The road curves out to the horizon of an arid, rocky Karoo landscape. In the distance the Warmwaterberg Mountains jut wildly from the otherwise flat ground, their upturned lines extending in shades of red to the bluest of skies. The road is bumpy and uneven, and as the LandRover shifts gears, so do I. Dust rises up behind us like a magical potion. With each bounce my ordinary thoughts are shaken loose and replaced with the idea of a new place and a new experience.
We are on our way to Sanbona – a name that means the “vision of the San” the indigenous people of South Africa’s desert-climate interior. Part of the Shamwari Group, Sanbona represents a vision to return the land back to its natural state. A collection of 22 disused sheep farms, the wildlife reserve is a massive 54 000 hectares in size – roughly the area of Singapore.
Careful management means alien vegetation is slowly being replaced with indigenous, and instead of sheep grazing now the Big 5 rule – elephants, buffalo, rhinos, leopards and lions. Not just any lions, Sanbona is home to the exceptionally rare white lion. These are the only while lions to roam free in South Africa – in other parts of the world their unfortunate cousins are more often found in zoos and as hapless ‘pets’ to misguided millionaires.
As passionate about conservation as it is about the guest experience, Sanbona is also a safe haven to one of South Africa’s most elusive animals – the critically endangered Riverine Rabbit. They are so rare, chances are you will not get to see them while on safari. Nevertheless, owing to its sheer size, Sanbona happens to offer these creatures the space they need to survive in their own natural habitat and careful measures are being put in place to help preserve their wellbeing and to document their behaviors for science.
And it seems yet another elusive creature has also found a place at Sanbona – that of the Lady Ranger, and I am lucky enough to be guided by Ranger Pascale during my stay – one of a small group of elite women rangers who are changing the face of what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry with the backing of the forward-thinking Shamwari Group.
Ranger Pascale explains “Although it is true that this is a male-dominated field, I find that our industry is very accepting of me as a woman Game Ranger. At the end of the day I have to perform at the same level as the men do – to jack up a Land Rover and change the tyre in less than 7-minutes, to shoot proficiently with a .375 calibre rifle, to track game while entertaining guests.” She smiles, then a cloud seems to pass over her eyes. “Oftentimes its the guests that have a problem with it…. it’s not what they expect, to see a woman driving a giant vehicle, carrying a rifle and all…” her voice trails as she shrugs and smiles. “Did you know women tend to be better shots than men? I was lucky to meet my first woman Game Ranger at the age of 16 and she just happened to be the best shot in the Kruger. I knew after meeting her that if I wanted to do this, I could. She was a great inspiration to me since I already knew from the age of 10 that this was what I wanted to do.”
Luckily, those guests are not with us this time – only families and children with inquisitive minds. We are staying at Gondwana Lodge, a camp of three-thatched roofed buildings with a pool and Little Karoo Educational Trail.
Malaria-free and just 3-hours driving time from Cape Town, Sanbona makes it easy to bring little ones on the trip of a lifetime. We were joined by 6-year old Sophia and her parents from Germany and it was easy to see this was a time she would not easily forget, and maybe like Pascale she might find inspiration for her lifetime, too.
Out on our first Game Drive, the thorns of the Acacia Karoo Tree reach from their branches like nails about to hit their mark. Bruce from the USA asks, “Can those thorns puncture a tyre or are these special tyres?” Pascale smiles and confirms – “Well, yes these are special tyres but not special enough! Elephants have a wonderful sense of humour – they seem to like to tear off branches of thorns, drag them into the road and wait for the outcome.” Pascale then tells us a story of how the settlers 200 years ago called this the “Sweet Thorn” tree, and how they used to boil the sap of the tree to make sweets for the children. “Talk about making lemonade from lemons… to make sweets from a spiny thorn tree?” I think. I knew settlers in the arid, unforgiving Karoo were hardy people but this takes the cake – so to speak.
Elephants lumber over the roadside and into the thorn trees, their thick skin making them immune to any grazing. Amazing. We watch a pair of young male giraffe play-fight in the golden sun, using their long necks to push one another backwards and forwards. Black-backed jackals trot this way and that. The cute and curious Dassie looks over the landscape like some sort of midget king. Long lines spread over the landscape dotted with zebra, kudu, gemsbok and springbok as the sun starts to dip, and we wach a group of rhino grazing in the sunset.
Back at Gondwana Lodge, it is a refuge from the desert climate with high thatch ceilings that capture the heat of the day high above my head, long verandahs that spill shade over the decks and a swimming pool for cool water dips. Well presented food like the famous Sanbona Ceasar Salad with prawns or grilled Karoo Lamb & Apricot Kebabs make a great break between Game Drives… not to mention the creamiest, coldest homemade ice creams – a favourite for Sophia, on top of a chocolate chip waffle, of course. After dinner we look through the telescope at the battered surface of the moon, the glowing rings of Jupiter and the seeming infinite stars of the Milky Way.
We drive again the next morning and the Karoo air is so dry, the earth rises in plumes of dust behind us as we move down the road, coating the plants like a thick layer of paint. When we stop it surrounds us in a cloud of ruddy brown, collecting in my nostrils and turning whatever moisture I have left into crust. Drink water, I think – drink water. Amazingly, a few million years ago, this place was underwater. Fossilized crinoids scatter the ground in testament to this strange truth – the skeleton of what used to be a sea lilies that lived in shallow water and in depths of up to 6000 meters. Now, with its big open skies and mountains that burst from the flat land with a force so great their vertical lines are buckled in uneven folds, curving in strange shapes. We laugh as baboons scamper down the Dam Wall, a near vertical descent. We share a moment of silence for an unfortunate Puff Adder snake found dead in the road. We are treated to one more exceptional sight – the white lions guarding a fresh Kudu carcass on the hillside above.
Patches of quartz glint over the land across the distance. The afternoon heat rises and shimmers on the horizon while the smell of the earth and the sound of the wind rushing over a landscape of shrubs and succulents awaken the senses. It’s the end of my time at Sanbona. The bumps in the road feel like second nature now, and my thoughts have all been shaken free… as free as little Sophia’s childlike wonder.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is part of the Shamwari Group. Just three hours from Cape Town, Sanbona boasts 54 000 hectares of undulating mountains and plains. Apart from hosting the Big Five (including white lions) and being one of the only conserved habitats for Riverine Rabbits, it’s a magnificent destination for flora. There are three luxury camps, each with a distinctive atmosphere. Rates start from R4 235 a person a night sharing and this includes all meals and game activities (enquire about specials). Tel 041-407-1000, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sanbona.com.