Natural Barometer

Published in Private Edition 30, November 2015

There is an enchanting wildlife reserve, a little larger than Singapore, only three hours’ drive from Cape Town where conservation means more than protecting what exists now. They’re bringing back the past too.

My grandmother liked to recite poetry, partly to prove she was still of sound mind and partly for dramatic effect. I thought of her as I once listened to authors Deryck Uys and Tom Burgers alternately reciting Jan F Cilliers’ ‘Die Vlakte’ in Afrikaans and English, all three of them octogenarians with a flair for delivery that had me hanging on every word.

That iconic poem is published in Burgers’ book, Karoo Pastoraal, the poet’s lyrical rhythm and vivid imagery making this ‘legendary portion of our planet’ so much more than the barren, desolate place many imagine the former Khoisan hunting grounds to be. Besides making news amidst fracking controversies and wind-farm developments, the Karoo is famed for its unpolluted environment, perfect for stargazing on a clear night. ‘Karoo… the name is odd,’ writes author Dianne Hofmeyr. ‘It comes from a language of clicks – karo, karro – meaning “hard” or “dry”. And it is dry and hard, with a gaunt, spectacular grandeur that subdues me.’

‘Die Vlakte’ is in fact the sign that travellers through the Karoo must search for at the Route 62 turnoff to the 54 000-hectare Sanbona Wildlife Reserve.

Set on the horseshoe bend of a mostly dry ravine, Dwyka Tented Lodge, our luxury hideaway for the weekend, is built to blend in with the environment and positioned to shield occupants from neighbourly contact. The trappings of modern-day existence are limited to a television set in the communal bar and intermittent Wi-Fi in the adjacent lounge. Shrouded in mist and punctuated by bright green shrubs and glistening watery trails, a sheer cliff face across the riverbed presents the opportunity for peaceful contemplation from the comfort of the heated king-size bed or the Jacuzzi on the wooden deck.


Walking the walk

Client satisfaction is high on rangers’ scorecards, so they like to know in advance what guests hope to see. Requests to see a predator hunt, and preferably kill, or to locate the most elusive animal on the reserve are not unusual but senior ranger Jannie Swanepoel was not expecting my partner Gregg’s request to see giraffe (he’d never seen them in the wild). An easy start then… a tower of giraffe, with a baby whose estimated 80kg weight and two-metre height belied the fact that he was only a couple of weeks old.

Sanbona’s fragile environment restricts rangers from driving off-road, which we only realised when Jannie stopped and invited us to disembark and follow him into the bush to get a closer look at a pair of rhino. Already nursing a bad cold and fearful of coughing or sneezing (or both) at the wrong moment, Jannie reassured me that a guest’s cough had once saved his life. It brought an elephant out of hiding that he would not otherwise have seen, narrowly avoiding a close encounter of the life-threatening kind. I can’t help but wonder whether a violent sneeze will elicit curiosity or a full-on charge…

In addition to occupancy limitations (there are 54 beds to 54 000 hectares, excluding the Explorer Camp), the number of game-viewing vehicles is also restricted to minimise the human impact on the animals and ecosystem at Sanbona. Locally extinct hippo, elephant, buffalo, cheetah, lion and various indigenous antelope species have been reintroduced, and efforts made to improve the quality of their grazing and browsing, with a hands-off approach to 8 000 hectares of wilderness area. ‘It’s a diverse landscape,’ says general manager Paul Vorster. ‘It’s not often that you’ll find a space that has these different kinds of substrates. There’s depth and size as well.’

Sanbona provides a haven for endangered and critically endangered fauna, such as the Cape mountain zebra, cheetah, and the riverine rabbit; an important breeding ground for raptors such as the black eagle and booted eagle; and a vital habitat for local and migratory waterbirds on Bellair Dam. ‘Our cheetah management programme is one of the achievements we’re most excited about. We’ve been able to reintroduce cheetahs into a variety of reserves that needed them. Their efficiency in this environment, particularly when it comes to surviving attacks from predatory lion and hyena, makes them highly effective elsewhere,’ says Paul.

The latest sightings are communicated by radio (two vehicles per sighting or only one if a mother and her young are still being conditioned to human presence). Electronic tracking equipment proves helpful, but doesn’t guarantee success. Despite our best efforts, a herd of elephant remained undetected until we were far enough away to see them emerge from where we’d been circling.

The final early morning game drive hit the jackpot. The tracker delivered this time, helping Jannie pinpoint where a cheetah and her three teenage youngsters were basking behind a bush in the ever-strengthening heat of the day. ‘We could hear the tapping sound of the tracker, which gets louder as you get closer to the animals, but to be able to read where they are is quite something,’ recounts Gregg.

Jannie and Gregg had to walk through them to find a better vantage point. ‘The young male was on one side, the females on the other. They were okay with us being there and the male joined the others once we had walked through,’ says Gregg. ‘They just lay there, purring deeply. I’ve never heard anything like it.’

Determined to top that experience, Jannie went in search of the ‘pride of Sanbona’ – both literally and figuratively – the result of a project launched in 2003 to have free-ranging wild white lions on the reserve. Over time, cubs were born and raised, and there was a carefully orchestrated integration of the white lions with the existing tawny lion pride. ‘Tracking them took a while and took us to all corners of the reserve,’ says Gregg. Jannie eventually headed into the bush on foot, only to beat a hasty retreat as the subject of his search materialised a few metres away. ‘It wasn’t a clear sighting, but just to see the white male and tawny female peering back at us through the thicket was close enough to stir the soul,’ says Gregg. ‘It was possibly the highlight for me.’