Driving from Cape Town to Sanbona, a pioneering wildlife reserve buried deep in the Klein Karoo, our car emerged from the Huguenot road tunnel a few hours drive to the north-east just as sunrise arrived with a bang, gilding the spectacular rock formations and then illuminating the neat vineyards, low white houses and roadside farmstalls that characterise this picturesque part of the Western Cape.
This civilised, pastoral idyll came to an abrupt end once we turned off the tar and started rumbling along the dirt tracks that lead to Sanbona. A flock of heavyset Merino sheep bustled importantly across our path, and then - nothing. Nothing but miles and miles of low red bushveld, shimmering in the early morning haze and giving off an almost audible silence and stillness.
Peering through the clouds of dust thrown up by the car's wheels we could make out a few low-growing succulents and shrubs, then just space, space, space as far as the eye could see. But once our vision had adjusted to all this seemingly empty terrain, we began to make out previously overlooked details. That dot in the middle distance was in fact an oryx, standing immobile, its white face, turned to watch us pass, turned gold by the reflection of the glowing ground.
Although we hadn't realised it yet, this early morning sight encapsulates the attraction of Sanbona - the creature merging with the landscape, indivisible and part of a greater whole. To benefit from a visit to here, one must appreciate not just the obvious, but the bigger picture - from the dragonfly perched on a pale-green shrub to the silent elephant that lurk in the riverine forest.
The name Sanbona, a word combining the 'San' for the hunter-gatherer people who occupied the area up to 100 years ago, and 'bona' meaning 'vision' was given to the latest 54,000 ha property acquired by the Mantis Collection. It's an area comprising sandstone cliffs, open valleys and tree-fringed river beds that's currently home to 650 plant species, 160 bird species, a natural gallery of San rock art and an ever-increasing variety of indigenous wildlife.
Sanbona is the brainchild of Mantis Collection Co-chairmen Dr Gastón Savoi and Adrian Gardiner. As at their better-known Shamwari Reserve, the idea was to painstakingly turn back the ecological clock and reverse the damage done to the environment by successive centuries of hunting and farming by man.
Since April 2001, plains game such as Springbok, Kudu, Eland, Gemsbok, Bontebok, Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Burchell's Zebra and Black Rhino have been reintroduced onto the reserve, restoring the ecological balance and allowing Sanbona to support free-roaming predators.
Other predators already resident include Cheetah, Leopard, Brown Hyena, Caracal and African wildcat. It hasn't been an easy or rapid process. To establish which animal species were present on this land hundreds of years ago, Conservation Manager Andrew Schofield spent seven long years painstakingly researching historical records including farmers' journals and game tally books kept by hunters. Oral history had a part to play too, as local farmers were quizzed for anecdotal evidence based on the stories told by their grandparents.
One 19th-century farmer, for example, recalled with pride chasing down cheetahs on his galloping horse and then clubbing them to death with his stirrup iron. Artefacts found in the area were examined forensically for the clue they could yield - one local farmer found the chewed jawbone of an elephant in a cave on his property and brought it to Schofield for carbon-dating, thus establishing the presence of brown Hyena on this land several hundred years ago.
The process of ecological research complete, Sanbona is now home to all of the Big Five game species, including the world's southernmost free-ranging Rhino. Emphasis on 'Big Five game viewing' however, is avoided as at the moment the larger animals are few and far between, being introduced in small groups and monitored carefully before their numbers are increased.
Botany is as important as animal biology to the conservation programme at Sanbona - non-indigenous, invading species of plant arrived here as early as the 1700s as a result of over-grazing by the goats and sheep of the pastoralists who used the Klein Karoo for winter grazing. The sweet vegetation and sourveld plants of the Karoo, being very specialised to their environment, are vulnerable to competition from hardier species which are less palatable to sheep, cattle and goats.
The ecologists of Sanbona are experts on the plant map of their area, and can read a patch of ground like a book. The reserve's rangers are full of stories about the magical and medicinal properties of the reserve's vegetation, including the attractive latex plant, both poisonous and hallucinogenic, which is sometimes mistakenly used in table decorations.
Today we're here to witness another historical step forward in Sanbona's development - the release of a pride of three Lions, which it is hoped will form the reserve's 'southern pride' to complement a group successfully introduced into the north of the reserve earlier in the year. Before the start of the Sanbona release programme, Lion had not hunted over these lands for over 250 years.
It's a momentous occasion, and there's something of a gala feeling as a convoy of vehicles carrying visitors, staff and student volunteers assemble along a dam wall high above the Lion's enclosure to watch the proceedings. The group of Lions that'll be released today comprises a male and two females, young animals, darted and then airlifted in from carefully selected areas in South Africa to ensure the best genetic mix for breeding.
In the weeks since their arrival, they've been kept in a large enclosure, screened from vehicles at feeding time so that they don't become tame or habituated to the presence of humans. The location of their release is an area of prime lion real estate - a freshwater dam with geese skidding low over the water and a herd of tender springbok skipping obliviously over the hillside a few metres away.
