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North West

The Waterberg Biosphere is a deciduous dry broadleaf woodland that covers a large part of the north western part of South Africa, the eastern parts of Botswana and the south western part of Zimbabwe. It was one of the first regions in South Africa to be afforded Biosphere Reserve status by UNESCO. It encompasses an area of about 15 000 km2 and is a mix of national, provincial and private reserves, as well as commercial farmland.

The Waterberg Biosphere includes the Waterberg mountain range, which is the most important catchment area for the Limpopo Basin. The Lephalale, Mokolo, Matlabas and Magalakwena Rivers all originate here. In summer the mountains glisten with water and the floodplains are alive with birds. Because of the diverse habitat, there is plenty of game: Over 120 species of mammals, 350 species of birds and 2,000 plant species have been recorded.

The flagship reserve is Marakele National Park. As its Tswana name suggests, Marakele has become a 'place of sanctuary' for an impressive variety of wildlife due to its location in the transitional zone between the dry western and moister eastern regions of South Africa. Contrasting majestic mountain landscapes, grass-clad hills and deep valleys characterize the park. All the large game species, from elephant and rhino to the big cats have settled here.

Welgevonden is one of the premier private game reserves in the Waterberg, but there are many equally beautiful, smaller, top-class reserves sprinkled throughout the area. Further to the west and south respectively lie the Madikwe Game Reserve and the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.

Madikwe Game Reserve is a relatively new project, and was established as a joint venture between the state, the private sector and local communities. At 75 000 hectares, it is one of the largest conservation areas in South Africa.  The reserve consists of vast plains of open woodlands and grasslands, dissected by the rugged Tweedepoort Mountains, and bordered in the south by the Dwarsberg Mountains. The area is dotted with huge rocky hills or inselbergs. The reintroduction of game occurred between 1991 and 1997 with a programme called Operation Phoenix, one of the largest game translocation exercises in the world.

More than 8 000 animals of 28 species were released into the reserve, including elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, cheetah, Cape hunting dog, spotted hyena, giraffe and zebra. Endangered wild dogs are a speciality of the reserve and Madikwe’s population of these formidable hunters forms a significant part of South Africa’s total wild dog population.

The Pilanesberg Game Reserve straddles the transition zone between the dry Kalahari and wetter bushveld vegetation of the Lowveld, which explains the unique combination of mammals, birds and vegetation for which this 55 000 hectare park is known. It is home to healthy populations of lion, leopard, black and white rhino, elephant and buffalo. It is adjacent to the Sun City resort, which is home to two world-class golf courses, a water park, theatre, casinos, shops, restaurants and hotels, and a short hop away from Johannesburg.

This makes it one of the most accessible big five reserves in South Africa. But, it also means that the park can be quite congested, particularly over weekends.

Best time to visit