noisy city. Raptors can be seen circling the craggy cliffs and sightings of jackal, caracal and leopard are common.
Madikwe Game Reserve
This is the country’s fourth-largest reserve, with 750 square kilometres of it hugging the border of Botswana. It’s not as popular as Pilanesberg Game Reserve as it is a bit off the beaten path and mainly made up of private homes and exclusive lodges.
The reserve does not allow self-drives and visitors are expected to book a private game drive with one of the tour operators. The scenery is vastly different and a lot drier than the more popular game reserves. The trees are smaller and the bush is thinner which means game viewing is usually spectacular.
Molopo Game Reserve
This game reserve is situated up against the border of Botswana and is a well-kept secret due to its remoteness and scarcity of large predators. It is more suited to visitors who enjoy extreme solitude in bush camps that are spread over a wide area for privacy.
Most of the camps are situated on one of the six waterholes so game usually comes to its visitors. The scenery is particularly beautiful and characterised by a combination of red Kalahari sand dunes and bushman grass.
Taung Heritage Site
This is the site of the Taung skull fossil that was discovered in 1924 by Prof Raymond Dart. He found the fossilised skull of a child at the Buxton Quarry, which is now part of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Dart’s find had enormous repercussions as it placed Africa at the centre of humankind’s origin, more than a million years earlier than scientists had previously believed humans inhabited the area.
This mountain range is officially a World Biosphere Reserve and unequalled anywhere in the world in terms of its combination of biodiversity and human history. It is believed the mountain range formed 2 300 million years ago, and is characterised by quartzite cliffs, kloofs, valleys and waterfalls.
The Magaliesberg is home to an incredible array of birds, numerous antelope, monkeys and baboons, genets, klipspringers and leopard. It is a natural retreat that is popular as a place to hike, ride bikes, horse ride or for those looking for absolute solitude.
This is the site of the world’s biggest meteor crater, one of the oldest and most deeply eroded. The Vredefort Dome was created by a huge meteorite that hit earth more than 2 billion years ago.
The Vredefort dome forms part of the original crater that scientists estimate was 300 kilometres in diameter. What remains is a partial ring of hills, 70 kilometres in diameter. It is situated close to the Free State town of Parys, with the popular Vaal River flowing through the crater.
The world-famous Sun City entertainment & casino resort on your doorstep
A visit to the Pilanesberg usually goes hand-in-hand with a day trip to the world-famous Sun City entertainment and casino complex. Visitors cross over an imaginary line that separates the lush, natural surrounds of the African bush from the busy, mind-blowing features of this artificial city.
There is something for everyone; from an adrenalin-filled day at the Valley of the Waves to the sights and sounds of the magnificent entertainment complex, the beautiful lush gardens with sparkling pools and the world-class golf course.
Sun City was formerly a part of Bophuthatswana which was an independent homeland established in the mid-70s by the previous South African government during the apartheid era. Although it is now part of South Africa, it is still affectionately thought of as being a city in its own right in an imaginary country.
Bophuthatswana was an independent state and not governed by the strict anti-gambling legislations of South Africa. Sun City became a symbol of rebellion in a national culture of oppression, bringing in revue shows that were outlawed elsewhere in the country and engaging in gambling that was prohibited at that time. This had great appeal to the entertainment-starved people of South Africa and they arrived at the city in their masses.
Sun City thrived under the guidance of the ‘Sun King’– property tycoon Sol Kerzner. Over time he added a variety of hotels to cater for different budgets and built an impressive water park and two world-class golf courses.
Palace of the Lost City
Inspired by the myth of a lost African kingdom, this magnificent hotel and botanical paradise is one of the most exciting and innovative tourist attractions in the world. The 5-star Palace indulges this fantasy of a mythical civilisation with attention paid to the smallest detail. Visitors are transported back in time to a place of wonder.
Fabled to be the royal residence of an ancient king, the grand proportions and graceful towers of The Palace are enhanced by sculptural detail, mosaics, frescoes and fountains. The Palace lies nestled in an enchanting setting of an exotic jungle, complete with bubbling streams and gushing waterfalls.
The Palace of the Lost City was created by property tycoon Sol Kerzner and is a tribute to the man’s vivid imagination and brilliant architectural achievement. The sheer magnitude of the development is awe-inspiring, bearing in mind that it was officially opened twenty-five years ago.
