Located on the border with Botswana and to the west of Gauteng province, North West is far wilder and less populated than its urbanized neighbor. Except for a few iconic tourist attractions (notably Sun City and Pilanesberg National Park), it sees relatively few overseas visitors. It, therefore, offers an opportunity for a different, often more authentic South African experience. From malaria-free safaris in Madikwe to adventurous outdoor pursuits in the Magaliesberg region, this article looks at the best ways to spend your time in mysterious North West.
Head to Madikwe Game Reserve for a Luxury Safari
Situated in the far north of the province on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, Madikwe Game Reserve offers one of South Africa’s most rewarding private safari experiences. It’s also a great malaria-free alternative to Kruger National Park. Its diverse habitats are home to all of the Big Five in addition to 300 different bird species. Above all, Madikwe is famous for close encounters with its thriving population of endangered African wild dogs. The reserve is only open to overnight guests staying at one of its luxury safari lodges.
Look For the Big Five in Pilanesberg National Park
Pilanesberg National Park is anther malaria-free, Big Five game reserve. Located within an extinct volcanic crater, it’s roughly three hours from Johannesburg, making it one of South Africa’s most accessible national parks. It’s also a more affordable choice than Madikwe, with a range of accommodation options to suit all budgets and the opportunity to self-drive through the park in your rental car. This rich ecological zone is also home to African wild dogs, 360 bird species, and unusual antelope like the roan and sable. Entry costs 110 rands (around $6.50) per adult.
Experience Sun City, Africa's Answer to Las Vegas
Imagine the Disney version of Africa, and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from Sun City, the famed mega-resort on the border of Pilanesberg National Park. While its glitz and crowds are not to everyone’s taste, there’s fun to be had here for all ages. Lounge on a palm-fringed beach at the water park, soar above the resort in a hot air balloon, try your luck at the casino, or catch world-class musicians at the Superbowl. There are four hotels, ranging from family-friendly Cabanas to the five-star Cascades.
Play a Round on Sun City's Acclaimed Golf Courses
Sun City is also home to two Gary Player-designed golf courses. The eponymous, par-72 Gary Player Country Club Golf Course was ranked third in the country by Golf Digest South Africa and welcomes professional players for the annual Nedbank Golf Challenge. The desert-style Lost City Golf Course boasts no fewer than 300,000 square feet of water features, including one at the 13th hole, which is infamous for its live Nile crocodiles. Need a few tips before teeing off? Seek professional instruction at the on-site Gammon Golf Academy.
Unleash Your Adventurous Side at Hartbeespoort Dam
Located close to the Gauteng border, Hartbeespoort Dam is a popular spot for vacationers from Johannesburg and Pretoria. In addition to its beautiful setting in the Magaliesberg mountain range, it’s the region’s primary destination for watersports. Local operator Mark Gray’s Mobile Adventures offers river rafting on the Crocodile River, which flows into and out of the dam itself. Navigate Class II rapids and take the opportunity to go swimming and rock jumping en route. Other activities in the area include abseiling, horse riding, and the more sedate Harties Aerial Cableway.
Savour Gourmet South African Cuisine at Silver Orange Bistro
After exploring everything that the Hartbeespoort area has to offer, you’re likely to have worked up a considerable appetite. Satisfy your hunger in style at Silver Orange Bistro, named by reviewers as the best bistro in the province. In a thatched manor house beneath antique Murano crystal chandeliers, feast on contemporary South African cuisine crafted using the freshest local and seasonal ingredients. Signature dishes include De-Constructed Springbok Wellington and Gorgonzola Fillet, accompanied by an award-winning wine list. You’ll find the bistro on the Altyd Mooi citrus estate.
Walk With Elephants at the Hartbeespoort Dam Sanctuary
At The Elephant Sanctuary at Hartbeespoort Dam, you can take part in thrice-daily interactions with resident African elephants. During your guided walking tour, you will learn about these incredible animals and the conservation issues affecting their survival in the wild. The elephants roam freely in the forest but are used to humans and allow up-close encounters. You can walk hand-in-trunk with them, see where they sleep at night and help their keepers to brush and feed them. The program costs 850 rands (around $50) per adult and 375 rands (around $22) per child.
Shop For Souvenirs at Welwitschia Country Market
When you’ve finished walking with elephants or tackling death-defying abseiling routes, shop for a souvenir of your time in North West at nearby Welwitschia Country Market. This eco-friendly attraction offers 40 rustic stalls in an open-air setting beneath beautiful, shade-giving trees. Browse bohemian clothing, traditional African carvings, and crafts made by local artisans before retreating to Upperside restaurant for lunch and live music in the atmospheric beer garden. The market is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from Tuesday to Sunday every week.
