North West
Close to the ground.

The North West Province is probably best known for its precious metal mining and its two top tourist destinations: the over-the-top mega resort of Sun City and nearby Pilanesburg National Park - home to the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino).

But there is much more to check out in the North West Province beyond these two popular sights. There are a few lesser-known game and nature reserves with great hiking trails that will allow you to experience the pleasant landscape away from the crowds.

A handful of interior cities have their own distinct flavor, such as the city of Rustenburg and its exploding funeral business or the laid-back but prosperous capital city of Mafikeng that endured a seven-month siege during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Original Khoi-San paintings found in the region date back as far as 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, a testament to the long indigenous inhabitation of the western Transvaal, today known as the North West Province. Tswana descendents of Bantu migrants from the north later settled the area and paved the way for the rise of the ancient “lost city” of Kurreechane (or Kaditshwene) during the Iron Age. Today, the city’s stone wall ruins represent the most notable remaining example of original Tswana culture. The advanced society of iron smelters and blacksmiths impressed early British explorers and Wesleyan missionaries who arrived in the region in 1820s. However, the Tswana inhabitants abandoned the city as turbulent warfare spread across the region and the Ndebele forces under Chief Mzilikazi invaded and established a stronghold just north of present day Mafikeng.

The North West Province was rife with frontier instability between 1830 and the South African War in 1899. Encroaching Voortrekkers, distancing themselves from the control of the British Cape Colony, invaded the region and pushed the Ndebele north as they established a dispersed network of farms. As violence subsided, previously displaced chiefdoms such as the Barolong repopulated the area around the Molopo River. Around the same time, in 1856, the Voortrekkers declared an independent republic centered on nearby Pretoria, but soon aimed to expand their territorial claims beyond the confines of this new republic. So they raided Barolong territory and demanded tribute or labor from the conquered tribe. In response, in order to recoup their lost land, the Barolong requested protection from the colonial British, who were happy to oblige when the discovery of diamonds near Lichtenburg sparked an increase of interest in the region. A British expedition, led by Sir Charles Warren, came to the Barolong’s defense and declared the region part of the British Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1885; Mafikeng (at the time referred to Mafeking) was established as capital. A decade later, in 1895, Cape Prime Minister and infamous diamond baron Cecil Rhodes annexed the southern part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate and incorporated it into the Cape Colony. That same year, Rhodes colluded with gold miners in the Transvaal to launch a coup effort against the Boer republic from Mafikeng. This attempt, which later became known as the Jameson Raid, failed horribly and Rhodes was soon forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

The outbreak of the South African War in 1899 turned the western Transvaal into a major battleground. Mafikeng gained international fame when roughly 8,000 Boers besieged 6,000 Barolong, 1,000 refugees, 1,000 Englishmen and 900 British troops in the city for over 217 days as they launched ongoing assaults and cut off supplies to the city, in an attempt to starve their opponents into submission. Future political activist Sol Plaatje was among the besieged, and it was during this time that he wrote his literary masterpiece, “The Boer War Diary of Sol T Plaatje: an African at Mafikeng.” Over the next two years, the western Transvaal was devastated. The Boers launched guerilla warfare and British scorched earth tactics and internment of Boer women and children and black Africans in unsanitary concentration camps led to widespread disease and death. The British Imperial Army finally overcame the Boer commandos in 1902 and eight years later declared the Union of South Africa in 1910.

The apartheid government carved up for the majority of the region a separate African “homeland” called Bophuthatswana, a hodgepodge state that was given nominal independence in 1977. President Lucas Mangope ruled Bophuthatswana and the capital was established on the outskirts of Mafikeng at Mmabatho. A deal was struck between the homeland and the apartheid government to allow the white population residing in Bophuthatswana to retain their South African citizenship, and the Sun City (now an extensive resort and fun park) emerged as a haven for white gamblers to enjoy the separate jurisdiction and freedom to fornicate with black women trying to make a buck. The international community never acknowledged Bophuthatswana’s independence, as it globally represented an element of the apartheid government’s pursuit of separate and unequal race policies.

Violence overcame Bophuthatswana in the late 1980s and in 1988 a military coup ousted President Mangope with corruption charges. The South African Defense Force invaded and reinstated Mangope, but the effort was short lived as mass opposition mounted to Mangope’s refusal to join the democratic transition of South Africa in the early 1990s. Violent conflicts toppled the government in 1994. The former state of Bophuthatswana was reincorporated into South Africa as the newly elected democratic government restructured the country, and the western Transvaal was established as the North West Province. The Bophuthatswana capital of Mmabatho was merged with Mafikeng to form the new capital of the North West Province in 1996.

