10 great reasons to visit Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Western Cape
Around 350 years ago, lion, elephant, hippo and other game roamed the Western Cape freely before the land was colonised and the wild creatures hunted out. Then the fences went up and only the hardiest and wiliest remained.
But in the Little Karoo, between Montagu and Barrydale, there's a place where a concerted conservation effort has turned back the clock, and species that occurred here historically have been brought back to live out their lives in harmony in this fragile semi-desert environment.
Such a place is the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Little Karoo, where 19 former sheep and goat farms were consolidated into a 54 000ha reserve, one of the largest private reserves in South Africa.
Those fortunate enough to visit here will find a place of exceptional tranquility, space and scenic splendour, while also being able to see the Big Five in a natural setting.
1. Enjoy the view
There are few better places to admire the crags and creases of the magnificent Cape Fold Mountains as they glow red in the setting sun. And when the sun goes down, there's a splendour of another kind as the stars come out to populate a velvety, dark sky.
2. Meet the pachyderms
Many of the Cape mountain passes were built along tracks once made by elephants, which would follow seasonal paths through the mountains. But along with the San, who left a rock art record of the elephants, they disappeared early on when the Cape was first colonised. At Sanbona, there are now two independent herds of elephant that roam freely around the reserve. There is something quite wonderful about seeing these ancients back where they belong.
3. Look down
In the south of Sanbona, the vegetation is highly endangered Renosterveld (a kind of fynbos) while the north is home to the Succulent Karoo with many fascinating plants with appropriately descriptive names, like this little succulent called bababoudjies (baby bottoms). If you walk in the veld, take note of the interesting and varied plant life, which also puts on a colourful display of spring flowers once a year.
4. Track those lions
The reserve has a small pride of free-roaming lions that your guide will seek out for you, sometimes using a tracking device. But remember, nothing in nature is guaranteed and sometimes the lions move into wilderness areas where there are no roads nearby.
5. Commune with cheetahs
The cheetahs in this reserve are part of a highly successful breeding programme that is helping to ensure the genetic diversity of these endangered cats. Cubs raised wild here get sent to other reserves like Madikwe and Pilanesberg. The Sanbona cheetahs have been closely studied and so have learnt to tolerate humans, which allows people to approach them on foot (in the company of a guide, of course). This is not to say that they are tame but you can sit and watch them quietly and they won't turn a hair.
6. Marvel at the fossils
Fossils are one of the legacies of the Little Karoo landscape that was once part of an ancient sea. This beautiful example of a rock embedded with imprints of marine fossils can be seen in the outdoor classroom at Gondwana Lodge.
7. Walk to a rock art cave
Tilney Manor is located next to a beautiful gorge that once had a freshwater spring that gave succour to Khoi herders and the San hunter-gatherers. There's a rock art shelter within a 15-minute walk of the manor that has paintings from both these groups. You can ask your guide to take you there to see this outdoor art.
8. Bring the kids
Gondwana Lodge positively loves kids and kids love it right back. They have a 'Kids on Safari' programme and an outdoor classroom where children (and their parents) can learn more about nature and see and touch curiosities like elephant and hippo skulls.
9. Lap up the luxury
Tilney Manor and Dwyka Tented Camp offer a more adult experience (both have age restrictions). For those looking for a quiet retreat, Tilney's spacious rooms and stoeps (verandahs) are a good choice, while Dwyka has a remote, romantic wilderness feel to it. Dwyka experienced a severe flash flood in January but is due to reopen soon after a major refurbishment, so it will be even better than before.
10. And then there's the food ...
Big breakfasts, three-course lunches and dinners, interspersed with game drives and sundowners in the veld with biltong and nuts to nibble on. Let's just say you're unlikely to lose weight while you are here ...