Updated: Aug 19, 2020
There’s glamping and then there’s glamping. Dwyka Tented Lodge in the heart of the sensational Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is very much the latter.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit a large variety of lodges and camps all over Southern Africa. Dwyka Tented Lodge in the Klein Karoo, I can sincerely report, outranks most of them. Ensconced in a horseshoe basin and guarded by towering cliffs, Dwyka’s nine tents are simply on another plain of luxury. Each unit is dripping with opulence: spacious bedrooms flow out to expansive private decks looking on to a dry riverbed and sandstone cliffs, and are finished with modern, sophisticated touches. To combat the biting Karoo cold in the evenings, each tent boasts a piping-hot jacuzzi, which just adds a final touch to the romantic character so expertly and thoughtfully cultivated by the Sanbona group.
We are greeted by a team of smiling staff who offer us a warm face cloth and a glass of sparkling wine, both mightily welcome after a long drive from Cape Town and 60 kilometres’ dirt road through the sprawling Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. As we step into our warmly air-conditioned unit, we’re stunned by the interior of what can’t truthfully be called a ‘tent’. The structure is a combination of wood and stone with a screed floor elegantly lit by muted floor lights. The only feature remotely reminiscent of a tent is the canvas roof, which is propped up by beautifully solid wooden centre poles, and billows pleasingly towards the outer beams. The bathroom is equally lavish, with a huge shower and bath, and sliding doors opening on to the outdoor jacuzzi.
Well acquainted (and enamoured) with our lodgings for the weekend, we amble up towards the equally sumptuous main lodge for supper, and to meet our guide for the weekend. Dinner is scrumptious Karoo fare: I have succulent Karoo lamb chops while my partner tucks into a juicy ostrich steak. Casper Bester, who is to be our ranger for the weekend, introduces himself and briefs us on the weekend’s schedule. After a lengthy chat, we bid everyone adieu and retire to our own little lap of tented luxury for the night.
‘They’re brother and sister, and you can see from their bulging bellies that they hunted as recently as yesterday,’ whispers Casper, pointing at a pair of massive lions, one male, one female, both snow white. Everyone on the game viewer is stunned into silence at the unusually spectacular sight of white lions.
We had been driving for about an hour, traversing the stark, dewy plains, fynbos-bedecked undulations and dawn-gilded sandstone formations of the 58 000 ha Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, when we happen upon the great white cats.
We find them baking in the rising sun at the foot of a koppie, the dawn light illuminating the blond mane of the male. ‘Are they related to the famous white lions of the Timbavati?’ I inquire. ‘Yep, they originate from the same strain of Timbavati lions,’ Casper says. ‘The first three were introduced here in 2003, and these two were part of the subsequent litter. Gorgeous, aren’t they?’ The ranger looks on with visible pride at the rare felines he helps conserve and protect.
The big male yawns lazily and peers indifferently at us for a moment. Its menacing, icy-blue stare seems to pierce the soul, and is enough to send shivers down my spine. Nothing evokes primal fear like locking eyes with a lion, and the ghostly ice-blue glare of these white cats proves doubly sinister.
We drive on. Moments later, we encounter a crash of white rhinos in the middle of a dry drainage line. They regard us for a moment before plonking down heavily on the dusty bed. ‘See how they all tuck in one of their front legs when lying down? If they were to lie flat on their sides, that would make them more vulnerable, so they usually lie on an incline and with one leg tucked in to be able to get up rapidly in case of danger,’ Casper informs us.
Knowledgeable and charismatic, the ranger entertains and informs with wonderful tidbits on various Karoo flora and fauna, and also some local history.
‘Sanbona was named after the San hunter-gatherer people that lived here a hundred years ago, the second part of the word, “bona”, meaning vision. The original founders had the vision of restoring this land to its original state, in terms of the vegetation and wildlife that flourished here centuries ago. Hence the reintroduction of the big five, plus cheetah and a variety of other species,’ he explains while we meander on.
