Expert Reviews – Waterberg Biosphere

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Waterberg – weekend wilderness
Overall rating
4/5

Only 2-3 hours drive north of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the magic 14,500 sq km (5,600 sq mile), the Waterberg mountain range in Limpopo Province has become a hugely popular playground for city dwellers, but it is a secret that South Africa has yet to share with the rest of the world. In 2001, 6540 sq km (2,525 sq miles) of the Waterberg were declared a UNESCO Biosphere. In 2011, the South Africans applied to have it rezoned and the area incorporated in the Biosphere increased to 1,728 sq km (667 sq miles). These incredibly ancient hills (about one thousand nine hundred million years old) are extraordinarily rich in plant and animal life, with around 2015 plant species, 129 species of mammal, and 350 species of bird including the world’s largest colony of Cape vultures, with 900 breeding pairs. This is also the world’s only savannah biosphere.
But this is no normal national park with boundaries and rangers. Much of is covered by a network of private game ranches and hunting reserves. Be careful when booking that you don’t inadvertently end up at a hunting lodge if you are hoping for photos – you won’t get near the animals who are understandably nervous of people! The biggest of the gameviewing reserves are 39,000 ha/139 sq mile Welgevonden which is famous for its white rhino, and also has rare brown hyena, sable, pangolin, and aardvarks. Marakele is home to the Cape vultures but is also a plant paradise, filled with tree ferns and cycads, giant yellowwoods and cedars. My particular favourite is 22,000 ha/54,363 acre Entabeni, a Big Five reserve with stunning scenery. I still smile every time I remember waking up to see the mist rising through the dawn over the lake, the cliff in the background and a giraffe rocking slowly past my window. Paradise.
Mixed in with the reserves are working farms and villages with the occasional golf course and spa thrown in for good measure and you can go riding, hiking and even hot air ballooning. The area is also rich in archaeological sites and San rock art and there are numerous community projects from village tours to hiking trails. These added attractions have all been banded together in the 350 km/217 mile Waterberg Meander.

Big 5 and beautiful landscapes close to Jo’Burg
Overall rating
4/5

Found in Limpopo Province, the Waterberg region’s varied scenery and topography includes broad rolling hills, magnificent red sandstone cliffs, perennial rivers, open plains and savannas. Since 2001, a large tract of this ancient landscape has been demarcated as a UNESCO Biosphere.

A number of exclusive private game reserves have blossomed in this area that was not-so-long-ago dominated by farming; often multiple farms have knocked down their fences and been incorporated into a single reserve, as is the case with Welgevonden, the biggest Big 5 reserve in this still underexplored region.

For me, the traces of Welgevonden’s farming history slightly undermine its claims to be an “African wilderness reborn”, but it’s a very pretty reserve nonetheless. There are a number of excellent luxury lodges and the Big 5 are all here, including one of South Africa’s highest densities of white rhino.

Kololo Game Reserve and the unfailingly welcoming Ant Collection are great options for families and only have “safe” game, so they’re also good spots for bush walks, cycling and horseback trails, while the latter offers the rare and surreal experience of sundowners with habituated white rhinos.

A fledgling but rewarding Big Five safari destination with an excellent wilderness vibe
Overall rating
4/5

The Waterberg Biosphere Reserve is wide basin of bushveld and rivers ringed by dramatic escarpments. It’s a magical part of South Africa with a rare wilderness quality and home to some of its most charismatic and sought-after wildlife. Large farms are taking down adjoining fences giving animals greater free-range and game lodges are mushrooming; thanks to additional re-stocking of large mammals, many are now home to the Big Five. Lion, elephant, black and white rhino, leopard and buffalo are all resident, and there are more than 300 bird species to be spotted. It’s yet to be fully discovered, but safari-goers will be surprised at its diversity and excellent facilities (some of the lodges are super-luxurious and offer a range of activities). It’s well away from the traditionally popular, often too busy, safari circuits, and conveniently only a few hours’ drive or short flight from Johannesburg.

A Diverse Area of Reserves & Wildlife
Overall rating
4/5

This 4,000km2/1,544mi2 patchwork of private and publicly owned land was designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2001. The park protects part of the Waterberg Mountains, an ancient predominantly sandstone watershed incised by four major rivers. The area is made up of many different parts that are very varied and offer a wide range of experiences.

We recently spent more than a week in Waterberg Biosphere Reserve and the absolute highlight was the vast and untrammeled Lapalala Wilderness Area. This private property was established as a black rhino sanctuary and wilderness school in the 1990s. It only started catering to international tourism in 2019, when a lovely upmarket tented camp opened in the center of the reserve. All the Big Five are present in Lapalala. Over the course of a two-night stay, we had good sightings of lion, elephant, white rhino, hippo, giraffe and various antelope. There was also a super pre-sunrise sighting of a black rhino drinking at the waterhole in front of camp. That said, wildlife densities are low, and I was ultimately most impressed by the reserve’s thrilling wilderness setting and the magnificent sandstone gorge carved by the Lephalale River.

Another highlight of the Waterberg is Welgevonden Private Reserve, a scenic and ecologically varied 360km2/139mi2 sanctuary that houses a dozen or so well-priced lodges. The reserve supports solid numbers of all the Big Five, as well as plenty of cheetah, giraffe, Burchell’s zebra and antelope. Bordering Welgevonden, Marakele National Park is a rewarding self-drive destination that protects all the Big Five. However, animal densities are low. The limited road network is of greater interest for its sensational scenery and impressive birdlife than for conventional wildlife viewing.

The Waterberg is home to one of South Africa’s premier horse-riding sites in the form of Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill. These private bush homes are set on a small conservancy that supports introduced populations of giraffe, white rhino and sable and roan antelope, among others. The horseback safaris here suited to all levels of experience, including beginners. Other activities include mountain biking, bush walks, trail running and bird watching.

Average Expert Rating

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  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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