The Ultimate Guide to One of The Best Safari Parks In South Africa

A Two-for-One Safari in The Pilanesberg National Park

Over a 2-hour drive from Johannesburg lies one of the world's largest volcanic Alkaline Ring Complexes.

The Pilanesberg National Park is uniquely situated in a geographical transition zone that bridges the dry Kalahari and wet bushveld.

Animals, birds, and vegetation from both ecosystems thrive in this weather-worn dormant volcanic crater.

A brief guide to the safari park and the area around it 

The story of the Pilanesberg National Safari Park is a success story rooted in Operation Genesis.

But before I continue, if you decide to visit this South African wildlife safari park, you'd like the best dress comfortably but not too warmly because winter days in the Pilanesberg are much like summer days in most colder countries.

What to Wear on your Safari Adventure

In the winter months, dawn is the coldest time of the day, and a warm jacket will be enough to carry you into the warmer sunlight hours.

Wear breathable socks and a pair of comfortable shoes to match. Perhaps a pair of Veldskoen will transition you quite nicely into the role of an adventurer as you pioneer the tales that you'll one day share with your grandchildren. 

One of only three globally, the Alkaline Ring Complex makes up the Pilanesberg National Safari Park.

A massive volcanic eruption about 1 200 million years ago weathered over time, turning the rock-crusted disfiguration into breathtaking landscapes within this uniquely shaped crater.

Being in a transition zone means that the Pilanesberg is made of two very diverse ecosystems which can accommodate a broader range of animal species, vegetation, and birdlife from both systems.

You'll be relieved to learn that the Pilanesberg is a malaria-free zone as well. Covering 550 square kilometers (212.35 square miles), it is the fourth largest game park in Southern Africa. 

Many private safari parks and reserves border the park, including the Sun City resort complex.

Sun city in south africa

Code named Operation Genesis the beginning of this incredible Safari Park in 1979

It took a lot of faith to create this natural wonderland, but thanks to the foresight of the older generation and the willingness of the Bakubung tribe, it became a reality.

When Lake Kariba was created on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today) in 1958, Operation Noah was launched to rescue wild animals from the rising waters as the lake slowly filled up. Operation Noah was a fitting name to record the saving of over 60.000 animals in that operation.

Here too, Operation Genesis is a fitting name to record the repatriation of wildlife and birds to safe ground and built a new home for them.

During the Apartheid years in the 1960s, the government began purchasing farmland in the Pilanesberg region for their Bantu resettlement initiative, and the Bakubung tribe were settled on the land.

At the same time, territories were being consolidated to form the homeland of Bophuthatswana, which in 1972 became a self-governing state. 

The homeland included the Pilanesberg National Park region, and the decision was taken to reintroduce wildlife to the area. Chief Tsidimane Pilane, whom the park is named after, agreed with the proposal and his people; some 60 families were willingly relocated.

Operation Genesis began with erecting about 110 km / 50 Mile of fencing around the perimeter of the safari park. Homesteads and internal boundary fencing were removed, and tourism structures were created before the big push to stock the safari park with wildlife.

The transition took 15 years,1979 to 1993, and was the most extensive and most expensive wildlife relocation operation of its kind.

It included 188 km of internal roads and the relocation of over 6000 animals to the park. The current wildlife tally is more than 10 000 animals.

The Safari Park Wildlife in the transition zone

If you're keen on creating a game sighting register or updating your existing tally of significant mammal sightings, then the Pilanesberg is your go-to safari destination.

The safari park boasts almost every large mammal indigenous to Southern Africa. More than 50 different large mammal species are complemented by many smaller species.

Pilanesberg Safari Park Elephant

Where else would you see the Kalahari springbok and bushveld impala in the same place? The African wild dog is endangered, as is the black rhino and several other species.

Still, thanks to continued efforts by concerned citizens and good game management policies, the wild dog population is slowly increasing. Still, the black rhino remains on the critically endangered list and is a rare sighting in the Safari Park.

The open plains of the Pilanesberg are a favorite region for the gracious cheetah, but the park is also home to the African wild cat, serval, caracal, bat-eared fox, jackal, and brown hyena.

Pilanesberg Safari Park Cheetah

A real treat is a ranger-led night-drive safari where you may come across the nocturnal aardwolf (aardwolf is Afrikaans, meaning earth wolf) feasting on termites at a termite mound.

Night-drive safaris are exhilarating because most predators hunt at night, and night sounds often lead to incredible animal behavior sightings.

The safari parks wouldn't be complete without the big five, and although the park is not entirely their preferred habitat, they have all adapted rather well in their new home. 

