Sanbona Wildlife Reserve
That’s me stroking a cheetah. I have to admit, it was pretty awesome to be so close to these incredible animals. But would I do it again? Definitely not. This was the most recent (some years ago) of several animal interactions I’ve experienced in my life, and it will be the last. I guess I just never gave it any thought, which is admittedly often the problem, but it’s apparent that animal interactions are a bad thing. I’m not going to go into detail about why it’s a bad thing, there is a ton of resources online which do that. If you want to know more, have a look at these links:
Now that I’ve taken the time to read up about animal interactions and give it some thought, I’m firmly against the practice. Unfortunately many tourists come to Africa with animal interactions high up on their bucket list and many of these interactions are shared on social media, inspiring others to come and experience the same. We need to discourage people from engaging in these activities. South African Tourism has made their official position on the matter clear:
South African Tourism does not promote or endorse any interaction with wild animals such as the petting of wild cats, interacting with elephants and walking with lions, cheetahs and so on.
Having considered animal interaction, I also started to think about game experiences in general. While interacting with a wild animal provides a thrill, it also diminishes the respect and awe we have for wild animals. The ultimate experience should be to observe wild animals behaving naturally in their natural habitat and it’s something that is becoming increasingly rare. This feeling was was reinforced when I visited a local game reserve and part of the experience was watching lions being fed chicken carcasses in a cage for our entertainment.
It was a distressing experience for me. The king of the jungle reduced to eating prepared chickens in a cage while people take photos and kick the cage to get a better picture. I walked out of there feeling quite ill and it made me very cynical of Western Cape game reserves.
It was only recently that I had a game experience that restored my faith in game reserves. That was my visit to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. Most smaller reserves have to keep their predators separate from the rest of the animals because in the smaller area the reserve would basically be a buffet for the predators and soon there would be no other animals left. This means you will never see a live kill, but you will see predators feeding off a carcass which was given to them. This is the fast-food version of game viewing. The experience is neatly packaged. You’ll see the big 5, you’ll see predators feeding, you’ll see it all in a short space of time and it will be (relatively) cheap.
SANBONA WILDLIFE RESERVE
The fine-dining version of game viewing is different, it’s for the person that wants the real thing and is prepared to pay for it. Sanbona is this experience. It’s one of the biggest privately-owned game reserve in South Africa, so it has the space to allow the animals to roam free. Sanbona has a no-intervention policy, what happens in the wild happens without any interference. Predators hunt for their food in order to survive, and their prey uses their natural instincts to escape and live another day (or not).
To create a natural environment like this requires extensive expertise and resources, which is why a place like this can never be cheap. This area was rescued from commercial farming and is patiently being restored to its natural state. Experts are employed to work out what animals are appropriate for the current state of the flora, and what volumes of wildlife it can sustain. The reserve is monitored on an on-going basis and wildlife is added when needed. That wildlife also has to fit in with the ecosystem in order to not unbalance it.
Sanbona is not a self-drive park like Kruger National Park. A qualified ranger takes groups of less than 10 people on game drives in the morning and evening. The rangers are in contact and share information on game sightings with each other. For this reason you’re likely to enjoy some decent game sightings on any drive, but those really special sightings like the leopard or a kill, are reserved for the most patient and persistent of visitors, or sometimes just the luckiest! The game drive you decide to skip for a massage or to relax around the pool, could be the one where it all happens.
Focusing on the big 5 is like going to the Louvre just to see the Mona Lisa, there is so much more to see and so much to learn. I’d rather see a cheetah than a buffalo and it doesn’t matter to me if I didn’t see the big 5, which is actually a hunting term so I’m not sure we should even be using it. A knowledgeable ranger with good eyes will make any game drive an interesting and educational experience, big 5 or not. That’s the experience we enjoyed from our ranger, Owen. We saw rhino, elephants, hippo, white lions and we had a very close encounter with a cheetah. Those were some of the highlights but we saw so much more. We were even treated to an educational tour of the night sky. The stars are so bright out there, it was breathtaking.
*See more of my favourite game photos here.
There’s more to Sanbona than just a quality game experience, as you would expect from a 5-star safari lodge. The accommodation options at Sanbona are varied and will cater for different types of visitors. For those who love luxury, the historical Tilney Manor will be perfect. Those travelling with children will opt for Gondwana Lodge which offers the exciting Kids on Safari Programme to keep the kids entertained while also educating them about nature. For travellers looking for something more secluded, the Dwyka tented Lodge is perfect. Set in a horseshoe bend of a dry Karoo ravine, the lodge is eco-friendly and luxurious. Those with an adventurous spirit will be keen on the Sanbona Explorer Camp. It offers an authentic walking adventure in the Karoo and a true camping experience sleeping in mobile luxuriously-appointed tents around a camp-fire.
We stayed at Gondwana Lodge because it’s the main lodge and centre of activity, but we would have loved to check out the tented options as they look amazing. The accommodation is luxurious, as one would expect. The highlights for me were the awesome bathroom (I love a great shower) and the private patio which leads straight into the bush! We also loved the pool at the communal lounge and dining area. Much of the time between activities was spent by that pool!
*See more of my photos of the accommodation and food here.
I was a bit disappointed with the food. The menu descriptions made the dishes sound really interesting but the expectations created by the menu were not met by what was served on the plate. The food wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t great. There are a lot of reasons to go to Sanbona, but the food isn’t one of them. The wine list was quite good though, a decent selection at reasonable prices. Each lodge has its own dining area and kitchen so it is possible that the food at the other lodges is better.
A highlight on the food side was the braai in the boma. On one of the evenings they do a braai in the boma and all the guests from the various lodges attend. The evening has a great vibe and sitting outside, under the stars with a giant fire in the middle of the boma really makes for a wonderful atmosphere. The food is good too, quality meat off the braai served with a huge selection of salads, veggies and starches. A fantastic experience for locals and tourists alike.
Each lodge (except the Explorer Camp) has a spa or ‘relaxation retreat’. We managed to find a gap for a short massage and we were glad we did. There’s nothing that gets one into the relaxed holiday vibe like a good massage. They offer more than just massages, the menu includes pedicures and manicures, facials, scrubs, wraps and more.
One of my favourite things about game drives is having sundowners in the reserve. Sipping on a gin and tonic, watching the sun set and watching or listening to the wildlife around you. It’s such a treat and our guide at Sanbona was an excellent host.
One last thing that I really liked was that there was free wifi at the lodge. I know for many they want to escape from the internet, but for me and what I do, internet access is a must. It wasn’t the fastest internet connection ever but it was adequate and I don’t know how they get any internet access at all out there in the middle of nowhere!
Overall I rate Sanbona Wildlife Reserve highly. It’s about going back to the real game experience, it’s about having that respect and awe for nature in its pure form. Plus you’ll be very comfortable while doing it!
Find out more at the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve website.