Game reserves in South Africa are one of the main attractions, but a few days spent at them can be expensive. Most visitors to the country will enter via Johannesburg, and one of the best ways to include an affordable safari on your holiday is to take a Pilanesberg self-drive tour.
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Although there are several game reserves near Johannesburg, Pilanesberg offers spectacular game watching, including the big 5.
Pilanesberg vs kruger
While Kruger is the most well-known safari destination, Pilanesberg game reserve is the nearest big 5 park to the city.
It’s only a two and a half drive to the area and as the park is smaller than Kruger, you only need a couple of days to visit the reserve.
The game viewing at Pilanesberg National Park is excellent, and there are some fabulous places to stay nearby.
Unlike Kruger, Pilanesberg is a malaria free zone, which makes it a great choice for a self drive safari particularly if you are travelling with kids.
Car Hire-Self Drive Pilanesberg
Car rental is cheap in South Africa and its the easiest way to get around. The road system is good, and most things are signposted
If you are worried about getting lost hire a GPS or use
You can drive around Pilanesberg in a 2wd car no problem for most of the year, but if you are visiting during the rainy season, it would be advisable to hire a 4×4.
A vehicle with higher clearance is more comfortable to navigate around the park, although it is possible in a small hire car, so long as you drive carefully.
There are other benefits to having a higher clearance vehicle, the most prominent being that you sit higher up and therefore you’ll see more.
When I’m in South Africa I always get a hire car from Avis for self-drive safaris. They have an office at the OR Tambo airport and several in the centre of Johannesburg. The service from Avis is excellent and the vehicles are always of a high standard.
If you prefer to compare prices of hire cars, airport rentals is a fantastic site. They’ll get you the best price from all the major rental places and you can choose your pick up location.
Fully Equipped Vehicles
A great way of combing car hire and accommodation is to rent a fully equipped vehicle or motorhome. These come with tents that extend from the roof and have all the equipment you need for a fantastic Pilanesberg National Park camping experience.
Where is Pilanesberg National Park?
Pilanesberg is in the North West province in the region on Bojanala. Its the fourth largest park in South Africa
Getting to the Pilanesberg Park
You can fly to Pilanesberg airport from Cape Town or Johannesburg. From OR Tambo, return flights operate three times a week – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. From Cape Town, flights depart on Mondays and Fridays.
From Johannesburg to Pilanesberg by car, it takes approximately two and a half hours to get to the gates near Sun City.
If you are travelling from Joburg or Pretoria to Pilanesberg National Park, take the N4 towards Rustenburg. Exit the motorway onto the R556 and head north towards Sun City Pilanesberg.
When travelling along the R556, you’ll spot your first animal sightings – cows. They’re not just in the fields, it’s quite common to see them in the middle of the road, so take your time when driving along the route.
Another reason for watching the speedometer along the R556 is that its a hotspot for speed cameras. You’ll regularly see police vehicles on the side of the road and their cameras poised ready to get anyone travelling over the speed limit.
There are four public entrance gates into the park, and any of them are suitable to begin your Pilanesberg Safari.
Babukung, Pilanesberg Game Reserve Gate
The Babukung Gate is the main entrance into the park and its to the west of Sun City. There are toilet
kwa Maritane Day Visitors Gate
The Kwa Maritane gate is close to Pilanesberg Airport, so it’s easy to find as there are signs along the R556. The gate is on the southeast side of the reserve which only has gravel roads.
From the entrance, it will take you the best part of an hour to reach the Pilanesberg visitors centre. The scenery along the route is stunning, and this side of the park is usually quiet, so there’s a good chance of spotting some game if you drive along slowly.
Pilanesberg Manyane Gate
The Manyane Pilanesberg gate is to the east of the park. To get to the entrance from Sun City take the R510 through Mogwase and you’ll see the turn on your left towards the Manyane Gate.
Pilanesberg Bakgatla Gate
Further around the park to the northeast is the Bakgatla gate which is the closest entrance to Saulspoort. To get there from Sun City, take the R510 towards Mogwase. Keep going past the Manyane Game Lodge entrance until you reach a T-junction. Turn left to get to the Bakgatla gate.
Pilanesberg National Park Entrance Fee
The Pilanesberg entrance fee is considerably cheaper than the ones for Kruger, although you can only pay the entry fee at one of the gates.
