After hours of anticipation, I finally caught sight of it – right in front of our jeep. Romantically backlit by the pinkening sky, a tall G&T with glinting ice cubes and a slice of lemon. Sundowners on safari. Best idea ever.
We’d arrived in Cape Town five days ago for a little city before our safari. Under the blazing sun, we picnicked in vineyards, penguin-spotted on beaches, hiked up mountains, toured a township (www.townshiptourscapetown.co.za ), visited Robben Island and tried the cocktails and cuisine of every modish bar and gourmet restaurant around.
Captivating though Cape Town is, wildlife is what drew me to South Africa, so we packed our bags, hopped in the car and drove three hours inland to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. You have to be careful with African game reserves. Many of them are little more than zoos or fronts for illegal caged-hunting operations.
Of the genuine game reserves within easy reach of Cape Town, Sanbona is the crème de la crème. Thousands of animals – including the Big Five – have 54,000 hectares of plains and mountains to explore, with no cages or fences, except the one marking the perimeter of the reserve.
What makes Sanbona truly unique is that it’s the world’s only game reserve with free-roaming wild white lions. Declared extinct in the wild in the 1990s (although still tragically bred in captivity for caged-hunting and zoos), Sanbona is part of an ethical conservation project to reintroduce them. Recently, the first white lion cubs were born in the wild at Sanbona. Apart from being fair-haired, they are genetically no different from their tawny siblings.
After a quick lunch, six of us piled into an open-air jeep driven by our ranger, Gwen Barnard. We stormed off, bouncing through Sanbona’s rugged terrain (be warned: the roads around the camp are very bumpy), the semi-arid Little Karoo – rocky mountains with rust-coloured striations, secret caves and low-lying plants, such as succulents and acacia. The natural sparseness of the re-established indigenous flora (the land has been reclaimed from overworked farmland) means Sanbona will never have the vast numbers of grazing animals found in more lush game reserves, but it also means the animals have few hiding places, making them easier to spot.
By Sundowners on our first day, we’d watched hippos wallowing in mud, giraffes nibbling acacia, baboons scooting along rocky escarpments and zebras racing on an open plain. Bouncing in the back of an open-air jeep, with dust flying about and tensely scouting for wildlife, is surprisingly thirsty work, making that G&T all the tastier.
It took another three games drives – there are two a day – before we caught sight of a white lion, but we saw plenty of other animals in between, including a tawny lion and a cheetah. (That said, you don’t see big cats or elephants on every drive: some vehicles carry GPS to help spot them but ours didn’t.) With just six white lions in the reserve, seeing them is never guaranteed. They’re the only animals on the reserve to wear radio collars – and will have to for a few more years for conservation monitoring – but the rangers don’t like to use sonar to find them, preferring more natural tracking methods. The one we saw was a strong, lean female, lying sleepily under a distant bush.
Our eco-safari adventure wasn’t over though. We hopped in the car and headed south to the coast, then along the Garden Route, stopping off for a night to break up the 10-hour drive, then past Port Elizabeth to Shamwari Game Reserve.
Mention Shamwari to safari buffs, and their eyes get all dreamy, whether they’ve been and are reminiscing or are saving up to go. Shamwari is one of the world’s premier wildlife reserves, adored as much for its high-quality game drives as for its high ethical credentials. It’s home to a Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary (Born Free’s standards are high; www.bornfree.org.uk), winner of numerous awards for conservation and a significant employer in a deprived region, with more than 70 per cent of staff from the local area, many of them guides and managers. Like Sanbona, Shamwari’s land has been reclaimed from agriculture, allowing the indigenous flora to return. A naturally lush region, the reserve is now home to five unique ecosystems that support a huge variety of animals.
On our first day, we dropped our bags and raced out to visit the Born Free sanctuary before it closed. Only nine big cats – cheetahs, leopards and lions - are kept here, rescued from horrible conditions in zoos or found abandoned as babies, unable to be rehabilitated for release because of their injuries or lack of hunting skills.
They now live in spacious bomas – areas of wilderness with plenty of room to run, play and hide, and trees for climbing. Their heart-breaking biographies are written on signs on the viewing platforms. You might not see them - this isn’t a zoo and they can easily be hidden among the foliage or too far away.
We popped into the reserve’s animal hospital, too, where we saw a baby rhino who’d decided a limping sheep was his mother (a victim of the country’s rhino-poaching epidemic), a tuft-eared caracal cat with come-hither eyes and a terrifying growl, and a fluffy newborn ostrich being bottle-fed by a nurse. When locals find a wild animal, they often bring it to Shamwari’s animal hospital, where they know it will be treated by vets and looked after until it’s ready to go back into the wild.
But we were really here for the chase. Twice a day, we zoomed through the 25,000-hectare reserve, rarely meeting another vehicle but constantly head-swivelling at the never-ending variety of animals. We gawped at a huddle of dozing lions three metres from our unnervingly windowless vehicle, surprised a fierce-looking warthog as we rounded a curve in the track, caught sight of a leopard dragging its kill up a tree and marvelled at the languid slow-motion-style running of a herd of giraffes.
The smaller animals were no less fascinating: dainty vervet monkeys leapt through tree branches over our heads, comical metre-tall Secretary birds strutted in meadows, a leopard tortoise loitered coincidentally close to its feline namesake, and the vast yellow web of a golden-orb spider sparkled like the sun.
The most memorable drive, however, was the one where we saw the fewest species. Not long after setting off from the lodge, our excellent and entertaining ranger, Phillip Gouza, spotted fresh dung. Following the trail, we came upon a herd of 40 elephants at a watering hole. We watched as the group - female adults and male and female young - drank, nuzzled and played.
