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EXPERT REVIEW Three hours from Cape Town, this malaria-free Big Five safari is the real deal, with 50,000 hectares of conservation habitats and the world's only truly wild, free-roaming white lions

Eco


Overall eco rating


Sanbona is all about habitat preservation and wildlife conservation. The work done here is fantastic and built around expanding a vital wilderness area by reclaiming farmland. Much indigenous wildlife persists including critically endangered riverine rabbits but Sanbona is also managing the reintroduction of big game such as rhino and the famous white lions.

Given the primary goal of Sanbona is conservation, it is no surprise that the management also make wider environmental issues a priority. Water is a major consideration for both people and animals in the semi-desert Little Karoo. Sanbona has no mains water but uses a mix of rain and borehole water and treats the wastewater on site using an algal process to allow the recovered water to be used for irrigation. Steps are taken to conserve water in buildings and in the grounds of the safari lodges.

The more recent buildings at Sanbona also show a clear commitment to green principles – Gondwana lodge has a spectacular thatched roof which has been carefully designed to naturally force ventilation and to provide a shield from the excesses of the sun. Other buildings have straw bale walls, wind turbines, composting toilets and solar panels.

  • Fantastic for habitat preservation and wildlife conservation
  • Reintroducing locally extinct hippo, lions, elephants and other big game
  • Removal of invasive vegetation and rehabilitating former farm land to natural state
  • Water use and conservation given high priority as the park is located in semi-desert
  • Careful environmental management with clear targets to reduce water and energy consumption – accredited by the Green Leaf Environmental Standard (developed by the Wilderness Foundation in close cooperation with the Shamwari Group of which Sanbona is part)
  • Careful Environmental Impact Assessment prior to any new construction
  • The newest building, a small welcome lounge by BandV Architects at the entrance to the park, has 100% renewable electricity, a composting toilet and low impact, locally sourced gumpole/straw bale construction
  • Provide significant employment opportunities to local community (unemployment is a major problem in rural South Africa) with specific support to black community
  • Great educational programmes – with local schools and by funding 3 masters students and participating in variety of research projects
  • Local purchasing and promotion of local crafts

  • The older Tilney Manor Lodge (over 100yrs old) is not as green as the much newer Dwyker and Gondwana Lodges
  • Could use more renewable energy especially given high use of coal for grid electricity in South Africa
  • Safari vehicles could be greener
  • Eco-friendly products are used but surprisingly no consideration is given to animal testing of cleaning and beauty products

People

Sanbona is a major employer in this deprived rural area where unemployment is quoted at around 80%.  Locals make up the majority of staff, goods are bought as locally as possible with extra attention paid to food (including Marine Stewardship Council fish) and drink and local crafts are promoted in the gift shop. 

Specific support is provided to the black community as part of the government’s Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment programme directly by diversifying management and ownership and indirectly by developing skills, preferential purchasing, employment equity, etc.

Sanbona also has strong environmental and community outreach including donating second hand items, running community art events, environmental education in schools, sponsoring masters education of three students and working with various research programmes.

  • Provide significant employment opportunities to local community
  • Specific support to black community
  • Great educational programmes – with local schools and by funding 3 masters students and participating in variety of research projects
  • Local purchasing and promotion of local crafts
  • Donate second hand items to local community and arrange for local schools to visit the park at no charge
  • Preservation of 3500 year old rock art

Animals & nature

Sanbona’s primary focus is animals and nature and they do an excellent job.  The park is private but has Provincial Nature Reserve status through a public/private agreement meaning that it is managed under strict conservation ethics with annual audits. 

Sanbona are restoring a natural ecological regime to a once disturbed ecosystem, reintroducing locally extinct hippo, elephant, buffalo, cheetah, lion and various indigenous antelope species to the reserve.  Conserving endangered and critically endangered fauna (Cape mountain zebra, Cheetah, White rhino, Riverine Rabbit).  Providing an important breeding site for raptors incl Black eagle, Booted eagle.  The list goes on.

PETA assessment of cruelty free credentials of cleaning products and toiletries to come.

  • 3 different biomes provide habitats for a wide diversity of animals
  • Aound 20% of the 200sq mile reserve has been left as a wilderness area with hands off management. 
  • Large enough to function as an ecosystem, Sanbona is home to the big 5 and more.  Many of the larger animals had not been seen in the area for hundreds of years before their reintroduction
  • Careful management of the risk of soil erosion and water contamination during the process of rehabilitation of former farmland
  • Sanbona are involved in a range of research projects and have reintroduced white lions which had been extinct in the wild but bred in captivity for trophy hunting
  • Provide a home to 2 rescued white lions
  • A respect is shown for animals and menus have good vegetarian options and seek to include animal products from sustainable sources.

  • Eco-friendly products are used but surprisingly no consideration is given to animal testing of cleaning and beauty products

Environment & buildings

The approach to the environment at Sanbona is strongly influenced by the Green Leaf Environmental Standard which rewards water efficiency, energy efficiency, waste reduction, sustainable procurement and innovation.  This is driving Sanbona to reduce electricity consumption (11% reduction year on year for last period), increase the amount of rainwater collection, switch to low energy lighting and more.   Staff are also clearly aware of the programme and compliance is a team effort.

