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staff stories

Meet our sommelier, Mariska!

A woman in wine with a passion for bringing people together in the spirit of a celebration of the past, present and future. Born and bred in the heart of the Cape Winelands in Paarl, Mariska Witbooi marries the charm of South Africa’s iconic destinations, bringing the rich heritage of the Cape into the wild Sabi Sand.

A descendant of the Nama people, the Witbooi name is interwoven with the narratives of South Africa’s past. Taking great pride in her roots, Mariska finds working within the Cheetah Plains wine cellar a homecoming. More and more there is a noticeable move in the wine industry to showcase and incorporate the legacy of the land, with wineries labelling their wines after the Khoi-San, such as Capensis, Qvevri and Camissa to name a few.

It’s remarkable to see the shift in our heritage, embracing and embodying our rich culture and moving forward

With the growing need for more female representation in the South African wine industry in 2012, Mariska started her formal training with a bursary offered by the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, a non-profit with the aim of changing the lives of the youth – an opportunity she welcomed with open arms. In 2016, she also completed the WSET certificate in Wine and Spirits in Stellenbosch. Since then, she has embarked on the 11-year career of her dreams, taking to the cellars on the seas, elite wine farms, and now, her latest endeavour, the bush. Indulging guests on an enriching journey of learning, storytelling and appreciating the story of our local wines is her way of honouring our country’s world-class wine offering, as she knows first-hand the hard work and dedication of the people behind it all and how it came to be.

With her family having a long history of involvement in winemaking, Mariska’s tangible love for the world of wine is deeply entrenched. From the cellars to distribution, her parents and grandparents have been intricately connected to the industry for many generations, each passing down their knowledge, expertise and tales. This has led her to authentically embody, proudly share and expertly apply all that she has come to know since a very young age.

Mariska has mastered translating familiar wine preferences into new favourites as she takes guests on an interpretive journey through our premium collection of South African wine and spirits, catering to both connoisseurs and occasional drinkers. She enjoys tailoring and experimenting with different varietals and labels to suit individual palettes, delivering a level of personalised service one can only expect from Cheetah Plains.

As each safari villa features a private, temperature-controlled wine gallery, personally curated by owner Japie van Niekerk, Mariska feels spoiled for choice in crafting a creative selection for guests to experience. When it comes to hosting tastings, she plays with grand combinations and unique settings, ranging from the villa cellar to out in the bushveld. A few of her favourite cellar picks include De Toren’s Fusion, Kanonkop’s Black Label, Saurwein Riesling and Peter Max’s Pinot Noir. She also thoroughly enjoys showcasing South Africa’s globally renowned gin selection, from Inverroche to Six Dogs, as she believes our selection to be the finest.

Mariska elevates and inspires guests’ dining experiences by tailoring pairings to complement our sophisticated culinary offering. She typically pairs our meat dishes with a full-bodied Syrah, such as Avondale’s Samsara, and believes the Paul Cluver Seven Flags Chardonnay, which has a prestigious 96 Tim Atkin rating, complements our salmon dishes well.

Not only does Mariska have the opportunity to live out her passion for wine, but she gets to do so in the heart of the wilderness. She describes it as “coming together full circle in a way”— being immersed in nature and connecting with it — an experience that satisfies the soul like no other, evoking a deep sense of calm. Wine is Mariska’s medium for fostering conversation and connection, as she turns sips into stories amid the idyllic bushveld setting.


Make cheetah plains your private sanctuary

For a truly exclusive safari experience, the lodge can be booked for sole use.