Just two hour’s drive from Johannesburg is the country’s fourth largest game reserve offering visitors a big-5 game experience, a range of luxury accommodation facilities and everything from hot air ballooning to some of the best game viewing in the country. Often overlooked in favour of the glitz and glamour of its neighbour, Sun City, the Pilanesberg Nature Reserve is a rewarding destination in itself.
If you study a map of the Pilanesberg National Park you will notice that it is a rough circle, unlike other parks that have straight boundaries drawn by men with maps and rulers.
Pilanesberg owes its shape to an event that occurred around 1300 million years ago when a period of volcanic activity left a series of mountains in concentric circles in an otherwise featureless landscape.
These mountains provided shelter for wildlife which in turn attracted people to the area. Evidence of Stone and Iron Age settlements have been found in the foothills. People fleeing the Zulu wars found refuge here as did some of the Voortrekkers who passed through the area on their way to the Lowveld.
The idea for a game reserve began with Operation Genesis in 1979 when the area was fenced, additional game was introduced and a road network established.
Today it is a Big-5 reserve with over 7 000 animals, 360 bird species, and more than 200 kilometres of roads. There are also several lodges in the park offering visitors a range of experiences and activities.
Strictly speaking, it was not a true volcano that created the landscape. There was no eruption, rather magma rose to below the surface and cooled. As the land eroded the alkaline mountains were revealed and now stand up to 500 metres above the surrounding landscape.
The term for this is a ring-dyke complex and Pilanesberg is one of only three in the world, it is the largest and is the best-preserved by far.
Apart from the geological significance, the area it is also ecologically blessed. It is a transition zone between the Kalahari and Lowveld habitats which accounts for the diversity of fauna and flora contained in the 50 000 hectare reserve.
Some of the most beautiful scenery within the park is in the area around the Mankwe Dam, which attracts a wide variety of animals. Visitors can see water-buck, wildebeest, zebra and impala grazing in the grasslands bordering the dam.
For bird lovers, there is a bird hide close to the water’s edge where fish eagles, kingfishers and cormorants can be seen. This hide, and the others in the park, is a favourite among enthusiastic wildlife photographers.
The historic building which once served as the magistrate’s court and a home affairs office today houses the Pilanesberg Centre which is an ideal spot for visitors to relax and recharge. There is a gift shop, restaurant, and an interactive map of the park where one can catch up on the latest sightings. Pilanesberg provides many good reasons to put on the khakis, grab the binoculars and head for the hills.