When times are hard and food is scarce, a mother red-knobbed coot has a plan. Should she have too many chicks, she’ll take them out for a turn on the wa­ter one day and, while the lit­tle co­terie is pad­dling fu­ri­ously along, she’ll turn her at­ten­tion to the weak­est and push it un­der the wa­ter, hold­ing it down un­til it drowns. It’s sto­ries like this that add a thread of blood-hot colour to what can oth­er­wise seem like mo­not­o­nous brown land­scape. Well, I could do with­out know­ing that, you might think; that’s bru­tal. But we’re lean­ing for­ward, hang­ing on ev­ery word of sa­fari noir, won­drous at Mother Coot’s piti­less prac­ti­cal­ity. That’s a trick of this land. At first glance, its most spec­tac­u­lar as­pect seems to be the Cape Fold moun­tains, which rise up from the plains as if some godly sculp­tor has reached down and pleated and pinched them into shape. The veg­e­ta­tion that cov­ers the plains be­low seems an unin­spired khaki, but that’s when you need to step down off the sa­fari ve­hi­cle and get be­hind the back of Casper Ven­ter, who heads up the Ex­plorer Camp at San­bona Wildlife Re­serve. Then a won­der­land of colour will open up at your booted feet. For in­stance, cras­su­las: there are about 200 species in the Karoo. One of the things that makes them dis­tinct as a species is the neatly ar­ranged, per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal leaves on a stem. Casper points out a Cras­sula del­toidea. Its plump leaves are de­picted as grey-green in Plants of the Klein Karoo, but as we clam­ber amongst the rocks we see spec­i­mens with leaves in vary­ing shades of pink, oth­ers in pur­ple, and yet more in tart orange edged in neon red, the lit­tle punks. They oc­cur here on the moun­tain­sides on what’s called the


ranteveld, Casper ex­plains, where the big­gest di­ver­sity of plants is found. Just down the slope in the khak­i­bos and around a bend from where we’re stand­ing, still in won­der at the cras­su­las, is the San­bona Ex­plorer Camp, sit­u­ated within a semi-cir­cle of hills. It’s a small and cosy camp, sleep­ing only six guests and two staff (Casper and right­hand man Des­mond Jag­gers). There’s a be­douin-style com­mu­nal tent close to a clear­ing of sand. Cen­tral to it is a big firepit, around which we hud­dle that evening. On the sec­ond night it’s so cold we sit in it. Charm­ingly, there’s a shower built into an an­cient Karoo boer-bean tree. We’re grate­ful for the hot wa­ter be­cause the wind that cuts across the land­scape is bit­ing. We feel it when we get up in the dark to see the sun­rise. We hike north-east into a bed of Klein Karoo quartz vy­gieveld. Soon we’re down on our haunches, hunt­ing for a unique and rare lit­tle ‘vetplant’ Casper wants to show us called a khaki but­ton ( Cras­sula colum­naris). The Bo­ers named it that, he says, be­cause they thought it looked just like the but­tons on Bri­tish sol­diers’ jack­ets. And there it is, look­ing for all the world just as he de­scribed it. He points out haaibekkies ( Gib­baeum pubescens) and – chuckle – kinder pieletjies ( Augea capen­sis). He shows us how, should we be caught in this arid land with no wa­ter, we can con­jure up some, given the right plants, sun and a bit of boer-maak-’n-plan. We crack on over the plain and down into the riverbed, talk­ing about Cre­ation and re­li­gion be­cause grand land­scapes inspire such con­ver­sa­tions, when sud­denly he stops. He thinks there might be a rhino close by, and slips the gun off his shoul­der. We creep along, strung tight, and then there it is across the dry sandy bed, soak­ing up the sun like a liv­ing, breath­ing flesh-and-blood tank. He’s as­tound­ing and mas­sive and solid and we can even smell him. The rich­ness of this ex­pe­ri­ence, be­ing so close and on foot, in front of this enor­mous be­ing stand­ing bak­ing un­der the vast blue sky, makes me feel smug about my life choices.

And it gets bet­ter. On a drive the next day, Casper spots some­thing on a hill­side and pulls over. A chee­tah. To my sur­prise, he gets off the ve­hi­cle. We march off at a smart pace be­hind him across the gwar­rieveld, then start up the bank, keep­ing the chee­tah in our sights. She does the same, still and fo­cused, but stays put. We get closer and closer still. It’s only at about eight me­tres away that we stop. I can hardly breathe. She stares at us, looks away and yawns. Then, quick as a kit­ten, she shoots out a paw and flicks up a stone. It flips over her head, she rolls head-over­body and catches it as it skit­ters down. Then she sits up, cat-cool, as if to say: well, that bit of crazy didn’t just hap­pen.


