The Pilanesberg National Park is one of South Africa’s largest and is located in the Northwest Province, near the border with Botswana. Set in an extinct volcano, the park is home to thousands of animals, including the Big Five (elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffaloes and lions). The park is a few hours’ drive northwest of Johannesburg but we took it slow.
We left the sprawling suburbs of Johannesburg in a northwesterly direction and made our first stop at the bright turquoise lake of the Hartbeestpoort Dam. A tranquil area surrounded by the beautiful mountains of the Magaliesberg, the dam is a popular weekend retreat for many people living in Johannesburg and Pretoria. We hopped onto the Harties Cableway and as we ascended the mountain, the stupendous view of the dam lake and the mountains quickly unfolded. The contrast of the bright turquoise surface of the lake with the barren, brown-ochre slopes of the mountains was certainly striking.
At the peak, we found many families having a picnic and couples having a quiet lunch with brilliant panoramic views all around. On the other side of the mountain, paragliders raced off the mountain.
We continued our drive to Pilanesberg after a quick lunch and a stop at the Hartbeespoort Dam wall where a copy of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe proudly stood.
By the time we arrived at the gates of the Pilanesberg National Park, the sun was already low on the horizon, perfect for a sundowner safari. The trees cast long dark shadows around us as we entered the park. Our guide, Ishmael, was a jovial character who kept us entertained with facts and figures of the park and its wildlife, jokes and anecdotes. It quickly became clear that he had a keen eye (and ear).
Several minutes inside the park and we had our first encounters with impalas, giraffes, kudus and warthogs. Further down the road, we spotted zebras, wildebeest and other antelopes.
I’ve been on many safaris before but it’s always a wondrous experience to see these animals up close in their natural habitat, and the looks of joy, excitement and awe on the faces of the visitors. The ‘ooohs’ and the ‘aahhhs’ erupted almost around every bend in the road!
We arrived at a fork in the road and we stopped. Ishmael quietly told us – I could sense a slight quiver in his voice – that we were about to experience something very unique. About twenty yards away, we saw the tall grasses move and heard the faint sound of crunching leaves. I was certain it was a lion. As it slowly came into view, I sat and stared in awe. It was a leopard.
I’d read enough about African wildlife and the Big Five to know that Ishmael was absolutely right; this was a very unique experience! Leopards are very elusive creatures and therefore difficult to spot, especially during the day. On the previous occasions I saw them, in Lake Nakuru, Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, they were asleep on the branches of acacia trees. This leopard was clearly out on a walk, perhaps a hunt. It emerged from the brush and walked on the road towards us. I was mesmerised by its fierce eyes and its stunning fur. We held our breath as it fearlessly walked right past us. Never have I seen a leopard this close. It truly was an unforgettable encounter!
We watched the leopard until it disappeared into the grasslands before continuing our safari. A little bit later, in the fading light, Ishmael stopped the jeep again. In front of us, on the road, was a family of elephants: Mum, Dad and two little ones. Ishmael instructed us to remain still and be quiet as the adult elephants, kids in tow, walked towards us.
The male elephant waved his trunk as they approached the jeep as if to say, “Keep away!”. I moved back from the side as they walked past us, father still wildly waving his trunk. Despite their enormous size, they moved stealthily across the tarmac. It was, quite literally, a breathtaking sight!
We continued further as the sun set and soon we drove in the dark, with nothing more than the jeep’s headlights guiding us. The temperature dropped swiftly and Ishmael passed warm, woolly blankets around. We came across a small lake filled with noisy hippos and several buffaloes, and a river with dozens of sparkly ‘diamonds’ – “they’re crocodile eyes”, Ishmael said. There certainly was something rather otherworldly about a night safari. The silence, punctuated only by the rustling of the leaves or the hoots of birds, was simply enchanting.
Lions in the dark
As we drove through the park, we spotted various lions in the bush, or rather, we spotted their eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. Ishmael was determined to find some of the park’s rhinos and lions but our drive was coming to an end. As we headed in the direction of the park HQ, he brought the jeep to one last halt. He flashed his torchlight at the bushes. We followed the ray of light and saw a scrawny lion, his head drooping. Ishmael said that this was an old lion that had recently been abandoned by his pride. Ishmael explained, “He’s old and weak. He’ll probably become a prey himself one day soon”. I felt the sadness in his voice. He knew these animals. He probably saw them every day and observed everything that went on in the different prides or herds. There was nothing he could do to change the laws of nature. Several hundred yards down the road, we came across the old lion’s former pride wandering on the road. The lionesses and their cubs walked ahead of us before disappearing into the darkness.
I turned my gaze to the bush, away from the headlights, as Ishmael revved up the jeep. In the distance, a dozen sparkly diamonds, seemingly suspended in the air, stared back at us. I’ll never forget that sight.