We see a huge variety of plains game and birds until we stop for lunch at the Explorer Camp, where a delicious lunch is laid out under a massive marquee tent. In the summer, when it’s open, guests at the Explorer Camp are taken on walking safaris and sleep in relative tented luxury (though not nearly as luxe as Dwyka).
A CLOSE CALL
After lunch, we look for elephants. ‘They were spotted walking north yesterday, so they should be somewhere over that ridge line. Keep your eyes peeled!’ Casper says. Minutes later, we stop on a hill to try and spy them through binoculars. In the stillness of the cut engine, we hear a faint trumpet and set off excitedly in the direction of the noise.
Five kilometres on (amazingly, we had heard them that far), we find them. A large herd of 12 elephants, including two youngsters, are thirstily slurping water from a reservoir. Sharp rocks are packed tightly around the man-made dam, but they’re clearly not much of a deterrent for the thirsty pachyderms, as they carefully clamber over these rocks to fill up their rumbling bellies.
Thirst quenched, they move on to a sandy patch and we sit and watch in fascination as the herd of giants dust-bathe themselves. Irked by our presence, a young bull saunters over and comes to a stop a few inches from the back of the game viewer, eyeing us inquisitively. The passengers in the back of the vehicle turn around nervously, as the young bull nudges the back bumper with his tusk, making the whole truck rock back and forth. After a few stern words from Casper, the massive bull stops and, instead, moves over towards my side of the viewer and comes to a stop at my door, his heavily lashed eye centimetres from mine. I freeze, terrified at the proximity of such enormous and unpredictable strength. My partner, sitting next to me, starts hyperventilating.
‘Keep calm, everyone,’ Casper warns, before gently but firmly admonishing the big tusker as if it’s a five-ton puppy. It works again, but this time the elephant moves to the front of the vehicle. The big bull looks Casper in the eye – almost tauntingly – while slowly, deliberately rubbing the paint off the bonnet with its rough and hugely powerful trunk. We sit in terrified fascination until he finally considers his point made and strolls off.
Late afternoon, Casper stops the vehicle and tells us we’ll be taking a walk. In single file, we follow him into the veld while he busies himself with his radio, pointing it in several directions to pick up a signal. One of Sanbona’s coalition of cheetahs is nearby, and Casper is trying to pick up her microchipped collar. The signal bounces back strongly, but he can’t pinpoint a direction. We all keep our eyes peeled. We see plenty of aardvark signs, including its tracks and a well-used hole, plus whistle rat holes and a peculiar spider. Casper crouches at a little spoor and asks us to guess at the identity of its maker. ‘Steenbok,’ I venture. ‘Close,’ laughs Casper, ‘but it’s even smaller than that. This belongs to the buckspoor spider – getting its name from the way its trap resembles a little buck spoor’. Casper gently sticks a twig into one of the tiny little ridges, and sure enough, two aggressive little spider legs grab hold of it. These are the little reasons I love bush walks…
Radio still aloft, Casper finally gets a strong indicator. ‘There!’ he points. I see a tail swish. It turns out we had walked barely 10 metres from where the cheetah is lying in the long grass, while the signal had bounced off the surrounding hillocks. Goes to show how oblivious and vulnerable humans can be out in the bush. Had it not been for Casper’s telemetry, we wouldn’t have had the first clue about the big cat lying mere metres away.
She allows us to get close … within 20 metres. Lying on her side, she surveys us with vague curiosity, ears twitching at flies. We’re close enough to discern the characteristic black ‘tear marks’ that are so useful to them in avoiding glare when hunting, and even individual whiskers. Relaxed in our presence, she gets up and stretches languidly and then plops down again, her afternoon catnap clearly not over.
It's been a weekend to remember. From the splendid tented luxury of Dwyka, and the impeccable service of everyone involved, to the barely believable variety of wildlife we had the privilege to witness. Certainly an experience to rival anything I’ve covered in Africa...
BOOK YOUR STAY
For the experience of a lifetime at Sanbona Wildlife Reserve and to book your stay at Dwyka Tented Lodge or the Explorer Camp, call 021 010 0028 email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit sanbona.com