When the rubber meets the dirt road that winds its way to the pick-up point at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, one is immediately enveloped in silence. Here wide plains, mountain peaks and gorges form the base over which the Warmwater Mountains rest.
This diverse part of the Little Karoo is home to an impressive kaleidoscope of wildlife within its basin, a life force of its own. Here history has been preserved, its secrets revealed in the 3,500 year old rock paintings. This is Cockaigne, a national treasure trove in the heart of the Little Karoo. Archaeologists uncovered the tools of the early Stone Age hunter-gatherers, the region’s earliest inhabitants – and argue that the region, including modern-day Sanbona, was supported homo sapiens more than 500,000 years ago.
The name Sanbona (‘Vision of the San’) is a tribute to the San, the original indigenous hunter-gatherers who inhabited the landscape for thousands of years Well in many African languages, such as isiXhosa and isiZulu, means “to see” and evokes their view of the Little Karoo, a once game-rich country.
The San were semi-nomadic; they tracked the availability of water, game, and edible plants; For millennia they roamed the land using only what they needed when they needed it. The remaining tangible reminders of the San people’s existence today are their rock paintings, where images were painted and engraved on the rock faces of shelters and caves – some of which can be seen in Sanbona today.
There, a rehabilitation program aimed at recreating an ecosystem as close as possible to how it is said to have been 300 years ago aims to give visitors an immersive and visual experience of the Little Karoo as it was when the San conquered them inhabited.
The Sanbona Game Reserve
That Sanbona Game Reserve has 58,000 hectares (slightly less than Singapore) of the Little Karoo landscape, which consists of two biodiversity hotspots; The land has been reclaimed from 19 farms that historically raised livestock and grew fruit.
The reserve was conceived and created to attract sustainable, nature-based tourism to promote human, social, cultural and economic development while protecting vulnerable and ecologically sensitive ecosystems.
At daybreak it is possible to go on game drives to spot animals, although just outside our accommodation we will encounter a klipspringer, also known as Africa’s ‘dancing antelope’. These lively antelope are camouflaged yellow-gray to reddish-brown to protect them from predators as they dance deftly from one rock formation to the next.
A little further away we see a multitude of antelope: when we see kudu, eland and springbok passing us from different heights, it’s easy to envy their inherent composure as they stare blankly at us, mid-chew. But springbok are not lacking in strategic skills – they can spring into action quickly when threatened; They can reach heights of 2 m (a movement known as “pronking”) or reach land speeds in excess of 85 km/h to evade threatening predators such as lions, cheetahs or jackals.
Although rarely seen, the Cape mountain leopard can sometimes be spotted in the reserve. Decades of navigating the arid and treacherous terrain of the Little Karoo have made these leopards smaller (compared to their peers) as they adapted to the arid, semi-desert landscape.
In 2003, the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve became the first ever sanctuary in the Western Cape to reintroduce cheetahs into the wild.
As the game drive continues we weave our way through an endless sea of Kraalbos (Galenia africana), colorful in anticipation of summer; we also see the prickly sweet thorn tree (acacia karroo). The tree of life, as it is commonly known, has one of the highest nutrient levels of any plant and requires several survival strategies: the more animals feed on the thorns, the more thorns the tree produces in order to survive and grow. Elephants feed on the branches, leaves and thorns and the seeds pass through the digestive system of the large herbivores, the droppings give birth to new life and so begins another cycle of a sweet thorn tree.
Dominated by regional endemics, the succulents are classified here as Little Karoo Quartz Vygieveld. Within these outcrops, succulent species may differ due to the difference in underlying soils.
The salt pan, which has a relatively low salinity, is dotted with succulent species, from certain Haaibekkies (Gibbaeum pubescens) – which, as their name suggests, are shaped like small sharks’ mouths – which only grow on patches of quartz in the Little Karoo and can live up to 100 years; to the popular Baby Bums (Gibbaeum heathii), which are rounded and smooth. Both species are locally abundant in quartz outcrops.
The number of plant species, mainly succulents, is unparalleled in the world for an arid area of this size. There are at least 1,600 succulent species in this biome, an impressive 16% of the world’s estimated 10,000 succulents.
As dusk approaches, amplified by a cacophony of nocturnal sounds, we are called home to the warm fireplace that awaits us at the five-star Dwyka Tented Lodge. Minutes before arrival we are faced with a final surprise encounter.
Watching us from just a meter away is acutely endangered river rabbit. It is estimated that only 250 adults remain, scattered across the vast Little Karoo. They are endemic to South Africa, but they are also one of the most difficult animals to see and conserve in the wild. They are strikingly beautiful with their auburn fur and mesmerizing gaze.
The day has passed and night follows, certain that tomorrow the preservation of life will continue.
Where to sleep
- There are four luxury accommodation options: In a horseshoe bend in a dry Karoo gorge lies the eco-friendly Dwyka Tented Lodge.
- The family-friendly Gondwana Family Lodge is a thatched Karoo homestead overlooking the Bellair Dam.
- Historic Tilney Manor offers privacy with breathtaking views and is surrounded by mountains and plains.
- For the more adventurous, Sanbona Explorer Camp is in the heart of the reserve and guarantees camping in style with a roaring campfire.
the street there
- The Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is approximately 270 km from Cape Town.
- Take the N1 motorway towards Paarl; Once through the tunnel, take the second turning on the right for Worcester (R60) and follow the signs to Robertson.
- Drive through Robertson, still on the R60, to Ashton.
- Drive through Ashton – the R60 becomes the R62.
- Continue through Kogmanskloof and Montagu.
- About 43 km from Montagu, turn left at the sign “Die Vlakte” and “Sanbona Reserve”.
- Continue for 7 km to reach the main entrance.
- Continue for another 15 km to reach the Welcome Lounge. DM/ML
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