In the days before the country went into lockdown and prior to the impact of COVID-19 being truly understood, I was invited to enjoy a long weekend off the grid at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, staying at their Explorer Camp and walking in their Karoo wilderness.
The experience transported me to a place where big skies, stillness, camp fires and sleeping under canvas were all that mattered – an invaluable pause at a time when the world began to flounder.
Situated just 3 hours from Cape Town, the 58 000 hectare Sanbona Wildlife Reserve traverses the impressive Cape Fold Mountains and wide-open Klein Karoo plains. Made up of 19 farms that were reclaimed and rehabilitated over some years, the reserve and the life that it holds is protected and managed by a conscious, sustainable and conservation driven team, visionaries who have overseen the return of a rich variety of wildlife that now call the area home.
My weekend was at Sanbona’s Explorer Camp and all about being as close to nature and this piece of wilderness as allowed, with morning and evening walking safaris rewarding richly. The camp itself is a complete escape from the world, well laid out with all required amenities and more than a fair amount of spoiling from the team hosting us.
We were fortunate enough to have head ranger Dean Laubscher guiding us, ably supported by Jared and Caspar at the camp, and Anthrea on the walks. Dean’s calm confidence and extensive knowledge are a perfect match for this soulful adventure. Highlights for me include sleeping under canvas, showering under the stars and following the game tracks in the river beds, as well as learning about the sensitive vegetation that the reserve is home to.
Campfire chats and early morning steamy coffee enhanced the experience – let alone the excellent sightings of cheetah, elephant, giraffe, zebra, and much more. On my visit, we had extremely hot weather and spent Saturday afternoon napping in the lounge tent, seeking reprieve from the beating sun in the hammocks strung from trees, and being soothed by the canvas flapping around us and the chatter of the resident birds. Here’s a pic heavy account of the experience.
Heavenly in every regard and much needed time reconnecting with nature. Reaffirmation too that walking safaris will always be my preferred way to enjoy time in the bush.
The Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
Set at the foot of the towering Warmwaterberg Mountains in the Little Karoo, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve offers a unique malaria-free safari experience. With a choice of three luxury lodges and the Explorer Camp for the more adventurous, the private game reserve is home to a huge diversity of indigenous flora and fauna and rare examples of San rock art, some dating back more than 3, 500 years. The main activities are 4×4 game drives, walking safaris, boat trips on the dam and stargazing. Conservation is key at Sanbona and every visiting guest contributes to preserving this wilderness for future generations, and to the vision of the custodians.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is much more than a Big 5 game reserve, it’s a place of stillness, vast landscapes, beguiling isolation and raw beauty. It’s a truly unspoilt wilderness.
The Explorer Camp
The public space to relax into between walks, drives and meals.
The Explorer Camp Experience
Arriving to the Sanbona Welcome Lounge by 12h00 on Friday, we made our way to Dwyka Tented Lodge, where we checked in and joined our guides Dean and Anthrea for a delicious lunch. Once settled and changed into our walking shoes, we embarked by 4×4 towards the Explorer Camp, stopping en route for an introductory walk in the reserve. After arriving at the campsite, we headed out to trek a cheetah that had been spotted in the area. It was hot and dry, and incredibly rewarding as we came across her relaxing under a tree on the hillside. Sundowners and dinner were enjoyed around the campfire, before we snuggled into our beds for the night.
Saturday had us rising extra early for a quick splash of water, coffee and rusks before embarking by car to the next area that we were to explore on foot. The Karoo is rich with life and on the four-hour walk, we learnt much about the succulents, grasses and creatures that thrive in these semi-barren surrounds. A coffee break with freshly-baked muffins sustained us, with a giant generous cook-up breakfast at a surprise spot in the bush before we headed back to camp.
The afternoon was at leisure and we retreated to the hammocks that are casually strung from the trees, and to daybeds in the mess tent with books and ice-cold beers. A perfect retreat for a siesta and escape from the heavy heat. Energy reclaimed, afternoon tea and treats were served before we pulled on our walking shoes and sunhats back on for the afternoon drive and walk, which brought us the excellent game viewing. Sundowners were served in the softening orange-tinged light as the sun sunk below the horizon and the full moon rose to illuminate the land, with dinner and an evening of relaxed storytelling around the campfire bringing an end to the most perfect day.
Sunday came much quicker than I’d hoped. Rising extra early we climbed the nearby hill to watch the sun reappear to cast her light on the endless layers of land. We paused for coffee, warming our hands on the aluminium camping cups, while Dean named the various mountain peaks for us and we wondered about those that had come to be here before us. Tearing ourselves away to head back to camp we packed up and returned to Dwyka for a delicious breakfast, before making our way back to the welcome lounge – and home. Soul replenished, my heart filled with gratitude for all that the experience had brought me.
Enjoying coffee on the top of the hill that overlooks the Explorer Camp.
A surpise breakfast enjoyed out in the reserve after a morning walk.
The Karoo is very much about the detail and the precious life that shoots from apparently arid soil, adding colour and texture to the sun-bleached quartz laden lands.
