Walking with big game at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Posted on 4 March 2020 By Lauren Dold

‘Walk in single file, stop when I stop and, of course, the golden rule is: don’t run.’ Three of us nodded in unison and took up our position behind guide Casper Bester.

What: Explorers walking safari
Where: Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
Who: Lauren Dold

Getting acquainted with a buck-spoor spider, which hides flat in the sand disguised as antelope spoor. Image credit: Lauren Dold

Ahead of me was an American guest, Sandra Mallory, and behind me was Getaway colleague Jess Oosthuyse. We set off across a ganna-veld plain, straining our eyes for any sign of movement.

A cheetah had been spotted tailing a herd of springbok, and the late-afternoon light was just right for a creature with predatory intentions. We scanned the thicket with binoculars. In the distance the springboks were on high alert, ears pricked. As the light faded, it became clear that the cheetah had eluded us, and the springboks had eluded the cheetah. Springboks 1, Cheetah 0.

The Karoo veld is full of interesting little gems, if only you stop to look. Image credit: Jessica Oosthuyse

Dusk was magnificent, the setting sun casting the Karoo koppies in golden light for a few brief minutes.

As we watched our shadows lengthen, I wondered how I’d ever doubted the wildness of the Little Karoo. Growing up in the Lowveld, I’d had more than my fair share of wilderness experiences and didn’t believe that anything this far south could live up to the untamed north. On our drive here from Cape Town, between the windmills and flocks of sheep, I’d tried to reconcile the bushveld animals I knew with this environment that I didn’t. Picturing an elephant among the vygies seemed absurd.

The Explorer Camp is situated deep in the wilderness of Sanbona, a truly secluded stay. Image credit: Lauren Dold

Sanbona, a 58,000-hectare Big Five reserve, has three lodges but the seasonal Explorer Camp was our home for the weekend. It strikes the perfect balance between rustic and comfortable, where crisp white linen meets canvas in three en-suite tents. Sleeping only six, the camp has a private and exclusive feel. The shared shower was a highlight – built into a gnarled old Karoo boer-bean tree, fitted with two showerheads, hot water and luxurious soaps.

Walking safaris provide the chance to interact responsibly with the megafauna of the veld. Image credit: Lauren Dold

The land looked dour after years of drought, leached of colour beneath a grey sky. But upon closer inspection, a vibrant carpet covering the Karoo floor was revealed to us. Noses to the ground, Casper introduced us to haaibekkies, bababoudjies and myriad crassulas. It’s because of these delicate plants that the ethos at Sanbona is to leave the veld as untouched as possible, which means no off-roading – not even to turn a vehicle around. And so, after our sunset excursion, we’d hopped back in the Land Cruiser and practically reversed all the way back to camp.

Close to camp, Casper hit the brakes. ‘What’s that?’ he held up a finger, listening. ‘It sounds like… gin and tonics calling!” I could hear them too.

We gathered round the fire, G&Ts in hand, and while camp host Jared Robertson braaied our supper in front of us, Casper told us stories. According to him, the San would say that under a clear night sky like the one we were witnessing, you could hear the stars. Looking up, I understood what they had meant.

Casper has a love for the Karoo and all its details, even the little ones. Image credit: Jessica Oosthuyse

We started our early-morning by descending into a dry riverbed and immediately came across spoor belonging to a big rhino bull heading upriver. Along the way, we paused to examine the veld: a rubbing post, ice plants, a bleached skull, an ant mound. I was so absorbed by the details, I’d forgotten about the rhino when Casper’s radio crackled. A fellow guide had spotted a cow and calf not far from our location. Eyes and ears on the alert, we walked slower and slower, deep into the sweet-thorn thicket.

From behind a bush came a snort. I held my breath as we edged closer, peering through the thorns.
The flick of an ear. Casper signalled for us to head towards a koppie to our right. Backing away, we put 100 metres between us and the rhinos. We watched them for half an hour as they trotted along the foot of the koppie, the little calf stopping often to rest in her mother’s shadow.

The get-away-from-it-all Explorer Camp has no signal, and the chances of seeing animals far outweigh those of seeing other humans. Image credit: Lauren Dold

The day warmed up, and as the animals hid from the midday sun, so did we. Back in camp, we parked ourselves in the plush Bedouin-lounge tent, lolling about on kelims. At noon, Casper’s radio crackled again. In faraway Japan, the Boks were 12–6 up at half-time. We opened the box that housed our precious ice, and cracked open some beers, cautiously optimistic. Every 10 minutes we received an update from the main lodge. Eventually, the final message came in: ‘Casper, Casper, kom in Casper … 32–12. Ons is die world champs!’

Casper broke into spontaneous pronking, imitating our rugby teams’ namesake. For the second time that weekend, springboks were victorious.

On our last drive, we came across Sanbona’s herd of elephants. We hopped out the vehicle and cautiously approached two of them in a clearing. They stopped chewing for only the briefest moment to acknowledge us, then went back to stripping the sweet thorns of their leaves. They may not have been trampling vygies just then, but they looked completely at home. So, elephants in the Karoo are not so strange after all.

Fitness Factor: 5/10.
Bushwalking is slow paced and there weren’t too many steep uphills. Note: no children under 16.

Verdict: Walking with big game – and having your heart stopped by a rhino sneeze – is an experience you can’t put a price on.

Cost: From R11,720 per person for the weekend, all-inclusive.

The Details: Sanbona is 270km from Cape Town, near Montagu. Explorer Camp is only open from October to April, for weekend stays (Friday night to Sunday morning). Guests get to do two or three main walks, being transferred by vehicle to different sections of the reserve before continuing on foot. sanbona.com


An oasis in the Klein Karoo and a different take on wildlife conservation

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