Pilanesberg wildlife

In August we went on a weekend camping trip to the Pilanesberg game reserve together with Marta’s Spanish colleague Ruben who was visiting before starting his new job for the IRC in Afghanistan. The park is situated in a ring of mountains that are a collaped ancient volcano, and until the 1960s it was farmland. All villages and farmhouses were then removed, and animals were brought here in one of the biggest wildlife repopulation experiments to date. The luxury and infamous Sun City leisure and gambling complex was built right next to the park.

It was still winter so with short days and pretty chilly nights, but well worth it. We had booked a camping spot (dirt cheap at for R160 for two tents and three people for two nights) at the Bakgatla resort, on the northern edge of the park. It was fully booked weeks in advance due to a cycling event near Sun City at the southern end, but was only full by South African standards – a Dutch campsite would have fit double the amount of tents and caravans in. We arrived in the dark and had a buffet meal at the restaurant before pitching the tents.

At the crack of dawn we got up for our first real game drive, entering the park at 06:00. Most cyclists had gone to their race by then and it was very calm in the park itself, with very few other vehicles. Using all my game-driving experience as taught to me by David Attenborough’s TV series, I decided that going to a lake would be a good idea so we took a gravel road east and stopped by the lake – dry in winter – and immediately spotted two big male lions gazing at us. Not bad at all for the first half hour.

Following interesting-looking roads on the map we weaved though the park for a few hours spotting giraffes, antilopes, zebras and all manner of animals before stopping at a picnicarea to fry some eggs on our gas stove and rest a bit. You’re not allowed to get out of your car at all in South Africa’s parks, not even hang out of the window, because hungry animals with big teeth usually see cars as a kind of strange and harmless animal – until a tasty human shape pokes out of it. Picnic areas (and hides, sheds for animal spotting) are the exception and you can park beside these fenced-off areas to walk to the gate at your own risk (as pointed out in big friendly letters on the signs). Just 100m from our picnic area however people were looking at some lions hidden in the tall grass, so getting from the car to the fence was done in a bit of a hurry. Strange feeling to stand there knowing lions are close by.

After brunch we cruised through the western parts of the park, spotting our first elephants and giraffes (both very cute and graceful, and amazing to watch). Further on, on an island in a lake, we spotted big grey fatty lumps that turned out to be snoozing hippos – which despite their innocent and docile looks are the most dangerous wild animals around as they can run fast, have huge teeth and have a very grumpy attitude. We watched a huge crocodile slip into the water when wildebeest shoed up to drink, but no attack followed.

Later in the afternoon we had lunch on the terrace of a converted farmhouse in the middle of the park, where warthogs trotted around and a wild variety of cheeky birds swooped in on the leftovers. The next morning Marta elected to sleep in and Ruben and I caught sight of a lone jackall and another pride of lions stalking though the high grass on a hillside. We came across a minor traffic jam of safari cars beside a forest where a leopard had been spotted but it was too well camouflaged for us to see. We returned to pack up the tents and drive home through the park again – this time spotting big herds of zebras and a very cute baby white rhino leading its mother along a hillside. Three hours later we were back home. Pilanesberg is not considered a proper game reserve by many people as it’s ‘artificial’ and small, but we had some great sightings in a short time and enjoyed it a lot.

Lions, spotted on our first morning

Vervet monkeys strategically waiting near a picnic area

Helmeted Guineafowl, or as we came to call them: 'stupid chickens'

Wildebeest drinking at a lake

Our first big-ass elephant sighting

Ruben and Marta enjoying the animal-watching from a hide

Hippos sunbathing on an island

'You may encounter dangerous animals'

A white rhino hiding behind some grass

A lourie and a hornbill enjoy scraps at the restaurant

Views across the main lake

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