Beyond the glitz and gaudiness of Sun City, South Africa’s North West Province hardly has an established reputation as a tourism hotspot. Ask the spoilt folks down here in Cape Town what happens in North West and they’re probably more likely to tell you about dodgy tenders than tourist attractions.
But for those in the know, North West has so much more to offer, from South Africa’s most popular national park to some of its oldest archeological sites, and plenty of lesser-known gems in-between.
New direct flight paths from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg to Pilanesberg airport are making it easier than ever to experience North West’s offerings.
Meanwhile, the local tourism board is looking to partner with traditional authorities, the private sector and public sector entities to add momentum to North West’s tourism growth and promote the province as South Africa’s new tourism capital.
So the best time to visit is right now, before everyone else cottons on. Here are ten highlights you don’t want to miss:
1. Family Fun at Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesberg is South Africa’s most popular and accessible Big 5 game park. Just an easy hour and a half’s drive from Jo’burg or a two hour flight from Cape Town, Pilanesberg is unpretentious, family-friendly, wallet-friendly and completely malaria free. Situated inside an ancient volcanic crater, the park is teeming with wildlife and it’s also the only national park in South Africa that offers hot air balloon safaris. It can feel a little like a big zoo here during the holidays, but it will always be a local family favourite. Call +27 (0)18 397 1500.
2. Shooting to Thrill at Madikwe Game Reserve
Just a couple of hours down the road from Pilanesberg on the edge of the Kalahari you’ll find Madikwe Game Reserve, one of South Africa’s biggest private reserves and an astonishing conservation success story. Feted for its population of critically-endangered wild dogs and leopard sightings, Madikwe is also developing a reputation as a top location for specialized photographic safaris. Pangolin Photo Safaris and Jaci’s Lodges have recently unveiled a unique submerged photographic “terrapin hide” that pops up in the middle of a waterhole just above water level. Jaci’s Lodges also provide custom-made Gimpro dual camera mounts for up to six photographers on their safari vehicles. Call +27 (0)83 700 2071.
3. Glitz and Gaudiness at Sun City
Just beyond the boundaries of Pilanesberg, Sun City is a strange, loud, bewildering and rather incongruous place. It’s also just a hell of a lot of fun. For the adults, there’s a world famous golf course and one of Africa’s biggest casinos, as well as a number watering holes, live music venues and restaurants. For the kids, there’s a variety of rides and outdoor activities, and the feted Valley of the Waves. Accommodation ranges from the ridiculously over the top luxury of the Lost City to the more simple homely comforts of the Sun City Cabanas. Call +27 (0) 11 780 7810.
4. Tracking Rhinos at Letsatsing Game Reserve
Running along the edge of Sun City is the small and pretty Letsatsing Game Reserve, which is managed by Mankwe Gametrackers, who offer various activities in the reserve. The newest and most exciting of these activities is rhino tracking. On this educational activity, you will shadow a field guide as he tracks wild white rhinos with the help of a telemetry device that picks up a signal from a chip planted in the rhinos’ horn. When the telemetry signal is strong enough to suggest the rhinos are close by, you and the guide get out of the vehicle and you’ll have the unique opportunity to track, approach and then observe the rhinos on foot, the latter from just a few metres away. Call +27 (0) 14 552 5020.
5. Water Weekends at Hartebeesport Dam
This dam and the surrounding area are a particularly popular weekend playground for Gautengers. The dam itself is a favourite for watersports such as windsurfing and jetskiing, while the Crocodile River that feeds the dam offers white water rafting, canoeing and tubing among other things. Beneath the dam’s surface, you’ll find one of South Africa’s few inland dive sites and, rather bizarrely, a sunken bus and aeroplane. Heading away from the water and into the surrounding hills and mountains, there are beautiful hikes and walking trails and good rock climbing. Quad biking, paragliding or hot air ballooning are also popular ways to explore the area. Call +27 (0)18 397 1500.
6. Magical Nature at Magaliesberg
When the traffic decides to behave, it’s less than an hour from Jozi to the dramatic Magaliesberg Mountain Range, but it feels a thousand miles away. The stories these mountains could tell – they are nearly a hundred times older than Mount Everest. As well as a fascinating historical and geological heritage, the mountain range also has more indigenous trees and plants than you could shake a stick at. For the true nature lovers, a particularly special way to experience this part of the province is to set off on the Magalies Meander. Call +27 (0)83 259 0444.
7. Literary Ghosts in Groot Marico
Taking its name from the Groot Marico River, this quaint and quirky provincial town was the backdrop for many of the tales written by Herman Charles Bosman, still one of South Africa’s best-loved writers. The town has embraced this literary association to such an extent that as well as a museum which is an exact replica of the local school where Bosman once taught, it also hosts the Herman Charles Bosman Festival every October. The annual Marico Mountain Bike Classic is another event to mark in the calender, and the accommodation in and around the town is generally as enchanting as Bosman’s stories. Call +27 (0) 83 2722 958.
8. History and Human Rights Campaigners in Mahikeng
Mahikeng is North West’s provincial capital but much of this vibrant city retains the small town charm inherent across many of the province’s populated areas. Mahikeng played a pivotal role in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899, with a small garrison of British troops famously holding out here for 217 days against the much larger Boer army. Aside from a number of museums, historical buildings and monuments, the city is known for its affiliation to famous journalist and human rights campaigner Sol Plaatjie, whose life is as woven into the narrative of the city as Herman Charles Bosman’s is in Groot Marico. Call +27 (0)86 1111 866.
9. Tracing Origins on Taung Heritage Route
This fascinating heritage route takes in a number of archeological sites that fill in significant gaps in the chain of our evolution and the lives of some of South Africa’s and the world’s earliest humans. It was on part of this route in 1924 that a 2.5-million-year-old fossilized skull of a hominid child was discovered. This site is officially part of the UNESCO Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. The entire Heritage Route spans 45kms and also encompasses several natural wonders including a limestone waterfall and a number of natural rock basins, streams and caves that together are known as the Blue Pools. Call +27 (0)18 397 1500.
10. The Rich Culture of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela
The Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela are a subgroup of the Tswana people and their history in North West Province is as long and tumultuous as spending an entire day on Metrorail. But despite it all, a strong culture and sense of identity and hospitality have emerged intact and can be experienced at various cultural villages and the cultural museum in in Saulspoort, about 35 km from Sun City. Vast mineral wealth is also found inside Bakgatla tribal lands and the tribal elders now work on a number of joint ventures with mining groups in the area, as well as in conjunction with some of the game parks. Call +27 (0)14 556 1194.