Occupying an eroded alkaline crater north of Sun City, in a transition zone between the Kalahari and wet lowveld vegetation, the 550-sq-km Pilanesberg National Park is a wonderfully scenic place to see a stunning variety of South African wildlife. Conceived in the late 1970s as a back-to-nature weekend escape for nearby city dwellers, Pilanesberg remains a haven where lions, buffaloes and day-trippers still roam
In 1979, Operation Genesis reclaimed this area of land from agriculture and released 6000 animals into the new park. Today, all the Big Five are here, as are cheetahs, caracals, African wild dogs, jackals, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, zebras, a wide variety of antelope (including sables, elands and kudus) and 300-plus bird species.
But although the park may appear developed, even overrun in comparison with some South African wildernesses, leave behind main thoroughfares through the park and you'll likely have any sightings to yourself.
Most lodges in the park offer sunrise and sunset wildlife drives, but with nearly 200km of excellent gravel roads, Pilanesberg was designed with self-drive safaris in mind. Although you have a better chance of spotting cats on one of the ranger-led wildlife drives, steering yourself is cheaper, and more rewarding when you do see an animal. Apart from anything else, the organised drives stick to the main roads, stop at every impala and can feel like a circus. Traffic jams along the main byways are also common in late afternoon. Then again, whichever way you visit, you’ll never forget the first time you brake to let a lumbering elephant cross your path – or the size of these animals and how tough, dirty and wrinkly a pachyderm’s rump looks up close.
At last count, among Pilanesberg's 54 mammal species were 60 lions, 15 wild dogs and 300 elephants; poaching is a huge issue here and rhinos were poached during our most recent visit, so not surprisingly the number of rhinos is a closely guarded secret. There are also 65 reptile species, including 35 snakes.
The following activities can be booked at any of the park entrance gates. Private operator Mankwe Gametrackers can also make the bookings at no extra cost (and are sometimes cheaper): sunrise/sunset game drives (adult/child R610/305; 2½ hours), hot-air balloon rides (per person R4750; one to five hours) and guided hikes (per four people R2600; four hours)