Pilanesberg Game Reserve Rates
|South African Citizens||R80|
|Adult Foreign Visitors||R110|
|Children (6-12 years)||R30|
|Pensioners (SA only)||R40|
|Map of Park||R40|
South African residents have to produce identity documents to prove citizenship.
Pilanesberg Gate Times
If you are hoping to get into the park early, its best to arrive at the gate 30 minutes before the Pilanesberg opening times mentioned below.
|March and April||6h00-18h30|
|May to September||6h30-18h00|
|September and October||6h00-18h30|
|November to February||5h30-19h00|
There is often a queue to pay the Pilanesberg entry fee at opening times, so make sure you are at the front of the line by getting there early.
Pilanesberg Best Routes to Drive
It’s worth planning your Pilanesberg game drive route in advance particularly if you are only visiting for the day.
While it’s tempting to cover all of the game
You can purchase a Pilanesberg self drive booklet at the entrance gates for 40 ZAR. On the centre page, there is Pilanesberg Game Reserve map.
Routes around the park are clearly signposted so there’s no need to worry about getting lost. At every junction, there are signs with the distance clearly marked.
There are several types of roads within the Pilanesberg national park south Africa.
Joining the Bakubung gate with the Pilanesberg Bakgatla gate is a tarmac road called Kubu Drive and Kgabo Drive.
In effect, this is one long road that is the main one through the park and its a great route to start on if it’s your first self-drive safari.
Halfway between the two gates, you’ll find the Pilanesberg centre, which has a restaurant, toilets, and a small shopping centre.
There’s also a tarmac road leading from the visitor’s centre called Tshwene Drive, which leads to the Manyane game reserve gate on the east side of Pilanesberg.
The Tau Link which connects Tshwene Drive to Kgabo drive is a tarmac road
Other road types
The other roads around the park vary between gravel and sand. Conditions are reasonably good, but you will need to take your time if you are planning to hire a 2wd car and incorporate these routes into your self-drive safari.
Best places to spot animals on Pilanesberg safaris
As with any game reserve in Africa every Pilanesberg day visit will be completely different after all, this is a nature park and not a zoo.
The animals are free to roam around the 572 square kilometres, that said there are certain places where Pilanesberg sightings are more common.
Mankwe Dam Pilanesberg
Close to the visitor’s centre is the Mankwe Dam, which is a great place to spot crocodiles and water birds. You may also see some of the larger mammals such as Zebra, elephants and giraffe coming to drink from the dam.
From the Mankwe dam follow the hippo route, which is an excellent place to spot lions and if you’re
Tiou Drive on the west side of the park has plenty of open grasslands where you can spot zebras and elephants resting from the heat of the sun under the trees.
Pilanesberg has several photographic hides which are fabulous places to sit and let the wildlife come to you. All of them have car parks which are great places to ask other self-drivers about the latest sightings Pilanesberg has provided. All of the hides have surprisingly clean toilet facilities, and there’s usually toilet paper inside.
It’s worth spending some time in the hides and waiting patiently for the wildlife to come to you.
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The hides are well built and have wooden seating which looks out over the various waterholes. On the walls are usually identification posters, and there’s often a book that you can jot down and of course, read other peoples sightings.
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The watering holes are great places to spot wildlife as of course; all animals need water to survive. This, of course, means that at some point during the day, they will visit a dam to take water and in the case of elephants a bath.
Mankwe Dam Hide
One of the best places to sit, watch and of course capture those unforgettable moments is the hide at the Mankwe Dam. Its one of the most popular lookouts as it’s in the centre of the park close to the visitor’s centre.
If there seem to be too many people around when you arrive, don’t worry. Most Pilanesberg day visitors are on a mission to get around the park, so they don’t stay long. Very few people have the patience to sit and wait but trust me, good things come to those who do, and your patience will be rewarded.
The Mankwe dam hide is an excellent spot whatever time of day you visit, but if you want to capture silhouettes and the suns reflection stop by in the morning.
Look out for the kingfishers, in particular, the elusive malachite which you can often spot around the Mankwe Dam.
Please note that if you are visiting in 2019, the hide is currently under restoration and is closed.
Makorwane Dam hide
Makorwane is not far from Mankwe and its an excellent spot for photographs on a cloudy day. The hide is north facing so you may
Hides on the west side of Pilanesberg Reserve
The best time to visit the Ruighoek and Batlhako hide is in the afternoon. The scenery is stunning in this part of the Pilanesberg nature reserve, and it’s often much quieter than other sections of the park.
