Bush Break

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When much of South Africa flocks to the country’s beaches this December, you could head inland, get away from the crowds, and enjoy a holiday with a difference. The Pilanesberg National Park in the North-West Province is in close proximity to both Johannesburg and Pretoria, and offers the perfect getaway, without the stresses of traffic and long queues. Located in the crater of an ancient extinct volcano, the 50,000 hectares on which the Pilanesberg National Park sits was formed 1.2 billion years ago by the overflowing magma from a volcanic eruption. This left behind a lasting legacy of rare rock formations and minerals, making the park a geological wonder. The vegetation in the Pilanesberg can best be described as something between the dry Kalahari and the wet Lowveld vegetation. The area has been the site of human habitation for thousands of years. Before it’s classification as a national park in 1979, it was the site of commercial farms, using the land’s rich, well-watered soil to grow food. It took 15 years to return the land to its original state – all evidence of previous human settlement was erased, indigenous fauna was reintroduced, and thousands of heads of game were relocated. According to Michael Farr, Group Corporate Brand & Communications Manager at Sun International, there is plenty to like and almost nothing to dislike about the Pilanesberg. The malaria-free area boasts hot, sultry summers and mild winters, and, depending on where you are coming from, is approximately 90 minutes to two hours from Johannesburg by car, or a short flight from O.R. Tambo International Airport. Sun International runs the most prominent property in the region, in the form of the iconic Sun City, which played a huge role in transforming the Pilanesberg when it opened in 1979, along with garnering plenty of international interest. At the time it was located in the Bantustan of Bophuthatswana, which was then re-incorporated into the new South Africa in 1994. Sun City has continued to flourish and the resort now offers four hotels, in the form of the Sun City Hotel, the Cascades Hotel, the Cabanas, and the Palace of the Lost City. Another group with a significant presence in the area is Legacy Hotels & Resorts, which has three bush lodges in the Pilanesberg – Bakubung, Kwa Maritane, and Tshukudu. “The international leisure market has returned nicely over May to August and our lodges have had the strongest winter in years,” says Hara Jackson, Legacy’s Group Sales Manager. Someone who clearly agrees with that sentiment is Ruzandri Stoltz, Marketing Manager for aha Hotels & Lodges, which runs the popular Ivory Tree and Shepherd’s Tree game lodges. “We have seen the large international incentives return and a very strong domestic market, which has meant that we are experiencing occupancies far greater than we did in both 2015 and 2014,” says Stoltz. Accommodation Sun City The region’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly Sun City, and it has such a diverse offering, whether you a conferencing delegate, leisure traveller, golfer, or gamer. The complex has undergone many changes in the 37 years it has been open, including the construction of the eye-catching Palace of the Lost City. “Our aim is to keep refreshing all our offerings at the complex to make sure we stay current with the needs and aspirations of our guests,” says Farr. “Sun City remains really popular with locals, visitors and convention delegates.” Sun City’s latest R1-billion ($73.5m) refurbishment offers visitors even more to see and do. In addition to the new elegantly-styled rooms and refreshed decor across all the hotels, other additions include a brand new entertainment centre, the new Sun Park indoor events area and outdoor space, capable of hosting a range of lifestyle events, music festivals and launches, and a 24-hour Las Vegas-styled party zone at the Sun City Hotel, with night clubs, burlesque clubs and restaurants. New restaurants offer visitors a plethora of dining options, such as the glamorous new 190-seat Legends restaurant, which boasts a stage for live entertainment, and the Bocado Restaurant, which replaces Santorini at the Cascades Hotel and complements the Luma Bar. “This is a very significant upgrade and the feedback so far has been exceptional,” says Farr. “Our approach from inception has been to differentiate our hotels, resorts and casinos in architecture, service, experience, location and the mix of entertainment and activities. Once this refurbishment is complete, we are confident there will be nothing in South Africa to compare to it.” Lodges There are many lodges offering a range of accommodation options. Legacy’s Tshukudu Bush Lodge, offers exclusivity with six luxury chalets and four suites, for a total capacity of 20 guests. “The suites are a new addition to the lodge, opening last year, and each with their own secluded deck, plunge pool, outside shower, fire place and luxurious baths overlooking the plains,” says Jackson. The lodge overlooks a watering hole, meaning that you don’t need to leave the lodge to see game. But if you want