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Expert Reviews – Waterberg Biosphere
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
A Remarkable Wilderness Area Close to the City
Just a few hours north of the hustle and bustle of Pretoria, the Waterberg Region has been a popular weekend-getaway destination for South Africans for a long time. The area is known for its rugged mountain scenery and patchwork of animal-rich bushveld savannah reserves. Since 2001, 15,000 km2 of this wilderness was designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
At the heart of this sanctuary lies the Lapalala Wilderness Area. With just one seven-room luxury lodge in a vast Big Five reserve, Lapalala is the perfect place to visit for an exclusive bush experience. Wildlife densities aren’t huge, but we had great sightings of black and white rhino, lion and elephant.
Welgevonden Game Reserve offers a more conventional Big Five safari experience. Here you can choose between a range of accommodations catering to everyone from honeymoon couples to families with small kids. Game drives tend to be exciting with lots of predator activity.
Bordering Welgevonden is Marakele National Park, another highlight of the region. Although lion, elephant and rhino were reintroduced here, this isn’t primarily a wildlife-viewing destination. For spectacular views across the Waterberg Mountain range you must brave the park’s treacherous 4x4 track to Lenong peak. Look out for Cape vultures riding the thermals – this is very close to the world’s largest breeding colony of these endangered raptors.
Numerous other small private reserves, which make up the remainder of the biosphere reserve, offer a variety of adventure activities, such as horse riding, mountain biking, fishing and hiking. It’s also worth noting that the whole region is malaria-free.
Mark is a travel writer who grew up in Africa and has written over 700 titles for CNN Traveller, Travel Africa, BBC Wildlife and others.
South Africa’s greatest secret
Waterberg seems to have retained an elusive wilderness appeal that has, inexplicably, remained a secret in the outside world. While some might feel that aspects of human settlement and pioneering history detract from the bush-vibe, it undeniably adds another layer of fascination to this already intriguing mountain stronghold. There is fascinating history in the Waterberg and for the best insight check out the wonderful Waterberg Living Museum (established by conservation legend Clive Walker and his son Anton).
The UNESCO-protected Waterberg Biosphere Reserve encompasses incredibly diverse habitats with an estimated 5,500 different species of plants, some of South Africa’s most important San rock art and enchanting savannah, bushveld and mountain landscapes.
Welgevonden Game Reserve, Waterberg’s biggest Big Five reserve at 360km2, boasts one of the country’s strongest – and most heavily protected – populations of rhino and offers such rare sightings as brown hyena and pangolin.
It had been years since I’d spent much time on horseback but an opportunity to ride among roan, sable, giraffe and even white rhino is not to be missed. The Ant Collection boasts a free-ranging herd of around 90 horses on their private reserve and is able to offer reliable bush-savvy steeds for the slowest plodders or the wildest horseback hoodlums.
Ant Baber’s family began farming here in 1886 and with three of the Big Five (elephant and lion are missing) the family farm has been rewilded to become one of South Africa’s most thrilling horse-riding, mountain-biking, walking and bush-running venues. There’s a large buffalo herd here but under normal circumstances they are carefully avoided unless in game-driving vehicles and the rhino have been habituated to the horses. A highlight of the Ant Collection – along with the conversation and hospitality of the vivacious Tessa Baber – is certainly the chance to drink sundowners in the company of habituated white rhino.
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
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A fledgling but rewarding Big Five safari destination with an excellent wilderness vibe
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.
Christopher is a British travel writer and has contributed to various Fodor's guidebooks and a range of travel magazines.
2 people found this review helpful.
Big 5 and beautiful landscapes close to Jo’Burg
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.
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
2 people found this review helpful.
A Diverse Area of Reserves & Wildlife
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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