Kerzner’s architectural dreamland was influenced by Africa’s prolific wildlife and a real-life replica of Shawu, one of Africa’s most famous elephants, guards the entrance to the hotel. Moulded towers are topped by domes with palm fronds, and elephant tusk and wildlife carvings etch the exterior structure.
The interior designs are fitting of a lavish royal residence with domed roofs enhanced with serpentine paintings, and floors made of an intricate tapestry of mosaics. Hand-carved furniture was used throughout the hotel, and the massive timber doors were hand carved on site.
The ceiling dome of the royal entrance chamber is an architectural feat, rising 25 metres above floor level and measuring 16 metres in diameter. It is held aloft by six columns. The lobby’s intricate mosaic floor is made up of 38 different shades of marble, each one laid and polished by hand.
The painting on the ceiling of the royal entrance chamber was created in the same way Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The evocative African landscape was hand-painted and took 5 000 hours to complete.
The King’s Tower is the tallest of the ten Palace towers, standing 70 metres above ground level. It offers visitors never-ending views of the lush ornamental forest that surrounds the Lost City. The King’s Suite is the epitome of regal opulence and includes a guest powder room, a sauna and a butler’s pantry.
Valley of the Waves
This artificial wonderland is probably the best-loved feature of Sun City. There are more than 15 adrenalin-filled water rides and the atmosphere is tremendous, complete with fake earthquakes and an intermittent tidal wave that pounds the valley floor.
Three hotels to suit different budgets
The Cabana Hotel is an affordable, budget-friendly hotel that is suited for families with children. The newly-refurbished hotel is situated at the Sun City Waterworld Lake, offering guests a contemporary twist and great ‘base’ to explore the resort. As the sun sets over the open spaces and rolling lawns the nightlife begins at the Cabanas Pool Deck, with chic cocktails and a vibrant island setting.
The Cascades Hotel overlooks the Gary Player country club golf course and is an elite option for the more discerning traveller. It offers guests an exhilarating experience and grand restaurants serving world cuisines add to the many reasons to stay in this premier hotel. Named for the waterfalls and calming pools that trickle throughout the property, the 5-star Cascades hotel is an oasis of calm in the midst of the Sun City Resort and is in close proximity to all the activities Sun City has to offer.
The Sun City Hotel is home to the resort’s world-famous casino and entertainment centre. A stunning pool with a terrace restaurant is one of its many spectacular features. It was the first hotel built on the resort and is located right at the heart of Sun City and all the activities the resort is famous for.
Kwena Crocodile Farm
Here you will meet crocodiles so big they come with names like the Annihilator and the Terminator. The spectacular Kwena crocodile sanctuary located in the grounds of Sun City is home to over 7 000 crocodiles, some of them biggest you have ever seen. It is a delight for both adults and children, with daily guided tours that educate people on the fascinating life-cycle and behaviour of crocodiles.
A tailor-made tour through the centre is a delight for children, where they can safely get up close and personal with the Big 5. The Predator World is also home to the Bengal Tiger and tame cheetahs. Go for a mountain bike ride around the centre or enjoy a picnic surrounded by wildlife living in their natural habitats.
The Gary Player Country Club
Two world-renowned golf courses were designed by Gary Player, a Grand Slam winner and one of the greatest players in the history of golf. The famous Nedbank Golf Challenge attracts professional golf players from around the world each year and brings thousands of golfing enthusiasts to the resort every year. The 18-hole course is surrounded by a 5-kilometre scenic running trail for the more active holidaymakers.
Motseng Cultural Village
Stories are told in the African culture through song and dance. The Motseng Cultural Village offers local and international tourists a fascinating insight into the traditions and lifestyle of eight South African cultures.
Fascinating facts about the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is the fourth largest national park in southern Africa.
The Pilanesberg Ring Complex – the circular remnant of volcanic activity – is clearly visible from outer space.
Thomas Baines, a 19th century English artist, painted the ring of hills of Pilanesberg in 1869 on his way to Botswana. Baines is well known for his paintings and sketches detailing colonial times in South Africa and Australia.
Biomes are large areas where plants and animals have adapted successfully to exploit their surroundings like forests or deserts. Pilanesberg boasts two biomes; arid savanna that transitions to moist savanna. Pilanesberg sits between the dry Kalahari Desert and the moist Lowveld bushveld, and as a result the reserve is characterised by a unique mix of animal and plant life.