There is also a clear commitment to the environment in recent construction and development at Sanbona.  Remote pumps and electric fences are being switched to solar power and environmental impact assessments are performed before new construction.  This passes through into the buildings themselves, for example almost all roofs have rainwater collection, sustainable materials are being used increasingly (e.g. thatched roofs and straw bale walls), water treatment reduces chemical use (e.g. algal treatment for wastewater and saline pools) and energy systems are increasingly green (use of solar thermal for hot water, solar electric panels, wind turbines and battery storage and smarter controls.

  • Careful environmental management with clear targets to reduce water and energy consumption – accredited by the Green Leaf Environmental Standard (developed by the Wilderness Foundation in close cooperation with the Shamwari Group of which Sanbona is part)
  • Careful Environmental Impact Assessment prior to any new construction
  • The newest building, a small welcome lounge by BandV Architects at the entrance to the park, has 100% renewable electricity, a composting toilet and low impact, locally sourced gumpole/straw bale construction
  • Gondwana lodge has a spectacular thatched roof which has been carefully designed to enhance natural ventilation and to provide a shield from the excesses of the sun to avoid air conditioning
  • Majority of other lodges and staff accommodation make use of green building principles in some way e.g. Dwyker tented lodge and staff accommodations have solar thermal hot water. 
  • Water use, conservation and recycling/treatment given high priority as the park is located in semi-desert – less than 100 litres of water is consumed per guest per night

  • The older Tilney Manor Lodge (over 100yrs old) is not as green as the much newer Dwyker and Gondwana Lodges
  • Could use more renewable energy especially given high use of coal for grid electricity in South Africa
  • Safari vehicles could be greener

Reviewed by

Tim Starley-Grainger


Luxury


Overall luxury rating*


The scene

You have to be careful with African game reserves. Many of them are little more than zoos or fronts for illegal caged-hunting operations. Of the handful of genuine wildlife reserves within easy reach of Cape Town, Sanbona is the crème de la crème - and by far the largest. Thousands of animals – including the Big Five – have 54,000 hectares of plains and mountains to explore, with no cages or fences, except the one marking the perimeter of the reserve.

White lions are the big draw here. Declared extinct in the wild in the 1990s, Sanbona is part of an ethical conservation project to reintroduce them, and recently, the first white lion cubs were born in the wild at Sanbona. Apart from being fair-haired, white lions are genetically no different to their tawny siblings and are usually born in the same litter.

At three hours from Cape Town, it makes the perfect add-on to your citybreak. Try to stay at Sanbona for two or three nights to give you the best chance of seeing all the major predators and big animals. But if you can only squeeze in one night, it's still worth it if you arrive in time for the afternoon game drive, then leave after the morning one. But bear in mind this isn't a zoo. Specific sightings are never guaranteed, and one on drive, you might spot elephants, lions, leopards and giraffes, while another, you might not see any predators and have to content yourself with dozens of varieties of antelope, monkeys and smaller animals. Any "safari" that guarantees you'll see The Big Five in one game drive is a zoo, so bear that in mind.

The landscape here is the semi-arid Little Karoo – mountains with striking rock striations, secret caves and low-lying plants, such as succulents and acacia. The natural sparseness of the reestablished indigenous flora (the land has been reclaimed from farmland over the last decade) means Sanbona will never have the vast numbers of grazing animals found in more lush game reserves, but it also means the animals have few hiding places, making them much easier to spot.

Sanbona has three groups of accommodations, each housing between 12 and 24 people. The three accommodations are miles and miles from each other, but they're all at a similar level of luxury - which is top end - but with different styles. Dwyka attracts adventurous and romantic types, Tilney groups of friends or family and older travellers, and Gondwana families, honeymooners, single travellers, couples and professionals adding a few days to the end of their business trip.

Nights are special here, too, with starry skies the likes of which you rarely see any more. Stargazing is on offer, helping you decipher the planets from the asteroids.

  • The biggest and best genuine safari near Cape Town
  • Just three hours from Cape Town, so no need for flights to reach your safari
  • The world's only free-roaming genuinely wild white lions call this their home
  • Stargazing is some of the best in southern Africa
  • Arid landscape with vegetation unique to this region
  • Caves with rock art that's millennia old
  • Sanbona is vast, yet only a few dozen guests are accommodated in its lodges, so you’ll never get that ’20 jeeps surrounding a lion’ experience you find on some reserves and national parks

  • The landscape is arid, so it doesn't support the vast herds of grazing animals in some of the more lush safaris further east
  • The rocky terrain makes for bouncy, bouncy game drives. Wear two sports bras

The style

A safari ‘lodge’ can mean anything from a tent to a small hotel. At Sanbona, they offer three groups of accommodations: Dwyka Tented Lodge, Tilney Manor and Gondwana Lodge. Guestrooms are all TV-free, but there's a big-screen in the main lodges for those who need their news fix.

