Mabalingwe Nature Reserve is one of South Africa’s many breathtaking private game reserves, and is located 38 km West of Bela Bela in Limpopo province. Covering more than 12,500 hectares of soft rolling hills, it’s home to 36 wildlife species, including some of the country’s most loved animals; hippos, elephants, rhino, giraffes, sables, and hyenas. For bird lovers, there are more than 250 species of birds to be spotted.
It’s one of the more low key game reserves, especially when compared to the Kruger National Park and Pilansberg. Mabalingwe Nature Reserve is the perfect destination for a quiet escape from the city. Unlike the more high-profile and albeit “touristy” safari spots, you won’t find all of the big five out in the wild at Mabalingwe Nature Reserve. Here, it’s all about taking in the heart and soul of the African bush. While most of the game here are free-roaming, the lions are kept on a seperate part of the reserve. They can only be viewed during twice-weekly feeding drives on Wednesday and Sunday Mornings. This is a conservation exercise that Mabalingwe Nature Reserve prides itself on. But, it’s not quite the same thing as experiencing lions out in their natural habitat. For anyone looking for an authentic African bush experience, this would be somewhat of a disappointment.
But, you shouldn’t let that put you off. The Mabalingwe experience is like no other. It’s different to a safari – which you should definitely still do. Mabalingwe is more about taking in the sounds of the bush, escaping the busy city life, and finding beauty in some of South Africa’s less sort after wildlife. One of the most beautiful things for me, is that rather than being focused on seeing the “big cats”, you really see the beauty of the more timid and less glamourized animals, like the giraffe.
Whether you’re looking for a family getaway destination, a romantic weekend away, or a weekend with friends, Mabalingwe Nature Reserve has something to offer for everyone. It’s one of our favourite places to visit when we back home, especially if we don’t have enough time to take a trip to the Kruger Park. Here’s everything you need to know about taking a trip to Mabalingwe.
Since Mabalingwe Nature Reserve is only an hours drive from Johannesburg, it’s one of the more popular destinations for Joburgers who are looking for a quick weekend escape from the city. It’s easy to get to, close enough to visit for a couple of days and it’s a beautiful place.
If you’re on holiday in South Africa, I would highly recommend hiring a car. It’s very difficult to get around the country without a car. It’s not like many European cities where you can just hop on a bus, train or tram and make your way from one stop to the next. You could, of course, use Uber or a taxi service but it would be far more convenient and efficient to have your own car. Also, once you get to Mabalingwe Nature Reserve or any other game lodge that you might want to visit for that matter, you would need a car to get around the reserve.
Mabalingwe has something to offer for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a self-catering unit, a camping spot, if you’re a 4×4 enthusiast, an avid camper, or maybe you after something luxurious, you will find it here. We usually stay in a fully furnished house equipped with an outdoor pool and a safari vehicle for game drives. While I love renting our own place, staying in one of the lodges could also be a great experience.
Here are some other accommodation options:
- Caravan Park: With 67 stands, each equipped with its own power supply, you could set up camp in the caravan park. There are two swimming pool (hot and cold), a playground, a shop, a liquor store, central entertainment area, and a well maintained ablution block.
- Tlou lodge: The rooms here are fully furnished and each has two beds and an ensuite bathroom. This is perfect for a weekend break without any fuss – all extras are catered for. Both breakfast and dinner are included.
- Bush camps: Mabalingwe has two bush camps and a 4×4 camp. The bush camps are well-suited for the adventurous nature-loving explorers and guests that want to bask in the beautiful untouched bushveld. The two camps are Kalahari bush camp and Pitsi bush camp. They both have clean ablutions, electricity, and a communal kitchen area.
- 4×4 camp: This is perfect for any bush-loving, 4×4 explorer, and with no electricity, is the ideal choice for avid campers who have all the gear.
You can take a look at the Where to Stay website for some self-catering houses that are available to rent.
Kalahari Oasis Bush Pub
This is the hidden gem of Mabalingwe Nature Reserve. Well, hidden in that you will find it in the middle of the bushveld. But, not so hidden in that everybody knows about it. This unique pub was once the set of famous South African TV advertisements. It was later converted into a very special, traditional South African pub.
If you’re ever in Mabalingwe you have to experience Kalahari Oasis. It’s a rustic bar housed in a tin shack structure with the bar created out of an old car and complete with many other antique features. There’s a memory wall to write on, a jukebox, and plenty of alcohol flowing here. It’s perfect for a couple of afternoon drinks.