A crack opened up in the middle of the volcanic crater, cutting the Pilanesberg in two. This has since formed a valley which you can follow on Tlou Drive.
The ancient alkaline volcano created the rocky outcrop that the Kwa Maritane Lodge was built around. Its name means ‘Place of Rock”.
Wild dogs in the Pilanesberg are more effective hunters than their lion, cheetah and leopard counterparts. They enjoy an 80% success rate, compared to lions who contend with a miserable 30%.
Ketimetsi was a male lion that roamed the Kwa Maritane area for many years. He reached the ripe old age of 17 years and his death was mourned by many when he finally died of old age.
The Ficus wasp is so small, few people are aware that it has passed them by. It has an ingenious way of pollinating figs. The female wasp creates a tiny hole in the fig, crawls in and lays its eggs in the soft flesh. When the eggs have hatched, the male wasp bites through the fig to create a tunnel for the female and her babies to escape. The female comes out of the fig covered in pollen and plays an important role in the pollination of the figs flowers.
Big and small hunters of the Pilanesberg
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is home to the Big 5 which is a term originally coined by big game hunters. They are the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot; lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.
Today, Big 5 is used by tourists and wildlife guides when planning to see the top five legends on every safari bucket list. Virtually every mammal of southern Africa is found in the Pilanesberg but the reserve is particularly well known for having healthy populations of the Big 5, including the elusive and highly-endangered black rhino.
The Pilanesberg Game Reserve is located in a unique biosphere and animals that are usually found in arid areas, such as the nocturnal brown hyena and Springbok (South Africa’s national emblem), live alongside common antelope that are usually found in wetter regions.
The reserve’s man-made dams are home to pods of hippopotamus and the many visitors have been lucky enough to witness a kill where opportunist predators and crocodiles lie in wait for game to come to its shores to drink.
There are over 15 species of antelope, ranging from the majestic eland, kudu and sable antelope to the blue wildebeest, impala and skittish steenbok. There is also an abundance of plains game including the Red Hartebeest and zebra.
Moafrika Tours safari guides will do their best to find sightings of Painted wild dog, leopard, cheetah, African wild cat, serval and caracal. There is so much more to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve than the big, impressive mammals and a Mo Afrika safari guide will vigilantly seek out the other endearing bushveld characters, such as Nile crocodiles, water and monitor lizards, chameleons and geckos.
Moafrika Tours guides are also always on the lookout for highly dangerous snakes, including the southern African python, puff adders and boomslang (tree snakes).
Operation Genesis (1979) re-introduced species that add to the delight of an exciting safari in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Lion, cheetah and leopard are obviously sought-after sightings but don’t forget the lesser-known species that are just as exciting to spot in the wild surrounds of the reserve.
African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)
This quirky hunter is also known as the painted dog, as its hide is covered in irregular patches of black, brown, red, white and yellow fur. The wild dog is southern Africa’s most endangered large carnivore and has almost disappeared from most of its original range.
Wild dogs were originally introduced into Pilanesberg in 1998, and have bred successfully. The pack of 15 plus dogs is collared with satellite collars, as part of a project to study their hunting behaviour, in particular how they use the reserve’s fence line to avoid lions and lure their prey.
A pack of six wild dogs can eat as many as 300 small antelope a year so they are an expensive animal for the reserve to keep, where the main tourist attraction is usually the Big 5. However, wild dogs are highly endangered and Pilanesberg Game Reserve is playing an important role in conserving and protecting this valuable species.
Wild dogs are very sociable creatures and live in packs, hunt cooperatively in groups of up to 20 and share their food. If you are lucky, you’ll witness a pack in frenzied action from the back of an safari vehicle with Moafrika Tours.
African wild cat
The African wild cat is also known as the Desert Cat, or in South African lingo ‘die vaalboskat’ which means grey bush cat. It is actually the ancestor of the domestic cat, that was first domesticated about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East. It looks like a short-haired tabby cat with reddish colouring, but don’t be fooled because they are feral. Their greatest threat is interbreeding with domestic feral cats.
The largest species of the small bush cats is also known as the African Lynx or Desert Lynx. It gets its name from the Turkish word “karakulak” which means ‘black eared’. The African name for it is ‘secretive lion’ as they are rarely seen by the general safari public. The caracal has distinctive dark tufts on its large, pointed ears and is one of the few wild cats that do not have spots or stripes on its coat.
