How to get yourself over a case of game reserve fatigue
Try Samara, deep in the magical Great Karoo
In South Africa we are so spoilt that we almost have game reserve fatigue. Stories about game lodges are ubiquitous, so much so that I’ll share a little industry secret with you: sometimes travel journalists have to refuse complimentary trips because editors can’t publish yet another article about a game experience.
But there are some magical places that stand out like a wild iris in the veld. Samara is one of these, not only because it exists in the Great Karoo, high on a mountain plateau with 360-degree views stretching 180km to the south across the Plains of Camdeboo, but also because it is a place born from the fertile imaginations of its owners. There was nothing but neglected sheep farms in the area when they discovered and bought the land on which they have built up a paradise of wild animals and rehabilitated plant life.And while the name itself sounds mythical enough, being there is a chimerical experience that no other place I’ve been to has quite been able to replicate.
In 2000, Mark and Sarah Tompkins bought Monkey Valley, a “clapped out” farm in the area. Their dream was to turn it into an Eden of South African game. A bonus of this vision was the renovation of the old buildings on the land into magnificent lodgings that even the most overindulged traveller would be impressed by.
The Samara experience starts before you reach the gates on the perimeter of the 526,000ha which form South Africa’s third largest protected area of biodiversity. As the setting sun illuminates the craggy peaks they turn pink and peach and honey yellow.From the dirt road heading into the reserve it’s not hard to imagine the millions of springbok that once bounded over bushes as if they had tiny electric shocks under their hooves, fodder for the Cape lions that reigned like kings over the rolling hills. There were rhino, elephant, cheetah, now-extinct quagga, zebra, wildebeest and hundreds of species of birds.
The Tomkins’ dream to restore the wild grandeur in all its glory started with a plan: amass enough land to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that could carry game – the herds of antelope that used to inhabit the area and the predators to keep the balance that helps maintain these fragile environments.
A couple of gin and tonics around the fireplace in the Manor House, built on the site of a 19th-century farmhouse with magnificent views of the Sneeuberg mountains out front, made listening to the plan all the more enjoyable.Indigenous species that were thought to have gone extinct in the area are now thriving. Herds of eland, hartebeest and springbok are counted in their hundreds, a pride of cheetah has made itself at home, black rhinoceros can be tracked on foot, and lately a herd of elephant thunders through the bushes up the slopes of a mountain.
The introduction of the elephants to Samara in October last year is a conservation milestone, returning the creatures to their historical home. It is a small family group of six that, once they are settled, will be joined by a mature bull.On a game drive the following day, our ranger remarked how the herd, because it is still so new in its surroundings, find the foothills of the mountains the most secure place to explore, and they can usually be seen beating paths along its lower inclines.
From a lookout point we can spot them with the help of a pair of binoculars as they scramble through the spekboom.One of the most exciting developments at Samara is the imminent introduction of the reserve’s first lions as part of the mega-herbivore ecosystem process started with the elephants. This is a historical reintroduction, bringing back the first wild lions in over 200 years to the Plains of Camdeboo.
There are only about 3,000 wild lions left in South Africa, so there is pressing urgency to extend lion populations to be managed as part of a meta-population – a group of spatially-separated populations between which lions can mate to ensure genetic diversity.
“We see the land as a ‘living laboratory’ – a hub for learning about the Karoo environment, about nature in general, and ultimately about ourselves,” says owner Sarah Tomkin.
An unintended, but happy, consequence of the rehabilitation of the land has been the return of species of their own accord – particularly vultures and leopards. And one of Samara’s greatest successes has been the reintroduction of cheetah, of which Sibella is the poster child. Almost killed by hunters, Sibella was introduced into the wild with two male cheetahs. She has since borne 19 cubs in four litters.Sibella died in 2015 at the age of 14 but her descendants, cubs of her daughter Chilli, populate the grassland that camouflages them so well. We came across them, readying themselves for a hunt near a large herd of buck early in the morning on an open plain.
The coalition arranged itself into attacking position, one of the pack taking a wide circle round the back while the others leopard-crawled on their haunches in the thick grass. And then a sharp acceleration, all-out speed from a distance, closing in on the herd.
It was a lucky morning for the springbok. They managed to get away without losing a member, and we went off to stalk some other big game on a walking expedition.
When we returned past the same spot, though, another group in an open-topped Landy had witnessed the kill that we’d just missed, and we watched the 18-month-old carnivores share their meal.While mornings and afternoons are best spent tracking game at Samara. The middle of the day is perfect for taking in all the comforts of the Manor House or going on an adventure, depending on whether you’re in need of some R&R or you just can’t get enough of Samara’s magnificent setting. An impossibly steep and cratered road winds up to the plateau at the top of the Kondoa mountain that they call the Samara Mara. Zebra herds roam alongside wildebeest and other buck prancing to their hearts’ content in the endless space and deep glow of the afternoon. Up here, a picnic is set up and we’re welcomed to sit down with a glass of champagne and the view.Back at the Manor House the lighting is set low and the beautifully comfortable interiors come into their own. There are nooks in which to insert yourself for some reading time, or you can cuddle up next to the fire and wait for your party to ready themselves for dinner.The Manor House has only four bedrooms with big communal living areas so it’s great to share it with friends or family. A chef is on hand to prepare all your meals, which are large and delicious. If you’re in need of a change of scenery for supper, the Karoo Lodge (also on the reserve with a wraparound veranda and corrugated-iron roof instead of the usual mud and thatch of safari resorts) is a short drive away. The drive has the added benefit of affording a glorious view of the night sky and the chance to spot the hundreds of spring hares that prance in the bushes alongside the road.I’d never seen one before, and catching sight of a drove of them half made up for the elusiveness of the mystical and oft mentioned aardvark we were still waiting to see. It’s a great excuse to visit again. As if we needed one.Getting to Samara
Petersburg Road, off the R63 to Pearston, near Graaff-Reinet. Travel from Cape Town via the N1 takes about 7.5 hours. Travel from PE International Airport takes about three hours.
Reservations: +27 (0) 31-262 0324
Reception: +27 (0) 49-891 0880
Andrea Nagel was a guest of Samara Private Game Reserve.