The last six months I have spent a lot of time in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa’s North West Province and as a safari destination it has really grown on me. So, for this first part of what will be a series about African safari destinations I would like to stick my neck out and say that Pilanesberg is indeed a worthy competitor to some of the better known, wilder, and more remote safari destinations in South Africa.
It’s only 2-3 hours drive from Johannesburg and for the wildest possible safari experience I would perhaps pick something else, but with its immensely beautiful landscape and its great opportunities to tick of great sightings, I’d say Pilanesberg is well worth considering a visit.
As a professional safari guide and photographer, I enjoy the diversity in sightings. Pilanesberg is home to the magnificent seven, i.e. the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo) plus wild dog and cheetah. I see all of them on a regular basis in the reserve and quite often in interesting situations that provide for good photo opportunities and storytelling about animal behaviour and bush trivia.
On top of my list of pros though is the landscape. Pilanesberg, together with the lovely game reserve Madikwe a bit further north, is spectacularly beautiful: rolling hills and a sweeping open landscape with panoramic views to be found all over the park. For photographers it is simply a dream. The vegetation is mostly very different from the famous Kruger National Park, sparser and therefore often also better views of the animals. The biodiversity might not be quite on par with the lowveld (Kruger and adjoining reserves) but it’s not far behind and the openness certainly makes up for part of that.
The fact that Pilanesberg is completely malaria free is also often brought up as one of its advantages. Personally, I never base my safari trips on malaria prevalence but it might be something you want to factor in.
Things to consider
This is a national park and in South Africa that means a certain number of private vehicles (same in Kruger). I generally sympathise with the idea of giving people affordable access to the wilderness, to enjoy and hopefully learn to appreciate the local wildlife. This I believe is an important part of conservation. But there are drawbacks and my ranger colleagues and I often moan about “the privates” lack of etiquette on sightings and general ignorance when it comes to rules and general respect for animals and other visitors. If you are not an experienced safari traveller and used to drive in big game areas I highly recommend you to stay at a local lodge and go on organised game drives with any of my excellent colleagues. Pilanesberg has had its fair share of incidents over the years, usually involving too eager tourists in their own cars, and young elephant bulls with a bit of a temper. With the introduction of several older bulls, brought in from Kruger some years ago, that have changed for the better, but one should still be very careful.
Pilanesberg is smaller than the vast Kruger National Park. Most safari destinations are. That means that you can’t – and shouldn’t – compare Pilanesberg with some of the really remote and wild places such as northern Kruger or other national parks further up the continent, like Selous or Serengeti in Tanzania. That makes it more accessible and therefore less expensive but if you want to rough it far from the beaten tracks, this is perhaps not the place. Having said that, I truly believe Pilanesberg has a lot to give, even for safari buffs such as myself, who is lucky enough to do this for a living in some of the most spectacular safari destinations on the continent.
If you’re an avid birder you might also want to consider other destinations. Pilanesberg has a lovely bird life but the diversity is not as great as in some other places.
There are several lodges in Pilanesberg and my personal favourite is Shepherd’s Tree in the south western part of the park, from where I’ve been working a lot lately. It’s slightly upmarket without being posh, the lodge standard is excellent with lovely sit-down meals and there’s a nice deck above a small water hole where I’ve had close range elephant sightings, G&T in hand. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the general level of the rangers at Shepherd’s Tree is very good. Pair that with the fact that the lodge is in an exclusive concession (part of the park where no one else can go) frequented by all the magnificent seven and you are certain to have a great time if you choose to stay there.
I have a few favourite spots in Pilanesberg and one of them is Lenong Viewpoint from where you have a stunning view of the park. It’s a perfect spot for a sundowner (if you’re in an official game vehicle and get to stay after dark, that is). I also like the usually quiet and very beautiful drive along Moloto. As for sightings you can’t really go wrong, but if I’m to suggest any specific area I must say that I have often been fortunate with the area around Tlou Dams and Tshukudu eNtshu, particularly with leopards and elephants.
Should you really want to geek out and get the most out of your time in Pilanesberg I highly recommend the ebook Photographers Guide to Pilanesberg by Mario Fazekas et al. I do know Pilanesberg like the back of my hand but I still use this comprehensive guide for reference to remind me about certain details here and there.