Drive for just two and a half hours from Johannesburg and you will find yourself in a wildlife wonderland that is Pilanesberg National Park.
Admittedly, we were a little nervous about the variety of animals we might see on this journey, given that Pilanesberg is a relatively small safari park. That said, my boyfriend had recently visited the much larger Kruger and found it a little disappointing. Turns out that although Kruger has a bigger proportion of animals, they are so spaced out it’s hard to get a glimpse of them, even if you drive for hours (which he did).
Arriving at Pilanesberg felt like entering Jurassic Park – what ginormous creatures existed behind those grand gates? After paying our entrance fee and picking up our map, we were let loose at a max speed of 40km/h to drive the winding roads around the reserve in our small hire car. Should a prowling lion happen to wander out and nibble at your tyre you’re on your own.
I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Wildlife lover and avid photographer, I gasped at herds of zebra gathering by the water hole and a family of baboons chasing each other in the distance. We’d being going for only about 20 minutes when this guy casually wandered out in front of us:
Described as the ‘hippies of the savannah’, giraffes have got to be one of my favourite animals. Watching them saunter around, ridiculously lounge tongues clumsily lapping at twigs that were just out of reach had me chortling away for hours.
One of the best parts about our Pilanesberg adventure though, was the lodge we stayed at. There are several different accommodation options in the park to meet different budgets and I highly recommend staying over to make the most of all there is to see. We stayed at the Ivory Tree Game Lodge, a beautiful and luxurious lodge at the northern end of the park. For just £130 per person all meals, two safari tours and snacks were included: amazing value. We had our own cabin with outdoor shower, humongous bed and terrace right next to the grassland. Only a rather flimsy-looking electric fence stood between us and the wild savannah beyond.
That evening, we took our first game drive. The knowledgeable rangers were hugely passionate about the wildlife and very respectful of the surroundings. Plus, cruising around in an open top land rover with the hot South African air hitting you is just the nuts.
On our game drive, we saw a pride of lions sipping water at dusk, a very brave little springbok testing its luck wandering only about 10 metres behind them!
We were up super early the next morning as all the animals are most active at dawn and dusk so it’s the best time to spot them. And what a morning it was! We saw 4 of the ‘big five’ including rhino, elephants, lions and buffalo. We got up close to hippos wallowing in the muddy water, watched antelope anxiously checking their backs for predators, and saw lion cubs playing on rocks.
Soon after, as we were driving round to see a herd of elephants at the waterfront, we came across a male lion literally 2 metres away from our vehicle. We were told to keep our hands and heads firmly in the land rover as it stalked away, having realised it was entering another prides territory.
As we reached the elephants we were treated to sights of them playing in the water, the younger members of the clan clumsily spurting water and running between their mother’s legs. We didn’t have time, but there were plenty of other spectacular activities to book onto including a hot air balloon ride over the park.
Before long and with a heavy heart it was time to pack up and leave the park. It was cool to gain a snippet into the lives of these creatures, but it was most gratifying to see them stalk away from the roads to their wild privacy where we couldn’t reach them.