Thursday, 8 November 2012

Pilanesburg National Park safari

There is a certain smugness to be gleaned from the knowledge that you have risen before the omnipresent African sun (even if it does catch you up while you're in the shower).

We set off for a safari in Pilanesburg National Park at 5.30am, as early morning is the optimum time to see wildlife. The first part of the lengthy two hour journey took us through some beautiful scenery which would have looked more at home on a postcard from the Swiss mountains than from South Africa. A group of peaks forming a protective ring around Hartbeespoort Dam made for a breathtaking sight first thing at this early hour.

Soon, however, we settled onto one long, straight road for more than 70km, little nearby save for the odd small township and the mountains far, far in the distance. By this point we were fearing for our lives, thanks to the crazy South African driving style; most of the way there we were travelling well above the 120 km/h speed limit. When wanting to overtake a vehicle in front, South Africans do not wait until the opposite lane is clear and then overtake. Instead they drive up right behind the vehicle in front until the driver is forced to pull over, sometimes off of the road entirely, and let them pass. This technique, combined with the several sets of tyre skidmarks leading off of the road and into the surrounding bushes, did not bode well.

However, by 8am we were in Pilanesburg and on safari, although I was kicking myself for having forgotten my binoculars. The first hour or so was fairly uneventful as we skirted around the edge of mountains, passing the occasional herd of zebra or wildebeest. We came across a large group of cars all parked facing the same way, and our driver asked one of the other drivers what was going on. Turns out there was a pride of lions on a riverbank in the far distance - nearly impossible to see without binoculars (thankfully other people had remembered theirs!).  As lions are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, it was an honour to see them in their natural habitat, although difficult to believe that we had been working with these animals all week. Our existing knowledge of them only served to enhance our enjoyment.

A few minutes after leaving the lions we saw our best sighting of the day; a herd of elephants bathing about 20ft away from the road. Further sightings of the day included rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and giraffes. Sadly we saw no leopards or buffalo, so were unable to complete our Big Five checklist.

The setting of Pilanesburg is the sort of scenery which serves to make you realize just how small you are, and how large the world is; the mountainous terrain is dotted with trees, resembling the stubble of a recently-shaved chin. Although we travelled for four hours, we barely covered a small corner of the park, so vast is its reach.
The beautiful scenery of Pilanesburg National Park
Our final stop was the Bakubung (meaning "people of the hippo") Bush Lodge for lunch. A far cry from the Savannah-esque settings of the park, the lodge was luxurious and the food divine. We plumped for the buffet option, which consisted of seafood, several meats, vegetables, pasta and salads.

If the main course was enjoyable, then the dessert was superb. Several choices of cake, each a work of art in its own right, teased us. Naturally, I went for the chocolate-iest options possible! (Please do not judge me, everybody had at least two desserts!)
Left: Ginger and chocolate cheesecake, Right: Chocolate black forest gateau.
Even during lunch, our safari continued; the fence overlooking Pilanesburg warned of elephants and monkeys nearby, tropical birds kept landing on tables and chairs in the outdoor restaurant, and at one point I looked down to find a leaf being carried away by a group of leafcutter ants*:

*It was actually much more exciting in real life than it appears in the video. Humour me. Please.

Finishing our lunch, we left before we were eaten by giant ants, and headed for the Chameleon craft market.

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