​Expert Reviews – Pilanesberg GR

Sort By: Most helpful 1-4 of 4 Reviews
Anthony Ham   –  
Australia AU
Visited: November-December

Anthony is a photographer and writer for travel magazines and Lonely Planet, including the guides to Kenya and Botswana & Namibia.

3 people found this review helpful.

Pilanesberg: Busy & Beautiful
Overall rating

Pilanesberg is so easily reached that my first experience of the park was the antithesis of everything I love about the African wild – paved roads, traffic jams, and tour guides with loud microphones. The fact that there were rhinos, both black and white, in numbers, lions, elephants, and rumours of leopards and buffaloes seemed, at the time, incidental. But then I took my own vehicle, left the main roads behind and there I found a different park of beautiful rolling hills, pretty waterholes and wildlife undisturbed by the clamour two valleys away. A brown hyena, companionable rhinos, great birding and a wilderness experience that couldn’t have been more different than the busyness of the previous afternoon – these were Pilanesberg’s true gifts. If you’ve never been on safari before, Pilanesberg is a good way to check off some species. But if you get away, on your own, you’ll understand better what a safari ought to truly be about.

Lucy Corne   –  
United Kingdom UK
Visited: June

Lucy is travel writer for a range of publications, including Lonely Planet's guides to Africa, Southern Africa and South Africa.

4 people found this review helpful.

Family Friendly Wildlife Viewing in Easy Reach of Johannesburg
Overall rating

The main reason you would visit the Pilanesberg is for its proximity to Johannesburg – it’s an easy three-hour drive. Those with more time might be better heading to the Kruger or the Kgalagadi for a wilder safari experience, but that’s not to say that the Pilanesberg doesn’t offer rewarding wildlife viewing. The park’s 572km2/221mi2 is home to all of the Big Five, plus giraffe, zebra, brown hyena and the whole gamut of antelope including some rarer species – and the viewing is great. Elephant sightings are extremely common and I’ve had some of my best white rhino encounters in the Pilanesberg. It’s also a great park to visit with kids thanks to the high concentration of animals – meaning no long drives where you see nothing at all for a couple of hours, inciting the cries of “I’m boooooored”. What the park lacks is a true wilderness feel, thanks to its proximity to small towns and the massive Sun City hotel and casino complex, which adjoins the park. Still, the rugged, undulating landscape and network of dirt roads quickly help you forget that you’re within spitting distance of South Africa’s answer to Vegas (which is, of course, plenty of fun in its own right).

Lizzie Williams   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: June

Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

16 people found this review helpful.

A Big Five destination just a few hours’ drive from Johannesburg
Overall rating

Pilanesberg is instantly likeable, and with its savannah grasslands surrounded by an attractive ring of hills broken by wooded valleys, it’s hard to imagine that it started life as manmade reserve (it opened in the 1970s as an accompaniment to neighbouring Sun City). While I think it lacks any kind of wild atmosphere – the rangers know where most of the animals are located at any given time, ‘extras’ include game checklists given out at the gates, and the lodges are unashamedly touristy, facilities are very good and game-viewing is easy if you’re short of time. I saw the Big Five here in just a two-day visit, and even on a short two-hour safari from Sun City, the chances of seeing some of the larger mammals is excellent.

Philip Briggs   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: Multiple times

Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

29 people found this review helpful.

The closest Big Five destination to Johannesburg
Overall rating

The main selling point of this malaria-free reserve, set within a collapsed volcanic crater 2-3 hours’ drive northwest of Johannesburg, is its proximity to South Africa’s largest city and most important international transport hub. I have never found Pilanesberg quite so compelling as Kruger National Park, simply because it is a lot smaller and more contained, but the combination of hilly green scenery, plentiful birdlife and the possibility of seeing all the Big Five makes it a very rewarding destination in its own right.

Many years back, when I lived and worked in Johannesburg, I would regularly visit Pilanesberg on a weekend break, usually camping and always self-driving. Back then the park was relatively understocked in terms of Big Five wildlife, and my main interest was birding, which was invariably excellent (and still is today). The park checklist includes around 350 species, and it was always good for raptors and waterbirds, as well as localised gems such as crimson-breasted shrike, violet-eared waxbill, shaft-tailed whydah and southern pied babbler. Indeed, I’ve often ticked 100-plus species over a two-day stay.

Although I still tend to think of Pilanesberg as a self-drive destination, it now incorporates several excellent upmarket lodges that offer all-inclusive packages with meals and guided game drives. On my most recent visit (2024) I stayed at Shepherd’s Tree and Ivory Tree Game Lodges, and the all-inclusive experience gave me a very different perspective on the reserve. Overall the game viewing was superb, and it is definitely one of the best places in South Africa for close-up encounters with white rhino and elephant.

Guided night drives undertaken with the lodges in open 4x4s were a real highlight, and offer a good chance of encountering nocturnal specials such as brown hyena, aardwolf, genet and leopard. On one such drive, we were lucky enough to follow a pride of five lions as it walked nonchalantly along the private road to Shepherd’s Tree. I also really enjoyed the network of photographic hides, which gave us some of our best sightings on our most recent trip: we saw plenty of elephants drinking, but were also lucky enough to see white rhino, black rhino and lions at various waterholes.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star 0
  • 4 star 4
  • 3 star 7
  • 2 star 0
  • 1 star 0
Write a User Review