While Gauteng is most famous for its great urban centres like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Soweto, it is possible to spend an entire weekend in the province without even entering a city. From the rolling hills of the UNESCO-protected Cradle of Humankind, to the shores of the Hartbeespoort Dam or the Big Five Dinokeng Game Reserve, Gauteng has a wealth of natural attractions that will make you quickly forget about the urban hustle that lies just down the road.
Pack your binoculars and your walking shoes for this three-day itinerary across the best of Gauteng’s wild places and open spaces. A high-clearance vehicle is not necessary to follow this route as it makes use of tarred roads and well-marked dirt roads within local game reserves.
Check into the Maropeng Hotel located right in the heart of the Cradle of Humankind. Designed to blend into the surrounding countryside, each room has its own terrace overlooking the rolling hills and valleys of this UNESCO-protected reserve.
Bookings at the hotel include a ticket to both the Maropeng museum and the Sterkfontein Caves, two of Gauteng’s must-see attractions. Start the day with a visit to the Maropeng museum, located next to the hotel. The word Maropeng means "returning to the place of our ancestors", and the Maropeng Visitor Centre building, the Tumulus Building, is designed to resemble a burial mound. A visit takes you on a journey spiralling down under the Earth, led by educational and interactive exhibitions that outline the history of the universe as we know it, from the Big Bang to the present day, with a special focus on the evolution of humankind.
A short drive from Maropeng are the Sterkfontein Caves, where the remains of Little Foot, Mrs Ples and other world-famous hominid fossils were found. On a 45-minute guided tour of the caves you’ll learn more about how our early ancestors lived and hear how about the kinds of wonders that archaeologists continue to unearth in the area, including the Cradle’s most important recent hominid discovery, Homo naledi.
From the caves drive a short distance down the road to the luxurious Forum Homini Hotel for lunch at the award-winning Roots restaurant. Choose from one of the multi-course tasting menus with the option of a wine pairing, and dine on the finest contemporary South African cuisine while looking out over the softly rustling golden grasses of the Cradle reserve.
From the Forum Homini Hotel it’s a 20-minute drive to the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, a breeding centre and private game reserve where you can embark on a game drive in search of lions and rhinos and other big game. In the reserve’s breeding centre you’ll also find a range of extremely endangered animals such as wild dogs, Siberian and Bengal tigers, and black leopards.
After a busy day exploring the sights of the Cradle of Humankind head back to the Maropeng Hotel for dinner and drinks on the terrace beneath a star-filled sky.
After breakfast drive to the R560 and head north towards the Hartbeespoort Dam. On the way stop to buy some local farm produce at Die Ou Pastorie, a pretty Victorian vicarage with a small shop selling home-made pâtés and jams, and pay a visit to the Van Galen cheese farm, which specialises in traditional Dutch cheese.
Spend the rest of the morning at the Bush Babies Monkey Sanctuary on the northern side of the Hartbeespoort Dam. Trace a path through the indigenous forest canopy along elevated walkways and keep your eye out for the cheeky primates who have made this place home, including capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys and lemurs.
For a late lunch follow the shoreline of the dam until you reach the Aerial Cableway Hartbeespoort. After a short cable car ride up you’ll find yourself atop one of the highest mountains in the region, gazing down over the fields, villages and towns of Gauteng province. The pizza restaurant at the top is a most memorable place for lunch with a view.
After lunch jump back in the car and drive the hour journey north-east to the Dinokeng Game Reserve, Gauteng’s only free-roaming Big Five reserve. As you drive through the bushveld on the way to your accommodation keep your eyes peeled for buffalo, elephants and other big game.
For your second night in Gauteng, check into the friendly Leopardsong Game Lodge and book a guided game drive for early the next morning. Opt for an early dinner and a glass of wine by the campfire, before retiring early to bed to ensure you are wide awake for your 6am game drive.
Rise with the sun for a morning drive in search of the Big Five. Predators such as lions are at their most active after dark and an early start is your best chance to view these majestic animals. Opt for a packed breakfast best enjoyed while parked by a watering hole and listening to the sounds of the wild. After returning to the lodge recharge your batteries with a short mid-morning nap.
Check out of the lodge and pay a visit to the nearby town of Cullinan, most famous for the Premier Diamond Mine, where many of the world’s biggest diamonds have been found. For lunch choose from one of the quirky little restaurants and cafes on Cullinan’s old-fashioned main street.
From Cullinan it is just a short distance to the N1 highway that will take you back towards OR Tambo Airport and the city of Johannesburg. A lovely place to spend a final afternoon in Gauteng’s great outdoors is exploring the many well-maintained walking trails that traverse the expansive Modderfontein Reserve on the eastern fringes of Johannesburg. Keep your binoculars handy for spotting the fish eagles that are known to frequent the reserve’s dams.
An atmospheric place to stop for an early-evening meal and a drink on your last evening is the Thirty Three High Street restaurant on the corner of Modderfontein’s village-like main street. Sit under the shade of the huge oak tree in the garden of this old colonial home and feast on delicious wood-fired pizzas and beers from the adjoining Oakes craft brewery as the sun sets over the Modderfontein Reserve.