We timed our visit to White Lion Lodge at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve perfectly. Although some years this Karoo reserve in South Africa has little rain, by the end of September this year it had had lots, spawning a fiesta of colourful flowers among the green bushes. Small wonder, then, that one of our nature drives from the lodge focused on plants and flowers, while the second showed us some of the reserve’s big game.
The malaria-free Sanbona Wildlife Reserve unspools over 58 000ha between Montagu and Barrydale along Route 62 in the Little Karoo. It’s a gloriously remote setting but just a 3.5-hour drive from Cape Town. White Lion Lodge lies on the 30 000ha southern concession. At the foot of the Warmwaterberg mountains, the reserve is thick with a diversity of Succulent Karoo plants in the north and Fynbos (including Renosterveld) in the south. Both of these are biodiversity hotspots, which means they’re biologically rich but under threat.
An explosion of flowers
Lodge owner Gerry Cuje-Jakoby is nuts about plants and very knowledgeable too. Guide Romeo Muller reflects that passion, leading us on a late afternoon flower safari stuffed with fascinating insights. We couldn’t help but be inspired. Yes, there were kudu and gemsbok and mountain zebras and scrub hares, but they were just a bonus.
‘There are some 200-250 different mesembryanthemums,’ he told us. And indeed, purple, pink, yellow, orange and white vygies splashed across the veld. There were also cotton bushes with white flowers and an aroma of rosemary. There was wild thyme, a sweet scent in the air each time the open safari vehicle passed a patch of it. Cotton bush and the well-named anchor bush – which sends out shoots that anchor into the ground to start new plant, thus helping to prevent soil erosion – are two of the bushes Karoo sheep feed on to give Karoo lamb its unique flavour.
On a similar theme, the San used to rub guarri leaves on their skin to prevent sunburn. ‘Guarri only germinates after it has passed through the digestive system of an elephant or buffalo,’ Romeo explained. ‘Since some of these guarri bushes are more than 300 years old, it tells us those animals occurred here historically.’
After breakfast the next morning, the sky was a huge bowl of blue flecked with clouds when we set off for a full-day wildlife safari into the northern concession. Early on, we spotted some clear tracks of brown hyena and leopard, suggesting that night drives from White Lion Lodge might be rewarding if they were to be offered sometime in the future.
Although eland, rhino and buffalo eluded us on our game drive, we saw kudu, springbok, red hartebeest, and Cape Mountain Zebra, as well as gemsbok, which don’t need water but can get all the moisture they need from succulent plants. These are all animals that once occurred here naturally, until farming squeezed them out. Now they’ve been reintroduced and the veld allowed to return to its natural state. Other small animals that occur here naturally include jackal, caracal, grey reedbuck, steenbok, grysbok and duiker, not to mention aardwolf and aardvark – two more good reasons to have a night drive.
Our most bounteous sightings were of giraffe, including some moms with little ones – one of them not much more than a few days old. Romeo explained that the giraffe here are adapted to the conditions and slightly smaller than say Kruger giraffes. They have very strong muscles in the chest above the top of the front legs. This enables them to climb mountains and also lean down to feed on plants low on the ground in an area with few tall shrubs and trees.
The large Bellair dam was full after all the rain, providing space for grey herons, red-knobbed coots, dabchicks, and African shelducks, even a pod of hippo, and a wonderful outlook from the track along its edge.
Do you love wielding your binos to look for birds? You’ll be pleased to know that both flower drives and game drives are good opportunities to spot some of Sanbona’s approximately 250 species. These include raptors like African fish-eagle, Verreaux’s eagle, jackal buzzard, and pale chanting goshawk, water birds like herons, egrets, coots and ducks, as well as Karoo korhaan, Ludwig’s bustard, blue crane, European bee-eater, cinnamon-breasted warbler, malachite sunbird, and Namaqua sandgrouse with their liquid call. These sandgrouse can travel up to 80km in search of water, collecting droplets in their breast feathers to take back to their nests for the chicks to drink.
Tranquil luxury and things to do at the lodge
Since White Lion Lodge accommodates a maximum of eight people, it feels more like a large family home than a lodge. It’s built on stilts with thatched roofs and lots of glass for Imax views of the surrounding landscape.
Relax in a wood-fired hot tub in a private spot a bit removed from the main building to ease the tension from your muscles and savour the views of the Little Karoo. Or opt for a de-stressing massage in the spa on the lodge’s lower level. Book this ahead because the spa therapist needs to come from outside the reserve.
During our visit, staff were clearing a nature walk around the camp perimeter, which will be a wonderful place to stretch your legs after a nature drive. Take your binos and see how many birds you can find. Another great addition scheduled for the week after our visit was a solar installation. By now, guests will be able to enjoy the lodge without even having to think about Eskom power cuts/loadshedding – a holiday in itself.
If you’re the sort of traveller who likes to support responsible organisations that benefit conservation and communities, you’ll be pleased to know that Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is owned by a non-profit foundation with a strong conservation ethic. The driving idea is to create a balance where ecocystems, endangered animals and plants can flourish. By underlining environmental sustainability and conservation, they’re recreating an ecosystem as close as possible to the way it would have been three centuries ago. Keywords are rehabilitation, restoration, and reintroduction of animals that have become extinct in the area but would have roamed freely back then, before agriculture changed the Little Karoo.
Sanbona is part of CapeNature’s Biodiversity Stewardship programme in which land owners take responsibility for using sound conservation principles to safeguard our natural heritage for future generations.
As far as community development goes, Sanbona has a learning centre that educates the children of the reserve’s staff and those of the surrounding farm community, and a specific programme teaching children of the greater community about wildlife and conservation.
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