HOLIDAYS are wonderful things: delicious breaks from the mundane, reminders that outside the artificial barriers we erect around our lives, there are other people, other places, other things that are more endlessly fascinating than anything we could imagine.
And then there are safaris. Really, they’re the Rolls Royce of the holiday world. More richly rewarding, energising, heart-warming and heart-breaking than any other holiday on earth.
I went on my first safari a couple of weeks ago, flying to Cape Town with my friend Charlie, before we met up with Pete and the three of us tackled a three hour journey down to Sanbona – a beautiful 130,000-acre wildlife reserve at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains. It sits in the heart of the Karoo region, rich with vast plains, rivers, lakes and a huge array of animals.
In many ways, all safari holidays are exactly the same in structure: you get up early and go out to spot as many animals as possible before coming back to relax for a while, then go out to look for more in the late afternoon. After that you enjoy sundowners and a magnificent sunset before a lavish dinner.
But here’s the rub: the reality is that every safari you go on is completely different. Every time you go out you see something new and hear something you haven’t heard before – honking hippos, roaring lions or singing birds. You are moved in a different way with every trip. Safaris are living, breathing holidays that create their own drama as they unfold. They’re an unwritten script, an unfinished symphony – a blank page on which your own individual story unfolds every day. Every time you head out you have no idea what awaits you. That’s why they’re so magical and unique.
The day we drove down to Sanbona it was 40*C, creating rather a hot, sticky journey, but it was easy to forget about the heat as we passed through the most glorious countryside… we watched baboons playing in the trees and birds dancing through the cloudless skies. When we arrived at Sanbona, the tensions of the flight and the heat of the journey melted into calmness and serenity. The beauty of the place is breath-taking.
It hadn’t rained for weeks when we arrived, and the animals and plant life were struggling. The difference between rain and no rain in the UK may amount to little more than the difference between taking an umbrella and leaving it behind. Here it’s a serious business, a matter of life and death. When there is no rain, the plants die so the herbivores can’t eat, they grow weak and become easy prey so the predators thrive. The very balance of nature shifts a little on its axis with a turn in the weather.
But as we drove down that afternoon we saw flashes of lightning in the sky ahead of us, growing brighter and more intense as we approached the reserve. By the time we had dinner in the evening the wildest light show played out in the darkness, then thunder’s heavy drum beat joined the cacophony, and the rain came…a little at first, then tumbling down to the delight of everyone.
The rain mean that the next morning the animals were all out to play. We were extraordinarily lucky. Our guide, Pascale, warned us straight away that we couldn’t guarantee seeing any animals…this wasn’t a safari park, these animals were wild. We had no idea what awaited us.
“I’d just love to see some giraffes and elephants,” I said plaintively. Within minutes, as if ushered onto stage by an almighty director, giraffes moved ahead of us, gliding with such gracefulness through the trees. There’s something so other-worldly about giraffes. I fear I may have squealed a little when we saw them.
Next came the elephants.
“You’re good!” I told Pascale, as a herd of elephants trooped past us. Our guide was an expert on elephants, she’s studying their behaviour for a masters degree, so was able to tell us how intelligent they are, how kind, sensitive and emotional. Then she jumped out and excitedly collected their droppings, displaying them for us to see. “Look,” she said, as if showing us a diamond ring. “Isn’t it lovely?” The droppings carry information about what they’ve been eating that is useful for her research.
We saw so many animals that morning, it’s hard to recount them all…a young tawny male lion trying to bring down an eland, failing miserably and having to wander away with his tail between his legs. And a white lion – they are beautiful beasts - white of fur and with the pale blue-green eyes of a film star. Our sighting was stretched out under the sun, his handsome face framed with great mane of white fluff, his protruding belly testament to a good feed. A couple of feet away from him, under the trees, out of the sun, lay the remains of a baby giraffe that he had killed that morning.
We saw rhinos and walked up close to a magnificent cheetah, composed and relaxed in the late afternoon sun, we had a boat trip out to see the hippos and we saw rhinos and buffalos aplenty, but the safari experience is so much more than the big beasts. It’s the plants and the birds. My God – the birds are spectacular - from secretary birds which take off like aeroplanes, with a giant run up, spreading their wings and swooping into the sky; to the huge fish eagles and the staggeringly pretty smaller birds in jewel-like colours, singing beautifully through the warmth and silence in this lovely part of the world.
Away from the animals, the accommodation at Sanbona is elegant and roomy. There are three lodges. We stayed in Gondwana Lodge which has 12 suites, and has been created for families. There’s also Dwyka Tented Lodge which sits in a dry riverbed. It has nine 'tents' (though the word 'tent' doesn't do them justice - they each have a private plunge pool). But the jewel in the crown, for my tastes, is Tilney Manor a lovely, elegant house with the prettiest gardens featuring bushes and plants teeming with small flowers in the most exhuberant reds and pinks. It’s delightful. A riot of colours and smells.
The food and wine is delicious: a mixture of barbecues and more formal, sit down dinners, everything we ate was lovely. After dinner, we looked at the stars – so clear at night, pointed out by our guides as they explained their positions and told the stories of their names. Every guide we met was knowledgeable, well-versed and adept at sharing their knowledge and bringing the captivating world to life for us, it made the experience so much more magical.
The lovely thing about Sanbona, other than it provides the world’s best holiday experience, is that it doubles as an extraordinary conservation project. The place was turned into a reserve 15 years ago with the plan to undo the damage wrought by intense farming and reintroduce wildlife. To, effectively, turn back the ecological clock. It’s working. The land is recovering well and the animals have settled and roam plentifully through the reserve.
As well as the trips out to see the animals, Sanbona offers nature walks, trips to see the local rock art, fossils and plants. There’s something for everyone, you can’t fail to be impressed.
Indeed, the only thing wrong with the experience is that you ever have to leave. Heading back to work is difficult when a part of your heart is still out there, under the African sun, watching the birds dance in the sky, and waiting for the big beasts to arrive. It’s hard to imagine a better, more relaxing and stimulating holiday.
For more information, see: WWW.SANBONA.COM