Sanbona: a surprising destination

2012-05-21 08:52
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Photos: Surprising Sanbona

Located a mere three-hour drive from Cape Town, Sanbona Private Game Reserve is full of pleasant surprises.

The radio in the front of the game viewing vehicle crackled to life, not for the first time during the drive, but this time it held a good deal more promise. Whether it was the intonation of the distorted voice on the other end, or just the way our ranger immediately zoned in on the barely discernible morsel of information being imparted, I don't know.  But somehow I knew this would be exciting.

"Well, it seems like we might have a lucky game drive after all. What do you guys say about seeing some lions?" Alwyn finally said, as he carefully placed the radio back in the rustic cradle he'd grabbed it from a moment before.

My heart gave a little leap. I had heard much about Sanbona's lions - especially the rare white ones - and was secretly dying to see them for myself, to catch even just the vaguest little glimpse. While I had encountered white lions once before at a big cat park somewhere in Limpopo, the experience had been marred by the obstruction of electric fences. Call me a painful puritan, but experiencing animals in their natural environment, roaming around gloriously free, has always been my preference.

Thus my response was instantaneous: "I say... What are we waiting for?! Let's go!" Fortunately my fellow game-viewer agreed and we let the rough and tumble dirt track take us, ducking as acacias waved us on with their thorny arms.

A surprising destination

Now, while all of this may sound suspiciously much like a bushveld adventure, the truth is it took place in a perfect patch of the Western Cape where the vast spaces and wide blue skies of the Little Karoo meet the rolling hills of the Overberg and the wholesome, champagne air of the Winelands. Located just beyond the hot spring town of Montague, nestled into the Warmwaterberg mountains, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a surprisingly quick and picturesque three-hour drive from the Mother City.

The second surprising thing about Sanbona is its size: made up of no less than 19 rehabilitated Karoo farms, it covers a whopping 54 000 hectares, making it roughly the size of Singapore and the fourth largest private game reserve in South Africa.


However, with only three lodges spread out across the park, it manages to maintain a distinct atmosphere of exclusivity and intimacy. In fact, a strong sense of belonging is communicated to guests throughout the various steps of arrival: getting to the gate, meeting a transfer vehicle at the stunning welcome lounge, and being delivered to your final destination, one of the lovely lodges. 

We were lucky enough to hop off at the very first stop, Tilney Manor, named after Thomas Tilney, a magistrate of Swellendam during the late 1800s/early 1900s who had lived in the stately settler-style house, now the lodge's main building.

We were the only guests for the evening and had almost the entire team consisting of assistant manager, Jerome, ranger, Alwyn and a waiter bearing warm cloths, stream out the front door to welcome us. What made it even more special was the fact that this warmth didn't disappear with the welcome, but remained right until our departure.

We stayed in one of the six beautifully furnished, open plan suites, surrounded by a lush garden of indigenous plant species and healthy green lawns. From the delectable dishes served up at meal times to the little folded towel-elephant we found at the foot of our beds, Tilney Manor's hospitality was beyond top class. Each of the six suites accommodates only two adults, so this ensures that it's pretty private and exclusive even at full capacity.

The other two lodges are equally picturesque and both hold their own charm. Dwyka is perfect for a romantic break - honeymoon, anniversary or just some solid rekindling - with its selection of 9 fairy-tale like luxury tents, each boasting its own private deck complete with plunge pool, while Gondwana is the best option for families with little kids, as it offers a playroom, ample space and a super cool skull garden to explore.

Big 5 - white lions

Sanbona's biggest drawcard, however, is the fact that it has the big five, as well as the only free-roaming, self-sustaining white lions in the world. At present the reserve is home to four adult female lions - two tawny and two white - and two cubs, belonging to one of the white females.

In a strange twist of fate, the two resident male lions, one of whom had sired the cubs, both died within days of each other sometime at the end of 2010. According to Alwyn, the exact cause of death has never been cleared up, as their bodies had already started decomposing upon discovery, rendering autopsy results inconclusive. A thorough inspection of the site, however, revealed no human interference, leading them to believe it must have been a natural cause, perhaps a snake bite. While plans are being made to bring in a replacement male or two, it is still too risky with the growing cubs, and alpha male lions tendency toward infanticide.

We were fortunate enough to see three of the reserve's feline grand dames, but sadly not the mom with the cubs, lazing in the last rays of Saturday's sun. As far as the rest of the big guns go, we spent some time watching a herd of peaceful elephants indulge in a lush green meal, and caught a reassuring glimpse of a beautiful white rhino far in the distance, but the reserve's specially reared disease-free buffalo and secretive Cape Mountain leopard remained elusive. However, a skittish black-back jackal, a herd of regal eland, two necking giraffes and a troupe of playful baboons, among many others, did a good job of keeping us entertained!

While it is often the big creatures that capture our attention, Sanbona is also a sanctuary to one of the most critically endangered little creatures of our time: the Riverine Rabbit. These cute creatures have a very limited distribution, occurring only in the central and southern regions of the Little Karoo, making Sanbona prime Riverine Rabbit property. The chances of seeing one are, however extremely small, as they tend to hide in their water-side burrows for most of the day, only daring to explore in the early hours of the morning. Sanbona is playing an incredibly important role in the conservation of this rare creature.

A few favourite moments

While wildlife may be the reserve's most prominent attraction, it's by far not the only thing it has to offer. These are a few of the other experiences I thoroughly enjoyed:

Hiking up to a cave with both bushman and Khoi-San paintings inside. There are a few of these sacred sites around the park, make sure you ask your guide to take you to at least one - it really is an incredible experience being up close to these eerily awesome artworks that date back 4000 years. What makes this specific cave quite special, though, is the fact that it's rather rare to find both bushman and Khoi-San paintings on the same site, providing the perfect opportunity for a thorough comparison.

Stargazing at Tilney's pool. With its great expanse of streetlight-less earth, the Karoo has always been a great spot for reveling in the beauty of the night sky. Nothing like peering at Orion's sword hilt, the binary of Alpha and Proxima centauri as well as Mars through the magnifying lens of a telescope to put things in perspective.

Coffee and drinks breaks on the drive. Whether for early morning coffee or sundowner drinks, stopping for a break during a drive is always a treat. We got to enjoy a steaming cuppa overlooking a bird-encrusted dam, and later, a ice cold G&T with an endless view of hills, mountains and valleys.

Check out the Sanbona website for more details or give the Shamwari Group a call on +27 (0)41 509 3000.

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