Dwyka is tented, but it's not camping. Picture a collection of nine stand-alone suites, made from solid, rammed-earth walls, two-person bathtubs, plush beds with duvets and earth-toned scatter cushions, underfloor heating, air conditioning, and indoor and outdoor showers. The only tent part is the canvas roof. They're grouped around a main lodge, also with the canvas roof and a mix of rammed-earth and stacked-stone walls, where meals are taken and guests lounge with drinks or to watch TV.

Tilney is more stately, a Colonial-style six-bedroom home with traditional Cape Georgian decor - squishy sofas, gold-framed photos, ottomans and four-poster beds. Tilney's main lodge is adjacent, with classic and classy dining room and fireplace for post-dinner brandies.

Gondwana feels like a boutique hotel, with 12 rooms in a stand-alone two-storey building. Expect earthy brown and green hues, vast beds with white duvets, bathrooms with two-person tubs and Italian-style walk-in showers, and firm square-edged sofas and chairs. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors on the bedroom wall leads out to a patio or balcony and overlooks a small watering hole, so you can zebra-spot from the moment you wake up. The main lodge here is thatch-roofed and with a roaring fire, inviting you to kick back with a glass of wine after your gourmet meal.

  • Three types of lodges, each with its own style to suit a range of tastes
  • All lodges have safari-inspired decor, whether its classic etchings of animals, wood carvings by local people or textiles with abstract pawprints
  • Luxury prevails throughout all the lodges, so forget roughing it in the bush. You might go wild on the game drives, but at night, you'll be spoilt rotten

  • None of the lodges feel very wild, so if you want that back-to-nature safari experience, with animals prowling inches from your sleeping bag, look elsewhere.

The facilities

Dwyka, Gondwana and Tilney each have their own main lodge and facilities. All three have elegant dining rooms, lounges with fireplaces and big-screen TVs (only rarely turned on by guests) and spa treatment rooms, and Gondwana and Tilney have small swimming pools, just about big enough for laps.

The twice-daily game drives are the draw, though, each lasting around two to three hours. You can also go on nature walks, birdwatching, excursions to the rock formations and cave art, and guided stargazing at night. All activities, except spa treatments, are included in the price, but there's plenty of down time, too, with game drives early in the morning and late afternoon.

Here's what happened on our game drives:

After a quick lunch, six of us piled into an open-air jeep driven by our ranger, Gwen, for our first game drive. We stormed off, bouncing through Sanbona’s rugged terrain, the semi-arid Little Karoo – rocky mountains with rust-coloured striations, secret caves and low-lying plants, such as succulents and acacia. The next two hours flew by in a whirlwind of dust-eating and animal-spotting. By Sundowners, we’d seen hippos wallowing in mud, giraffes nibbling acacia, baboons scooting along rocky escarpments and zebras racing on an open plain.

It took another three games drives – there are two a day - before we caught sight of a white lion, but we saw plenty of other animals in between, including a tawny lion and a cheetah. With just six white lions in the reserve, seeing them is never guaranteed. They’re the only animals on the reserve to wear radio collars – and will have to for a few more years for conservation monitoring – but the rangers don’t like to use sonar to find them, preferring more natural tracking methods. The one we saw was a strong, lean female, lying sleepily under a distant bush.

We were allowed out of the jeep only once during each drive: for a morning tea break and in the evening for that safari essential - Sundowners (G&Ts) - with Gwen wielding the essential rifle and the sky turning a dusky pink as the sun rapidly disappeared behind a mountain.

  • Game drives are wild adventures, tearing through dusty, rocky terrain, spotting all kinds of animals, left, right and centre
  • Spa treatments, available at all the lodges, use indigenous plants and herbs
  • On hot days, you can have a swim in the pools at Tilney and Gondwana
  • Stargazing here is extraordinarily dazzling
  • Cosy up by the fireplaces in the comfy lounges as the night air gets crisp
  • Meals at all the lodges are gourmet standard and included in the price: hot breakfast, light lunch, afternoon nibbles and three-course dinner
  • Gondwana has a kids club, so parents can leave the toddlers while they go on a game drive, and older kids have somewhere to play while parents lounge by the pool

  • Dwyka doesn't have a swimming pool

We love

Wild, free-roaming white lions - the only place in the world to see them (if you're lucky)

It's vast, with all The Big Five with its 54,000 hectares

So close to Cape Town, it'd be a shame not to add it to your trip

The three styles of lodge suit mean there's one for most tastes

Spectacular stargazing

Excellent, knowledgeable guides and friendly, helpful staff

 

You might not love

The terrain is rough and wild, so if you have major health concerns affected by jarring movements, this might not be for you as game drives are very bouncy

The landscape is arid, so the herds of grazing animals are smaller than those in more lush wildlife reserves further east in South Africa

Reviewed by

Jill Starley-Grainger


Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, P.O.Box 149, Montagu, 6720, Western Cape

South Africa
+27 (0)41 407 1000

Eco

Luxury*