Sanbona’s Fauna and Flora
The Karoo is very much about the detail. The precious life that shoots from the apparently arid soil adding colour and texture to the sun-bleached lands. Baby’s Bottoms, Ostrich Toes, Shark Mouths (haai-bekkies), Pig’s Ears and Epopa among the succulents to look out for. There are an estimated 1 600 succulent species in this biome, making up an impressive 16% of the world’s 10 000 succulents. Other plant life that inhabits the region includes the Acacia Thickets, Renosterveld and Central Mountain Fynbos.
As part of their conservation efforts, Sanbona has reintroduced animals that once roamed freely in the area but were eradicated to make place for farming. Now returned to wilderness, the sought after Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) occur here, as do various other species such as gemsbok, springbok, hartebeest, eland, kudu and zebra. Other animal species that continue to thrive thanks to the reserve’s ongoing efforts include the natural small game such as jackal, caracal, duiker, aardwolf, aardvark, brown hyena, grey rhebok, steenbok, klipspringer and grysbok.
Sanbona is one of only two protected areas that provide sufficient space and diversity for the riverine rabbit and have become major role players in their conservation. The highly elusive riverine rabbit is the 13th most endangered mammal in the world.
On our walks and drives, we were fortunate to encounter many of the animals listed, including cheetah which we tracked on foot. Also elephants, giraffe, kudu, gemsbok, eland, red hartebeest, duikers and grysbok. We heard the yelp of the black-back jackal while huddled around the fire at night, and were woken to the cry of the Karoo Koran.
Dean and Anthrea talked us through the succulents that we saw, so fragile and brave as they pushed intricate white, pink and yellow flowers through the quartz covered land. At the watering holes yellow beaked ducks and platanna frogs, occasionally hippo and elephants and other game coming down to drink.
Accommodation at Sanbona
Tilney Manor. The first of the lodges in the collection, Tilney Manor embraces the history of the land. With views towards the mountains and landscape, it offers six open-plan suites with private verandas. A refuge of peace and tranquillity, the guest experience includes authentic Karoo cuisine, luxury lounges and a rim-flow pool, while the Relaxation Retreat has a steam room and sauna.
Dwyka Tented Lodge. Encircled by striking rock formations, Dwyka Tented Lodge epitomises seclusion. The nine luxury tents with private decks and heated Jacuzzis are set in a horseshoe bend of a dry Karoo ravine. Dine alfresco in the boma or relax in the expansive lounge. Take advantage of the Relaxation Retreat treatments designed to rejuvenate your mind, body and soul.
Gondwana Family Lodge. With views of the Anysberg Mountains and overlooking Bellair Dam, Gondwana Family Lodge is the perfect place for family, friends and groups to gather. The spacious thatched Lodge offers a blend of modern comfort and bush authenticity with interconnecting rooms, indoor and outdoor play areas, a child-friendly pool and a Kids on Safari programme.
Sustainability and Conservation at Sanbona
Sustainability and responsible tourism are synonymous with Sanbona and the day to day management of the reserve is undertaken with great consideration. Sanbona runs an ecologically sound tourism operation with effective water and energy usage, the capture of rainwater and the use of wood from alien plant species in their fireplaces. Their waste management includes the recycling of raw materials, composting of food waste and the use of greywater for irrigating the gardens. Important to Sanbona is the education and upliftment of local communities and staff, monitoring the direct impact of the reserve on the environment and reducing their carbon footprint. All without compromising on the excellent quality of the experience offered.
Conservation management is the foundation on which Sanbona was established and remains a priority, with the reserve a pioneer of eco-tourism in the Western Cape. Their dedicated Wildlife Department includes wildlife veterinarians, ecologists, conservation managers, security operatives and field staff. Together they manage the unique ecosystem and are run various internal and external monitoring and research projects. Ask your guide to tell you more about the incredible work being done, and the fauna and flora that is thriving here under the team’s dedicated protection.
The Welcome Lounge
All Explorer Camp guests are invited to meet at the Welcome Lounge, 15km in from the main gate. From here you are transferred to the lodge for check-in and to meet your specialist guide, before heading out to the camp where you’ll spend the weekend. There is secure parking available here for you to leave your car.
The Essential Details
Sanbona is located just on 3 hours from Cape Town. A scenic drive that takes you through Worcester, Roberston and Montagu along Route 62, before veering onto a dirt road that leads to the entrance of the reserve. As an idea when planning your visit, consider spending a couple of nights at one of the luxury lodges for some spoiling after your time at the Explorer Camp. Transfers can be arranged to and from Sanbona on request.
You will want to leave something for your guide and the camp staff and as much as gratuities aren’t compulsory, they are very much appreciated. Sanbona provides courtesy envelopes in the room which can be used. The guideline is R250 per day per couple for the ranger, with the same for the rest of the team too. This in mind, I’d suggest that you carry some cash with you.
Do bear in mind that as much as this is an experience I highly recommend and would love to repeat, it is not luxurious, and you will need to have a somewhat adventurous nature to truly appreciate it.
Happiness with the one and only Keith Bain, who was part of the media group.
Thank you to Ford South Africa for the loan of their new 1.5 EcoBoost Ambiente 6AT FWD Kuga that we had the pleasure of driving there, and to Di Brown for making those arrangements, and for the pics of me x.
** The pics of the lodges are provided by Sanbona.