How Sanbona Game Reserve is clawing back this beautiful African land
Buying up farmland and restoring it to its formerly wild state - with lions and cheetahs to boot - is the great mission of this reserve in the Western Cape's Little Karoo
If you are a child of the 1970s, you might know the ELO song Jungle. A man is walking through the forest at night. He stumbles into a clearing where animals are gathered around in a circle, singing a song. He watches quietly from the shadows until a lion sees him and says: "Come and join us if you so desire." And he does and the animals sing about our planet, a ship that sails around the mighty sun.
Jungle is jokey sentiment with a good tune. But in 2019, when Greta Thunberg tells the United Nations that "you" have stolen our future, you might think there is hardly a place left on Earth that has not been disturbed by mankind- and that maybe the band was on to something.
I am reading The Great Animal Orchestra, written by Bernie Krause, a musician who gave up LA's shiny promises to spend the past 40 years recording the world's natural soundscapes. It's a sad and beautiful read, and apposite for our times. His archive contains recordings of forests and wildernesses that are now gone - burnt, mined, developed, sold.
One of the saddest claims he makes is that there are no places left in Africa where the biophony - the natural soundscape - is fully intact. Maybe he's right. Still, I would like to take him to Sanbona Private Game Reserve in the Little Karoo and stand him on a hill in that vast place and let him listen.
Just shy of Barrydale, our driver turned north onto a gravel road. We signed in at the gatehouse and continued along the gravel. The road seemed to stretch all the way to the distant blue hump of a mountain range. We drove for an hour, crossing the range and dropping into the valley behind it.
A pristine succulent Karoo landscape spread as far as the eye could see with not a building or a cellphone mast to disturb the harmony. It was also very, very quiet. I asked the driver to stop and we got out of the car. We stood for a few moments, enveloped in the midday silence. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears.
We drove on to Dywka Tented Camp, where ranger Jordan Davidson was waiting to take us on to Explorer Camp, as far from modernity as you will find anywhere in this valley or the next one. "We're a long way from the tar road," I remarked. "It's a big place," said Jordan.
Sanbona has been a long time in the making. Buying up old farms and restoring them to their natural, wild state is a major part of this conservation success story. After all, this country is made for wild animals, not sheep - it's our natural advantage.
No-one had tried establishing a big five reserve in the Cape, though, where most of the wildlife had been shot out centuries before. That changed in the late '90s with a plan for a 27,000ha game park known as the Cape Wildlife Reserve. I remember the press releases at the time - lovely pieces of writing that conjured up a wild world lost to living memory. Lions in the Karoo. Imagine that!
Not everyone was delighted, of course, about the idea of big predators coming back - what about our sheep, our livelihoods, they asked?
The first idea - a timeshare development - didn't get off the ground. The land changed hands a few times. More farms were slowly acquired. The reserve now spans 60,000ha. The land was left to recover on its own - Nature takes her time. Tilney Manor, the first lodge, opened in 2002, followed by two more in 2009.
You need deep pockets to keep a game reserve. Investors and their money came and went. In 2015, the Caleo Foundation, a Switzerland-based non-profit, bought Sanbona. Their mandate was clear: conserve and protect this slice of the Karoo wilderness. The ethos is also simple: the reserve must be financially and ecologically sustainable and it must give back to local communities and to nature.
Explorer Camp lies on the banks of a river lined with weeping boerbean trees. It is as low-impact as it is possible to get. During the winter, when it gets too cold to camp, the tents are taken down. Apart from the shower in the shade of another boerbean tree, you would be hard pressed to know there had ever been a camp there.
That's in line with the conservation ethos, which we were to experience first-hand. Later that afternoon, Jordan drove us to a nearby koppie overlooking a dry vlei. "Six is here somewhere," he said, making gentle arcs with a radio tracking aerial. "Six" is one of Sanbona's seven cheetahs - about the carrying capacity for the entire reserve.
(As head ranger Paul Vorster would explain later, the team is vigilant about how many apex predators Sanbona can carry, as well as how many elephants, rhinos and plains game can be stocked. This is harsh and difficult country for both predators and plains game, even on 60,000ha. The animals are also not given names in an effort to not anthropomorphise them. Numbers are just fine.)
Jordan could not get a signal. But Six had been spotted on the koppie earlier, so we took a slow walk up the slope, shale crunching and stones skittering underfoot. About halfway up, he waved us to stop and pointed. "There," he whispered. I could see nothing. Then, a flicker - an ear twitching - and there she was, lying in the shade of a bush, the most beautifully camouflaged cat I had ever seen.
We stopped about 15m away and stood still. Our presence was largely ignored in that insouciant manner of cats. Then another spotted head popped up behind the bush - the male, whom we had not clocked and did not expect. Jordan was quietly rapturous. "Brilliant!" he whispered. "He's lost his collar so we were wondering how we were going to find him."