Caracals are most famous for astonishing aerial-acrobatic jumps. They can leap into the air and knock down many birds at a time. They were once tamed and trained for bird hunting in Iran and India and used at gambling arenas where people would bet on how many pigeons they would kill. This is the origin of the expression “to put a cat among the pigeons”.
The Afrikaans name for the serval is a ‘tierboskat’ which means tiger bush cat. It is similar in size to a caracal but it is slender and taller. The ‘tiger’ description comes from a unique combination of spots and stripes on their coats. They have very large rounded ears and, like the caracal, have phenomenal hearing and can pick up the smallest sounds of prey in long grass.
The serval’s main source of food is rats and small bush hares, where it will leap high into the air and land on its prey with its forepaws. This stuns the prey and they then go in for a bite kill.
This slender, long-legged jackal with a pointed, fox-like muzzle is also known as the silver-backed jackal. It has a distinctive black and silver saddle marking on its back, while the rest of its body is reddish-brown to tan. It is easy to recognise in the bush, with a bushy black-tipped tail and large pointed ears.
The black-backed jackal has bones that are fused in the forelimbs, which makes it an excellent runner and it can keep up a slow trot of 12-16 kilometres per hour for long periods of time.
The black-backed jackal is not fussy about what it eats and lives happily on a diet of reptiles, birds and their eggs, and small fresh-water crabs. It is mainly nocturnal and very shy; it will avoid human interaction as much as possible.
These cute, big-eared creatures are mostly seen foraging at night or in the early morning in the short grasslands and arid savanna. They are highly sociable and hang out in family groups. The bat-eared fox lives on a diet of small birds, mammals and reptiles but they are also partial to snacking on termites, spiders, scorpions and crickets.
Bat-eared foxes have extremely pointed teeth and chew their food quickly and efficiently. They seldom drink water as most of the moisture they need comes from the food they eat. The female fox leaves her young pups with her male partner while she forages for food to maintain her milk production.
The shaggy brown hyena is an unusual looking fellow, with front legs that are longer than its hind legs and a sloping back. Its pointed ears are set high on their head and it has powerful jaws with strong teeth. The brown hyena prefers to hunt at night and is usually seen silently slinking through the bush on its own, hunting for small mammals, fish, birds and insects. They will also snack on fruit, vegetables and reptile or birds eggs to supplement their diet.
Females tend to mate with nomadic males rather than those within the clan which prevents interbreeding and, when they are old enough to be moved to the communal den, the pups are nursed by any lactating female. The brown hyena is not endangered but it is a threatened species.
The aardwolf is a member of the hyena family but, unlike its brown brother, exists solely on a diet of termites. It can eat up to 300 000 termites a night, and will also occasionally snack on maggots and soft-shelled crabs and reptiles. Its Afrikaans name is “earth wolf”, because it reaches into termite mounds with a very long, sticky tongue to dig out its food.
The aardwolf is a nocturnal creature but during winter, it conserves its energy by sleeping at night and feeding during the day. The aardwolf mates with only one partner in a lifetime and lives in underground burrows that are usually abandoned aardvark and porcupine homes.
Regal antelope of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is home to 15 species of antelope. Lying in the transition zone of the Kalahari Desert and the Lowveld, the reserve offers a unique and varied habitat for antelope species that have not previously wandered the valleys and hills.
Everyone on a Moafrika Tours safari drive wants to see the Big 5 but it is equally as exciting when visitors can tick off any of the following antelope:
This antelope is easily recognised as the ‘old man’ of the reserve. It has a long black main and a beard of hair that hangs from its throat and neck. Both sexes grow short curved horns, and adult bulls’ horns are heavily bossed. The blue wildebeest is a gregarious herbivore, and prefers to live in large herds.
This majestic antelope is easily recognised by the male’s spectacular spiral horns, which can reach astounding lengths of over one metre. The female kudu is smaller and does not have an impressive set of horns. Pale white stripes drip down its grey-brown coat, creating the illusion that someone has spilt paint on its back.
