Updated on April 5, 2014
Updated on April 5, 2014
Drew and I just wrapped up a brief 5 day visit to Johannesburg, South Africa. While it was brief, the activities of our day yesterday brought more adventure than I’ve had in a very long time. Despite such a short visit and a desire to do things on the cheap, we managed a DIY safari at Pilanesberg National Park that made the entire 48 hours of transit totally worth it.
Here in Johannesburg the popular recommendation for safari-goers is Kruger National Park, about a 4 and a half hours North East of Johannesburg. Not ideal for a short visit and certainly not ideal for a day trip from Johannesburg though it is apparently incredible and huge. It’s on my bucket list.
However, Pilanesberg National park, though smaller, was the perfect size and distance for a day trip from Johannesburg. Small enough to tackle most of it in a day and about 2 hours and ten minutes away from Johannesburg. (Maybe only 2 hours away from the InterContinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers).
Also, of course, the recommendation also is to join a guided safari group of some kind, but the reality is you are 100% able to and allowed to rent a vehicle and do the drive yourself.
Pros of going rogue:
1.) Independence! If you want to drive back to the hippos you just saw twenty minutes ago to see if they’ve left the water yet, you can do it. You can start as early as you want and leave as late as the park will let you (changes throughout the season.)
2.) Cost. Our rental, fuel, and park ticket expenses totaled $164.41. That’s vs. the alternative minimum of $150 per person rate, the cheapest of many more expensive options we saw for guided group safaris.
3.) You don’t have to fight for a photo. Those open-jeep safari vehicles are awesome in that they are open air, but many times the seats 4 people wide, so if the lion’s on the opposite side of your spot, you’ve got three people to glance around. Of course you can have a more private safari, but you never know unless you’re paying for something private.
1.) The roads.
Rebuttal: Despite what we may have feared, driving on the park roads is not that bad at all. In fact, we saw a few mercedes cars on the park roads, so obviously you could rent a cheap little car if you wanted to. We opted for a 4wd “buggy” because we didn’t know what to expect and in fact, I would recommend it as then we weren’t restricted to the paved roads. Many of the roads are pretty bumpy.
2.) A guide knows how to spot things and can radio in to one another when there’s a sighting of something more rare. I can see how that would be nice and we did benefit from that on our safari in Sri Lanka a few years ago when our driver spotted a leopard I would have never noticed.
Rebuttal: Still to be honest, the animals are all over the place! We had no trouble seeing them! And even the rare things can be found if you’re attentive to where you see other cars parked and if you are around during the morning and evening prime sighting times for such animals. That is how we spotted the lion in the beginning of the day, but by the end of the day… well, I’ll talk about that later.
Also you can always stop at one of the gates and ask the gate attendant if they’ve received any tips. Or, heck, buy yourself a radio and try to pick up the signals! Didn’t we all do that as kids on road-trips, or was I the only one that used to listen to truckers talking to one another on my walkie talkie…
I think Drew may have some kind of super power for attracting animals. He has a story of when he went out west in the U.S. and happened to witness the one time in 10 years a park ranger had ever seen the mountain goats climb down to the elevation where they were. And this Thanksgiving when Drew’s parents fostered an abandoned cat for a few days, its preferred spot was in Drew’s lap.
I’m mostly joking about the super power, but at the very end of the day when we were about to leave the park, the final of many pleasant surprises made the day seem uncannily successful.
But first I’ll chronicle the successes before that last “icing on the cake” experience.
1.) Not 15 minutes after entering the park, we saw a sleeping lion.
The lion is sort of the “well, maaayyybbee you’ll see one” animal from what I gather. The predators are fairly nocturnal, after all. But almost the first thing we saw upon entering the park was a vehicle parked at the side watching something. We stopped to see what had been spotted and there in the distance we saw a little beige lump under a bush. Thanks to the zoom on my camera, we confirmed it was a lion and lioness sleeping under a bush. (Ok…my eyes are bad, I couldn’t really pick out the female but even without the zoom Drew was able to see her somehow. She’s not in this pic…or is she…like I said, my eyes are bad.)
We were off to a great start.
2.) The biggest bull elephant we’ve ever seen, one of a few surrounding our car, stared right at Drew and growled at him. No joke. It felt like Jurassic park.
The situation went like this: we had driven by some elephants in the distance on our way to check out a little dam where we’d seen some hippos. We wanted to see if the hippos were stirring and maybe even exiting the lake. Having heard that hippos were actually quite vicious, I wanted to see a hippo eat something. Despite my love for all animals…I really wanted to see the hippo eat the duck that was circling him. The hippo refused to heed my wishes as I lack the super power of winning an animal’s favor and neither stirred nor ate the duck still swimming about his head. So, we turned around and headed back down the road we’d come.