The male - "Four" - was less relaxed than his girlfriend. After a couple of photos, Jordan hustled us gently off the mountain.
In the morning, Jordan woke us and took us up the koppie for sunrise because there is nothing like a Karoo dawn. We watched light float over the blackened plains. Slowly, slowly details emerged from the dark - trees below the ridge line of faraway hills, the river bed winding through our camp, the camp itself. The sun climbed over the ridge and pinned us in its glare. The morning chill evaporated in an instant.
After breakfast, we went looking for Six but she was long gone. The surprise of the morning was to find Four instead, hunched over a springbok he had just run down. We could hear him better than we could see him as he crunched through ribs, stopping only to sit up and look around.
"Cheetahs never stop looking," said Jordan. "He's worried that the lions will come."
The lions - two young males - were, as it turned out, not far off, although we did not see them until later that night when we watched them prowling down a riverbed. The rangers were hoping that they would eventually hook up, in the bush sense of the word, with a young lioness who had been a little scarce after scarpering off into the southern hills some time before. She was keeping out of the way of the reserve's two other lions, two inseparable brothers who might have meant her harm.
Once sedated, the lions would be put in nappies, face masks and, yes, leg restraints, and loaded onto a King Air plane
She need not have worried. After a last night under the stars, Jordan woke us before dawn. "Be ready in 10," he said. "We have a surprise for you."
The surprise was not the small herd of elephants kicking up the dust in a riverbed, nor the lone giraffe silhouetted against a cobalt Karoo sky. As we drove as fast as game-reserve manners allowed, Jordan alluded to the "other two" lions, the brothers. It seems they had not, in fact, left the reserve as we'd thought but would do that day.
A plane was on its way from Oudtshoorn, carrying the vet and his magic bag of lion tranquilisers. The two "boys" were in their holding boma, a charnel house of skulls, rib cages and assorted carcasses on which they had been feeding. Once sedated, they would be put in nappies, face masks and, yes, leg restraints, and loaded onto a King Air. They would wake up in another world - lush, green and full of warthogs.
It was, said Vorster, time to send them to another home. Three lions was more than enough, given how the drought had ground on and on, and the game numbers had thinned. The darting was quick, although their growls of displeasure were heard half a kilometre away. Within the hour they were filling the King Air cabin. The wide-eyed pilot looked at the vet, who was stuffing a bag full of "top up" in case the first dose wore off.
"Those are some big-ass lions," she said.
Big, indeed. Just like Sanbona. You should go.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Sanbona Private Game Reserve is situated in the Little Karoo, off the R62. Driving time from Cape Town to the main gate is three to four hours, after which it's another hour or so on gravel to the lodges. You will be met at the Sanbona Welcome Lounge where you can leave your vehicle. Otherwise, (excellent) transfers are available from Cape Town.
Along with the Explorer walking safari camp (see below), Sanbona offers three very different lodges, each with a unique ambience and style:
- Dwyka Tented Lodge is the classic bush lodge with nine luxury safari tents on a bend in the Dwyka River, overlooked by cliffs where leopards likely roam.
- Gondwana Family Lodge is a classic Karoo farmstead overlooking the Bellair dam and is aimed at family groups with kids.
- Tilney Manor is a beautiful six-suite bush-boutique lodge in one of the historical farmhouses.
Dwyka Tented Lodge from R7,400pppn; Gondwana Family Lodge and Tilney Manor from R6,575pppn. Note these are low season rates - prices rise during Sanbona's high season (September-November) and again in peak season from December to March.
Gondwana offers a child rate for kids aged 4-11; children under 4 stay free.
Special offer! Sanbona is offering a 15% discount off standard rates to Sunday Times Travel readers when they book directly with Sanbona Reservations. Phone 021-010-0028, e-mail email@example.com or see sanbona.com.
SAFARIS ON FOOT
The Explorer Camp is open only during the summer months from October to end-April and offers a chance to explore parts of the reserve on a two-day walking safari.
The camp has three safari tents and an open Bedouin-style tent as the lounge, where you can kick back in the midday hours and drink in the view. There is also a fantastic shower hidden in the embrace of an old weeping boerbean tree.
As this is a Big Five reserve, you will be accompanied by an armed ranger who will be your host and guide during your visit. Trail distances vary but you should expect to spend up to four hours walking. You will also have the exclusive use of a game-viewing vehicle, both for transport and game drives.
Sanbona Explorer Camp is sold as a two-night walking trail package, with arrival on Fridays. Rates currently start at R5,860pppn, rising to R6,690 in the December-March peak season.
• Ash was a guest of Sanbona