Lion prides are always top of the sighting list, and given enough time, the odds of spotting a pride of lions increases. The same goes for elephants, rhinos (black and white rhinos), leopards, and buffalo. 

Pilanesberg Safari Park Lion

Pilanesberg's diverse ecology is made up of 6 different ecozones with a centralized dam as the central watering hole. This makes looking for selected species reasonably easy.

Larger antelope species like the shaggy-coated waterbuck, oryx, sable antelope, and kudu make a safari drive worthwhile.

Wildebeest, with their unusual head twitching movements and zebra sighted with the dam in the background, always reminds of the annual Serengeti migration over the Mara River in east Africa.

Hippo and Nile crocodiles are plentiful in the dam, with several hides strategically placed for visitors to enjoy close-up sightings without being openly intrusive.

Pilanesberg Safari Park Hippo

Bird watchers will be treated to over 360 different species, most permanent residents of the park.

The wildlife list of the Pilanesberg reads like a Christmas shopping list. 

I say this because it is really extensive. If you're pressed for time like we all are over the Christmas period, then the Pilanesberg wildlife safari park will fill many stockings over a weekend or midweek visit.

The safari park is so close to the big urban cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg that you can easily make a one-day safari trip.

The gates open before dawn and close after sunset, so you can enjoy a full day in the safari park without worrying about gate times.

Safaris from the air.

If you decide on a day trip, seeing the safari park from the air might appeal to you, especially if you want to create lasting memories. A dawn lift-off in a hot air balloon opens up the splendor of the landscape before you.

You will have a bird's eye view of safari animals that road-bound visitors may not get to see, and the beauty is the silence that you move in.

Yes, there is the periodic gushing sound from the burner but floating above the safari park in a basket makes for a truly excellent start to your day.

The hot air balloon trip lasts about an hour, and once on the ground, you will be treated to a champagne breakfast from one of the many lodges.

There are light aircraft scenic flights on offer, but the slow pace and low altitude of a hot air balloon flight really connect you with the wildlife and the beauty of the safari park.

Hot air balloon over africa

Try a Walking safaris.

Ranger-led walking safaris are a popular way to get up close with the wildlife. On these walks, you will be treated to witnessing a few ranger tracking techniques, and you will undoubtedly be entertained with great sightings and detailed education about the animals and birds you may encounter.

There are several stone age and iron age archaeological sites scattered around the park, and you may be lucky to visit one of these sites on your walking safari.

The amount of history packed into the Pilanesberg reveals how essential the area has been for humanity and animals alike.

Where to rest your weary head in this Safari park  

With a wide range of accommodation options to suit every budget, you can opt for 5-star luxury or scale down to a rugged African safari experience in your own tent set up in designated camping areas.

Electrified camping and caravan sites with communal ablution facilities still give you some creature comforts but roughing it in nature is what many people need as a real break away from the daily grind in our concrete jungle.

Buffalo Thorn Lodge pillannesberg national safari park

Buffalo Thorn Lodge in the Pilanesberg national safari park

From the extensive list of accommodation options, we have listed several luxury lodges and two resorts to choose from that all service the safari park.

  • Maryanne Resort. African-style thatched chalets.
  • Bakgatla Resort. Colonial-styled chalets and exclusive safari tents.
  • Tshukudu Bush Lodge. Luxurious accommodation.
  • Bakubung Bush Lodge. It surrounds a hippo pool.
  • Kwa Maritane Lodge. Luxurious accommodation with views over the plains.
  • Ivory Tree Game Lodge. 5-star luxury.
  • Shepard's Tree Game Lodge. 5-star luxury.
  • Pilanesberg Private Lodge. Situated in the Black Rhino Reserve
  • Buffalo Thorn Lodge. Luxurious self-catering lodge in the Black Rhino safari park.

Thutlwa-Pilanesberg from Biggestleaf Media on Vimeo.

The beat of Africa.

Drumbeats are synonymous with Africa. It was an early form of the bush telegraph to send messages between communities, but the drum was also a musical instrument that brought people together in a celebratory dance.

Interactive drumming is a unique experience, even for the less musically inclined. You get to learn basic drum beats that culminate into song and dance. Being part of interactive drumming in the African bush revigorated your soul and gives you a sense of fulfillment and belonging.

Top this off with a visit to local villages and meet with the locals who will treat you to a taste of their traditional cuisine.

You'll learn about African cultures and traditions and will be able to relate the whole experience to why it was so crucial for Operation Genesis to be the booming success it has become.

The Pilanesberg National Safari Park has so much more to offer than just seeing animals in the wild, and the best way to fact-check this statement is to live the experience of your dream safari in this gem of a safari park called the Pilanesberg.

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