The Sable antelope is the most handsome of all the antelopes and males are recognised by its glossy black coat and white underparts and white facial markings. Cows and young are dark brown. Herd sizes vary and it is not uncommon to see a small herd of lone bulls grazing on their own. Territorial bulls will evict young bulls from the breeding herd when they become sexually mature at the age of three years. Pregnant cows separate from the large herd but will re-join the family when her calf is a bit older.
This regal antelope is a rare sighting in most game reserves. There is a very high mortality rate among its calves, with eight out of ten calves dying in the first two months. The Roan antelope is listed as an endangered species. The breed is easily recognisable with its distinctive black and white facial markings, long pointed ears and heavily ringed horns.
This unusual looking antelope has an equally strange name. It looks ungainly but is in fact the fastest antelope in South Africa. Despite its speed, it is still been relentlessly hunted by big game hunters. This is mainly due to one mistake it makes; it will flee, and then stop to look back at the impending danger. Hunters take advantage of this weakness.
This dainty antelope is indigenous to the dry, arid regions of South Africa but isolated groups have settled in the Pilanesberg habitats that mimic the dry Kalahari Desert. They are easily recognisable in full flight, leaping high into the air when pursued by a predator. They are able to withstand long bouts of drought and can go indefinite periods without drinking water.
Birdwatching at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
Most visitors to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve overlook the fact that it is one of the most incredible destinations in South Africa for birdwatching. The extraordinary variety of habitats – ranging from grassland to woodland, mountains, ravines, bushveld and huge dams – makes it home to over 300 bird species.
The summer season in South Africa (October to April) is the best time to go to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve for a rewarding birding experience. Avid “tickers” have been known to record over 80 species in a single day. Ivory Tree Game Lodge offers ‘bird drives’ that are tailor-made to suit everyone, from the novice birder to the experienced “Twitcher”.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve is regarded as one of the top birding destinations in southern Africa for good reason. There are plenty of opportunities in the reserve to get out of your car and get a closer look at birds. The reserve is dotted with a selection of hides at dams where a dedicated birder can patiently wait to spot the bird he or she is looking for.
Mankwe Dam attracts many water birds, including blacksmith lapwings, grey, black-headed and Goliath herons, great white egrets, Egyptian geese and white-faced whistling ducks. These elegant birds hop delicately between huge crocodiles dozing on the banks as herds of antelope graze nearby. If it’s early morning or evening, you may be distracted from bird watching by a breeding herd of elephants, a pride of lions or a leopard coming down to the water’s edge to drink.
Keep your eye peeled for the violet-eared waxbill and the black-faced waxbill foraging deep in the undergrowth. And point your binoculars tree-wards to spot one of the delightful members of the Kingfisher family.
At the gate to Manyane Camp, look out for a Pilanesberg special – the southern pied babbler which is endemic to the area.
Batlhako Dam is popular for bird watching and the sun reflecting off the water’s edge makes it ideal for the perfect photo opportunity. The hide is great but there is another viewpoint just north of the dam that is equally rewarding.
Tlou Drive passes through Acacia thickets and open grassland and you’re bound to catch more sightings of the violet-eared waxbill with its incredible blue, red and violet feathers. Tlou dam is more of a waterhole but an ideal place to stop for some binocular time.
The hide at Ruighoek Dam is also a good birding spot, and often a lot quieter as it is off the beaten track and not as popular as Mankwe Dam.
Makorwane Dam has a good bird hide and you have the added bonus of watching hippos and the odd herd of elephants or a lazy pride of lion sleeping off the spoils of the night under a shady tree.
Tilodi and Lengau Dams do not have bird hides but you can sit comfortably in your car fairly close to the water’s edge and watch the wildlife and birds pass by.
Malatse Dam hide is positioned on a small island and is the ideal place to spot a fish eagle. The call of the fish eagle is one of the most memorable sounds of the African bush. You’ll also see yellow-bill ducks and cormorants drying off on the banks of the dam.
The Rathlogo waterhole is an excellent game viewing spot that is also home to a lovely selection of birds. It is a great place to start and end your day if you are staying at Bakgatla or Ivory Tree Lodge.
When you’ve had your fill of the Pilanesberg dams and waterholes, make you way to the Lenong viewpoints. These are some of the highest spots situated along the road to the top of the Pilanesberg mountain in the central part of the reserve. From these vantage points, you have panoramic views of the grasslands and plains game below. You are allowed to get out of your car in the designated areas but still be vigilant for any predator that has made its way up the mountain.