As the moment of truth approaches, the atmosphere becomes tenser, with us spectators straining through binoculars from our position on the dam wall. The Sanbona rangers warn us to keep quiet and avoid sudden movements so as not to startle the Lions; 'Be British not Italian!' The lions, wearing their temporary radio collars, haven't been fed in several days to ensure that they are eager to leave their comfortable compound for the risks of the world outside. They look calm enough, stretched out in the shade, but reassuringly alert - Lions at other releases have been known to wait hours before walking to freedom, and no-one wants to wait hours in the hot Karoo sun for the big event.
A white pickup truck approaches the compound, carrying the fresh carcass of a gemsbok, which will serve to entice the Lions from their enclosure and form their first meal as free citizens of Sanbona. Several student volunteers leap out and stake the carcass firmly down to make sure the Lions don't simply drag it back into the compound through the open gate.
That done, nothing remains but to open the wire gates, retire, wait and watch. Camera lenses are fine-tuned and camcorders bleep into life as the pickup retreats and the lions slouch louchely in the shade, seemingly unperturbed by the row of vehicles. A few minutes pass, then with furtive, hungry movements, the lion approach the gate, every gesture suggesting desire and fear in equal quantities.
A few more minutes of indecision, then all in a rush, and with a familiar low-bellied, slinking run, the male Lion makes a dash for freedom. One of the females follows, and the two are soon licking the dead gemsbok with their deadly skin-stripping tongues, their faces slowly turning scarlet.
The second female Lion takes longer, pacing with anxious steps up and down the fence of the enclosure to suppressed whispers of 'chicken' from the watching humans. Finally, amongst a rattle of camera shutters, she too is out. Ladies and gentlemen, the lions have left the building!
Their freedom is short-lived, however, as once having eaten their fill, all three lions make a break for captivity and bolt back into the compound. By this time no-one is worried, however, as the Gemsbok will be the last meal these three predators receive from the hands of man.
From now on, their only source of food lies out through the open gate and walks on all fours, obtainable only through independent hunting. They'll be out soon again enough once their bellies have emptied, but may use the compound as a reassuring base for several months while they get the hang of their new territory.
Hopes are high, as the 'northern pride', another group of Lions released six months ago, are now thriving and expecting their first litter of cubs. As Sanbona's ecologist Ryno Erasmus explained, the second pride will enhance competition between predators, resulting in a more balanced ecosystem.
The release successfully complete, guests, staff and students return to one of Sanbona's two luxury lodges for a sumptuous lunch and some 'after action satisfaction' in the form of a bottle or two of champagne, followed by a fully-clothed dip in the swimming pool for the boisterous volunteers and their long-suffering mentors.
But before heading to the car for the drive back to Cape Town, we take a trip to visit another set of - very special - captive Lions. As we approach their compound, a chill runs down my spine. From between the wires of the fence, a pair of ice-blue eyes stare at us with a look of pure power and intensity. This is Jabulani, the male of a pair of White Lions brought to Sanbona in 2003. He and a female, Queen, were rescued from a canned hunting operation in the Northern Province.
As he stands up and slinks along the fence towards us, folds of skin hanging loosely from his shoulders and belly sway menacingly from side to side. When he arrived, he had been deliberately overfed to make him as fat as possible and thus a better trophy for the 'sportsmen' who would pay thousands of dollars to shoot him in his cage from a few hundred metres away. He's been on a strict diet ever since, but he'll never be able to hunt for himself in the wild - that honour will fall to his offspring, due to arrive in a couple of months.
The family will eventually be returned to a semi-wild state within a three thousand hectare enclosure, and the cubs will be encouraged to learn to hunt with a view to forming the world's only wild pride of white lions. For centuries, legends of White Lions were passed down in the oral tradition of African people.
White Lions from the original strain do still exist, but can only be found in very limited numbers in breeding camps within South Africa, zoos around the world, and as part of the act of Las Vegas celebrity performers Siegfried and Roy. The vision of the team at Sanbona is to breed enough white Lions on the reserve to allow them to be re-introduced to their original home at Timbavati.
Strong claims of sightings began to surface in 1928, but it took 47 years before confirmation was received in the 1970s in the form of a litter containing two white cubs, documented at Timbavati Private Nature Reserve by researcher Chris McBride.
It's thought that White Lions originated in Timbavati naturally and are endemic to this region, but the White Lion population in Timbavati was decimated by illegal hunting practices and forced removals.
In the meantime, the white Lions, and their tawny counterparts, will pad across the wide, mystical landscape of Sanbona, protected and cherished as part of the mystical harmony between man and nature. Today's visitors to Sanbona are being taught to appreciate the inter-connectedness of all living things and the importance of restoring this harmony - for this, above all else, is the vision of the San.
Copyright © Gemma Pitcher 2004