An enormous sun-bleached tortoise shell, slowly disintegrating and returning to the earth,  was the portent of exciting natural discoveries as we left the R62 route for the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Klein Karoo.

Our destination to mark the New Year was one of four suites at the White Lion Lodge, perched high up on stilts looking out onto a magnificent kloof. The cool interior and its furnishings displayed great attention to detail, from handpainted fabrics to fabulously scented body and bath products, created locally in Montagu.

Many overseas guests choose Sanbona Wildlife Reserve as it promises a wildlife experience within an easy three hour journey from Cape Town. And, indeed, we viewed sights ranging from Cape Mountain Zebra and giraffe, to black-backed jackal and even a pair of rare white lions. It was, however, the geological marvels and unusual vegetation, such as quartz vygieveld, that we found truly captivating.

Sanbona  is situated between Montagu and Barrydale in the Klein Karoo and covers some 58 000 hectares of former farmland on which cattle, sheep and goats grazed. The land produced crops such as figs, apricots and peaches. The return to the wild began when Linton Projects created a 27 000 hectare private nature reserve in 1998, concentrated to the south and west of the Warmwaterberg Mountains. This was called Cape Wildlife Reserve, comprising individually owned lodges.

The reserve was then acquired by the Mantis Collection in 2002 – an organisation headed by Adrian Gardiner, renowned for rehabilitating degraded farmlands in the Eastern Cape and creating Shamwari Game Reserve.

Sanbona has been owned since 2015 by the Caleo Foundation, set up in 2004 by Swiss widow Dr Carmen Elivra Ellinger-Mühleder. She came to South Africa in 2009 for the first time and became enamoured of its wild life and landscape. In due course the Foundation purchased Sanbona with the  intention of recreating the ecosystem as it was some 300 years ago, before agriculture left its mark.

The White Lion Lodge, on the Klein Kalkoenshoek River,  remains privately owned, and we loved the personal attention from Gerry and her friendly staff. After a rainy December in Cape Town, it was bliss to relax and absorb the dry heat – rather like the blue-headed rock agamas that resided on the sun-baked rocks which we passed on strolls to the central pool and dining area.

Our first drive took us north of the lodge through vegetation dominated by shrubs, mainly vygies (mesembryanthemums) and crassula. Our knowledgeable Rasta guide Israel Geneke, his hair piled into an ingeniously constructed, tall leather hat, steered the Land Rover through a  wide kloof, shouldered by massive granite outcrops studded with a kaleidoscope of succulents and aloes. A steppe buzzard and pale chanting goshawk vied for territory overhead.

Our Austrian companions were eager to view the animals, but it was the massive folds of rock bisected by quartz outcrops, and the marvellous examples of Fynbos and Succulent Karoo biomes that intrigued us the most.

The following day we enjoyed a personal tour in which we learnt about the medicinal and cooking properties of local herbs and plants; spotted the homes of a Karoo rat and a harvester termite; and marvelled at the severe beauty of dryland plants such as euphorbia, botterboom and pig’s ear. In the evenings, the sky sparkled with stars that appeared so close that one could reach out and touch them. A wonderful start to 2022, a reminder of the stark, resilient beauty of nature, with a gorgeous home-from-home to return to for comfort and relaxation.

Reference: A foothold in Africa – Caleo Foundation. Images Judy Bryant.

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