Plenty of green grass around the park for white rhino.
Plenty of green grass around the park for white rhino.
A landmark agreement would see Sun City visitors fly directly from Cape Town or Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg in the North West province.
A landmark agreement would see Sun City visitors fly directly from Cape Town or Johannesburg to the Pilanesberg in the North West province.
The view across to the Mankwe dam is food for the jaded soul.
The view across to the Mankwe dam is food for the jaded soul.

Johannesburg - In the bushveld, a crunch can mean many things: the soft, squishy crunch of an elephant pad in the bed of a river; the scratchy crunch of acacia twigs surrendering to the powerful mouth of a giraffe; the end-of-days chilling crunch of an impala thigh bone being sheared by the industrial strength jaws of a spotted hyena.

I’ve heard them all.

And it was a crunch which will remain the abiding sound bite memory of a post-New Year visit to the Pilanesberg National Park… but not the sort of crunch I’d expected.

This was what you’d have expected in a cafe in Sandton: that perfect crunch of a thin french fry, just before it collapses and melts in a potato wave in your mouth. Served, European-style, in a tub separate from the main meal, the fries begged to be tested. They were… and they passed.

As did my basic toasted cheese and tomato sarmie and my wife’s Asian noodle wrap.

Sorry? Asian noodle wrap in the Pilanesberg? At the so-called restaurant at the Pilanesberg Centre? Had I crossed into another dimension?

I couldn’t believe it myself – nor the fact that the table next door was ordering Chardonnay and J&B whisky and water – because this was the place that my readers had repeatedly told me over the past two years was the symbol of collapse and poor standards.

I recall one letter from a reader which spoke of being unable to order a cheese-and-tomato sandwich there not so long ago… and of a fridge that was empty.

On the patio of the new restaurant (the previous restaurant was burnt down some years ago and is now rebuilt and under new management), I watched as 30 or so people arrived, ordered, were served (with dishes that would compare well with those you’d get in any shopping mall restaurant in Joburg) and with reasonable speed and politeness.

The difference was that there was something to look at: a dozen or so wildebeest and zebra, within arm’s reach almost, nibbling around a salt lick. And, as we began our food, we were watched by a curious and cheeky grey loerie, who only moved off when a brief lunchtime rain shower came in.

The restaurant experience reminded me that not everything should be hopeless. Ten years ago, the Department of Home Affairs was a disaster. This holiday period, I managed to renew both my ID and passport with little fuss…

But I’ve had many adverse reports from people, including one extremely rude man last year who accused me of being a “useless journalist” because I didn’t go and investigate Pilanesberg and its decline “under these pathetic ANC bastards” – and especially the state of the roads. Turns out he owns time-share in KwaMaritane and he wanted me to get off my butt to protect his investment…

“People won’t buy property here if the roads are shit and we will lose money,” he said.

Well, Mr Northern Suburbs Fat Cat, it’s not my responsibility to guard your money. But here’s my honest assessment of the current state of Pilanesberg.

It was, I admit, my wife’s idea to get away from Joburg for a day before we went back to work. Pilanesberg, she said. And I obeyed.

I decided (planning or executing her ideas is my responsibility) we would go through the Bakubung Gate, on the western side of the park, a few kilometres from Sun City, and then wander around before exiting at the Manyane Gate (on the eastern side).

Whichever way you get to Pilanesberg from Joburg, give yourself about two and a half hours. It’s between 160km and 180km, but why rush? And take into account the traffic and small centres on your way there.

We got up at 4.30 am and were on the road at just after 5am... but when we got to the gate just on 7.30am, there were already four cars there. That worried me a bit because, despite its sometimes bad reputation, Pilanesberg is still popular and I was worried we’d end up in traffic jams at animal sightings.

That didn’t happen – perhaps because we started off on the western side of the park, where the roads are not as good as in the tourist-dense central and eastern areas, around Mankwe Dam and the Manyane camp. We saw the occasional car and, not long after leaving the gate on a dirt road loop, saw a family of rhino, which we had all to ourselves.

Stopping for breakfast at a picnic site also proved that, while some of the infrastructure is showing its age, park staff are cleaning up and the toilets (an important consideration) are in acceptable condition.

While we sat on concrete benches at a picnic table enjoying our tea and coffee in the cool cloudy air, we watched, fascinated as a black-collared barbet went in and out of its nest in a hole in a tree trunk. It was the first time I had seen the birds nesting in their natural habitat – although we’ve had our own barbet families take up residence in the nesting logs we put up in our garden. It really is the little things you remember in game reserve visits, especially if you’ve been doing this sort of thing for 30 years or more...

All of the half a dozen hide and picnic sites where we stopped were all in an acceptable state: no litter and functioning toilets. Pilanesberg is great in the sense every picnic site has toilet facilities – something you don’t always find in reserves.

The roads were not nearly as bad as I thought they would be, although not quite in the “excellent” state claimed on the North West Parks Board website. In fairness, too, I was driving our all-wheel-drive Subaru Forester, which has good ground clearance and eats up bad roads. You can do most of the roads in a two-wheel-drive family sedan or hatch and some of the dirt roads are in good condition. People tell me the graders are a regular site in the park and dirt roads are maintained.

However, this is not the case for all of them, especially in the west and on the routes to the look-out points. There are severe patches of rutting which can be tackled in an ordinary car – if you know what you are doing. However, in a car like ours it was easy... and the trip to the top offers a wonderful view across the hills to Mankwe Dam.

Tarred roads have, apparently, been re-constructed in some places, although in others there are potholes and the edge of the tar sometimes falls away steeply. Drive slowly and pay attention, and you’ll be fine.

Pilanesberg is still something of a bargain and easily accessible. The current rates for day visitors are R65 a person and (pensioners and children R20) and R20 for the car.

Of course, this flying visit did not include an assessment of the accommodation (chalets on a B-and-B rate and camping) offered at Golden Leopard Resorts Bakgatla or Manyane camps.

But I would be willing to give it a go for a weekend.

If you, like us, need to get to the bush on a regular basis to recharge your batteries and see wildlife, then Pilanesberg is still a good option. - Saturday Star