The hide is east facing so the light is much better for photographs later in the day. With few people, this quieter section of Pilanesberg is fantastic for bird watching.
Just past the Batlhako hide is a viewpoint that has stunning vistas and its another great area to spot wildlife on your Pilanesberg day safari.
Ratlhogo is on the Northside of the park towards the Bakgatla gate. It’s a great place to visit early in the morning or as the sun sets in the evening. Wildlife can be prolific here, so it’s worth spending some time in the hide.
Rules for self-driving in Pilanesberg, South Africa
All game parks in South Africa have rules and regulations that visitors must abide by when visiting the reserves.
Stay in your vehicle
You are only permitted to get out of your vehicle at the hides, picnic spots, and viewing sites the rest of the time you must stay in your car. All I have to add is the park has lions, and you wouldn’t want to become their next meal ticket.
The maximum speed limit is 40 kilometres per hour but to spot game and avoid damaging your car on the gravel roads its best to drive at a much slower speed.
Keep your eye on the road.
While this may seem obvious, it’s easy to get distracted if you see an animal as you drive, but there’s more to be aware of on a game drive. You are not allowed to drive through animal faeces as small creatures such as dung beetles live inside.
Dung beetles use these piles as playgrounds for their young. You may also see them rolling balls of sand on the road, which is a magnificent sight. Other small animals to look out for are tortoises, chameleons, and snakes.
Don’t Drink and Drive.
It’s against the law to drink and drive in South Africa, but you’ll find the many Africans still do it anyway. However, don’t be tempted to join in, if you’re caught drink driving in Pilanesberg National Park you’ ll be asked to leave the reserve.
Removing plants and animals
It is against the rules to remove any plant or animal from the park. If you have any cause for concerns, report to the gate staff at the end of your Pilanesberg national park game drive.
Feeding and touching any animal in the park is against the rules, so remember to admire from a distance. You are visiting their space, so respect the landscape and of course the animals that live within it.
You will find rubbish bins at the picnic sites and the visitor’s centre. Keeping the park clean is the responsibility of all Pilanesberg National Park day visitors. Do your bit, by taking your litter home if the bins are full.
You can only light BBQ’s or Braai fires at the picnic spots, and if you choose to do so make sure the fire is never left unattended. A bush fire would have devastating effects on the landscape, animals and eco-system within the park.
Pilanesberg game reserve has plenty of elephants, and you would have to extremely unlucky not to spot any on your Pilanesberg safari tour. Elephants, however, can be potentially dangerous, so it’s essential to follow the guidelines regarding these animals when on your Pilanesberg game reserve self-drive safari.
Elephants are plentiful, and it’s essential to treat them with respect at all times. They can weigh unto seven tons and can inflict severe damage to your vehicle. They can also cause loss of life.
Follow the guidelines below to keep yourself safe as a Pilanesberg day visitor.
Always keep a safe distance between yourself and the elephants at all times.
If an elephant is ahead of you in the road, don’t follow it as this can stress them. Stop the vehicle from a safe distance. If the elephant starts heading towards you be prepared to put your car in reverse and move slowly backwards.
If an elephant is behind you or walking towards you, You should not pull over to let an elephant pass your vehicle. Having an elephant by the side of your car is dangerous, as it could turn into you.
Learn to observe their behaviour. Elephants in musth are the most dangerous, and it’s best to keep well away. Musth is the term used when adult elephant bulls have a dramatic increase in testosterone levels. During musth, they often become aggressive and lose their fear.
Signals to signify that an elephant is in musth
They will swagger with confidence and their heads, which will be moving a lot will be held high.
They excrete fluid from a gland just behind the eyes and from their behind which stains their back legs.
Listen to the elephants.
Elephants will communicate with you if they are unhappy. They’ll begin by flapping their ears and shaking their heads more. They may also make noises, and you’ll notice that they look agitated. These signs are their way of telling you, to move so listen to them. Don’t panic and move slowly away from them.
Herds with young
It’s a spectacular sight when you see herds of elephants with their young, but make sure you leave enough time for the whole pack to cross your path. The herd may be spread out, so it’s worth waiting a good few minutes before continuing on your Pilanesberg game reserve safari.