The grasslands and valley savanna is home to some magnificent species, including the Secretary bird, flappet lark and grassveld pipit.
Birds to look out for in the woodlands and bushveld thickets include the southern yellow-billed hornbill, Swainson’s spurfowl, the southern black tit and the white-backed mousebird.
As many as 15 species of shrike descend on the reserve in the summer months, including the beautiful crimson-breasted shrike.
In the rocky outcrops, look out for short-toed rock thrushes and keep a watchful eye for raptors soaring on overhead thermals. These will include the black-chested snake eagle, the brown snake eagle, the martial eagle, the Verreaux eagle and the white-backed vulture.
Best time for game viewing in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
July to October (late winter to early summer)
In the winter months, the vegetation is dry and sparse and it is easier to spot game as they are not hidden in thick grass and dense thickets. The vegetation is less nutritious and the plains game and browsers take longer to feed.
Mating seasons generally occur from late February and the game drops its young towards the end of the winter season.
Controlled burns are a necessary part of veld management and are done in the cold winter months before the windy season starts in mid-October. Fresh grass roots attract the plains game at the start of the rainy season.
The evenings can be very cold and warm jackets are needed for evening game drives. Lodges are equipped with air conditioners to take the chill out the rooms and there is usually a blazing fire in the lounge area.
The winter months are excellent for predator sightings. The plains games and browsers are forced to congregate in areas with more nutritious vegetation and they spend more time at dams and waterholes. When the rainy season starts, the game tends to move away from the dams and waterholes as there is enough water in catchment areas in the thickets and bushveld.
October to March (summer)
Pilanesberg Game Reserve experiences high rainfall in the summer months. You can expect summer temperatures of between 26-30°C. It is the ideal time for fun days spent swimming in the resort pools and braaing (barbeque) under starry skies, but it is not the best time for game viewing. The bush is a lot thicker and game is hard to find in the dense thickets and high grass.
Air conditioning units are in the rooms at most lodges and the cold air is a welcome respite after a hot morning in the car game viewing.
Trees of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
The Pilanesberg lies in a transition zone between the dry, arid Kalahari region and the lush, tropical Lowveld (Mpumalanga). As a result, trees and plants suited to both regions are found in the reserve and there is a remarkable overlap of wildlife and birds attracted to this unique eco-system.
The trees and plants have adapted to 6 distinct eco-regions that range from valley and hill savanna to thickets and woodlands embedded in rocky outcrops. Thorn trees survive in brackish soil while flat grasslands are characteristic of areas rich in pediments that contain a subterranean layer of ferricrete which is an accumulation of hard sheets of iron oxides.
Outcrops of red syenite have weathered into a jumble of red-brown boulders that support a wild thicket of large-leafed trees and the south- and north-facing savanna is dominated by thorn trees and bushwillow.
The Sweet thorn tree (Acacia karroo Hayne) is one of South Africa’s most beautiful and useful trees. It has been used by rural people for everything from raft making to sewing needles and fencing. It is widespread and there are different forms in different places. It is commonly found in areas known as sweet veld (fields) and is an excellent source of nutrition for grazing.
The Umbrella tree (Acacia tortillis) is one of the oldest-known trees, dating back 200 years ago to Egypt. It is a drought resistant and grows in areas with annual rainfall as low as 40mm. Vervet monkeys and baboons love this tree; its pods and leaves are highly nutritious.
The Karee tree (Anacardiaceae) is evergreen and drought-resistant, and its beautiful canopy provides welcoming shade for game in the midday heat. Birds love its fruit and browsers such as kudu, roan antelope and sable depend on its nutritious leaves in the dry season. It has a deep and extensive root system which helps to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion.
The Leadwood tree (Combretaceae) – or hardekool in Afrikaans – is a magnificent tree and a protected species in South Africa. It gets its name because the wood is extremely dense and heavy. The Leadwood tree was used to make railway sleepers and furniture, to the point where the species was under serious threat of being eradicated. The wood is so hard that it is impermeable to termites, and up to 80 years after a Leadwood tree has died, it remains intact and barely decomposed.
The Tambotie tree (Euphorbiaceae) is also known at the ‘jumping bean’ tree because the seeds become infested with the larvae of a small grey moth, which then causes the seed to jump centimetres into the air. If you stand under the tree, you can hear the rustle of the leaping seeds.
