The North, including the Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North-West provinces
(Kruger, Sun City, non-malaria safaris, Mashatu, Drakensberg escarpment)
Johannesburg and Pretoria form the conurbation which makes up most of Gauteng Province. Johannesburg is a vibrant cosmopolitan city, whilst Pretoria is home to the Government Buildings and is perhaps of more historical significance. Many travellers will by-pass both cities but if doing so, you’ll will be missing out on some significant sites of interest – Soweto, the Apartheid and Voortrekker monuments, history of gold, and the Cullinan Diamond mine to name but a few. In the Spring months, you cannot fail to enjoy Pretoria’s flowering Jacaranda’s.
The North-West Province is home to the malaria-free Madikwe Game Reserve (a favourite with families), a 75 000 hectare patch of bush bordering Botswana. There is an excellent selection of lodges catering for all requirements. As most of the wildlife has been introduced, there is an exceptional range of species to be seen, albeit in a controlled environment. The resort of Sun City is also located in this province, some 2 hours drive north-west of Johannesburg. The complex, home to four hotels, two championship golf courses and an extensive entertainment centre (with a comprehensive list of activities including swimming pools with wave machines), is completely man-made, even down to the river and the lake – quite a feat. Nearby is the Pilansberg Game Reserve so even a ‘soft safari’ is available.
The Limpopo Province is the most northerly, separated from both Botswana and Zimbabwe by the Limpopo River. The high-lying Waterberg area, around 3 hours drive north of Gauteng, offers a number of malaria-free safari experiences in attractive mountainous terrain and, like Madikwe, is very suitable for families. In the north, the Soutpansberg (mountains) lie in the heart of Venda country and offer an archaeological insight to the history of the area with both San rock engravings and paintings present. Ecologically, the mountains are also interesting particularly in respect of vegetation.
From the Pont Drift border post on the northern boundary of Limpopo, it is possible to access Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana. Mashatu is the largest privately owned game reserve in southern Africa, and is located in the ‘wedge’ of eastern Botswana known locally as the Tuli Enclave which lies between the Shashe (border with Zimbabwe) and Limpopo (South Africa) rivers. Affectionately know as ‘the land of the giants’, the reserve covers an area of some 90 000 acres of varied habitat including riverine forest, open plains dotted with mighty baobab trees, savannah woodland and rocky outcrops. The area has some 600 resident elephant which are regularly seen together with lion, cheetah, leopard, impala, giraffe, kudu, eland, zebra, bushbuck and many other small species. Wild dog have recently been reintroduced. Neither buffalo nor rhino are found. The birdlife is excellent with over 360 species recorded.
The area was originally inhabited by the mystical Maphungubwe tribe in 800AD, and made famous by Frederik Courtney Selous who hunted elephant in the region during the late 1800’s and led the Pioneer Column and Zeederberg Express. Baines also passed though here on his voyagers. Archaeological sites abound including the notable Motloutse Ruins and Pitsani Koppie.
Access to the Mashatu/Tuli region is very difficult from within Botswana so the area is seldom included as part of a ‘Botswana safari’. More commonly, it forms part of a holiday to South Africa, rivalling areas such as Madikwe and the Kruger National Park.
Polokwane and Makhado are two major towns in the province, but Tzaneen, on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment perhaps offers more for the tourist. Aside from the stunning scenery, including the Magoeboeskloof Pass, the Debegeni Falls, and Duiwelskloof gorge, there are lots of local craft centres, botanical gardens, and a big farming community growing a wide variety of sub-tropical products – avocado, citrus, tea and coffee, mangoes etc.
Throughout the eastern side of the province, covering the low country en route to the famous Kruger National Park are a number of private game reserves and conservancies which offer slightly ‘softer’ safari options to both the Kruger and the reserves which share a common boundary – the Timbavati, Manyeleti, and Sabi Sands.
The Kruger itself covers a huge area of some 2 million hectares stretching for some 200 kms along the western flank of the Lebombo Mountains, the boundary with Mozambique. It takes two full days to drive from north to south at an average ‘game-viewing’ speed. The north of the park is significantly drier, and less visited, than the south where the game-viewing tends to be more varied. The Kruger has a well developed road network, some of which is tarred (sealed), and in excess of 25 accommodation properties, in the form of restcamps (run by the National Parks department) and luxury lodges (run by private concessionaires). The restcamps cater primarily for the self drive tourist, whilst the luxury lodges mostly accommodate fly-in international visitors. There are also a network of ‘walking only’ trail camps which are operated on a 3 night scheduled departure basis. These are hugely popular and require early booking (up to a year in advance).
There is no doubt, that despite its apparent development, the Kruger does offer exceptional wildlife viewing, even for those who seek exclusivity.
Bordering the south-western boundary of the National Park, the Sabi Sands, Timbavati and Manyeleti game reserves were amongst the first to offer luxury safari experiences in South Africa. Privately owned, there are no restrictions on off-road driving, night drives and walking, and properties such as MalaMala, Londolozi, Sabi Sabi, Singita, Motswari and Tanda Tula took advantage of the Kruger’s early limitations to develop international markets alongside some of the fenced reserves such as Thornybush and Kapama. Using open vehicles, these reserves still offer fantastic game-viewing, albeit with less of a ‘wilderness’ experience.
The southern half of Kruger and the associated private reserves fall into Mpumalanga Province, noted too for the impressive Drakensberg Escarpment which forms the divide between the ‘lowveld’ and the ‘highveld’. Stunning scenery, including some spectacular waterfalls, mountain passes and view points (God’s Window amongst them), as well as the Blyde River Canyon (the Worlds third largest canyon) make this area worth visiting. Tie in plenty of walking opportunities, adventure sports including quad biking, horse riding, rafting and ballooning, botanical gardens, historical gold mining towns etc., and it’s easy to see why one can spend much longer here. Nelspruit is the main town in the region, and an access point to the southern Kruger and bordering private reserves.