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North West

This stretch of bushveld between Pretoria and the Kalahari is famous for Sun City, the southern hemisphere’s answer to Las Vegas. Though its slot machines and kitsch edifices are grotesquely fascinating, it’s the nearby parks and reserves that we really love – Madikwe Game Reserve is a real gem, while Pilanesberg has terrific wildlife and is very accessible. And for that once-in-a-lifetime, romantic Out of Africa–style experience, a night in the bush at Madikwe’s exclusive lodges can’t be beaten. Here you can encounter both big cats and one-armed bandits are all within four hours’ drive of Johannesburg.

POINTS OF INTEREST

RUSTENBURG

Sitting on the edge of the Magaliesberg range, Rustenburg is a big country town with an urban grittiness to its crowded central business district. Pedestrians weave between honking cars on Nelson Mandela Dr (the main drag through the long downtown area), and sidewalks heave with vendors selling mobile-phone cases and the like in front of takeaway chicken shops and undertakers. There’s always a lot happening, although, in truth, it’s rarely anything of interest. It’s Rustenburg’s location, however, just 25 miles southeast of Sun City and Pilanesberg National Park, that is its main selling point – it’s an option for travelers wishing to visit these major attractions without paying high accommodation rates.

SUN CITY

At Sun City, the legendary creation of entrepreneur Sol Kerzer, Disneyland collides with ancient Egypt in Africa’s version of Vegas. Filled with gilded statues of lions and monkeys, acres of artificial beaches, over 1200 hotel rooms, and line upon line of clinking slot machines, it serves no other purpose than to entertain. Yet while this gambling-centric resort is almost grotesquely gaudy, a visit can be pretty damn fun. The complex is dominated by the Lost City, an extraordinary piece of kitsch claiming to symbolize African heritage. In fact, it has even less to do with African culture than Disneyland Paris has to do with French culture, but it’s still entertaining. We’ll be honest: this is not our sort of place. But it does have to be seen to be believed, and one thing Sun City does have in its favor is that it has received awards for practicing sustainable, environmentally friendly tourism. If you’re traveling with children or on a budget, Sun City is a pretty good bargain. The admission fee covers the main attractions, and there are countless activities on offer for an extra outlay. The complex also boasts one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, a shrine to all things glittery and golden.

PILANESBERG NATIONAL PARK

Occupying an eroded alkaline crater north of Sun City, in a transition zone between the Kalahari and wet Lowveld vegetation, Pilanesberg National Park is a wonderfully scenic place to see a stunning variety of South African wildlife. Conceived in the late 1970s as a back-to-nature weekend escape for nearby city dwellers, Pilanesberg remains a haven where lions, buffaloes, and daytrippers still roam. In 1979, Operation Genesis reclaimed this area of land from agriculture and released 6000 animals into the new park. Today, all the Big Five are here, as are cheetahs, caracals, African wild dogs, jackals, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, zebras, a wide variety of antelope (including sables, elands, and kudus), and 300-plus bird species.

MADIKWE GAME RESERVE

Madikwe is the country’s fourth-largest reserve and one of its best, covering 293 sq miles of bushveld, savannah grassland, and riverine forest on the edge of the Kalahari. It offers Big Five wildlife watching and dreamy lodging among striking (and malaria-free) red sand and clay-thorn bushveld. Madikwe does not allow self-drive safaris or day visitors, which means you must stay at one of its 16 lodges to explore the reserve. Experiencing Madikwe isn’t cheap, but you get what you pay for at these exclusive bush hideaways. Most lodges include two wildlife drives per day (or one drive and a guided walk) in its full-board rates. Rangers communicate via radio with the other drivers in the reserve, so if a family of lions napping in the shade of a thorn tree is spotted nearby, your driver will hear about it. Restrictions on driving off-road are minimal and the jeeps are tough enough to tackle most terrain, getting you close to the animals.

The rules in Madikwe dictate that only three vehicles may be present at any one sighting, and this is strictly observed. While this may be frustrating while you wait in line and out of sight, it ensures that animals are not pursued or harassed by a convoy of vehicles, and retains Madikwe’s credentials as a wonderful place to get up close with the animals. Madikwe was formed in 1991 with a dual mandate to protect endangered wildlife and to use sustainable tourism initiatives to create jobs for the poor, remotely located local people. A massive translocation operation reintroduced more than 10,000 once-indigenous animals, whose numbers had been depleted by hunting and farming. The operation took more than seven years to complete, with animals (including entire herds of elephants) being flown or driven in from other Southern African reserves.

MAGALIESBERG RANGE

An hour’s drive from Pretoria and less than two from Johannesburg, but worlds apart in looks and attitude, the 75 mile-long Magaliesberg range is a favorite weekend escape for Gautengers. These mountains form a half-moon arc from Hartbeespoort Dam in the east to Rustenburg in the west. Forsake overly commercial Hartbeespoort Dam and hit the winding back roads leading off Routes 104 and 24 to fully appreciate this region of scrub-covered rolling hills, streams, forests, and lots of fresh, clean air. An added attraction is the recently resurrected cableway that hoists visitors to the roof of the Magaliesberg.