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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

In the wild but in the city

The reserve is a decent choice for a weekend excursion. Nonetheless, due to the restricted allowance of 100 vehicles per day, it would be wise to arrive early to avoid potential disappointment following a lengthy journey.

On a quiet, cool autumn Sunday morning in the Rietvlei Nature Reserve outside Pretoria, we certainly weren’t expecting any dramatic wildlife encounters. You don’t feel like you’re in the wild, for a start.

The 4 000 hectare reserve never seems to be detached from the hectic hurly-burly of an urban environment – you can see factories and houses in the distance and, in places, power lines and pylons disrupt the picture. Yet, as we ease slowly across a low-level bridge in the reserve, we are confronted by a young adult red hartebeest.

Picture: iStock.
Picture: iStock.

A close call with a charging red hartebeest

It stares at us and stops, contemplating the bulk of the Ford Ranger we are sitting in, the one blocking where it wants to go. It darts towards us, has second thoughts and skids to a halt, panicking and collapsing on to its knees. I throw the Ranger into reverse and, as I am looking at the reverse camera to gingerly retreat and allow the animal access to its escape route, it charges.

Swerving suddenly to the left of the vehicle, it suddenly realises there is a river in the way – and jumps. Never knew a red hartebeest could get airborne like that. Even he doesn’t get it right and hits the bank, but recovers to rush away. No damage to animal or car. We all take a moment to breathe.

That’s the closest I have come to a car-wildlife encounter since I hit a sable in the Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Now we’re all awake and, not far along the road, my wife spots a bird – a small raptor – on a tree branch. Oh yuk! Is her assessment…it’s clearly having breakfast from some recently slaughtered furry creature. Out comes the bird book (a Newman’s which we have, this time at least, remembered to take with us).

Picture: iStock.
Picture: iStock.

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Wildlife sightings and absence of cheetahs in the reserve

After some to and from paging, we agree that it is a black-shouldered kite, a common resident. Already, the drive around the dam has proved worthy of the 140km round trip from Joburg. The reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, the stars of the show being a “coalition” of cheetah (yes, that is the collective noun for a group of the racy predators). Sadly, despite the best part of seven hours driving around the reserve, we don’t see them.

We do see a white rhino in the distance, though – something unusual so close to a city, but not in a zoo. Apart from the hartebeest, we see zebra, as well as rare black wildebeest (the ones with a fluffy white tail), eland, springbok, waterbuck and ostrich. Although the maps of the reserve still indicate a lion enclosure, I did a bit of Googling and found out that the four lions there were taken by poachers in 2019 and they have not been replaced, which is sad.

Picture: iStock.
Picture: iStock.

Tips for visiting the reserve and amenities available

The reserve is not a bad destination for a weekend drive. However, because there is a daily limit of 100 vehicles, it might be a good idea to get there early to save yourself disappointment after a long drive. On the Sunday we were there, it didn’t look like there were so many cars, although the picnic site must have had 30 or more cars when we arrived at lunchtime. Entrance is R68 per adult (R40 for pensioners over 60). There is a restaurant/coffee shop inside the reserve which is located in what was obviously an old farmhouse.

Birdwatching, wildlife photography, and beware of red hartebeest

Prices are reasonable and the omelettes are as good as any you’d get in a city bistro. Rietvlei is particularly popular with “twitchers” (bird fans) and wildlife photographers and a number of “hides” around the reserve offer close up opportunities to observe the birdlife. There is plenty in abundance all over the reserve, as we discovered. And you might be allowed to watch something have its breakfast. But watch out for the red hartebeest.

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