The Waterberg is a 100-mile (150km) arc of mountains in Limpopo province. It has a vast patchwork quilt of interlocking, mainly privately owned reserves and game farms, some huge, some tiny. Together they make up a 5,792 square mile (15,000 sq km) UNESCO Biosphere that has become one of the great wilderness regions of South Africa.
Many of the properties are former farms that have been allowed to revert to the bush after overgrazing caused environment havoc. Now restocked as game reserves, with fences coming down between properties to allow animals to roam freely, the region supports some 75 species of mammals, including the Big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino – traditionally considered the most dangerous to hunt on foot), along with over 300 species of bird. Because people have lived here for hundreds of thousands of years, the area is also rich in San (Bushman) rock art. The area has stunning scenery and an incredible range of vegetation from marula woodland to rolling open grassland. Some 80,000 people still live here, on commercial farms and smallholdings, in small towns and villages.
Once in South Africa, you could hire a small plane to fly you into one of the airstrips on Welgevonden, but most people simply hire a car and drive the 2-3 hours north from Johannesburg airport. Alternative, arrange a transfer through your lodge or a tour operator such as Waterberg Transfers (tel: 082-325 7313) or Safari Lodge Shuttle (tel: 082774 8732). As the area covered is so huge, the cost will vary massively according to your destination, the number of passengers, whether you are on a private transfer or with other passengers. It is a premium service so does not come cheap – expect to pay upwards of US$100 each way.
What to Do
Because many of the reserves are privately owned, tourists get to do all sorts of things that just aren’t possible in the strictly controlled National Parks environment. You can rent (or buy) your own home for a week, week or life; do your own cooking or hire a staff to cater for you. You can play golf in a game reserve, go horse-back riding, walking or hunting. Just don’t try mixing hunting and photo safaris – the animals are far too skittish to get good photos if there are guns anywhere nearby. And watch out for crocodiles in the water hazards on the golf course. You can also visit the San paintings with an expert in rock art, go star-gazing under the vast southern skies, or soar through the dawn in a hot air balloon. There are even mineral hot springs where you can soak away aching muscles.
But perhaps most importantly of all, the area is malaria-free and really close to Jo’burg and Pretoria. It’s easy to get here straight from the plane or run away for a weekend in the bush and some spectacular gameviewing during a business trip.
Choose Your Park
Main reserves in the area include the 139-square-mile (39,000 ha) Welgevonden Game Reserve, which has one of the country’s largest populations of white rhino, as well as rarely sighted sable, pangolin, brown hyena and aardvark.
Next door, Marakele National Park has become a haven for plants as well as animals, with fabulous tree ferns and cycads, giant yellowwood and cedar trees surviving in the mountains. Its cliffs are loved by birds; there are over 800 breeding pairs of Cape vultures soaring on the thermals.
Entabeni has an extraordinary range of scenery on its 85 square mile (22,000 ha) estate, along with a choice of five very different 4- and 5-star lodges. Smaller reserves include Mabalingwe and Mabula, each with a 12,000ha reserve, and Waterberg Wilderness Reserve, home of the golf course with added animals.
Lodges come in every shape, size and price range, with all the options for game drives led by expert rangers that you would expect. There are hugely luxurious safari experiences such as Letlapa, part of Sediba Lodge on Welgevonden, wood-built lodges on stilts connected by boardwalks all have viewing decks with hot tubs so you can soak in luxury while watching for game from your private terrace. Rates are high, at US$465 pp (sharing) all-inclusive. At Entabeni, Wildside Camp is the cheapest of the five lodges at around US$160 per person (sharing, inclusive) in beautifully appointed tents or small rondaavels (round thatched cottages) with en suite bathrooms, tucked in below the cliff of Waterberg Mountain. For a totally different type of experience, Jembisa was built as a family home. You can hire the whole 5-bedroom property, which comes with a chef (price dependent on numbers and season, contact for a quote), or one of three smaller cottages on the estate. Prices here are an incredibly reasonable US$29-44 per person per night, bring your own food.