Tick Off Threatened Species at Barberspan Bird Sanctuary
An Important Bird Area and Ramsar wetland site, Barberspan Bird Sanctuary is a must-visit for avid birders. The 2,000-hectare reserve is located near Delareyville in the center of the province and has recorded 365 species, many of them waterbirds or rare migrants. Globally threatened species that can be seen at Barberspan include the lesser flamingo, the black-winged pratincole, the maccoa duck, and the chestnut-banded plover. Waterbirds congregate in large numbers during the April to October dry season, when other water sources in the region are drought-stricken.
Cast a Line on the Vaal River
The mighty Vaal River runs for approximately 700 miles through four South African provinces. In North West, it forms the border with the Free State to the south. There are many lodges along the water’s edge, most of which offer excellent angling opportunities. Species that can be caught in the Vaal River include barbel, carp, mudfish, and, in some areas, largemouth bass. For most fishermen, the main prize is the yellowfish, which gives a particularly good fight when caught on fly. Recommended accommodation options include The Lion Lodge and Weltevrede Country Resort.
Discover the Origins of Man on the Taung Heritage Route
The Taung Heritage Route runs for approximately 30 miles through the province’s Bophirima district and includes stops at a limestone waterfall and natural rock basins known as the Blue Pools. You can also explore inside an abandoned mine tunnel. The star attraction is a monument that marks the spot where the fossilized skull of a hominid child was discovered in 1924. Now 2.5 million years old, the Taung Child was an ancestor of modern man, and its skull has been labeled as the most important anthropological fossil of the 20th century.
Cross the Border to the Cradle of Humankind
Although technically in Gauteng, the Cradle of Humankind is a quick hop across the provincial border for anyone wanting to know more about the region’s anthropological heritage. Start at the Maropeng Visitor Centre where displays of fossils and ancient tools explain how humans evolved from hominid ancestors like the ones discovered at excavation sites in the nearby Sterkfontein Caves. Next, tour the caves themselves to see where the 3-million-year-old skeleton known as Little Foot was found. Combination tickets cost 190 rands ($11.19) per adult and 125 rands (around $7) per child.
Visit the Paul Kruger Country House Museum
If you have an interest in more recent South African history, make sure to visit the Paul Kruger Country House Museum in Rustenburg. This historic collection of buildings once made up the farm of Paul Kruger, former President of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek, and leader of the Boer resistance in the Anglo-Boer War. Now fully restored, they give an immersive insight into what life was like for Kruger and his family, with artifacts including his rifle and bibles still on display. The property also has a lodge, two restaurants, and a spa.
Go on a Self-Drive Safari at Kgaswane Reserve
Situated on the northern slopes of the Magaliesberg mountains, Kgaswane Nature Reserve is a picturesque collection of quartzite peaks and valleys, magnificent waterfalls and tranquil swimming pools. A self-drive route with picnic sites and viewpoints allows you to explore the reserve at your leisure. It’s particularly famous for its breeding herd of sable antelope, with dozens of other antelope species (from klipspringers to kudu) making an appearance as well. Birders come to see the breeding colony of endangered Cape vultures. The reserve is located 15 minutes outside Rustenburg.
Fly Through the Mountains on a Canopy Tour
Those with a head for heights may prefer to admire the Rustenburg area’s astonishing landscapes from the air. Magalies Canopy Tours, located in the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, allows you to do just that on a guided, 2.5-hour zipline tour through mountains estimated to be over 2,500 million years old. The course includes 10 slides and 11 platforms, and some truly breathtaking scenery. Make sure to bring your camera, and keep an eye out for the forest’s resident duikers and klipspringers. Tours cost 695 rands ($40) per person and include light refreshments.
Soar Above the Magalies River Valley on a Balloon Safari
Canopy tours aren’t the only way to get airborne in North West. Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris, located on the border of Gauteng and North West, is the longest established balloon airline in Southern Africa. The company offers sunrise flights over the Magalies River and the surrounding mountains, and the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the world below you bathed in golden light and the silence interrupted only by the blast of the balloon’s burners, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Balloons go up every morning, weather permitting.
See Predators in Action at The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre
Located 15 minutes from Hartbeespoort town, The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre was established in 1971 as a breeding program to help bolster the cat’s dwindling wild populations. In line with the latest ethical practices, the center no longer offers hands-on experiences. Still, you can view the cheetahs (and the resident African wild dogs, vultures, and smaller cats) on a guided game drive through their open enclosures. Tours are offered daily at 1:30 p.m., while cheetah run experiences are offered at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Spend the Day on the Phaladingwe Hiking Trail
The Phaladingwe Hiking Trail winds its way for just over four miles through the Pelindaba wilderness area near Hartbeespoort Dam. On the way, you’ll pass through a diverse array of scenic habitats, from mountain passes with views of the distant Johannesburg skyline to tracts of open grassland and cool, riverine forest. Keep quiet, and you’re likely to glimpse wild animals, including impala, duiker, kudu, and nyala. Snakes are also frequently spotted, so tread carefully. The trail costs around $1.75 per person and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.