The leaves and young branches are edible for animals and the birds love its fruit. However, poisonous latex found under the bark is harmful to humans and the milky latex can cause severe irritation to the skin and possible blindness. It is not suitable for firewood because the smoke is toxic and will contaminate any meat cooked over it which brings on a nasty bout of diarrhoea.
The Buffalo-thorn tree (Rhamnaceae) is a gourmet treat for birds and animals. The leaves and fruit are sweet and delicious, and the flowers produce abundant nectar. The berries are edible and in pioneering days, they were used to make porridge, fermented beer or ground up as a coffee substitute.
The Lavender fever berry tree (Croton gratissimus) is a hardy, deciduous tree that is drought-resistant. Its pale grey bark contrasts with beautiful silvery-green leaves that shimmer in the sun and have red spots on the underside. Its autumn colours are spectacular and a few bright orange leaves adorn the crown at most times of the year.
The leaves are fragrant when crushed and are used by traditional women to make perfume. The buds are like drooping strings of beads that open into masses of star-like flowers. The seedpods explode to disperse the seeds, which attracts flocks of birds to the area. Traditional healers have used its leaves and seeds for medicine for centuries.
The large-leaved fig tree (Moraceae) – also known as the giant-leaved rock fig – is the largest member of the magnificent fig family. Mature specimens stand as stately sentries overlooking the valley, with large, sculptured roots clinging onto rocky outcrops. These spectacular trees are easily identified from a far distance and grow as high as 25 metres tall.
This tree is known as a rock splitter, as its roots can reach depths of 60 metres as they snake their way through cracks in rocks searching for nutrients from the water and soil below. The milky white latex of its heart-shaped leaves is used by traditional healers for skin remedies. Two wasp species pollinate the flowers in the process of borrowing into the fig through a tiny hole and laying their eggs inside.
The Red balloon tree (Sapindaceae) is actually a distant relative of the litchi tree. The tree gets its name from its attractive flowers and the large, balloon-shaped fruit which produces smooth black seeds that have been used by traditional women for jewellery. It is a sturdy tree and drought resistant, preferring to live on the sides of rocky outcrops where it is protected from annual fires.
The Red bushwillow tree (Combretaceae) has long slender branches that hang low, giving the tree a willow-like appearance. It is a hardy, drought-resistant tree originating from the arid regions of Botswana and Namibia but it has also made its home in regions with higher rainfall. Its mature green leaves are excellent fodder for browsing animals like kudu, eland, giraffe and elephant. However, the seeds in its fruit are poisonous and only eaten by brown-headed parrots.
The wood is very hard and resistant to borers and termites. Early human settlers used the wood for fencing poles and it makes good firewood. The bark was also used for tanning leather. Traditional healers would steam a concoction of leaves to relieve stomach ailments and conjunctivitis.
The Hook thorn tree (Acacia caffra) is the most common naturally-occurring member of the acacia species. It has an irregular, spreading crown with bright-green and feathery-looking foliage. The drooping leaves give the canopy a soft, romantic look. It tolerates sandy soil with a low pH and is able to withstand fire, which makes it a valuable part of the ecology of Pilanesberg.
Its wood is dense and beautifully grained, and traditional woman have used it to create intricate tobacco pipes. According to traditional African beliefs, the hook thorn is believed to be a lucky tree and has been protected for its medicinal uses.
The Wild pear tree (Dombeya rotundifolia Hochst.) gets its name from the masses of white blooms which appear in early spring. It looks like a common pear tree in full bloom but is no relation to the Roseaceae family. Once the fruit is ripe and falls from the tree, the petals act as wings and float away.
The Wild pear tree grows in woodlands and rocky mountain slopes and is found as far up as northern Ethiopia. Traditional women and healers have used the bark to make strong rope fibre and even made love potions from its sweet-smelling flowers. The wood is hardy and termite-resistant and often used for fence posts. Bees are attracted to its delicious nectar and pollen and it is a favourite of bee farmers.
Photographic hides of the Pilanesberg
There are hides scattered throughout the Pilanesberg Game reserve that are incredibly popular for photographers. A lot of thought has gone into the placement of these hides and there is a hide for every time of the day:
West-facing hides: Rathogo provides good photographic lighting in the mornings
East-facing hides: Ruighoek and Malatse are great for afternoon light
North-facing hides: Makorwane and Batlhako are better suited to low light photography on cloudy days
The most popular photography hide is found at Mankwe Dam. It is east facing, but this is not important as it is designed in a ‘C’ shape which allows you to shoot both east and west. Mornings at Mankwe are very popular for spectacular silhouettes and sun reflections off the water surface.