As soon as we rounded the bend we had to jolt to a halt. There in the middle of the road right in front of us were two of the elephants who had been in the distance before our hippo detour. The park’s guidebook strictly communicates that elephants are very dangerous and in fact, word on the street is an elephant flipped a vehicle in Pilanesberg a few years ago. The guidebook instructs visitors to stop their car if an elephant comes towards them on the road, and be quiet. They say that you should not try to maneuver out of the elephant’s way, as it will feel threatened. It’s too late at that point to get out of the elephant’s way.
So we waited for the enormous beasts, who continued eating for awhile, then slowly made their way around our truck, within a short distance of my open window. I could hear their breathing and see every wrinkle.
It seems the animals in the park are not used to people necessarily, but they are used to vehicles and in a way, see the slow moving vehicles as another animal. Just as the grazers cohabitate calmly with one another, they seem to ignore the slow moving vehicles in the same way.
…unless they feel threatened or trapped…
When they were behind us, we began moving forward but around the very next bend, were two more huge elephants again in the middle of a narrow bridge directly in front of us. This time Drew sort of coasted to a stop, letting our truck get a bit closer to the elephants, still leaving room enough for them to exit the bridge and pass us along the left side of the truck. Seeing as there were cars stopped behind the elephants too, this pair was not as un-phased as the first had been.
As we watched in growing nervousness, I read the warning signs of an elephant’s anxiety form the guidebook.
“Crossing of legs, front or hind.” I looked up and the elephant’s hind legs were crossed.
“Tossing the trunk back and forth or resting it on the tusks.”
“Flapping ears quickly.”
The elephants were definitely anxious. Then, the biggest male with one broken tusk jutting from his huge face turned his eyes onto drew and showed a sign of stress not listed in the guidebook. He let out a low growl.
This was both exciting and horrifying. Drew suggested backing up the truck to give them more space but again and again I repeated the guidebook’s advice. ”The book says it’s too late!” I said. ”It says DO NOT bring more attention to the vehicle!”
So we sat watching the elephants pantomime the “sings of distress” portion of the guidebook.
At last, the elephants passed our truck, leisurely enough that I believe they must have calmed their fears just as we then did.
(Sadly, I was too busy trying to be motionless to get a picture of him glaring at us.)
3.) The rhinos appear.
By noon we had been at the park 5 hours and had seen zebras, giraffes, warthogs, wildebeast, impalas, hippos, elephants, and the lion pair. We stopped at one of the little caged-in restroom spots and took a moment to sit in the observation hut. Suddenly Drew motioned through the window to the bushes. I turned my head but saw nothing. It was gone. Drew had caught a glimpse of the rhino but I’d missed it. I stayed for awhile, hoping he’d reappear but he seemed to be gone.
Drew summoned me back to the truck with a mission to find that rhino.
We pulled out of the little caged zone, rounded a few bends and again, halted to a stop at the sight of a huge rhino halfway in the road.
Seeing these enormous animals right before my eyes would just never get old.
4.) The icing on the cake
By 5 we needed to exit the park to get our rental car back in time. We’d seen nearly every animal there was to see except for the Leopard, and the Water Buffalo. And Drew wasn’t quite satisfied with the view we’d gotten of the lions. Otherwise it had been an extremely successful day. Drew had a hunch that if we returned via the road where we’d seen the lions, we might catch them stirring, as the sun was just setting below the ridge of the mountains.
Apparently Drew’s sway on the lions to stir was more successful than my sway on the hippos.
As we got to the area where the lions had been ten hours before, we saw a pair of zebras. One of them looked looked skittish and ran from something unseen. Then, I saw the female lion walking down the road right in front of us, not 10 feet away. Immediately I scanned the area for her mate and low and behold, the male lion emerged into sight from behind the bush directly in front of our truck.
He was heading straight for me. For a second I was scared and wondered if I should roll up my window, but the adventurer in me took over and instead, I grabbed my camera. After a round of shots, I lowered my camera and for the first time noticed exactly how close the lion was and exactly how strange this moment was.
That lion passed my open window not further than a few feet from my face. I could see the saliva on his teeth. Suddenly I regretted allowing the camera to obstruct the experience of that once in a lifetime moment and I watched the last second of my unobstructed view until he had passed my window entirely and headed behind us.
I replayed that camera-less moment the rest of the evening, and will remember it the rest of my life.
All this to say that Pilanesberg is feasible and excellent for a DIY day-long safari. Despite everyone saying it was a small park and thus less favorable than Kruger, in our 10 hours at the park we didn’t cover it all. We could have, had that been the sole mission, but what i’m saying is that it was plenty big enough to fill our whole day. And what an awesome day it was.
I love wildlife. So maybe that’s why it felt like such a lifetime highlight for me.