to get into the bush, experienced game rangers promise frequent ‘Big Five’ sightings. Kwa Maritane, is Legacy’s oldest property in the Pilanesberg. The lodge is well known for its hide and waterhole linked to the lodge by a 180-metre underground tunnel. With 90 rooms, cocktail lounge and restaurant overlooking the park, children’s playground, Legacy Balance Spa, Junior Ranger programme, nine-hole putt putt course, two bomas and a rock climbing wall, the lodge has something for everyone. Kwa Maritane also does a memorable ‘bush braai’, which comes highly recommended. Legacy’s third offering is the 100-room Bakubung Bush Lodge, which offers guests everything they need for an intimate bush experience, blending modern-day luxuries with a full-on African wildlife experience. The lodge has conference facilities for up to 120 delegates, a Legacy Balance Spa, tennis and volleyball courts, and guided bush and games walks. Bakubung opened 24 new rooms in December 2015, as well as a new spa. “In the last month, we opened a small boma to accommodate intimate groups of up to 30 people,” says Jackson. Ivory Tree Game Lodge is run by aha Hotels & Lodges, and offers 59 suites in the north-east of the Pilanesberg. The central facility includes a pool, bar, conference room, dining room, boma, reception and curio shop. “We have opened additional rooms at Ivory Tree Game Lodge and increased our number of family suites,” says Stoltz, further enhancing the lodge’s appeal as a family-friendly year-end getaway. A second property in aha’s stable is Shepherd’s Tree Game Lodge. The entire lodge lies in an exclusive-use zone in the south-western portion of the reserve and is built to offer commanding views of the surrounding bushveld. In addition to twice daily game drives, guests can also enjoy bush walks. Aha has improved the wi-fi offering at Shepherd’s Tree to ensure all guests are able to share their holiday with family and friends. There are a great number of other full-service four and five-star game lodges inside the park, including Black Rhino, Morokolo, Tambuti and the Pilanesberg Private Lodge. And for the ultimate luxury experience, Buffalo Thorn Lodge is an exclusive-use lodge for a maximum of 10 people and comes complete with private safari vehicle, game ranger, outdoor boma, housekeeper and fully-serviced lodge. A swimming pool at the edge of the bush offers a glimpse of the ‘Big Five’ from the comfort of your pool. Activities Pilanesberg is perfectly set up for leisure visitors. Sun City alone offers more options that can be enjoyed in a single day. Adrenalin seekers will love Adrenalin Extreme, the new adventure hub, while the entire family can enjoy the two brand new rides at the Valley of the Waves water park. The adventure hub comprises a range of outdoor activities, including drift trikes, hovercrafts, the accelerator and the grizzly 4×4 quad challenge. For those who would prefer to observe the action, the new Brew Monkey microbrewery-themed gastro pub and the Food Factory fresh food eatery is just the place to do this. More action packed water sports are on offer at The Watersports and Recreation Hub. The venue now sports the new Kazooma Raceway and Rock Venture Golf with Grand-Prix-styled racing go-karts and an adventure golf course that will appeal to all ages. Alternatively, if you love your golf, Sun City has two 18-hole championship courses, whilst there’s also the extensive gambling offering across the Sun City complex. In the park, you can arrange game drives with seasoned rangers to experience the ‘Big Five’, a wide variety of buck, giraffe and other game, as well as rarer animals such as cheetah and wild dog. You could also opt to see the park in your own vehicle. Get a bird’s eye view of the park from a hot air balloon, where you’ll be able to take in the Pilanesberg Alkaline Ring Complex and see first-hand how the volcanic eruption shaped the land below. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, you could opt for a walking tour and head into the bush with a ranger for closer encounters with the wildlife. Ivory Tree can arrange Segway tours of the bush and quad bike trips to a nearby village. “There’s also drumming, archery and airguns on our list of leisure activities,” says Stoltz. Jackson’s leisure activities of choice are a bush braai and spa treatments. “There’s nothing quite as relaxing as receiving a massage in the tranquillity of the bush to melt away your stress,” she says. Getting there One of the things that makes the Pilanesberg so appealing is its proximity to Johannesburg and Pretoria, being roughly two hours away by car. However, there is an airport in the park, and SA Express offers scheduled flights from both O.R. Tambo International Airport and Cape Town International Airport. There are three weekly flights from ORTIA, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday, and two from Cape Town, on Mondays and Fridays. The Pilanesberg certainly offers something different, with an interesting mix of natural bush attractions juxtaposed with a host of activities and dining experiences that promise to keep you and your loved ones busy and entertained for days.