Discovering Pilanesberg National Park

The car in front of us was stopped next to a huge acacia thorn bush. Behind them, we looked impatiently at each other. What could they possibly be looking at when parked next to a bush? The question answered itself not two seconds later, when a gigantic horned head swung out in front of the car’s front, and out trotted a massive rhinoceros. He seemed fairly unperturbed—until he noticed us, skittering to the side and then bolting (or as close to bolting as a 5000 lb animal can manage) into the bush on the other side. He was maybe 12 feet in front of us. He left us speechless.

At this point in our South Africa-Namibia trip, we’d stayed at one private game reserve, visited the Karoo National Park, and seen some wild animals just driving through the countryside. But this was our first real game drive. We took the recommendations from two separate South African friends who’d told us that Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve shouldn’t be missed—and they were completely right.

Pilanesberg stretches over 55000 hectares (a little over 200 square miles). Located just an hour’s drive from the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, it feels less touristy than Kruger—more of a local spot. It’s as lush and green as a scene out of the jungle book. The day we came through it was a bit rainy in the morning, which was good, as there’d apparently been a huge fire the day before thanks to some idiot throwing a cigarette out of the window. In some areas, you could still see the ground smoking or smaller fires smoldering, it made me sad to think of the animals that had been affected.

The park offers guided tours at several intervals throughout the day, and the option to self-drive during the sunlit hours. We chose to do both—the day spent self-driving, and an evening guided drive. Pilanesberg’s main streets are paved, but the rest is dirt road. It’s not as bad as the Karoo, but definitely can be challenging at parts; I’d recommend at least a sport wagon style like a Polo. (We had the Off-Road Polo’s flashier brother—a new red model that we nicknamed the Off-Road Polo Remix.)

We spent a brilliant day wending our way around the park, taking our time, and relishing the thrill of spotting all kinds of wildlife just hanging out. We saw chubby-bellied zebras, rhinos the size of boulders, herds of wildebeest and springbok that eyed us calmly as we inched the Remix past them.

Thanks to a tip from a fellow driver we spotted the ultra-rare African Wild Dog, sitting in a pack of seven under a low tree close to the road. And a trio of elephants kept us spellbound for almost 45 minutes as they demolished a whole corner of the park.

In fact, we might have stayed there for another hour, but we had to make the drive to the Sun City resort (an unexpected slice of Las Vegas in the middle of the South African bush) to catch our guided tour. I’ll go into the pros and cons of self-guided drives versus guided tours later, but I have a pretty obvious preference. The guided tour was great in that it let us enter the park after closing hours, which gave us a gorgeous sunset. And our guide was very knowledgeable about both flora and fauna, sharing all kinds of interesting tips about how to spot animals. If you see a rhino with its head down, for example, it’s a white rhino—they are grazers. Rhinos with their heads up are more likely the rarer black rhino, which eats from bushes and trees. The guided tours are officially operated by the park—and while they cannot guarantee you’ll see every animal on your list, they do work together with the other jeeps out there to coordinate animal sightings and alert the others. Thanks to these tips, we managed to see a small pride of the park’s lions, which can be difficult to spot on a self-drive because they tend to lay in the grass below the line of sight.

What’s really lovely about Pilanesberg is that even if the park is huge, the bulk of the space is reserved for the animals. Guests are restricted to the areas around three major watering holes, which gives visitors plenty to see while still cultivating a healthy space for the animals. The ranger told us that they don’t feed the predators like other parks or smaller reserves do—which leads to a functioning natural environment. A true self-sustaining circle of life, if you will.

Overall I can highly recommend Pilanesberg. If we could do it again, we’d spend at least two full days self-driving through the park. Bring picnic supplies to hang out in the safe areas for a braai and to stretch the legs. The prices were reasonable: entrance fees (as of Jan 2018), 2 international adults, 1 car: 80 pp, 230 total—and the price is lower for South African nationals and children. Where the prices get steep is the accommodation in the area. You can stay within the park for a pretty penny, or stay outside of it at neighboring resorts (like Sun City, if a mega-hotel/casino is your jam), or further out at some of the cheaper (but still pricey) lodges like we did.

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