48hrs – Pilanesberg

It’s finally weekend, after a hard week, and you’ve been working like a Trojan to change Monday into Friday in double quick time. It’s true, some days are better than others and Friday afternoons top the charts in terms of a firm favourite. Two days off stretch ahead like a promise; while weekends cannot love you long time, they are comparable to the joy of interval during a five act yawn on stage. And when a short drive to Pilanesberg for a weekend in the bush lies ahead, meetings had better run on time.

After living in Gauteng for all my life, it is incredible that a short trip to the Pilanesberg National Park hardly ever enters one’s frame of reference. Yet, it is one of the largest game reserves in the country nestled in a hilly basin along the North West’s platinum belt. Add to that the bonus of a mere two hour trip that includes peak Jozi traffic, and one feels like a sod for never turning up before. While a weekend away always feels like a quickie, time slows down at Pilanesberg.

After navigating through heavy traffic on the N4, the sun still had to fully set when we arrived at Bakubung Bush Lodge for a twenty minute transfer, by a safari kitted 4×4, to Tshukudu Bush Lodge. By name, Tshukudu meaning rhino, already set the weekend’s tone. En route to the camp, and for the first time in our city-slicker lives, a black rhino was grazing on the side of the road. “Ssssh,” warned field guide Shawn, who parked several metres away from the beast. “They are very ‘naughty’, we have to be very quiet,” she continues to whisper, “this is the first time in months that a black rhino has been this visible. You are very lucky.”

The clickety click of cameras and cellphones must have stirred Sean Penn paparazzi-mode  in the rhino as it readied to charge. Apparently at 45 kilometres an hour these substantial animals can outrun humans and hold enough strength to kick around a vehicle as if it were a dinky-toy. Still en-route to Tshukudu, sunset held more promise as we passed zebra, impala and a troupe of baboons basking in the last glory of a Friday afternoon.

Tshukudu Bush Camp is incredible. In fact, to avoid clichés and retreaded descriptions one would need more than a Thesaurus. Two hundred and fifty stone-fashioned steps lead to a hilltop oasis where beautifully appointed suites, newly refurbished we learn, offer privacy and a sense of oneness with the bush. A bath, with vista-like sliding windows allows for an early morning extravaganza of wildlife – a hide with creature comforts and luxury. Importantly too, the mini-bar had ice cold beer.

The room at Tshukudu had a balcony overlooking a plain, and at night counting stars is impossible as the milky way blanket looks unlike anything Joburgers would ever see in the metro. A romantic dinner was on the cards with a butterfly-in-the-tummy setup by the chef and his team. After personally explaining the menu and taking into account our somewhat challenging dietary fussiness, Chef Themba proceeded to serve an incredible five course meal. Sans being invasive, given that we dined pretty much in our room, the maître’d Ernest’s timing was impeccable and service exceptional. Sated and turning in early, a crack of dawn game drive lay in wait.

No matter how hot it is by day, take something quite warm for the 5:15 departure game drive. There are blankets available on the safari vehicle but, when taking a gazillion pictures is on the agenda so is swift movement. Being rolled up like a sausage roll in a blankie sometimes prohibits quick pics. The three and a half hour game drive literally flew by as field guide Shawn’s informative, pleasant and passionate knowledge of the animal kingdom fascinated and enthralled. While it was overcast, we still saw several animals including giraffe, gnu, impala, springbok, hippo, zebra and rhino among many others. Shawn knows several of the animals by name or character, a testament to the wealth of knowledge shared.

The highlight beyond highlights however, was when a herd of elephants made their way right past the vehicle. Being less than 3m away from the tusk of an animal that feels a million times your size is not only a quivering boots sensation. No, it is indescribable. Looking an elephant, a wild animal in its kingdom, in the eye and being close enough to touch it – that is a memory that permanently settles in one’s grey matter. It is the kind of stuff one only ever hears happens to other people or on television. Nothing beats this. Packed flasks of coffee and a muffin break at a watering hole fills the gap at the half-way mark. By 9:30 am we were back at Tshukudu enjoying a large breakfast spread, and reliving the morning’s encounters.

The mid-morning transfer to Bakubung, a more family oriented and much larger lodge, again ended up in a game viewing spectacular. A Joburger likely thinking he was in a zoo, filmed a hippo outside the relative safety of his car. Given that lunchtime was approaching, the man’s stupidity shows that while man’s dominance of the animal kingdom has been set for millennia, it doesn’t necessarily make all of us smarter. Field guide Shawn was kind enough to point this out to the ignoramus. Remember to stay in your car at all times unless you want to be on the menu.

One thing is for sure. Service outside of the concrete jungle is something else. Both at Tshukudu and Bakubung one almost feels intimidated by the fact that every staff member seems to prioritise guests above all else. This is very unlike any restaurant or attraction in Joburg where restaurant tables are turned faster than you could swallow and tips are left out of obligation rather than appreciation. The service levels alone makes a visitor feel like it is possible one could be on a different planet. No wonder Bakubung hosted a collective that seemed to originate from all four corners of the globe.

Large spacious rooms, rolling lawns and overlooking a watering hole this family friendly bush lodge blew us away. After enjoying a massive lunch buffet at a cost of less than a reasonably sized steak in Gauteng, lazing at the pool is an irresistible pastime before the possibility of an afternoon game drive, followed by a bush braai available on Saturdays and Sundays. Even though Bakubung is quite a large lodge, one never feels crowded and great care is taken to personalize every aspect of one’s stay. This is value and if money could ever buy happiness, it must be here. Dinner is equally well-priced and dessert worth seconds and thirds.

When having a good time, one never really wants to leave and, a parting shot with an elephant frolicking in the watering hole right in front of us, during breakfast (also a gigantic spread) , made it even more difficult to pack up and head back to suburbia. But the fact that the Pilanesberg is so close and the experience so exceptional will inspire anyone to return many times.