Pilanesberg has a more unique and diverse habitat than other south Africa game reserves. It’s home to over 50 species of large mammals and many more smaller animals. It’s impossible to spot them all on a self-drive safari of game reserve tour, and some such as the African Wild Dog is rarely seen.
Pilanesberg Big 5
The big 5 were animals selected due to their hunting difficulty for men. The Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant and African buffalo were considered hunting trophies, due to there size and how dangerous they are. Today they are no longer killed but its not an easy challenge to spot all of the big 5 on a Pilanesberg national park self-drive safari.
There are four lion prides in Pilanesberg, and their territories lie in the areas surrounding the Mankwe Dam. During the day they will often be taking shade under the trees which makes them difficult to spot, but at dawn or dusk, you may catch them moving around.
On my last visit to Pilanesberg as I was leaving the park, there was a whole pride moving around the Lengau Dam. They are truly magnificent animals, and if you are lucky enough to spot them, turn the car engine off and enjoy the moment.
I’ve yet to see a Leopard in Pilanesberg or any other African game reserve. I spent four weeks on a self-drive safari in Botswana and didn’t see one. I guess its look of the draw, but for your best chances of spotting them visit the park early in the morning or late in the evening. During the day they sleep in the middle of bushes and behind rocks which makes them almost impossible to spot.
As Pilanesberg is much smaller than other African game reserves, you have a better chance here than elsewhere.
As I’ve already mentioned, elephants are a common sight throughout the park, and they’re often the first of the big 5 that you spot.
Rhinos are reasonably common in Pilanesberg game park. They are the second-largest mammal after elephants, and the reserve has one of the largest populations which they safeguard.
Sadly throughout Africa, rhinos are under constant threat from poachers who cut off their horns to sell on the black market. Pilanesberg is home to both the white rhino and the black rhino. The white ones are grey and have wider mouths and are much larger than black rhinos.
They love to graze on the grasslands so look out for them if you’re entering the park from the Bakubung gate. The black rhinos are much shyer and live in the Acacia thickets. (Tiou drive)
The African buffalo is one of the countries most dangerous animals; they live in herds and are best seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon. They are rarely sighted, but you could try on the Tlou dam or the northern areas of the park.
Common Pilanesberg Sightings
Zebras are fantastic to watch, but they can move fast, so take care if they are on the road ahead of you. They live in herds, so if you see one crossing the way, they won’t be alone. Stop the car and let them pass.
You can find Zebra all over the park, but they’re most often seen on the grasslands and around the Mankwe Dam.
Baboons and monkeys
Baboons are a common site around the hills and valleys within the park and also at Pilanesberg camping sites. You may even spot them at the picnic spots as they love to steal your food.
Make sure you keep your windows shut in the car when you park and if you see them on your game drive. They will get inside your vehicle and cause damage.
At campsites and picnic spots don’t leave your belongings lying around as blink and they’ll be gone.
There are thousands of impala at Pilanesberg, and they are easy to spot by the M shape marking. They are the favourite prey of leopards, cheetah and wild dog. You’ll probably see lots of them as you self drive around the park.
Giraffes are the tallest mammals, standing several metres higher than the bushland, and they are magnificent animals to see. You’ll often spot them in small groups grazing from one side of a tree.
Wildebeest are often seen alongside zebras on the open plains at Pilanesberg. You can spot them around the Mankwe Dam and also in sections of the park where the grass is short.
Birds at Pilanesberg
Pilanesberg nature reserve also has over 350 different bird species, including a large variety of water birds. Many of them will perch on the floating dead trees while looking for fish to hunt or to bathe and dry their feathers in the sun.
The best time for bird watching is between November and April as there are more migratory species during these months.
Two of my favourite birds to spot in Pilanesberg are the Lilac breasted Roller and the Cape Glossy Starling.
Both have such beautiful coloured feathers. The lilac breasted rollers can often be seen in the grasslands and Savannahs.
In the acacia thickets keep an eye for the hornbills and in the rocky areas you’ll often spot various eagles and other birds of prey.
Don’t forget to take your binoculars, you can learn more about the best binoculars for birdwatching and safaris by clicking here.
The landscape of Pilanesberg Game Reserve South Africa
Pilanesberg lies between the wet savannahs of the east and the dry arid conditions of the Kalahari Desert. The area is unique in that it is similar to a volcanic crater and its one of the most complex landmasses in the world.
Within the park, there are rare rock formations and the hills that surround it make for a diverse and exciting geological area. The vegetation varies massively throughout the park depending upon how much sunlight the ground receives.
