Insider's guide to Pilanesberg, SA's 4th largest national park

2018-03-26 10:16 - Christopher Clark
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From the Best Big Five viewing spots to hot air balloon safaris, we give you the insider’s guide to one of South Africa’s most popular game parks, with everything you need to know to make the Pilanesberg experience all the more unforgettable.

Wildlife

It probably goes without saying that the main draw to Pilanesberg National Park, both for foreign visitors and locals, is the opportunity of seeing every single member of the much-feted big five. Aside from an abundance of these favourites (particularly rhino and elephant), Pilanesberg also has the high concentration of brown hyena, as well as all the usual game suspects such as hippos and the endangered African wild dogs.

Compared to the likes of Kruger or Kgalagadi, Pilanesberg is a small park (550km2 compared to Kruger’s 22,000km2), so you can easily scope out most of the best viewing spots or hides within a single day of game driving. And if you get a good tip-off from a ranger, it shouldn’t take you too long to get to where you need to go. Nonetheless, some parts of the park remain largely inaccessible to general visitors, so remember to pack the binoculars and some big lenses for your camera.

For spotting leopard, the rocky outcrops and koppies along the Mankwe Way dirt road below the main dam are a good bet. You'll have better luck spotting the other big cats in the open plains further to the east of the park along Tshewene drive or Dithabaneng road, especially early in the morning before the sun has fully risen.

The Mankwe dam itself tends to be the best place for hippos. Rhinos and elephants are also found throughout most of the park; often you won’t even have to leave the main tar roads to see these great beasts quietly grazing or slowly making their way to the nearest waterhole.

READ: 10 Cool Pilanesberg facts that will make you go 'bos'

(Photo: Christopher Clark)

The last piece of the big 5 puzzle is the African buffalo. Deemed a rare sighting in Pilanesberg, you should find small herds towards the wilder and greener far western reaches of the park.

Roads and Routes

While a 4x4 is not a necessity for Pilanesberg, you'll experience the park to the fullest if you do opt to use one. While the four main tar roads that dissect the park are in good condition, they are also the busiest, especially on weekends. So plan accordingly if you want to miss the busy periods or simply avoid them with the appropriate vehicle.

Head for some of the wilder dirt roads to add to your experience.

Though these can be fairly rough and potholed, especially in winter after the rainfall, it does help to deter the less adventurous visitors as well as the buses, which are not allowed to leave the main roads, and will make your Pilanesberg experience a more personal one. Many of the best hides and wildlife spotting areas, especially for the big cats, are also found along these dirt roads.

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Things to do 

If you have had enough of the everyday game driving or cruising around in your own vehicle, some of the lodges in Pilanesberg also arrange night game drives; there are also heritage drives where you can learn about the Tswana culture whilst you spot game along the way.

If you have some extra cash floating around and want to see the park’s beautiful, undulating landscape from a different perspective, hot air balloon safaris are another option, though subject to weather conditions and numbers of bookings. Hour long flights are followed by sparkling wine, a game drive and breakfast.


(Photo: Christopher Clark) 

For the more intrepid, there are a few three and four hour hiking trails with experienced, qualified guides (though these are not for children under the age of 12), as well as guided elephant back safaris.

When to visit

The drier winter months (June to October) are generally considered to be better for game viewing, especially for the more elusive big cats and black rhino. At this time of year the grass is lower and the vegetation  less dense in general, plus the fact that much of the wildlife will be more likely to be drawn to water as it becomes a scarcer resource.

However, these high season months also bring considerably more traffic with them (especially on the weekends and during school holidays). Though the wildlife may be harder to spot in the wetter summer months, you won’t have to fight off so many other vehicles to get to it, and the rolling hills of the park are particularly beautiful and green at this time of year. There are also better birdwatching opportunities, and the brooding rain clouds that often roll in as the sun begins to set make for great photo opportunities.


(Photo: Christopher Clark) 

If you are planning to visit the park during any of the school holidays make sure you book 2-3 months in advance. The park and lodges are usually fully booked during this time.

Accommodation 

Pilanesberg has a number of lodges and resorts dotted around the park, mostly within close proximity of the three main entrance gates at Bakgatla, Manyane and Bakubang. 

The likes of Pilanesberg Private Lodge, Tshukudu Bush Lodge and Ivory Tree Game Lodge offer more secluded, luxury accommodation, often with panoramic views across the park and the option of taking game drives into areas of the park that are inaccessible to day visitors.

Bakgatla and Manyane are the much more affordable options and popular choices for families with young children, large groups, and weekend visitors from Johannesburg. Its environs, with a host of outdoor activity options within the resorts, including playgrounds, trampolines, beach volleyball and putt putt courses, as well as large swimming pools make it an all-round escape.

Bakgatla and Manyane resorts also have plenty of space for Braaing and camping.

Getting there

One of the great perks of Pilanesberg is the ease of access from either Kimberley, Durban or particularly Johannesburg, which is just 120km or so away from the park’s gates. The roads are mostly good, there are plenty of services and amenities along all the routes to the park and getting lost is no easy feat. There is also an airport for chartered flights on the outskirts of Pilanesberg towards Sun City.

 (Photo: Christopher Clark) 

All in all then, you should be well-equipped for the Pilanesberg experience and the hunger for a safari adventure should be rumbling within your gut. So with the winter holidays practically just around the corner, why wait to experience a piece of the Pilanesberg pie?

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