Travel Review: On safari in the Western Cape of South Africa

A morning coffee with a view

A morning coffee with a view - Credit: Archant

Monday morning for most Londoners; a grey, crushing commute on packed public transport – often going somewhere you don’t want to be.

A journey of giraffes

A journey of giraffes - Credit: Archant

My first Monday morning in South Africa; creeping through the undergrowth on the trail of white rhino, a close-quarters sighting of the beasts followed by a heart-stopping retreat through the bush when they caught our scent.

A friendly elephant

A friendly elephant - Credit: Archant

And that’s the kind of place the Western Cape is; big, bold, brilliant, and occasionally breath-taking.

Up close to a cheetah

Up close to a cheetah - Credit: Archant

Our destination was Sanbona, a stunning wildlife reserve that mixes luxury with rugged, impressive natural beauty.

The best way to get there is via Cape Town, a marvellous destination in its own right, but after a few days of city living we were ready to head into the wilderness.


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Haunting

The reserve was a very-manageable three hour journey from the city – and a gorgeous drive at that, carving through mountains and Cogmans Kloof, a beautiful natural arch.

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I was reliably informed our course took in the longest wine route in the world and after coasting through a host of cute little towns, with wine farms dotted in the hills we turned up a bumpy dirt track.

At this point the Sat Nav got rather confused, but luckily the signposts showed us the way as we negotiated a good few kilometres of the haunting, dusty, dry Karoo landscape – often compared to the Arizona of Southern Africa.

We passed the main gate and immediately felt we’d passed from the realm of humans into the wild. Within a couple of minutes an enormous Oryx (a type of African antelope) had leapt into the road and bounced out again right in front of the car.

As I screeched to a halt I turned to my girlfriend and said “we’re definitely on Safari”.

Soon the road became too rocky for my little hatchback and a more durable vehicle took us the rest of the way.

There are three places to stay in Sanbona all of which have their own feel; Tilney Manor is, as its name suggests, a colonial-style house; all grand furnishing and wood-panelled dignity, meanwhile Dwycka, a favourite among honeymooners, is a collection of luxury tents set in a semi-circle inside an abandoned quarry.

But our first stop was Gondwana, well set up for families but, as we found, very agreeable for couples as well.

In fact, that’s an understatement – it was fantastic. Our room was perfect, from the roll top bath in which you could gaze out at the karoo, to the hammock on our private porch. The view was quite something; an uninterrupted vista of huge proportions encompassing mountains, scrub and a watering hole were, if you’re lucky you can see the animals trooping off for a drink.

After a delicious lunch and a couple of glasses of wine on the veranda we felt ready for our first game drive.

By some stroke of good fortune we had a ranger to ourselves for the whole trip, a brave and intelligent man called Yanni.

A quick safety briefing (these are wild animals after all) and off we went in our open top jeep, bouncing our way through the undergrowth with the wind blowing though our hair.

We were on the hunt for a mother cheetah who’d given birth recently. Nature being nature, it took while to find them, but it was worth it. We came across them devouring the remains of an antelope, which I can attest they picked completely clean.

Suddenly they were up by the jeep, close enough to stroke if you didn’t value your hands.

Graceful, proud-looking creatures; their coats were glorious close up, but hid them completely from a distance.

Despite having some kind of doctorate in zoology, Yanni grew up on a game farm and is a man of action – he needed very little encouragement to get out of the jeep, taking us with him

We jogged up the slope towards the slumbering cats, genuinely a bit scared.

But Yanni assured us we were safe, possibly because he was carrying a large gun.

The site of those majestic beasts so near to us while on foot was something that will stay with me for a long time.

Back at the camp, a glass of rich South African port and a handful of biltong was a beautiful way to watch the sunset.

And after another lovely meal we headed for an early night – just as well we were up before dawn for the next drive, as the animals are more active when it’s cooler.

Driving at speed though pre-dawn in an open jeep is pretty chilly, but luckily blankets and hot water bottles are provided, so you are nice and snug as they sun comes creeping out from it’s nightly retreat.

It’s not easy to describe just how awe-inspiring the day was; white lions guarding their kill near a dry river bed, rhinos on lumbering after us, having to stop the vehicle as a journey of giraffes sauntering by – phenomenal stuff.

Yanni took us to the top of a mountain and we had a packed lunch gazing out over the jagged wilderness.

We even took a boat out of the lake to see hippos, huge creatures which apparently control their height in the water using their own gases.

But the highlight for me had to be the elephant family marching by, big ones and little ones, looking for all the world like something from The Jungle Book. Quite an emotional moment.

We were lucky enough to spend a night in Dwyka – a very romantic place set in an extraordinary horseshoe of rock over which the sky turns purple as the sun goes down and the baboons call out in their nightly ritual.

After a relaxing soak to wash off the dust, the very accommodating staff even brought our evening meal out to the tepee so we could eat together undisturbed on our decking under the stars.

It’s hard to put into to words the Sanbona experience. By night you are waited on hand and foot in remarkable comfort, and by day you have intimate experiences with some of the most awesome creatures on the planet.

It’s relaxing, yet exhilarating, soothing and life-affirming. It’s not an easy undertaking for a Londoner to get there, but if you can, do.

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