The drive west of Cape Town takes you past the Cape Flats, the low-lying coastal plains where blacks were forcibly resettled for generations during Apartheid; through the lush winelands nestled in the valleys between rugged rocky peaks (our Avis driver explained that French Huguenots settled Franschhoek"French Corner" in Afrikaansthe second-biggest of Western Cape's wine regions, and "being French, the first thing they did is plant vines"); through Robertson, known for its brandy and its purple-blooming jacaranda trees; and, after traversing the last in a series of mountain passes, into the heart of the Little Karooa semi-desert landscape of red-tinged rocks, sparse muted green vegetation and dramatic mesas and outcrops that resemble something you might see outside Phoenix, Ariz. If you've been raised on a diet of African nature show programs, it's the last place you'd expect to see a lion or a herd of elephants, but that's exactly what Sanbona Wildlife Reserve offersan unforgettable safari in an unlikely landscape.
More than just a tourist destination, Sanbona is an experiment in wildlife restoration on a grand scale. At about 210 square miles, the private reserve is about the size of Zion National Park. Most wildlife that once inhabited the region was extirpated 150 to 200 years ago, as livestock ranchers and sheep herders moved in, emptying the landscape of all but isolated populations of meerkats, kudu, klipspringer and other creatures deemed non-threatening. The wildlife is so sparse outside the reserve that one doesnt even see roadkill on the long highways, a novelty for someone like me, who's used to marking the upstate New York transition from suburbia to forests by the transition on the roadside from skunks to porcupines.
If wildlife is scarce outside Sanbona, inside its fences is an extraordinary oasis: Herds of elephants traverse the dusty hills, zebra gallop amid soaring landscapes like wild horses in a surreal John Wayne flick, rhino lumber toward pools where hippo wallow, and giraffe nibble from the thorn trees in the green ribbon of trees along a trickling riverbed. Given the wide-open landscape, speedy cheetah do well here, and the reserve's signature free-roaming white lionsa natural variant, despite the spectacle reminiscent of 1980s celebrity obsessionshad been doing well, too, before two males inexplicably died recently in their apparently healthy prime.
Sanbona is in the business of answering questions as basic as that: What kills a lion in the Little Karoo? What does a zebra eat where no grass grows? How many elephants can this fragile ecosystem sustain when, historically, they would have passed through only briefly on decades-long migrations? Most critically, do these creatures still have the genetic makeup necessary to survive in this landscape, if they've adapted to living in far different environmental conditions?
Working in consultation with CapeNature, the province's wildlife agency, Sanbona has permits for the animals it started introducing in 1997 (it welcomed its first tourists in 2002). CapeNature has the goal of creating a string of nature reserves, privately and publicly owned, whichone daywill provide natural corridors allowing for the restoration of wildlife migration circuits that haven't been witnessed in generations.
At Sanbona, CapeNature permits some animals, like cheetah, lion, leopard and elephant, to stay indefinitely, since there are indisputable historical records that the big cats menaced Dutch shepherds and ranchers, and that the native acacia trees can't reproduce until their seeds are digested in elephant guts. Others, like giraffe, can only stay for a few years, since linking their presence to the habitat hinges on shaky evidence, such as the giraffe-like scrawl of a cave painting.
"They understand that we need them for tourism," Liesl Eichenberger, the staff ecologist, said of CapeNature's permits for giraffes, white rhino and other animals with unlikely or unproven ties to the region. "Meanwhile, we look for credible evidence."
In that way, Sanbona mingles tourism with science; it's a for-profit Green Leaf-certified lodge, selling itself on the rare opportunity to see white lions and the full complement of expected African wildlife in an utterly unique landscape, while also an experiment in the reconstruction of something resembling the pre-Colonial ecosystem, when the only people inhabiting the area were the San people, migrating in sync with wildlife. (Sanbona means, "vision of the San.") Still, whether you're talking about restoring the Hudson River after 400 years of Colonial use and 10,000 years of human habitation, or this arid landscape, there's no resetting an ecosystem to year zero. There is no year zero. Without the tourism, there would be no experiment to restore the big cats or elephants; the resulting ecosystem will be like nothing before.
"That's one thing about nature," Eichenberger said," it doesn't stand still."
The first in the Little Karoo to attempt such wildlife restoration, Sanbona has pioneered tourism with a scientific backbone. There weren't even good plant-identification guidebooks to draw on when the staff got started. Now, exclusion plots, camera traps and other tools of science are relatively common, and they're helping to paint a picture of the ecosystemas it is and could be. The science also enhances the tourism experience, not only intellectually but practically: The rangers can use radio telemetry (right) to track down cheetahs and some of the other most distinctive creatures, since they're wearing collars necessary for research.
It helps, because the wildlife are more widely scattered than you'll find in the more well-known safari locations, like South Africa's Kruger National Park. It also helps to have an expert guide like Marco Fitchet, the senior ranger who bounced us along dusty roads around the reserve, filling in the gaps between wildlife sightings with fascinating banter about life in the Karoo for both the Dutch farmers and for the San, who found a wide variety of medicinal and nutritional uses for the succulent vegetation. The plantlife might be starkly beautiful in its bluish contrast to the orange dust beneath, but it's not obviously useful to the casual passer-by. Fitchet seems to know each of the plants and their uses, and he even lets his guests taste "baboon grapes" a salty green bean (but not the "Bushmen's gum," a hallucinogenic seed). His commentary adds epic texture to the safari, as you learn that the disjointed stratigraphy of Warmwaterberg Mountains shares its geology with both Australian and Patagonian landscapes, all three having been fused when the supercontinent Gondwana was extant a couple hundred million years ago. And, because he's traversed nearly every inch of the reserve he notes is "as big as Singapore," he can share its secrets, like the cave that holds the elegant red strokes that resemble the slender San people who marked them on the wall, hundreds or thousands of years ago (left).
But none of that "filler" should leave the impression that the wildlife is an afterthought at Sanbona. Witnessing a herd of elephants kicking up a dusty storm, or watching a rhino disappear along it well-worn track into a dramatic backdrop of mesas is nothing short of breathtaking. Good luck finding a cheetah in Kruger; here, you're virtually guaranteed to find one. You may not be as floored by the abundance of wildlife as you would on a safari in the Sabi Sands near Kruger National Park, but you will be floored. Repeatedly.
"You can't compare game viewing here and in Kruger. There, you get an elephant with a tree, and that's nice. Here, you get an elephant in front of a mountain," Eichenberger said. "It's opening your eyes to a whole different picture."
Photos by Dan Shapley and Samantha Shapley.
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