The Pilanesberg Game Reserve is extremely proud of its reserve hides. They are well-built with comfortable seating so you can spend the time patiently waiting for the perfect photo opportunity.
Pilanesberg information centre
The information centre is located at the heart of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, close to Mankwe Dam. It is worth making a pit stop here and breaking up a long game drive as the centre is housed in a magnificent historical building that used to be the old Magistrate’s Court and the Home Affairs office for local residents who previously inhabited the area.
It’s a chance to use the well-maintained toilet facilities, grab a cold drink and snacks from the convenience shop or purchase a gift for a friend back home. The restaurant serves basic fare at reasonable prices.
Drinking and driving is strictly prohibited but your passengers can enjoy a cold alcoholic beverage while you enjoy a refreshing cup of tea or coffee. There is also an interactive computer screen that you can check for latest sightings of the Big 5.
Precautions to take
The fact that Pilanesberg Game Reserve is a malaria-free area is a significant benefit, particularly as it is so popular as a weekend destination for local South Africans. Anti-malaria drugs are expensive and usually have to be taken a few days in advance.
International visitors to South Africa are usually advised to be vaccinated against Hepatitis A, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies and tetanus-diphtheria. The risk of being infected with these diseases in the Pilanesberg region are extremely low but it is advisable to consult your physician about six weeks before you leave to find out if you need any one of the above vaccinations.
If you go on a guided walking tour, guard against contracting tick bite fever by wearing long pants or long socks, and spraying for ticks before you leave your lodge. Back in your room, do a thorough body check for ticks, looking closely for the tiny pepper ticks that are hard to spot.
All the lodges have medical services on call and the Pilanesberg Game Reserve is in close proximity to world-class medical facilities in Rustenburg, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Your travel agency should ensure you have adequate financial cover for any medical emergency.
Currency accepted: South African rand and all international debit/credit cards
Dry season in winter months (April to September)
Wet season in summer months (October to March)
Closest international airport
OR Tambo International (220 km/ 2 hour drive) in Johannesburg is South Africa’s major transportation hub. The leading car rental companies operate out of OR Tambo.
Charter flights can take you from Johannesburg to Pilanesberg International Airport, which is situated within the reserve. Arrangements should be made directly with the lodge you’re staying at for transport to and from Pilanesberg airport.
Nearest major cities
Johannesburg (170 km / 2 hour drive)
Pretoria (150 km / 1.5 hour drive)
Black Rhino Reserve
This private concession has a separate entrance gate that can be reached on the R565 travelling north. Lodges accessible from the Black Rhino Gate include Buffalo Thorn Lodge, Black Rhino Game Lodge and Morokolo Game Lodge.
Situated in close proximity to the west side of Sun City. Take the R556 from Johannesburg and follow the signs to the gate entrance. Lodges accessible from the Babukung Gate: Babukung Bush Lodge and Tshukudu Bush Lodge.
Situated in the northeast of Pilanesberg, close to Saulspoort. From Sun City take the R510 to Mogwase and follow the signs to Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Pass the Manyane entrance gate on your left and continue until you reach the Bakgatla Gate at a T-junction. Lodges accessible from the Bakgatla Gate include Ivory Tree Lodge and Bakgatla Resort.
Kwa Maritane Gate
Conveniently situated between Sun City Resort and the Pilanesberg Airport
Located in the east of Pilanesberg. From Sun City take the R510 towards Mogwase and continue through the town, branch left and follow the signs to the gate.
Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge
This is a private entrance and day visitors are not allowed in without a prior appointment. It can be reached on the R565 travelling north.
CURRENT ENTRANCE TARRIFS
Adults – RSA residents: R80 per person
Adults – foreign nationals: R110 per person
Children (6-12 years): R30 per child
Children under 6 years: free entry
Pensioners (SA only): R40 per person
Vehicles (sedan, LDV, SUV): R40 per vehicle
March and April: 6h00 to18h30
May to September: 6h30 to 18h00
September and October: 6h00 to 18h30
November to February: 5h30 to 19h00
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