Wilderness camping has become increasingly popular, with people of all ages packing up their braaivleis and beer and bouncing along bone-rattling roads across borders and into the middle of nowhere to experience African wilderness at its wildest. Isolation is the name of the game and even if you see very little in the way of animals it’s okay, because it’s all about the wilderness experience. The thrill of anticipation of something incredible happening is almost as good as the experience itself – every sighting is a bonus, quite unlike the high-expectations we have of some of our tamer local reserves.
Given the choice, these wilder places are the ones Villiers and I would choose to go to all the time, and for many wilderness lovers like us places like Pilanesberg National Park, with their cacophonous camping grounds and lion-sighting pile-ups, feel a bit like a circus. As convenient as it is to have a Big Five reserve on our doorstep, the idea of fighting the crowds in a game reserve is remarkably off-putting and we very seldom take the time to visit. However, on a recent weekend visit to Pilanesberg with my sister and seven-year-old niece, we realised just how much we’ve been missing out on.
In preparation for our trip to Pilanesberg, knowing in advance that weekends are a particularly busy time for the park, we decided to avoid the crowds as best we could. The area around Mankwe Dam, although beautiful and very productive in terms of wildlife, is also the most congested (and the roads the most degraded) so our plan was to keep clear of it for as long as possible and use the less popular back roads towards the west for our game drive routes instead. More an investigatory weekend than a safari, we weren’t expecting the best results, and though we were hoping for at least a couple of good sightings for my niece’s sake we really didn’t have high hopes for anything spectacular. Little did we know that a spectacular weekend was exactly what we were in for.
We’d booked a campsite at Bakgatla in the hope that it would be a little quieter than Manyane, and we weren’t disappointed. The camping grounds, while not the best we’d ever seen, were clean and tidy, and the sparkling pool made up for any shortcomings in the ablution blocks. Far from noisy and unpleasant, the grounds buzzed quietly with a happy social atmosphere – a surprisingly welcome change from our more isolated camping experiences. My niece disappeared off to the jungle gym (knowing she wasn’t likely to be gobbled up by a hyena en route came as a relief) and the following day we headed out into the park to try our luck on the back roads.
By the end of our first day we’d checked off all of the Big Five, including Pilanesberg’s elusive buffalos, and only once had to squeeze through the crowds on the horrible roads around Mankwe Dam to catch a glimpse of lions. By the end of the weekend, we’d not only had at least one sighting of each of the Big Five all to ourselves, but we’d also seen honey badgers, hippos, crocodiles and lots of general game, not to mention an incredible array of birds.
Nothing short of gobsmacked, we returned home and vowed never to underestimate reserves such as Pilanesberg again. Half the fun of any safari is the anticipation of good sightings, and it’s never a good idea to expect to see everything, but it’s good to know that even if you prefer a quieter safari experience, in a busy place like Pilanesberg you’ve still got a very good chance of having an incredible bush breakaway.
Our local reserves may be smaller, tamer, and not as exciting as some of the wilder reserves out there, but they’ve still got more than enough to offer even the most safari-savvy visitors.
To read more about our visit to Pilanesberg, please check out the September 2013 issue of Weg! and go! magazines.
In general, Pilanesberg’s game is extremely relaxed, making it possible for anyone with a 200 mm zoom lens or longer to get great wildlife portraits. Most productive are Pilanesberg’s hides, especially the one on the western edge of Mankwe Dam. Yes, this hide can become rather crowded over the weekends, but it gives you fantastic opportunities to photograph crocodiles, hippos and birds, including kingfishers, darters and cormorants. You can get great photographs here in the mornings and afternoons. Remember to take a tripod or beanbag. Other scenic and productive spots that photographers should visit include the Lenong Viewpoint (great for landscape shots), Ratlhogo Waterhole and hide (best early in the mornings) and the Hippo Loop next to Mankwe Dam. There’s usually some general game grazing on the plains that surround the dam, which look great on photos with the scenic backdrop.
If I want to go:
Where: Approximately 50 km north of Rustenburg in the North West Province, around two hours’ drive from Johannesburg.
When: Game viewing is good all year round, but if you want to avoid the crowds, don’t go on weekends and definitely avoid long weekends and school holidays. The park is at its most beautiful late in the year (usually November) after the first rains have turned burnt veld into stunning green plains.
Stay here: Bakgatla Resort on the northern tip of the park offers campsites, self-catering and catered accommodation, and is good value for money. It’s better kept than Manyane Resort in the east and facilities include an enormous swimming pool, a restaurant and a small shop. Don’t forget to buy a park map. At R40 it might seem a bit expensive, but again it’s good value for money.
Drive these roads:
Mankwe Way south of the main dam is scenic and very productive and so is the Thutlwa Drive north of the Pilanesberg Centre. If you want to give yourself a chance to spot black rhinos, drive the Dithabaneng Road in the north-eastern corner of the park a couple of times during your visit. Buffalo are very difficult to find in Pilanesberg, but if you stick to the rocky western region, you definitely stand a chance. Look for them in the valley thickets.
Cost: Entry (once-off): R65/adult, R20/pensioner, R20/child and R20/vehicle.
Camping: From R190/ electrified stand (max 6), R290 during peak season
Self-catering chalets: R2250/night for a family of four
Dinner, bed and breakfast: R2770/night for a family of four
Bookings: Contact Golden Leopard Resorts on (014) 555 1600.