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SSee the Big 5 just a few hours from Johannesburg or Pretoria in one of South Africa’s most popular wildlife areas – Pilanesberg National Park. Set in the eroded remains of an ancient volcano that towered 7 000m high and spewed fire 2-billion years ago, this well-stocked reserve offers a fittingly dramatic landscape that supports a wide variety of plants, animals and birds.
Pilanesberg is located in North West province, a true Big 5 area featuring elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino. But although those heavyweights get all the headlines, there’s a lot more wildlife to discover. Some of the other animals that roam the park include African wild dogs, brown hyenas (or ‘strandwolf’ in Afrikaans) and sable antelope – all 3 of which are endangered.
Like nearby Madikwe Game Reserve, Pilanesberg used to be farmland. Between 1969 and 1979, the land had to be rehabilitated. Alien plants were removed, eroded land was restored, houses and windmills were knocked down. An old fluorite mine was also dismantled.
During Operation Genesis, nearly 6 000 animals of 19 different species were introduced to the reserve. At the time, this was the largest game translocation in the world.
This landscape was formed over 2-billion years ago, when overflowing magma shaped the area – thousands of millions of years of erosion have left only the dead volcano’s dykes and sills to encircle the reserve. The explosive turbulence spat up all sorts of interesting rock formations and rare minerals. Geology buffs will be interested to find red, white, green and Ledig foyaite, nepheline syenite, kimberlite, fluorite and uranium tuff.
Birders can look out for the southern pied babbler, sabota lark and rufous-naped lark on the grassy hill slopes, while you’ll find the ever-spectacular lilac-breasted roller, pin-tailed whydah and black-shouldered kite on the grasslands.
Soaring above them all, you might see black-breasted snake-eagles, African hawk-eagles and Verreaux’s eagle. The more thickly wooded areas yield various hornbills, the Marico flycatcher, chinspot batis and small fire finches.
Because of its location in the former apartheid-era ‘independent’ homeland of Bophutatswana, the game reserve is still referred to as Pilanesberg National Park, although it is in fact a provincial park, and not officially part of South African National Parks.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Pilanesberg National Park (for accommodation bookings; no reservations are required simply to visit the reserve)
Tel: + 27 (0)14 555 1000
How to get here
From Johannesburg or Pretoria take the N1 north towards Polokwane. Take the N4 Rustenburg split, and continue along the N4 to Rustenburg. Take exit 169 from the N4 and follow the signs on Donkerhoek Road until you get onto the R565, which takes you to the reserve. The Pilanesberg National Park is adjacent to Sun City and is less than three hours’ drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria.
If you’re leaving from the western side of Johannesburg, you can also take the R511 from Fourways north past Hartbeespoort Dam, then turn west onto the N4 towards Rustenburg and proceed as above.
Best time to visit
Spring and summer (October to March) can get very hot, but visitors to Pilanesberg will enjoy the park all year round.
Around the area
Sun City, with its entertainment centre, crocodile farm, golf course, water world and casino, is right next door.
Tours to do
Activities include game drives, either self-driven or guided, game walks and birding. Pilanesberg also operates balloon safaris.
The reserve offers guided game drives and walks, but you are welcome to drive yourself around the park too.
Length of stay
A minimum of 2 nights is recommended.
What to pack
Sturdy walking shoes or boots, hat, sunscreen, camera and binoculars.
Where to stay
Pilanesberg offers a variety of affordable accommodation, like the self-catering Manyane, Bakgatla and Metswedi camps. The more upmarket Tshukudu, Kwa Maritane and Bakubung game lodges are also situated in the reserve. Hotels to suit a range of budgets are available nearby at Sun City.