Up close and personal with elephants.


As published by Starts at 60 on 13 October, 2019.

As I prepared to embark on my adventure along the Garden Route in South Africa, my young granddaughters asked: “What will you see Gran?” “Well,” I said, “maybe giraffes, elephants, lions …” Now there’s a lot more to South Africa than wild animals, but just like tourists to Australia want to see kangaroos and koalas, the South African wildlife was top of my list.

Sanbona’s welcoming entrance.


We visited Sanbona Wildlife Reserve for our fix of wild animals and for me, this was the highlight of an amazing trip. Sanbona is a private reserve of 58,000 hectares nestled in the Little Karoo region, 270 kilometres (168 miles) from Cape Town. The prior farm now offers luxury safari accommodation and a sustainable natural lifestyle haven for local animals, many of which are in danger of extinction. According to Sanbona’s management, it is “an ongoing conservation project that aims to restore the ecological balance in a landscape formed during cataclysmic times 350 million years ago”.

Animals, vegetation and water are constantly monitored and where possible, animals are tagged for observation. A successful outcome means good health for all animals by ensuring a balanced ecosystem where they can catch their own food as nature intended. The reserve is fenced, but some animals, including the big cats, come and go as they wish. Many continue to return, which seems to be a testament to continued good ecological management.

Our accommodation in Gondwana Family Lodge was spacious, comfortable and stylish. This thatched lodge resembled a typical Karoo homestead and although modern, has a touch of bush authenticity. One of the attendants laughingly said to me: “That bed’s large enough for a family of four” — and so it was. The large claw foot bath was nearly as big. The expansive verandah with a thatched roof overlooked a brown plain covered in sparse, low growing foliage.

The spa and health club facilities beckoned, and I booked a Rhino Wrap, spending a blissful hour being scrubbed, heated, washed and massaged, finishing up with a smooth, relaxed body, all ready for my next safari. Absolutely heavenly!

We enthusiastically climbed into an open wagon for our first safari in search of a family of elephants, which had been seen at the nearby waterhole. Vehicles are not permitted to leave the dirt roads, so we stopped as close to the waterhole as possible and were incredibly lucky to find a herd of around 12 elephants devouring the trees nearby. They didn’t seem overly disturbed by our vehicle and slowly wandered off to the waterhole where the older elephants drank and two young calves frolicked in the water. We were confined to the truck, but with its open sides there was no problem taking great photos. What an exciting start to a couple of days of animal watching!

Elephants bathing at the waterhole.


We moved on to inspect some recently rediscovered cave paintings. The cave itself was in an enormous ravine of orange rock layered at conflicting angles which resulted from movement in the tectonic plates eons ago.

There are seven recorded rock art sites throughout Sanbona dating back more than 3,500 years and depicting the spiritual beliefs and lives of the San and the Khoi-Khoi people that lived in this area until the early 20th century. The short climb to the cave was not too challenging, and we were impressed when our guide, Roman, finished his presentation by welcoming us in the Khoisan language of the local tribes, which was full of tongue clicks and other sounds not heard in modern language.

An easy climb to the cave paintings. Our cave guide, Roman beside a cave painting and cave paintings.

We returned to our lodge to quickly freshen up before our pre-ordered three-course dinner. My choice was turnip and lime soup, an African dish called Bobotie (made from minced meat, egg and spices with a Malay/Indonesian influence) and crème brulee. All were delicious.

Delicious Bobotie for dinner.


Later that day Sherilea, a keen photographer, suggested: “Let’s take sunrise photos in the morning then try for some animal photos while we still have beautiful early morning light?” After full agreement amongst the photographers in our group and coercion of the others, we posed the question to our guide and with no fuss at all, our morning safari was brought forward, and a picnic breakfast organised. Our driver/ranger for the morning was Chelee Brown who was good fun and extremely competent with the large, ungainly vehicle as we bumped along rugged dirt roads in search of animals.

The first we saw was a cheetah who ignored us and continued along his path.

“I think he might be tracking”, remarked Chelee. “He seems very focused on wherever he’s going”.

Further along the road she spotted him again, heading into the hills.

“Look up there!” she pointed further up the hill into the distance. “There’s an oryx. Oh, it has a calf!”

“How cute,” we thought, but then the reality struck us. The cheetah was tracking the oryx, because it wanted the calf for breakfast. Oh!

This is the moment when we are no longer tourists being shown the sights but become onlookers to the life-changing reality of these three animals. There are two sides to this unfolding drama. First, the mother oryx will probably lose her calf and the calf will probably lose its life. Conversely, the cheetah will probably eat and therefore survive. If Sanbona is to be a sustainable ecosystem, there must be enough food for each type of animal to remain healthy and reproduce. The scenario we are about to watch is an essential ingredient.

We don’t see the actual kill, because of the distance and trees between us, but we know it’s happened because the cheetah suddenly disappears, as does the calf. The mother oryx veers off to the right, stops and looks backwards, where she remains, like a statue, for some time.

The eyes of a predator.


We hiked within 100 metres of the cheetah. We found him sitting under a tree guarding the baby oryx, exhausted and recovering from the chase. The mother oryx maintained her position on the hill. This is a moment that’s burned into my memory. A moment of mixed emotions. This is how it happens in nature. The cheetah survived, the mother oryx survived, but the baby oryx did not. Obviously not all baby oryx’s end this way, but here on Sanbona, nature’s circle of life continues, and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed it.

Once back at the truck, we unpacked our own breakfast, thankful that we didn’t have to catch it ourselves, then continued in our search of other animals. We missed the two white lions that were seen disappearing into a dry creek bed, but we saw giraffes, more elephants, zebras, a puff adder, Cape Weaver birds, a Karoo Korhaan bird warbling, a mother and baby rhinoceros, Egyptian Geese, Greater Kudu, more oryx, a jackal and several springboks. We were excited to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat, but the heart stopping period tracking the cheetah will stay with me forever as a reminder of a world bigger than us.

Animals on safari. A wise old elephant; Springboks – the national animal of South Africa; Zebras roaming the plain; Giraffe grazing the treetops; Baby rhino with part of umbilical cord attached; Karoo Korhaan bird warbling.

When I return home, I’ll show my grandchildren photos of giraffes and elephants but sadly no lions. As they grow older, I’ll tell them of the life cycle of animals and how, in an effort to maintain the balance, one safari reserve that I visited in South Africa is working alongside wildlife and conservation groups to enable these magnificent animals to live on, self-sufficient in their natural habitat.

Story:  Di East
Photography:  Di East

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