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Jo'Burg Days: Have You Visited The Pilansberg Yet?

"The dams have wallowing hippos, and there are rhino, many warthog, large numbers of lion and big herds of elephants...'' Barbara Durlacher suggests a visit to the Garden of Eden that is Pilansberg National Park, a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg.

Those who are familiar with the area around Rustenburg on the North Western side of the huge Witwatersrand may know that it forms part of the ‘Bushveld Igneous Complex’, all that remains of ancient volcanic activity, possibly the southernmost limit of the tectonic fissure of the Rift Valley, which resulted in the creation of the Great Lakes of Central Africa, the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and further south, the folded boulder-strewn hills and extinct volcanic craters surrounding “Sun City” and the newly crated game park, the “Pilansberg”.

These ancient craters, and a series of folded and ridged east/west sloping hills, are not particularly arresting scenically, but the area is geologically rich in platinum group metals (PGMs), chrome, and trace minerals. Certain sectors are now the site of large-scale platinum mining, and exploitation of the deposits has led to increased employment and economic empowerment, resulting in the growth of a go-ahead, progressive mining town with excellent facilities, and sowing the idea of creating a leisure and entertainment complex for the rapidly increasing tourist and resident population.

At approximately the same time as the exploitation of the mineral reserves was being undertaken, the enterprising South African hotel and entertainment entrepreneur, Sol Kersner, decided to create a fantasy leisure complex here. To be called “The Valley of the Lost City’, and sited in the bed of an extinct volcanic crater, the idea behind it was that this was a “Lost Valley” of a previous civilisation, with all it’s fantasy creations.

Formerly the area comprised exhausted and over-grazed cattle-ranches and dried-up watercourses and it was here that Kersner proposed building the world-famous Sun City, with its golf courses, casino, man-made lake and spectacular hotel. In doing this he wanted to create an extraordinary fantasyland, in the same way, so the legend goes, as the old-time Mafia bosses created Las Vegas out of Arizona semi-desert.

In many respects, what Kersner was doing was something unique to Africa, and as climatic and grazing conditions make this area unsuitable for cattle farming, the changeover to game would be ecologically beneficial, and put less strain on natural resources. There was also no particular necessity to preserve genera endemic to the area, as the crater rim has eroded through the millennia, the declivity now being so shallow as to be almost indistinguishable from the surrounding country and as such, species introduced to the area do not form an isolated community such as found in the Ngorongora Crater in Kenya.

Moving with extraordinary speed and determination, considering the logistics of what he was trying to accomplish in an area that at the time was very under resourced, Kersner brought about the establishment of a Highveld game sanctuary a few miles from the boundaries of Sun City. Several dwellings, small rural shops and a country school were demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, and the area was restocked with endemic game species, and now the Pilansberg National Park easily holds it’s own in terms of variety of species against the older and much larger Kruger National Park.

As one of the largest of the malaria free parks in Southern Africa boasting the ’Big Five’, Pilansberg has a wonderful diversity of bird life and bushveld species. Lying only one-and-a-half hours by good road from Johannesburg’s frantic hive of activity, the park is easy to reach, and for visitors the assurance of seeing lions, elephant and the other large mammals guarantees its popularity.
It is also a reason for pride that this realization of the dream of the many specialists and far-sighted people involved in its creation was brought to fruition in a comparatively short time. Also, that the quality and standard of the animals numbers and variety, as well as the tourist accommodation, is second only to the famous Kruger National Park. As an additional attraction for visitors to Sun City, with it’s close proximity to the entertainment complex, it is fair to say, that Pilansberg has become a notable success.

A selection of camps from the luxury lodges to ‘value for money’ self-catering bungalows provides a wide range of accommodation for campers, caravanners and family groups. Short-stay visitors can enjoy early morning and evening game drives with experienced guides, guaranteed to show you the ‘best and the most’ without fruitless searching. Those wishing to absorb the park atmosphere more slowly, can relax in the self-catering bungalows, surrounded by pretty gardens and swimming pools. The attractive vegetation and rock forms of the ancient granite outcrops provide spectacular backdrops for basking leopards and barking baboons, and many artists are tempted to sketch or paint these interesting formations.

As the park is so much smaller than Kruger, the visitor can easily reach his target of ‘lifers’ (the animals or birds he is most interested in seeing) as large numbers of elephant, giraffe, different kinds of buck, and an extraordinary range of bird life can be seen within a few hours. In many cases this gives more satisfaction than the blank hours spent searching in the larger area of the KNP, so there is a lot to recommend a visit to Pilansberg.

The dams have wallowing hippos, and there are rhino, many warthog, large numbers of lion and big herds of elephants; many smaller buck, monkeys of several kinds and plenty of other animals too numerous to mention. But I find the birds the most spectacular. The gorgeous scarlet bush-shrike, the blue-eared glossy starling, the helmeted guinea fowl, and the yellow-billed hornbill are only a few of the many colourful and unique varieties found in the area, and engrossed hours can be spent observing these avian beauties.

One unusual sight I remember from a visit some years ago was a family group of giraffe grazing in a burnt patch of veld. We drove up quietly so as not to disturb them, and stopped the car. One of the bigger giraffe had long strings of drool falling from his jaws, and now and again, a large bone appeared in his mouth, which he manoeuvred with his teeth. Although the animal did not seem upset and even resembled a child enjoying an outsized sucker, we were very concerned that he might choke. Thinking that perhaps he had inadvertently swallowed the bone while grazing and couldn’t spit it out, or that it might be wedged in that fantastically long throat, we decided to drive back to camp as quickly as we could and report the matter to the game ranger.

When we told him the story, he laughed and said “Giraffe often do that, they love to suck on bones of other animals. In this way they get calcium and trace elements which otherwise are not available to them in their vegetarian diet.”

Pilansberg is a real “Garden of Eden” only 150 kms from Johannesburg, the “Powerhouse of Africa” an easy drive of about one and a half hours on excellent roads. And if animals and nature begin to pall, you can lose your shirt at the Sun City Casino, play eighteen holes of golf on the world-class course, or spend a weekend at the five-star hotel, surfing in the artificial wave pool and sunning on the beach on the genuine sea-sand trucked 500 miles from Kwa-Zulu Natal.

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