Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa is home to the "Big Five" and promises thrilling game viewing. You can fly direct from London Heathrow on an overnight flight (British Airways, Virgin and SAA all fly daily) and be at the park just in time for lunch.
On this occasion, we had been visiting my mother-in-law, Gwendoline, who lives in the nearby city of Rustenberg. Amongst the evening braais, sunset walks and admin duties (Gwen runs a lovely B&B called Masibambane) we decided to give ourselves a treat and take a drive to the park for a day safari with local photographer and guide, Heinrich Neumeyer who is widely known as the "cat whisperer." I was sold in a heartbeat!
The "Big Five" is a phrase that collectively refers to leopards, lions, African elephants, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. It was coined by African game hunters when referring to the continent's most dangerous animals but it's now a phrase commonly used by rangers when searching for the "must see" animals on safari.
Aside from the Big Five, the park is home to around 7,000 animals including 25 mammal species and over 300 species of birds (much to Gwendoline's sheer delight as a keen birdie observer!) On a good day you can spot the nocturnal hyaena, kudu, giraffes, cheetah, zebra, impala, wildebeest and warthog (just think of Pumbaa in the Lion King!)
On rare occasions, the Pilanesberg National Park falls victim to illegal poaching who hunt the animals for their tusks, horns and fur. Last November a heavily pregnant rhino and her young calf were killed shortly before the poachers fled the scene. The National Park & Wildlife Trust of Pilanesberg decided to share the images online in the hope of spreading awareness of these atrocities. The park has a dedicated anti-poaching unit who have considerable measures in place to protect the animals' welfare and cases are far and few between.
Leopard sightings at Pilanesberg are an extremely rare treat and I've heard many stories of locals visiting the park on countless occasions and never having the pleasure of seeing one. I was immensely hopeful even if everyone wasn't.
We had booked our tour in advance and met Heinrich at the Bakubung Lodge at 5.30am along with a lovely Dutch family who were equally as excited to see what Pilanesberg had to offer us on our day-long adventure.
Two words of advice: DRESS SENSIBLY. The temperatures are extremely cool before sunrise (despite it being el scorchio in a few hours time) so it's wise to bring plenty of layers to keep you covered up on the open-sided 4x4 jeep. Blankets are provided but do not solely rely on these. There's plenty of space to pack down your windbreaker jackets once the sun rises and the warmth returns to the air.
Once we got inside the park, Heinrich decided on his route and within moments, we saw two male lions returning from a kill, admittedly from afar. With confidence that this wouldn't be our last lion sighting of the day, we drove ahead to get the lead on other touring vehicles.
Despite the park having an area of 572 sq kilometres which is roughly the size of Chicago, Heinrich and his driver navigated the rabbit warren style tracks with confidence and we quickly established watering holes and trees where there had been recent sightings of leopards.
We drove around for the next few hours and saw many of the park's four-legged residents as the sun slowly climbed in the sky. We marvelled at their beauty and observed their interactions with one another - truly a sight to behold!
We stopped for plenty of coffee, rusks and biltong (a meat delicacy loved by South Africans) before continuing our trek down dusty roads, all in the hope of spotting more animals.
Heinrich was incredibly informative and entertaining, we couldn't have asked for a better guide. His passion for leopards is beautifully demonstrated in his photography - I'll link to his page at the end of the feature. He answered our never-ending questions about the animals and led us through the park while we took in some of the most breathtaking scenery of the vast amass of land.
We received news of a lone female leopard not far from us who was out hunting in order to feed her young cub. We drove ahead and soon clasped eyes on her white and yellow coat amongst the overgrown grass. She was walking towards a large tree with a dead warthog in her mouth, no doubt to hide her kill amongst the tall branches to keep it hidden from scavengers. Her name was Strangler and she was beautiful. We never saw her cub but Heinrich was certain that it was shielded from passing danger in the dense bushes beyond us.
We stopped for lunch at a hut overlooking a large watering hole where an elephant was playfully spraying water over itself, we spent the remaining afternoon clocking all of the "Big Five" which was a major feat for any day-long safari.
We hadn't come across any any more lions since that morning (they tend to sleep in the heat of the day) and we desperately tried to find a pride now the sun was starting to set creating a beautiful indigo sunset which no camera could match to the naked eye. It was now becoming a race against time as the park gates close at 7pm.
Just as we began to lose all hope, we came around a corner and slammed on the breaks. A young, beautiful lioness was right in front of us marking her scent on a nearby bush. She didn't take her eyes of us as she made a gradual cross over the track right in front of our jeep. I don't think we said a word to each other for at least five minutes, the day was complete. It was time to head home on what was quite possibly one of the best days of I've ever experienced. An African safari is one of life's great pleasures and we need to do all we can to celebrate and respect these incredible animals.
You can get in touch with Heinrich via his Facebook page. All his contact details are listed as well as his stunning wildlife photography, if you look closely, you'll even find Strangler the leopard.