But it did. And the rea­son I could witness it has an­other good story be­hind it. Decades ago, chee­tahs went through a ma­jor ge­netic bot­tle­neck and there were very few in the wild. What be­came cru­cial was that Aci­nonyx ju­ba­tus could fend for them­selves in the wild. Mostly, says Paul Vorster, gen­eral man­ager at San­bona, they came from wildlife farms, so in game re­serves chances are they’d get killed by lions. San­bona first bought their chee­tahs in 2003. The first lot didn’t fare well, but one preg­nant fe­male did. To ob­serve her, Paul spent days of months fol­low­ing her at a dis­tance, and then one day she al­lowed him closer. She’d be­come ha­bit­u­ated. She had three cubs and Paul was still able to sit and ob­serve them. Now San­bona’s big cats are sought-af­ter, a fact he’s very proud of. ‘Our chee­tah have con­trib­uted to the meta-pop­u­la­tion in a pop­u­la­tion pro­ject that was co­or­di­nated by the En­dan­gered Wildlife Trust. They’re sought-af­ter for many rea­sons: they’re ap­proach­able, so you can mon­i­tor them; they can hunt in very tough en­vi­ron­ments – they’re very ef­fi­cient hunters; they’re adapt­able; and they’re liv­ing here hand-in-hand with a lion pop­u­la­tion, so they’re lion aware.’ San­bona’s con­ser­va­tion ethics are driven by the big­ger con­ser­va­tion pic­ture, be­yond its own bor­ders. Be­ing aware of the crit­i­cism, or scep­ti­cism at best, from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists about bring­ing in big game to this plant-sen­si­tive area, par­tic­u­larly ele­phant, which are per­ceived to be de­struc­tive if unchecked, San­bona’s con­ser­va­tion de­part­ment has set up a num­ber of mon­i­tor­ing pro­grammes, one be­ing ex­clu­sion plots to ob­serve the im­pact. It’s headed up by Paul’s wife, ecol­o­gist Liesl Vorster. The an­i­mals used to be here, say Liesl and Paul. Proof of this can be found in rock art in the area, as well as his­toric records from hunters and other visi­tors. ‘We’re try­ing to recre­ate what was here 300 to 3 000 years ago, what the San peo­ple would have ex­pe­ri­enced, seen and lived in,’ says Paul. The prob­lem is that long ago hu­man habi­ta­tion didn’t hin­der the free move­ment of wildlife, which would have moved out of an area when re­sources were scarce, as they are in the dry sea­son.

Now the re­serve has to rely on other meth­ods of man­age­ment, such as an­i­mal translo­ca­tion, pos­si­ble con­tra­cep­tion, ex­pan­sion, and mon­i­tor, mon­i­tor, mon­i­tor. ‘But we’re in­volved and en­gaged in the con­ser­va­tion con­ver­sa­tion,’ says Liesl. Should they see neg­a­tive ef­fects, they will adapt, she says, make the changes that need to be made and man­age ac­cord­ingly. Re­cently, the re­serve en­tered into a stew­ard­ship pro­gramme with CapeNa­ture, and is about to re­ceive per­pet­ual Pro­tected Area sta­tus. This is good news for the broader Klein Karoo re­gion. San­bona is adding to the con­served nat­u­ral space, and there is even some talk of ex­pand­ing these pro­tected ar­eas, link­ing clus­ters of land to cre­ate a mas­sive, un­fenced in­te­grated land­scape. ‘The pri­mary ob­jec­tive is sus­tain­able con­ser­va­tion,’ says Paul. On our fi­nal morn­ing, round­ing a bend, we come upon the sa­fari-goer’s wet dream: a fresh kill, so fresh we can still see the drag marks of the young kudu’s hooves as it was pulled down. Around it are four young male lions. They clock us, but turn back to their bloody deed, growl­ing with such gut­teral grum­bles that I feel it in my chest and can imag­ine death, and re­call the first story of the macabre Mother Coot. This is what this place has de­liv­ered on a sil­ver plate: ex­quis­ite colour and in­tri­cate ecosys­tems and steady blue skies ver­sus the sto­ries of the shock and bru­tal­ity and blood of sa­fari noir.

LEFT We saw this cow and calf from a ridge over­look­ing the riverbed, and they were smartly chased off by an­other ter­ri­to­rial male.

LEFT San­bona’s Ex­plorer Camp is a num­ber of tents set in a sandy patch that looks out onto in­cred­i­ble moun­tains. The com­mu­nal lounge is won­der­fully ro­man­tic, with kil­ims and cush­ions and chairs.

BE­LOW The signs of a vis­i­tor close by.

ABOVE The ele­phants at San­bona are be­ing carefully man­aged, in terms of breed­ing and their im­pact on this sen­si­tive en­vi­ron­ment.

RIGHT The chee­tahs here are sought-af­ter for their good genes and wild smarts.

CLOCK­WISE, FROM TOP Set­ting out for the morn­ing’s walk with ex­pert guide Casper Ven­ter; Gibbeaum pubescens, just one of the many amaz­ing plants to dis­cover on a walk through the Klein Karoo; there’s al­ways time to stop and search un­der a bush to see...

The Ex­plorer Camp is set along a dry riverbed, and there is a very, very beau­ti­ful lit­tle se­cluded pic­nic site they’ll set up if you ask nicely.

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