The Itaga Lodge area, close to where we stay is frequented by Zebra, Giraffe, Impala, Wildebeest, Gemsbok, and Nyala. We also often have Warthog that come right up onto the property. The area closer to the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve entrance often gets visited by Kudu, Bushbuck, Zebra, Waterbuck, and Blesbuk.
One of the most beautiful settings of any game reserve are the dams and watering holes. The Dams area spans from the Mabalingwe timeshare spot all the way up to the Idwala section of the reserve. This area features beautiful scenery and is home to a pod of 16 Hippos and a few crocodile.
To the right of Mabalingwe airstrip you will find a dense, bushy part of the reserve. The Pitsi Bush Camp is close here, where you can also find the Kameelperd water hole which is a favourite of the Mabalingwe elephant herd. The heard is estimated to consist of about 24 elephants and they’re not easy to find, but you might have some luck in this area.
There are apparently four spotted Leopard that call Mabalingwe Nature Reserve home, although I’ve never seen any of them. Considering that the reserve is 12,500 hectares big, it’s not easy to find these beauties. But, we have heard them before, while sitting around the campfire late into the night. If you venture up passed the Gorcum Dam and into the hills of Idwala you are more likely to spot them.
One of my greatest experiences was spotting two Rhino’s inside the reserve. The Rhinoceros is South Africa’s most treasured specie that is becoming increasingly rare to find. They’re part of the Big Five but have unfortunately joined the devastating list of endangered species due to poaching. In 2017, 1,028 Rhino were poached throughout South Africa. It’s an ongoing crisis that the government has been fighting against for a few years, due to the financial value involved in Rhino horn smuggling. Rhino horn is in demand in Vietnam and Asia since some people believe that it has medicinal value, capable of curing anything from cancer to working as an aphrodisiac. Others use it as a type of club drug, to be mixed with alcohol or water. For this reason Rhino’s are very heavily protected inside reserves. Staff can’t tell you how many there are or where to find them.
On your trip to Mabalingwe you are pretty much guaranteed to see Impala, Giraffe, Kudu, Warthog, Nyala, Waterbuck, and Hippos. Your chances of seeing Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo, Klipspringer, Blesbuck, and Duiker are also pretty good. If you spot the Elephant, Rhino, Mountain Buck, or crocodile you can count yourself lucky. Lastly, if you spot Leopard or Sable inside the reserve you have joined a group of select few.
As like many other private game reserves, the Lions here are contained in a separate, high-security fenced area of the reserve. To visit the Lion enclosure (Wednesdays and Sundays at 9 am) you will need to make a booking at the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve reception.
One of my favourite ways to explore the reserve is by safari vehicle. As I mentioned before, the house that we stay in comes equipped with one of these game-viewing vehicles. If you don’t have one of these, you can also explore the reserve in your own vehicle. Your other option is a guided game drive by Mabalingwe game rangers which is recommended for first time visitors. The game rangers know the area and where to find which animals at what time of the day.
Shops and restaurants
One of the best parts of a bush getaway is escaping the hustle and bustle of the city and getting away from it all – including the shops, right? But, you are bound to forget something or perhaps just want to pick up a few snacks. There are two shops inside the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve; the caravan park shop and the main shop, commonly known as “plaaswinkel” (translation is farm shop). You will also find a swimming pool at both of these spots.
Don’t go to either of these shops expecting to do your full weeks grocery shopping. They both small and only stock the essentials. They’re also quite expensive. These shops are perfect to pick a few drinks, snacks and firewood.
As for restaurants, you can find a few places to eat at a couple of the lodges. We usually make our own food and sit around a fire when on a bush holiday. However, you might prefer to eat at a restaurant – perhaps even for just one night. Or maybe you just want to enjoy a lunch time meal. If that’s the case, just find one of the lodges since most of them have restaurants that are open to the public.
There’s also an ATM, fuel station, and liquor store located inside the reserve. The ATM and liquor store can be found at the “plaaswinkel” and the fuel station is at the main reserve entrance.
Why visit Mabalingwe Nature Reserve
For return visitors, Mabalingwe Nature Reserve can be a rich and rewarding experience. All it takes is a little research and a genuine love and appreciation for the bush. The appeal of Mabalingwe is not in the reserve itself or the variety of wildlife but the free roaming of the game around areas where visitors stay and taking in the true beauty of the bush.
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