Tucked away in Limpopo province, the pristine, rugged and ancient Waterberg region doesn’t make it on to most South Africa travel itineraries – and that’s much of its appeal.
By the same token, you don’t have to stray far from the more beaten paths.
The Waterberg has soaring mountain peaks, antediluvian rock formations, expansive savannah plains, dense riparian forests and plunging river valleys.
It’s just an easy few hours’ drive from the pulsating urban hub of Johannesburg, though it feels a world away.
This underexplored northern nook of South Africa is sometimes known as Africa’s Eden.
Here iconic megafauna tends to outnumber its human counterparts, and the cows that meander across the “main roads” of quirky provincial towns are often the only traffic you’ll see.
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A walk in the park
On the northwest edge of the picturesque Marakele National Park is Marataba Private Game Reserve, and the new and irresistibly isolated Marataba Trails Lodge, which offers a particularly special safari experience.
Perched on the hillside with jaw-dropping views across the dramatic sandstone peaks and gorges of the reserve, the cutting-edge design of this eco-friendly solar-powered lodge, which uses local stone and wood, blends seamlessly into its surroundings.
But what really makes this lodge remarkable are the trails that give it its name.
In fact, there are no game drives from Marataba Trails Lodge at all.
It’s nothing but intimate back-to-basics bush walks with expert guides through the ever-changing habitats and ecosystems of this endlessly fascinating Big Five game reserve.
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On a family-run reserve close to the town of Vaalwater, Ant’s Nest and Ant’s Hill are two of the most family-friendly lodges to be found anywhere in South Africa.
Theyoffer a wide range of bush activities that include walks, game drives and even sundowners with white rhinos.
But the real specialty at Ant’s, which is named after owner Ant Baber, whose family have been on this land for about 150 years, is horse riding.
When the horses are not being ridden, they graze and roam among big game including buffalo, giraffe, kudu and rhino, and the wildlife’s familiarity with the horses affords particularly close and relaxed encounters for riders.
Ant’s also has a strong conservation and community development ethic that’s palpable in the warmth and dedication of its long-serving staff.
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The Waterberg Meander is a 350-kilometer self-drive route that takes tourists right through the heart of the Waterberg Biosphere and incorporates many of its highlights.
Aside from the various game and nature reserves en route, there are also a number of community projects, cultural and historical sites, geological and archeological wonders and some of the finest examples of the ubiquitously stellar Waterberg vistas.
The town of Vaalwater is worth a stop for handmade crafts and a good coffee in the leafy courtyard at The Black Mamba.
A little out of town, there’s also Beadle, a community project that produces hand-crafted leather accessories.
Among the various cultural offerings is the Lehlabile Cultural Tour, where three local women from the Pedi ethnic group give visitors an immersive experience of their food and traditions.
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A wilderness reborn
Comprising 37,000 hectares of consolidated and rehabilitated farmland, Welgevonden Game Reserve is a veritable triumph of conservation.
Ambitious game relocation efforts and careful ecological management have seen this large, exclusive and accessible wilderness area returned to something close to its original state, and more than 50 mammal species and 300 bird species now call the reserve home.
Welgevonden boasts one of South Africa’s healthiest white rhino populations, an abundance of elephants, and has also had great success with the notoriously tricky reintroduction of cheetahs.
There are a number of secluded luxury lodges, most of which are much more reasonably priced than their counterparts in better-known parks and reserves such as Kruger or Sabi Sands.
The rustic Nungubane Lodge is among the very best in terms of value for money, location and intimacy.
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A birdwatching paradise
Nylsvley Nature Reserve is one of the most important and populous bird habitats in southern Africa.
It’s home to almost 400 bird species and a total population of 80,000 birds when the flood plain is at peak water level in the wet and warm summer months.
The marshy reed beds and grasses of the flood plain itself are surrounded by large swathes of open woodland that are home to giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, the rare roan antelope and more elusive mammals such as leopard and brown hyena.
Visitors can drive around the reserve, enjoy a number of hiking trails or set up shop with their binoculars, a bird book and a long zoom lens in one of the various bird hides.
Cheap and cheerful self-catering accommodation and a quaint restaurant are available just inside the reserve’s main gate.
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A unique human heritage
The Waterberg’s human heritage is as rich, varied and interesting as its geology, and dates back millions of years.
The earliest example of that heritage is found in a series of limestone caves in the Makapan Valley, just outside the city of Mokopane.
Here, a remarkable quantity of ancient mammal remains and fossils of an early human-like primate were excavated in the first decades of the 20th century by famous anatomist and anthropologist Raymond Dart.
Today, the various archeological and paleontological material, as well as pieces of historic artefacts, can be seen at the Arend Dieperink Museum in Mokopane, which can be combined with a guided tour of the caves themselves.
In other parts of the Waterberg, including within Marataba and Welgevonden, various rock paintings left by the indigenous San Bushmen almost 2,000 years ago can still be seen.
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Wallowing in the warm baths
The cacophony and kitsch of Bela-Bela’s Warmbaths, A Forever Resort may be an affront to the senses after all that nature and seclusion, but if you’re traveling with kids it’s almost guaranteed to be their favorite part of the trip.
And just maybe yours too.
Particularly popular with local tourists, Warmbaths is a mini version of the famous Sun City Resort, South Africa’s oldest and gaudiest playground.
It has an array of water features and slides – centered around the natural warm baths themselves – as well as a host of other activities including go karting, mini golf and ziplining.
There are also shops, restaurants, bars, public braais (barbecues) and lots of shaded lawns for a picnic.
On weekends and during holidays, the throngs of visitors reflect South Africa’s full range of racial demographics, a still all too rare feat.
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Christopher Clark is a British freelance writer and wanderer based in Cape Town. He has traveled through and written about 13 African countries for more than 30 local and international publications and has twice been featured as one of South Africa’s best writers by The Big Issue magazine.