At the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve near the small Free State town of Ventersburg, you can see the world’s largest herds of black wildebeest - curious-looking beasts with the strange tendency to break into spontaneous dance. Were it not for some animal-loving farmers decades ago, we might have lost them forever.

Did you know?

Black wildebeest make a high-pitched honking call, 'ge-nu' - hence their other popular name.

On the wild grassy plains of the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve you may be lucky enough to catch the black wildebeest herds in a frolicsome mood.

For reasons no-one can quite explain, these curious creatures may spontaneously sprint to the horizon and back, or suddenly begin a strange, twirling dance, tossing their heavy heads, prancing and flicking their horsey white tails.

Black wildebeest (distinctly different to the more common blue wildebeest) are endemic to the grasslands of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, and it seems every early explorer had something to write about them, either about their strange clownlike antics, massive herds or their weird appearance.

They have meathook-shaped horns, stiff hair on their muzzles and manes, heavy shoulders and delicate hindquarters, plus a pale, fly-whisk tail.

Unfortunately, Europe developed a liking for their skins, and within four decades, black wildebeest numbers had plummeted from millions to a few hundred.

Records show that in 1866 alone, nearly 157 000 skins, most of them wildebeest, were exported via a single trading firm in the Free State province.

But by 1890, a certain Free State farmer near Kroonstad called Piet Terblans had had enough of the ruthless hunting, and he quietly turned his property into a black wildebeest sanctuary.

When he died two decades later and hunting resumed on his property, most of the animals fled and took shelter on the nearby farm of another sympathetic farmer, Hendrik Delport.

It was these Delport herds that were eventually used to restock other conservation areas, including the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve between Ventersburg and Winburg in the Free State. This 12 000-hectare provincial park now has the world's largest herds of black wildebeest.

A convenient stopover point between Johannesburg and Cape Town, this is also a good place to see eland, blesbok, springbok, white rhino and giraffe. The reserve is set around the large Allemanskraal Dam, which means you'll certainly see aquatic birds, including fish eagles.

And at dusk, with hundreds of black wildebeest making abstract patterns in the veld, raise a glass to the farmers who saved this charismatic species.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Willem Pretorius Game Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)57 651 4168

How to get here

Along the N1 between Johannesburg and Cape Town, the turn off to the Willem Pretorius Game Reserve is about 18km south of Ventersburg.

Get around

The road system is excellent within the park and self-drive game viewing is recommended.

What will it cost

The five-sleeper chalets cost approximately R600 per chalet per night. The Bush Camp costs R800 per night and sleeps up to 16 people. The caravan and campsite is R170 per camp site per night, including electricity. If you're just taking a day-drive, you'll pay an entrance fee of R50, which is exempted if you're staying over.

Where to stay

There are 10 five-bed chalets that are simply furnished and all fully equipped with linen and self-catering facilities. The bush camp accommodates up to 16 people, also fully equipped, plus there is a camping and caravan site with public ablutions.

What to eat

Bring all your own food and drinks, and your own wood.

What's happening

Birders love this park. There are 220 bird species recorded here, including martial eagle, blue crane (South Africa's national bird), Orange River francolin, blue korhaan, ground woodpecker and melodious lark. You might also want to bring along your fishing rod and try your luck catching carp or barbel.

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