A scenery of dramatic mountains, deep valleys, grassy hilltops and thick bush vegetation makes Marakele National Park in South Africa a spectacular area to visit for a few days. The park is home to the famous Big 5 animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) and various other large game species like zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, sable and the vary rare roan antelope.
Marakele National Park
Located in the heart of the Waterberg district on a transitional zone between the dry western part and the moister eastern part of South Africa, the vegetation changes dramatically when driving through the park. It was first established as a national park in 1994 and has today a surface totalling about 90.000 ha and is still in expansion.
Marakele National Park is divided into 2 main areas. The main gate is located in the smaller western section of the park, where you can also find the Bontle Camping site as well as the Ikhutseng Picnic site (the only picnic site of the whole park). The landscape is characterised by plain bushveld with a wide variety of trees.
The eastern section of the park can be reached via an electrical gate and a bridge under the main road that traverses the park. This eastern section looks very different, immediately the road starts climbing and the dramatic cliffs of the surrounding mountains become visible. The trees make space for thick bushes when following the road for wide open grassland in the various valleys between the hills. It is also this section of the park that is home to the big 5, larger mammal species and predators.
Activities to do in Marakele National Park
The park has such an amazing scenery that one might forget to look for animals while cruising through the park. Due to the thick bushes it is not very easy to spot the wildlife in the eastern section of the park. We did however see the very rare Roan antelope walking on the road, which definitely made our day.
Another highlight is to take the Lenong drive up the mountain pass all the way to where the communication towers are located. It is a pretty narrow tarred road that takes you up the mountain and which provide amazing views over the surrounding area. With some luck you can see animals roaming in the valley over the grassland. The highlight of the drive is by far the scenery from the top overlooking the Waterberg area. It is said that the park attracts the largest colony of Cape Vultures (approximately 800 breeding pairs). The top of the viewpoint is the best place to see the birds catching the thermals.
There are various activities that can be organised through the park, such as various game drives and even a 4×4 Ecotrail tour. However, there is one 4×4 route in the park that can be driven by anyone with of course a 4×4 that knows what they are doing. While not advancing very fast, the route is lot’s of fun and winds it’s way through the open hilly grassland.
Where to stay in Marakele National Park
Sanparks has 2 official camping sites in the park. In the eastern section is the Tlopi Tented Camp, where you can rent a fully equipped safari tent overlooking the Tlopi dam. This is where you probably have the best view of the wildlife in the park, but only reserved for residents.
In the western section is the Bontle Camping site, where we stayed for 3 nights with our own tent. There are 38 camping sites and a handful of fully equipped safari tents. The Bontle campsite has great views on a smaller waterhole attracting a handful of animals. During our stay we saw various antelopes, zebra, lot’s of ostriches and warthogs, baboons, monkeys and 2 rhinos. The campsite is not fenced and animals can freely roam into the camp. There are no predators in this part but one should always be careful with wild animals anyway.
The ostriches were the most fun, especially in the morning when they made their way into the camp curious to see what was for breakfast in the various tents. In general a nice selection of birds came to visit in close proximity of the campsites. Especially the hornbills did not fear to come close to the tents. Do NOT feed any of the wild animals.
How to get there
Marakele National Park is just a few hours drive from either Johannesburg or Pretoria and can be visited in a day, taking an early morning and late departure into account. The park however is perfect for a weekend getaway and to stay one, two or even three nights is recommendable to fully enjoy and explore the park.
The drive from Johannesburg is very scenic. You can either take the N1 towards Bela Bela followed by the R516 and R511 to Thabazimbi.
When you have some time to spare, I highly recommend to take the scenic route. You follow the R511 from the Joburg ring till Thabazimbi. This scenic route will take you past the Hartebeespoortdam, and the fertile fruit growing area between Brits and Thabazimbi. On the way, you’ll find plenty of local market stalls selling the handpicked fruits from the area, like oranges and avocados. We really enjoyed this drive as it took us to an area we had not yet explored.
Why we recommend Marakele National Park
For me, Marakele is a hidden gem of the South African National Parks (Sanparks). Until recently, I had not even heard of it. It is not overcrowded and does not get the massive amount of visitors like Kruger NP. Also, Pilanesberg is in the area which is one of the faster growing parks in the region getting lot’s of both foreign and local visitors. We only saw a few other cars in the park, mainly on our way to the viewpoint. On some sections we felt completely alone in the park.
Silence is golden and one can still fully relax in the campsite. The sites are well apart from one another, giving you a secluded feel. We had the feeling that the park was all about peace, quietness, enjoying nature, landscapes and full relaxation.
We were also lucky that the moon came up later in the evening, giving us a spectacular view of an amazing starry sky and the moonrise as the cherry on the cake.
Nighttime was very silent, apart from all the sounds of nature, animals calling, lions roaring, and birds singing during the early hours of the morning.
It is one of the lesser known Sanparks off the beaten track but none the less spectacular. More information on the park can be found on the website of Sanparks.
What is your favourite national park you have visited on your travels?
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