Get wild in Sanbona with the big five
THEY are unexpected lunch guests, but we are thrilled to see these celebrities all the same.
Staying their distance, they prefer the vegetarian buffet away from the strange creatures sitting down to an a la carte lunch.
But unlike most stars of the show, they don't mind when we turn into animal paparazzi on the hunt and start shooting in their direction.
In fact, they pay us little heed.
We have only just checked in to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in South Africa's Barrydale district when a steady procession of giraffes and their closest zebra companions come up to the thorny acacia trees just past the resort fence.
They stay long enough for me to finish my pineapple and rooibos-infused chicken salad and then secure a bird's-eye view from our Gondwana Lodge suite balcony.
It is so natural for them but oh so foreign a lunchtime spectacle for Aussies.
Little do we know that this will be the first of many once-in-a-lifetime, exhilarating experiences over the course of a three-night stay in the vast Little Karoo reserve, just three hours' drive from Cape Town.
Our ranger guide Marco Fitchet tells us the animals are like London buses: you don't see them for a while, but then they appear around every corner.
And while the cheetahs and leopard prove his point by remaining elusive, we are more than pleased with our haul of memories over the course of six morning and afternoon safaris that include night spotlighting and a cruise on the large man-made dam inhabited by hippos.
Greatest of all for me is the sight of a male white lion walking so close beside me as I sit in an open-air safari vehicle that I can hear his panting.
We find his mate and the rest of the tawny and white lion pride relaxing in shade a little further away. They barely acknowledge our presence, at a safe distance, before rolling over and going back to their naps.
In three full days, we mark off plenty of other birds, flora and fauna from the Sanbona indigenous species checklist.
Among the animals we encounter are: Chacma baboons crossing the road into dense shrubs; cheeky dassie (African rodent and relative of the elephant) near the dam; regal oryx with their straight antlers; majestic eland; a new container of kudo springing to freedom, and a large grey mongoose darting in and out of rocks near the hippos' dam.
We marvel at the grand herd of elephants, pounding the ground slowly but determinedly in front of us (and looking much more threatening than I ever imagined), as they make their way up from the waterhole.
No one can prepare us for the sight of a nonchalant crash of rhinos (mum, dad and baby) by the side of the road, only metres away, or the sadness of a lonely hippopotamus forced to live in a small watering hole after being harassed by other males.
We observe the baboon telegraph springing into action on a ridge, warning of the male white lion's approach.
A wary ostrich checks out our strange four-wheeled "animal” from the top of a hill, and a red hartebeest keeps us in his sights as we move through the main entry gate.
The black-backed jackal - a beautiful scavenger - appears to be on a mission but stops and turns just long enough for a photo of his beautiful colours.
By the end of the first day, we can even tell the difference between plains and cape mountain zebra by their stripes.
But while Sanbona, at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains, is all about the animals, we are introduced to the most amazing, uniquely African landscapes across the 58,000ha park.
From salt pans to semi-arid plains, a series of natural pyramids to a rocky knoll with a monkey-like face, the ancient landscapes are epic - big, bold and beautiful.
The "Baboon Condos” - caves in the cliff faces - glow red and orange in the afternoon sun.
The reeds and grasses are ablaze in golden glory against midnight blue waters as we drink "sundowners” by the man-made dam. The late-afternoon reflections create symmetrical shapes that would impress any geometric abstract artist.
A visit to the upmarket tented lodge known as Dwyka (meaning "lioness” in the bushman's language) is an unexpected treat as the rain falls around us.
Greeted by hot chocolate, we regroup in the stylish communal lounge before a private tour of one of the luxury suites under canvas that come complete with private deck and heated spa bath.
Set in a horseshoe bend of a dry Karoo ravine, the romance of the great outdoors here is far removed from the style the San hunter-gatherers, who once roamed the area, would have known. But I'm sure they would have welcomed the Relaxation Retreat at the end of a long journey.
Our own family-friendly Gondwana Lodge is more than comfortable with a claw-foot bath and shower plus a veranda overlooking the Bellair Dam and Anysberg Mountains (we dub one of them Mufasa's Rock in reference to The Lion King).
A chauffeured transfer in a private car from Cape Town, arranged through Sanbona, allows us to drink in the pleasures of this wild life and far-off horizons even before we arrive at our lodgings.
The drive is an attraction in itself with a new landscape curiosity around each bend, with towering escarpments, passes cutting through mountain ranges, heathland and wildflowers, massive boulders, vineyards and suburban streetscapes.
The wildlife reserve once boasted 22 sheep, goat and dairy farms, as well as lucerne crops, vineyards and orchards. But its role today is much more important to South Africa.
As general manager Paul Vorster says, Sanbona allows visitors to experience this raw, untouched land and tranquil isolation as the San people would have seen it many years ago: "Sanbona imparts a sense of excitement at becoming aware of the various elements of conservation, knowing its intent for perpetuity, while being amazed by the untamed wildlife.”
So the vision for Sanbona is to continue to celebrate its colourful history and create even more animal magnetism for its visitors.
*The writer paid her own expenses.
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a pleasant three hours' drive from Cape Town on the scenic Route 62 wine route in Barrydale - on the border of the Overberg and Klein Karoo regions of the Western Cape Province in South Africa.
Its accommodation suits a range of budgets, with Dwyka Tented Lodge, Gondwana Family Lodge, Tilney Manor and the Explorer Camp.
Rates per person per day include lunch, dinner, breakfast, two game drives, guided walks, tea, coffee, water, game drive beverages, tourism levy and 14% VAT. Families staying at Gondwana Family Lodge also have access to the Kids on Safari Program.