Rustenburg

GPS: S 25 40.089 E 027 14.305 | pop. 125,000 | elevation 1,165 m/3,822 ft

Rustenburg is a bustling city and the commerce and transport hub of the region, although there isn’t that much going on within the city itself. Unemployment and business turnover are high with places opening and closing with considerable frequency. One business that is thriving though is the funeral business, with tombstone shops on nearly every other block, a large new crematorium and rows of fresh gravesites dug in the cemetery on the outskirts of town. However the surrounding area offers a much more pleasant (and less morbid) experience with scenic farms, and guest houses, Kswane Nature Reserve, Mountain Sanctuary Park and the nearby Sun City and Pilanesburg National Park.

Security is an issue in the city and most of the downtown area empty and locked up by sundown.

Mountain Sanctuary Park

GPS: S 25 49.235 E 027 27.637 | elevation 1,339 m/4,393 ft

Mountain Sanctuary Park is a 10 square kilometer nature reserve in the Magaliesberg Mountains with scenic hiking trails, rock formations, and crystal clear mountain streams that you can drink from and natural pools that you can swim in. It is one of the most beautiful parks in the area and popular with weekend visitors from both Pretoria and Joburg, being just 100 km and 120 km from each, respectively. In addition to the baboons that roam through the main camp, the wildlife in the nature reserve includes klipspringer, duiker, roebuck, impala, zebra, hyena, warthog, jackal and leopards.

Pilanesberg National Park

GPS: S 25 15.283 E 027 12.658 | elevation 1,101 m/3,612 ft

Pilanesberg National Park is located 50 km from Rustenburg and is only a 2hr drive from Johannesburg. As one of the largest national parks in South Africa it houses the Big 5 within its 55,000 hectares surrounded by unique rings of hills formed by volcanic activity some 1.2 billion years ago.

The park was stocked through a program called Operation Genesis in 1979 where native species that were originally driven from the area were captured and brought back. Pilanesburg gets quite busy on weekends and holidays with many of the urbanites from Johannesburg and Pretoria making the short drive to escape the city for the weekend.

Sun City

GPS: S 25 21.570 E 027 06.433 elevation 1,071 m/3,514 ft

Sun City is self-proclaimed to be “Africa’s Kingdom of Pleasure” for all ages. It is a gaudy mega resort, reminiscent of Las Vegas, built in the southern tip of Pilanesburg National Park with a casino, water park, game reserve, shopping mall, a number of hotels and enough activities to keep you busy for a week. The resort is primarily populated with foreign tourists soaking up the sun by the pool or in the water park. The city resort prides itself in its environmental protection and sustainable tourism.

To get inside the city it costs R70/person, but you get R30 back in Sun City Cash that you can spend anywhere within the resort. The entire city is accessible by foot, but there are free shuttle buses that run every 15-20 minutes between the entertainment center and locations throughout the rest of the city.

Mafikeng

GPS: S 25 51.893 E 025 38.622 | pop. 75,000 | elevation 1,283 m/4,209 ft

The capital city of Mafikeng is laid-back for its size and has a healthy economy relative to some of the surrounding cities and a distinctly large middle-class. The city is historically significant due to its role in the South African War when the city was besieged and shelled for a number of months by Boer forces between October 1899 and May 1900.

Nearby Mmabatho is Mafikeng’s sister city located on the northern outskirts of town. Today it is part of greater Mafikeng, but under the apartheid regime it was the capital of the nominally independent Bophuthatswana homeland led by the controversial Lucas Mangope, who fled his “independent country” after unsuccessfully trying to implement unpopular policies.

Lichtenburg

GPS: S 26 08.942 E 026 09.605 | pop. 60,000 | elevation 1,484 m/4,869 ft

Lichtenburg (town of light) was established in 1873 and became an instant hit when a diamond was found on a family farm in 1926. Within months over 100,000 prospectors flooded the town to stake their claim and more prospectors were attracted by the stories of success. In 1927 the world’s largest flawless red diamond (at 33 carats) was found and sold to De Beers. Today Lichtenburg is a tranquil slow-paced, predominantly corn growing farm town.