Long gone are the days of zoos, aquariums and watching animals in captivity. It’s just not cool any more (was it ever cool, really?). We’re living in an ecological age of ethics and rational thinking and along with that comes the hip new way of animal watching and that’s big game drives.
I wish what I was typing was true but unfortunately it isn’t. Zoos, aquariums and other prisons disguised as ‘sanctuaries’ still reap a hell of a lot more profit than wild animal watching tours and that makes sense. They’re convenient. The majority of us don’t live in a country where we can step outside and see a wildebeest on our doorstep. Most people don’t have the money to travel half way around the world to see a lion, and zoos make that dream come true for them.
Having said that, are you really seeing a lion when you’re watching them in captivity? Sure, you’re viewing their flesh and fur, but you’re not seeing their soul or their personalities. You’re seeing a prisoner. It isn’t ethical, it isn’t natural and it isn’t fair.
But this post isn’t about my hatred of zoos. It’s about Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa and my experience when I stayed there.Here’s some background information on Pilanesberg to start with:
- It is one of the largest national parks in South Africa. The entire thing is roughly the same size as Wales, the country. It’s nothing compared to South Africa’s largest, Kruger, which is the same size as Israel, but it’s still pretty humungous.
- It’s home to South Africa’s big five as well as over 7000 other species.
- There are three cheaters in the park and they arrived on their own accord. They left once to terrorise a local village but eventually decided it wasn’t for them and came back. (Not a joke).
- Pilanesberg is set within the crater of a volcano formed over 1.2 billion years ago.
Day one: We arrive at the Lodge situated inside Pilanesberg national park. Depending on which lodge you get, you can look out of your window to see zebras grazing in the distance. And unless you bring ear plugs, there’s no avoiding the noisy sounds of african wildlife when you’re trying to sleep.After I was done freaking out over the thatched roof and the cool african art, we headed to the bar for some vegan snacks. One of the cool things about the lodge is that there’s a hideout in which you can view some of the animals at a watering hole from a barely visible underground hive. An amazing concept but unfortunately we were there for over 3 hours and only saw a warthog and her piglets, an impala and about a dozen har dee dar birds.Day Two: And so the game drives begin. We started the afternoon on our own self-drive around the national park. We managed to see quite a lot. Hippos, elephants (it turned out they’re not easy to find up close so we got lucky here), a tortoise in the middle of the dirt road, a crazy amount of zebras, impalas, wildebeests and warthogs.In Pilanesberg there’s a rest stop in the middle of the park, fenced off so the dangerous animals can’t enter, where you can hippo watch on a platform above a watering hole. From there you can see plenty of the 300+ bird species the park homes and even see some of the turtles peaking their heads out from the lake to gaze at the tourists.I appreciated the self-drive. The only downside is that you don’t get the commentary you would with a guide and without the guide radios, you’ll be stuck ogling the 15 thousandth zebra and miss the gathering of cars and jeeps that are watching a lion kill just down the road.
In the evening we decided to take a guided safari tour in a jeep. Our guide was super knowledgeable and I swear I learned more about life in those few hours than I ever learnt in school. These people know what they’re talking about, but they’re humble and insist that you stop them if you see something they don’t.Embarrassingly, my Dad yelled ‘stop!’ when he saw a lion-shaped rock and seconds later, the guide really did stop to show us all a chameleon he saw from the corner of his eye when we were speeding past trees in pitch darkness. Yeah, Dad, this guy was not about to miss a lion in the middle of open wasteland.It gets cold at night in South Africa and this is made exceedingly worse when you’re speeding through the wind in a jeep with no windows. But there are some benefits of seeing Pilanesberg National Park in the nighttime. This is when the dogs come out.
I love dogs of all kinds. Domestic ones, wild ones, I like them all. I feel like wild dogs get a bad rep and that’s a shame because they’re so interesting. At nighttime we managed to see plenty of jackal and even a hyena carrying an impala leg. I know I shouldn’t be so excited about animal kills as a vegan, but that was amazing.
Other than that, the only other kill we saw was a bird eat a dung beetle. Although that was still sort of interesting, it wasn’t quite as jaw dropping as you would imagine.Day Three: 6am start (ew, right?) to have yet another game drive. The nighttime drive was great, so the morning one has to be good too, right? Well, it was different.Our Afrikaans guide quickly informed us that he wasn’t the best English speaker so rather than stopping to talk to us about the different species, he hastily rushed us around the park in search for a lion. We had yet to see one at this point so we were looking forward to it.After a few hours of hopeful searching and a gazillion wildebeest later, we finally saw one. He was moving, slowly across the open grassland with a full mane of hair. To my surprise, giraffes, zebras and impalas were all close by, completely unfazed by the magnificent creature.When the lion was out of sight, we moved on in search of an elephant. Now, we already had seen one of those on our own self drive so it wasn’t as impressive when we saw one from much further away, shadowed by trees. Still, you never imagine what it’s going to be like to see an elephant in the wild. They’re so different to the ones in the zoo. They’re not swaying from side to side, going crazy in their own prison. They’re free and it’s amazing to witness.We left the park in the afternoon to drive back to Johannesburg. If you’re interested in animals, this is an unforgettable experience that comes once in a lifetime for some people, so I would definitely seize the opportunity if it comes to you.
Do the guides carry guns?
Yes, they do. But they’re rarely used to shoot an animal. Believe it or not, they’re more often used to shoot humans they suspect to be poachers. Unfortunately, with huge parks like this with a large rhino population, they’re at high risk for poaching activity. Luckily, there’s been no cases since 2011 but that’s no excuse to lower precautionary measures and they still have to be careful.