The south-facing slopes receive less than the north-facing hills which have led to a diverse range of different tree species that thrive within the park. It’s possible to see areas of grassland, rocky outcrops, dry savannahs and acacia thickets all within a Pilanesberg day tour.
There are some stunning rock formations within the park, and you can observe some of the best along Mankwe Drive and Nikane Drive. Thickets of Lavender now cover the rocks of red syenite, and under the midday sun, it looks beautiful.
The plains of the Savanna Valley
The views of the valley along Tshwene Drive are stunning. Common sightings in this area are Zebra and Wildebeest.
Along the Mankwe way, you’ll find rock debris that’s high in iron oxide. Grassland now covers much of this hidden layer and trees find it difficult to grow in this area.
Like most game reserves in Gauteng, Pilanesberg lodges inside the park are expensive, but there are good deals to be had in the surrounding area.
African Elegance Tented Lodge
Only a 20-minute drive tops away from the Bakubung gate is this beautiful lodge which I can highly recommend. The African Tented lodge offers luxury gaming accommodation amid a small private game reserve.
Each tent, which is more like a hotel room with canvas walls as opposed to bricks, is built on a wooden deck with a veranda. There is electricity inside and a good-sized double bed, dressing table and wardrobe. They also have a safe, kettle and basic bbq facilities. The bathroom has a flushing toilet and a shower with plenty of water.
Dinner can be requested and is served outside around a campfire. The food is tasty, and good quality wine is provided to accompany the meal. Guests can also bring your beverages if they prefer.
Breakfast is served on the terrace by the outdoor pool, and frequent guests include the local wildlife such as antelope. The pool is more of a splash pool, but it has a beautiful view. There’s a couple of sun lounges if you fancy relaxing after spending the day in your car around Pilanesberg.
Anton, the owner of the camp, is always around to chat to guests and will happily take you on a game drive around Pilanesberg or an early morning game walk. I can highly recommend the game walk with Anton. His wealth of knowledge about the bush is incredible, and as well as spotting game, you’ll also learn lots about identifying animal tracks.
Pilanesberg Sun City
If you are travelling with children, you may prefer to stay at the biggest of the Pilanesberg resorts, Sun City. With several hotels to choose from including one of the worlds most luxurious hotels the Palace of the Lost City, a casino, the cascades water park and a host of other children activities, Sun City offers the best Pilanesberg family accommodation.
Cascades hotel is the most affordable of Sun Cities hotels, and its focus is fantastic family fun. Cabanas accommodation near Pilanesberg national park has childcare facilities in the restaurant, easy access to Kamp Kwena’s children play centre and Waterworld.
You can also hop on the sun city shuttle to reach the entertainment centre. The centre has a gaming arcade for children and movie theatres, plus a selection of family-friendly restaurants.
There are two resorts which offer campsites, and both have similar facilities. Each campground has facilities for braaiing and campers share the ablution facilities.
Pilanesberg Camping Bakgatla
The Bakgatla game lodge has a range of accommodation including campsites that can accommodate up to 6 people. All of the caravan sites have electricity while only some of the camping pitches do.
For camping the rates vary between 300 ZAR and 425 ZAR depending on whether the camping site has electricity or not.
Pilanesberg Manyane camping
The Pilanesberg Manyane resort is near the Manyane gate and offers excellent value for money. There are two swimming pools and a children’s playground.
The self-catering rates at Manyane Camp Pilanesberg game reserve vary depending on whether you visit during the week or at the weekend and whether you have electricity or not.
For a caravan site, you can expect to pay between 340 ZAR and 480 ZAR. Camping sites vary in price from 290 ZAR to 425 ZAR.
The resorts offer campsites with electricity as well as without, for the more rustic camper. Each campground has braai facilities and shared ablution blocks. The resorts offer excellent entertainment as well as access to shops and restaurants.
Pilanesberg Safaris and Tours
While self safaris are fantastic, if you are short of time a game drive in Pilanesberg National Park as part of a tour is the best way to see wildlife.
These are led by Pilanesberg National park safari guides who are all in communication with each about sightings. The guides have a wealth of knowledge about the animals which they’ll share throughout the day.
Pilanesberg tours depart from Johannesburg daily and participating in one is a fabulous way of seeing the best that the reserve has to offer.
You can book your Pilanesberg tour below
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