Then they started heading towards our jeep. We were alarmed, but as they were walking slowly, Phillip wasn’t worried. He said that they weren’t charging or in attack mode, and as long as we stayed in our vehicle, we’d be fine. They casually walked around our jeep, lingering for a while to pull up tufts of grass and strip the leaves from nearby trees, seemingly ignoring us, as if we were part of the herd.
A tightly knit group of female adults suddenly parted a few metres to our right, and Phillip gasped, “It’s a baby, not even two days old!” He was immediately on the radio to the base station, telling them excitedly about the newborn, still unsteady on its feet.
We were so absorbed by the scene that we didn’t notice a teenage male on the opposite side of the jeep. A snorting from inside the vehicle alerted us to his presence, and we all froze. He might have been a teen, but, up close and personal, you could see he was big enough to push over our jeep and crush it underfoot in a matter of moments. Phillip didn’t seem worried, but he admitted it wasn’t common for an animal to get so close. The teen poked his trunk around the jeep for a couple of minutes, even sniffing my somewhat-petrified husband’s head, before getting bored and wandering over to knock down a nearby acacia tree.
As the sky turned inky blue, three enormous bull elephants appeared on a hillside. Our herd headed in their direction, millions of stars lighting their path as they disappeared into the distance. What had seemed like minutes had actually been two hours. Racing back through the twilit reserve, we arrived at the lodge just in time for dinner.
Champagne was poured and we toasted our new family. We might not have tusks, but for a few minutes at least, we’d definitely been part of the herd.
Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) has 11 nights in South Africa, with flights Heathrow to Cape Town and back from Port Elizabeth, car hire for the duration and four nights accommodation – one night at Views Boutique Hotel and three nights at Shamwari, from £2,150pp. Accommodation in Cape Town and at Sanbona must be booked independently. Also see www.capetown.travel
Lodges: Despite ranging in style and comfort from tents to small luxury hotels, accommodations at game reserves are nearly always called lodges, and usually have a restaurant or dining room and a bar. Many have libraries, pools, spas and sun terraces, too.
Meals: All meals are typically included on any safari, and all but the most basic lodges can cater for some special diets. Breakfast is sometimes obscenely early so that you can see the animals before they hide from the midday sun.
The Big Five: A term coined by hunters in southern Africa to describe the five most difficult animals to hunt: lions, leopards, elephant, buffalo, rhino. Many people are more excited to see giraffes and hippos as they are buffalos and rhinos, so don’t get obsessed by this.
Wildlife spotting: typically, two ranger-led game drives a day – morning and late afternoon - are included in safari breaks, but sometimes, it’s just one, so do check. Drives are typically super-bumpy off-road affairs (sports bras essential), and vehicles can hold anything from four to 20 guests, which can have a huge impact on your experience. Walks can also be arranged, depending on guide availability (not all guides are certified to lead walks) and weather.
Other activities: At authentic wildlife reserves (as opposed to glorified zoos), going for a walk on your own beyond the gated grounds of the lodge is strictly forbidden – for obvious reasons. However, spa treatments, nature walks and star-gazing are all commonly on offer, but the hours around midday are usually for napping, sunbathing or reading.
Health: Most of South Africa is malaria-free, except for eastern areas including Kruger National Park. Sanbona and Shamwari are hundreds of miles from the malarial zones, so no need for tablets. Usually, no other special jabs are needed, beyond the basics recommended for most international travel, Hep A, Hep B, Tetanus & Typhoid, but do check with your GP.
TRAVEL DETAILS | WHERE TO STAY
Lawhill Luxury Apartments, Cape Town
+27 (0) 21438 9160
One-bedroom apartments for two people from £127, self-catering
If you’re staying for more than a couple of days, you’ll get more for your money by booking into these apartments, centrally located on the V&A Waterfront, 10 minutes from the Robben Island Ferry. Apartments overlook the harbour and the One & Only Spa, but most views don’t go as far as the sea. Standards are as good as any five-star hotel, with daily cleaning and concierge, plus kitchen, living room and private parking.
Gondwana Lodge at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, Montagu
+27 (0)41 407 1000, www.sanbona.com
Doubles from £680, full board, including game drives and most activities
A safari ‘lodge’ can mean anything from a tent to a small hotel. Gondwana is the latter, a family-friendly 12-room hotel, with pool, spa treatment rooms, kids club and excellent restaurant. Built with local materials, it’s exceptionally energy efficient and with so few rooms, it’s never overrun with kids. Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is vast, yet only a few dozen guests are accommodated in its lodges, so you’ll never get that ’20 jeeps surrounding a lion’ experience you find on some reserves.
Views Boutique Hotel & Spa, Wilderness
+27 (44) 877 8000, www.viewshotel.co.za
Doubles from £170, B&B
Right on the Garden Route and overlooking the Indian Ocean, this 18-room hotel is the ideal stop between Sanbona, three hours away, and Shamwari, five hours away. Climb down the white-sand beach, which stretches for miles in either direction, and have a splash in the warm, clear waters, keeping an eye out for southern right whales, who linger here in winter. The food isn’t brilliant, however.
Sarili Lodge at Shamwari Game Reserve, Paterson
+27 (0)41 407 1000, www.shamwari.com
Doubles from £720, full board, including game drives and most activities
Like Sanbona, exclusivity is key at Shamwari, and you’ll rarely see another vehicle on your game drives. Shamwari’s newest lodge, Sarili, is a gorgeous five-bedroom thatched-roof house with wood-burning fireplace, family-style dining room and serious green credentials - solar water heating, grey-water recycling, recycling and more. At Shamwari, more than 90 per cent of employees are from the local area, including many guides.