On safari in South Africa’s Samara Private Game Reserve
Our co-founder, Henrietta Loyd, has been a huge supporter of Samara since it was established in 1997, and she knows the owner, Sarah Tompkins, very well. The reserve consists of 283sq km and covers the spectacular and historical plains of the Camdeboo in the Eastern Cape. It contains four of the country’s seven biomes and is home to an abundance of plains game as well as a pioneering cheetah rehabilitation project. Samara also feels truly wild, which is one of the main reasons we suggest it to those who are interested in protecting the planet’s wildlife and getting off the beaten path in South Africa.
We arrived after the evening game drive had departed, but Marnus, the general manager, quickly came up with a plan. Soon, we were in his 4WD on the way to meet the rest of the group who had found some cheetahs and were tracking them on foot. Samara has a fantastic cheetah conservation project, which began in 2004, when they made history by reintroducing this predator back into the Karoo after it became locally extinct in the 1870s as a result of hunting. They started with just three individuals who were rescued from conflicts with farmers, and the project has been such a success that offspring born on the property are now populating other conservation areas in Africa.
Several of the cheetahs have radio collars so they can be tracked and monitored, which means guests can get very close to them. We caught up with the others and Benedict introduced himself to us and told us he was going to be our guide for the next couple of days. Soon we were walking alongside Chilli and her five cubs. What an unforgettable, humbling and exhilarating experience it was to be on foot with these amazing animals. This is certainly something I would recommend to any of our clients. As the sun went down and it began to get dark, we headed back to his Land Cruiser and found a lovely spot for a G&T.
We returned to the lodge, where we were greeted with a glass of sherry and a blazing fire to warm us up. As we shared our stories around the bar, I got chatting to another couple who were on their seventh visit to Samara. They told me that this time they had returned in the hope of seeing an aardvark, a medium-sized, noctunal mammal that is notoriously unusual to spot. I must have appeared very excited at the idea of encountering one of these elusive creatures because Benedict came over and asked me if I wanted to go out again for an hour after dinner on a night drive. It was a ‘yes’ from me.
After dinner, I met Benedict and our tracker Jason and we began our seach for an aardvark. Benedict told me that they are easier to see in the winter months, as the termites are closer to the surface of the soil. Since it was June, we had a good chance – although, of course, with wildlife, you never know. The one hour turned into two and we returned home blissfully happy as we had seen spring hares, bat-eared foxes, owls, a night jar and even the elusive aardvark.
The following morning, we set off for a day in the mountains with Benedict and Jason, another experience we have arranged successfully in the past for our clients. It was a steep and bumpy climb, but once we reached the top I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. “The Samara Mara,” said Benedict. It was a completely different world of flat savannah covering mile upon mile of golden grassland teeming with wildlife, such as black wildebeest, oryx, eland and zebra. It was truly magical.
We stopped for a cup of coffee at a place they call Eagles Rock, which is certainly not for those who are scared of heights. The lookout point offered panoramic views stretching 180km across the plains of Camdeboo. I wasn’t surprised to hear that this was a popular proposal spot. Staring into the horizon here, you feel as though you are the only person on earth.
However, the highlight had to be the private picnic, set up high on a plateau, with the kites and falcons riding the thermals below. This wasn’t just a rug on the floor – we had a table and chairs, a full spread of food on a separate buffet table, a bar and even a basin to wash our hands. This experience is something we like to set up for some of our clients who travel to Samara.
After our descent, we headed towards some elephants that Benedict had spotted from the summit. Interestingly, elephants were only introduced to Samara at the end of 2017. They started with only females but in November 2018, they brought in two bulls, and it was these males that we were observing.
As the sun began to lower in the sky, we decided to go and find a spot for a sundowner. We parked next to a waterhole and Benedict disappeared over a small hill. When he came back, he told us to follow him quietly in single file. As we followed him over the hill, I spotted a giraffe so I assumed we were approaching the beautiful creature on foot. My heart jumped out of my mouth when a lone white rhino came into view. We stayed silent and, very slowly, moved closer to the prehistoric-looking animal. It was another awe-inspiring experience.
The following morning, we left the lodge at 5.30am for a game drive. We were looking for lions. Once plentiful in the Camdeboo area, lions were shot out by farmers and settlers, and historical records suggest that the last one in the region was sighted in around 1840. However, these big cats were reintroduced to Samara at the end of 2018 and, for research purposes, they are collared so they can be easily tracked. However, that day, they didn’t want to be seen and even the collars didn't help us find them. As is always the case on safari, sometimes the animals are not on your side; this is nature after all. We returned back to the lodge for our last breakfast and we said our sad goodbyes to this wonderful place. Samara Private Game Reserve is a great choice for wildlife lovers who would like to gain an insight into an incredible conservation success story and explore a spectacular wilderness area in South Africa.
Wondering where to go next?
A 45-minute drive away from Samara Private Game Reserve lies the picturesque town of Graaff-Reinet, virtually surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park. South Africa’s fourth-oldest town, often nicknamed ‘the Gem of the Karoo’, is also home to more than 220 heritage sites, which is more than any other town in South Africa, many of these being private dwellings.
The best place to stay here, in our opinion, is the Drostdy Hotel. Set in charming Cape-Dutch manor buildings linked by courtyards, this exquisite boutique hotel is a four-minute walk from the Graaff-Reinet Museum. Sumptuous suites, several pools, a fabulous wine cellar and beautiful attention to detail will make for a memorable stay. From here, we can organise a visit to the Valley of Desolation (or ‘Cathedral of the Mountains’), a majestic geographical phenomenon in the Camdeboo National Park, which may well be a highlight of your trip.
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