Lying by the pool, after an early morning game drive, I was distracted by a flock of mouse birds, long tails silhouetted against the blue sky, swooping into a nearby tree and disturbing a small troop of baboons.
It struck me as a particularly exotic moment, during a two day adventure on safari in South Africa.
My husband, Jim, and I had sailed into Cape Town on board Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. At our age, we didn’t fancy the hassle of flying up to the Kruger, so we opted instead to hire a car and drive to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Little Karoo: a semi-desert region of the Western Cape.
It was a great decision.
The three hour drive was a sheer delight; the roads in the Cape are outstanding – farewell for a while to all those British potholes! The journey took us through breath-taking mountains that made us gasp; sometimes it felt as if we were in the Highlands of Scotland and sometimes in the Wild West.
When you reach the main gate of the Reserve, the tarmac turns to a rough track that can rattle your bones. But we got a kick out of the illusion of being pioneers in the heat and dust of Africa as we drove about 15 miles to one of Sanbona’s beautiful lodges.
On the way, we spotted zebra, Kudu, and some wonderful birds, including the Pale Chanting Goshawk. But the thought that a lion or cheetah might be crouching in the bush, watching us pass by, was a constant thrill.
With all our stopping and staring, it took us nearly an hour to reach Tilney Manor, a luxurious oasis, deep in the bush. It was built over a hundred years ago by a local magistrate as a farmhouse and weekend retreat.
Cold flannels, chilled apple juice and a tasty lunch were first on the agenda, before we were shown to our huge suite in one of several low-lying buildings set in lovely gardens by the swimming pool.
This is a five star safari, with just six suites looking out over the towering Warmwaterberg Mountains.
“Sorry about the branches on the path” said Corlia, our welcoming host. “It’s the baboons. If you hear them banging on your roof, just clap your hands and they’ll run away”.
I loved the idea of baboons coming to visit us.
I also loved our vast bathroom, with its free-standing tub, a shower cubicle and glass doors leading to a private outside ‘his and hers’ shower area.
But, for all the luxury, Sanbona is, above all, about wildlife. The Reserve covers some 60,000 hectares: about the size of Singapore. So the Big Five who roam free here have plenty of places to hide, and the game drives (one in the early morning, one in the late afternoon) can be a chase lasting up to four hours.
“It’s just a precaution” said our ranger, Chris, as he propped his rifle above the steering wheel of our ten seater safari vehicle. “I’ve never had to use it in anger!”
In fact there were only four of us on board, so plenty of room for all and warm blankets for when the sun went down.
At Sanbona, you don’t feel one of a crowd. You feel that this is an exclusive experience, a house party with a difference.
Chris was a hugely personable chap and his enthusiasm about life in the bush bubbled over. He taught us about the hardy desert plants, invited us to taste the moisture in some of the succulents and even showed us how elephant dung smells if you set fire to it: the smoke is sweet and enticing!
But of course we wanted more than elephant dung. We wanted elephants.
And, after a cross-country chase, we came upon a small herd foraging in a thicket. And not just elephants, there were four rhinos there too.
Each game drive was a different adventure; some were more fruitful than others. But there was always the thrill of the chase. And there were many magic moments: a lonesome giraffe wandering down the track, a young hippo wallowing in a pool, dozens of baboons settling down for the night high up on the rocks.
And then there were our sundowners in the bush. Each evening Chris would stop the truck at around 6pm and produce wine and nibbles even a tablecloth and we’d get out and watch the sun set.
Back at Tilney Manor, with everyone home from their game drives, we would sit around a fire pit with a glass of wine, exchanging stories about what we’d seen.
On our final night, dinner was a delicious affair: a proper South African braai: pots of soup, ostrich stew, barbecued meat, assorted vegetables and much more. It was a veritable feast.
But my abiding memory of our time at Sanbona will be our last evening game drive. Suddenly we got word that a cheetah had been spotted on the far side of the Reserve with a Springbok kill.
We raced across the bumpy track. As Chris said, it was more of a “Ferrari Safari” as we tried to get there before the light faded.
Eventually, he found her. Crouched in the bushes, by a dry riverbed, eating her kill.
“Do you want to get out and take a closer look?” asked Chris.
We looked at him as if he were mad.
He took out his rifle and gave us a safety briefing: walk in single file, don’t talk, don’t run, keep calm.
We walked gingerly behind him as we approached the magnificent cat. We got so close we could almost smell her. She looked at us with passing curiosity, but was clearly far more interested in her kill.
It was one of those moments we shall remember forever.
For more information, visit Africa Sky Safari.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Africa Sky.