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Sanbona: Solitude and silence

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18 May 2011 by Luke McCormick

Wexas member Bryony Hedley explains her love affair with safari in Southern Africa and details her recent visits to Sanbona Wildlife reserve near Cape Town in South Africa. Pictures by the author.

Travelling is not just about where you go, but about how it makes you feel.  Some people love the buzz of the big city.  Others seek the peace and quiet of the countryside.  Sanbona goes one massive step further - it takes you right back to a time long before man, even before animals, ever existed. 

It is a place of prehistoric proportions.  It makes you feel small, in the most profound sense.  For here we are able to comprehend what it is to be a part of all life, and how privileged we are to belong to this remarkable and ever-evolving planet.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Like so many others, it had been a lifetime dream of mine to ’go on safari’.  And the whole point of a safari, one would quite naturally presume, is to see animals - especially the Big Five.  Of course there are no guarantees they will appear, but when it comes to wildlife, that’s something you have to accept.

Despite my unfailing passion for animals, it took a visit to Sanbona last year for me to realise that going on safari is about so much more.  The place itself is magical.  Quite honestly, I would be happy driving around for hours without seeing anything much, which was sometimes the case.

The secret is in the small details - a millipede making its way determinedly across a road; a black and red armoured locust sitting in the sand; or a toktokkie tapping the ground in search of a mate.  Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the bigger things as well - an elephant curiously inspecting your truck with its trunk; or lions surrounding you, creating a roadblock, totally unfazed by your presence.  But even if you find none of these creatures, I guarantee the one thing you’ll find is yourself.  All you need is an open mind and heart.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

The literature in my tent describes the landscape of the Little Karoo, where Sanbona is situated, as giving one ’a sense of humbleness, allowing one to seek solitude and introspection’.  I couldn’t agree more.  This is a place to come and be still.  People visit ’retreats’ to achieve this state of mind, this sense of humility.   

I would choose Sanbona over a traditional retreat any day.   It doesn’t get much better than sipping a glass of chilled South African wine, with a delicious meal, all thoughts of hard work fading into the background.  And my, what a background!

When I showed the pictures I took to a friend, she said that the landscape looked very bleak and desolate. Certainly it is no sweeping, golden savannah, but with its endless vistas and majestic, awe-inspiring rock formations, it has a unique and breathtaking beauty.  Here, there seems to be so much more sky.  Here, the clouds hurl their way across the mountains like tidal waves.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

The sky at night is astounding; this is a place where the stars come out in there millions; where planets can be seen quite clearly with the naked eye.  What more could you want than to end your day lying on a deck gazing up at a canopy pulsating with infinite light?

This year I stayed again at Dwyka Lodge, where nine luxury tents form a horseshoe around the edge of a dried river bend, a natural amphitheatre of rust and grey-coloured rock.

It is an extraordinary feeling, sitting on your private wooden balcony, and suddenly spying a tiny klipspringer grazing on a nearby bush, or a baboon rolling its way nonchalantly down the cliff.  The black eagle breeds here, and you can watch their offspring learning how to fly, or see the adults soaring towards the heavens. It’s a truly magical sight.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Just before sunrise, you are awakened by a call from your game ranger.  It’s pitch black, and it seems far too early.  But it’s amazing how quickly dark turns to light, and there is nothing to beat that moment when you step outside your tent and pause for a few minutes to listen to the astonishingly varied bird song.  Indeed this place is all about taking time to stop and stare - and listen.

Sometimes you have no choice, especially when the baboons’ terrifying ’Wahu’ cry echoes around the cliffs - the acoustics are quite spectacular!   The first time I heard them right outside my tent, long before my official alarm call, I admit I was scared, but mixed in with that was a thrill quite impossible to describe.  You have to hear it to believe it!

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Obviously one of the main elements of any safari is the game drive.  I noticed some guests had ’tick lists’.  As soon as they have seen one animal, they want to find the next.  They didn’t seem to take enough time to relish the moment.   Surely the whole point of sighting any animal is to embrace the moment in its entirety?

So, when we set off tracking cats at dawn, watching the sun lighten the sky, I didn’t mind when they didn’t show up.  And after all, perhaps it’s always good to leave wanting more?  During my first visit I never got to see cheetah. Whereas this year I was treated to three separate sightings! 

As for the white lions, for which Sanbona is renowned, again luck was on my side.   Have you ever had a big cat look you in the eye?  If you have, you will know they seem to see straight through you, right into your soul - a feeling of kinship; a fleeting moment of connection; a dynamic oneness.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

But as I said, it’s not just about the animals.  Sanbona provides one with space and peace, time for just ’being’.  Trivia slips so quickly away and nothing seems important any more, other than simply letting every specialmoment wash over you.  No white noise, just the breath of anticipation, as you wonder what you might see next - whether it be as big as an elephant, or as small as the tiny, vibrantly coloured malachite sun bird.

And then there is the silence, broken only by the haunting call of birds, or the wind blowing through the acacia trees. 

Sanbona may be about the small details, but it is also very much about the bigger picture.  The real magic of this rare and beautiful wilderness is about living in harmony with your surroundings, with nothing to do but breathe in the atmosphere and absorb the very essence of life itself.   

So if you’re thinking of coming too, then try to leave behind your ’tick list’.  And prepare yourselves for one ’hell of a reality check’.  Stay for a while if you can.  Everyone I met, without exception, said they wished they could stay longer, when it was time for them to leave.  And I, for one, can’t wait to go back.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

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