By Kristan Schiller / September 14, 2011

The name Sanbona derives from the word “San,” which refers to the hunter-gatherer San people, and “bona” which means vision in Zulu. When you consider that the arid plains and jagged rocks of this 209-square mile wildlife reserve (the second largest in South Africa), were once home to the nomadic San who roamed the landscape here for thousands of years, the moniker seems quite appropriate. Often considered the world’s earliest conservationists, the San would never eat more than necessary to stay alive, living off the land and carefully following the route of ripening vegetation, season by season, in order to sustain themselves. They believed they would be punished by God if they abused their environment.

While perhaps not quite as conscientious as the San of centuries ago, the staff at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the heart of the Klein Karoo, just three hours east of Cape Town, certainly make their best effort. “The ultimate goal here is to establish a fully self-sustaining area,” says Keir Lynch, Assistant Wildlife Manager at Sanbona where wildlife once indigenous to the area– including leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant, and lion—have been reintroduced on an expanse formerly occupied by 19 farms in the Western Cape. (Sanbona is also home to 650 plant species, 160 bird species and a pride of white lion, an extremely rare species of creamy white color that is being repopulated here.)

The reserve consists of three luxury lodges: the farmhouse-style Tilney Manor, the secluded Dwyka Tented Camp, and the contemporary Gondwana Lodge replete with Sanbona’s spa, called Gondwana Retreat, which offers a range of organic treatments for bush-weary bones. All of Sanbona’s lodges are working towards compliance with the Green Leaf Environmental Standard (GLES), an environmental benchmark of best practices in sustainable tourism designed by Wilderness Foundation and launched in South Africa in early 2008. GLES measures levels of compliance in water, energy, waste, green procurement, innovation efficiency, and socio-economic development. A few specific steps being taken at Sanbona include capturing and storing rain water, installing energy-reducing lighting, kitchen composting, and the use of exotic (as opposed to indigenous) wood for firewood. (Keir Lynch tells me that both Dwyka and Gondwana have achieved 75 percent compliance with the GLES while Tilney Manor will be assessed for GLES compliance next year.)

During my three nights at Sanbona, I stayed at Gondwana Lodge in an elevated chamber with its own private deck overlooking a water-hole. At night, game would come and drink here, and I was treated to my own private safari—this was after gourmet meal with the finest South African wine, a bath in a massive freestanding tub, and a few hours’ rest under a soft, down-filled duvet. The black-backed Jackal and I seemed to have worked out an understanding: each night, he would howl at just the right time as the animals came to drink, waking me before curtain call.

Guests at Sanbona are treated to game drives through this rare landscape with rangers who know where to find ancient fossils and rock art painted by the San as long as three to five thousand years ago. These first human inhabitants of the Western Cape used the land here as a migration route as they moved from the dry Karoo (or desert) to the coastal plains. My young ranger, Marco Fitchet, took me on an expedition one afternoon to the main rock art site—a mountainous overhang between Bellair Dam and Tilney Manor where animal figures and human figures can be seen in a series of brownish-red paintings on the side of a massive rock. The San used ochre, animal fat, and likely eland blood with which to paint the figures and often told stories through their art, Fitchet says. One belief is that much of the rock art was painted by the San medicine men, or shamans, and that the images seen in the rock art paintings depict what the shaman has seen in a trance, a state he enters in order to have the power to heal.

Back at Gondwana, I am lucky enough to partake in one of Gondwana Retreat’s signature treatments, the Moor Mud Wrap treatment, at the very able hands of Julia Ellish. The treatment is considered Mother Nature’s healer for aches and pains as well as arthritis, Julia tells me. The perfect antidote for my sore muscles after climbing to see the rock art caves, I think to myself. When I depart Sanbona, I turn back from the jeep and wave goodbye to the staff, the mountains, and my black-backed Jackal whom I imagine will be howling again this evening, inviting guests to behold the waterhole and beckoning the world to see the vision of the San.

Kristan Schiller
Kristan Schiller

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