The Karoo's got game
Updated: Aug 19
SAMARA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE WITH ITS MOUNTAINOUS BUSH-CLAD LANDSCAPES AND PLENTIFUL DIVERSE WILDLIFE WILL SURPRISE THOSE WITH PRECONCEIVED IDEAS OF WHAT TYPIFIES THE KAROO.
Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape is a fairly long trek from the Mother City. You drive through flat, arid landscapes populated with wind pumps, dotted with the odd koppie and flecked with flocks of wandering sheep – basically, what most people’s minds conjure up when they think of the Karoo. The road is mind-numbingly straight and the scenery is stark, lonely and beautiful.
Then, once you pass through Graaff-Reinet for the final few kilometres to Samara, the topography gradually transforms into something that is completely to the contrary. Low mountain ranges emerge as if from nowhere and the vegetation becomes denser as you drive, until, finally, road signs warning of kudus betray that you’ve officially crossed into bushveld country. This is the Karoo no one told you about.
Warm, smiling staff welcomed us with a refreshing drink as we stepped on to the typical farmhouse-style veranda at Samara in the late afternoon, and informed us that our first game drive would commence shortly. We were led to one of the suites in the Karoo Lodge – a beautifully appointed homestead combining timeless furnishings with typically African touches. Warm and inviting fires crackled in every hearth, including the lovely bar area, the living room with its assortment of deep and alluring sofas, and the tastefully decorated dining room. A subtle, sweet aroma quite reminiscent of old colonial farmhouses, and likely the result of the polish used on the exquisite wooden floors, pervaded the house and added to the inviting atmosphere and homey charm. Our room was sumptuous and spacious, with a huge four-poster, a luxurious en-suite bathroom, and French doors opening on to the wrap-around veranda that looks out on to the mountains surrounding the lodge.
By the time we had settled in and dressed warmly for our game drive, Tendai, the ranger and infinite fountain of bush knowledge, was waiting by his idling game vehicle and told us that we would search for rhino that afternoon. Samara has both the white and the critically endangered black rhino, but Tendai mentioned we should also keep our eyes peeled for everything from kudus, elands and buffalo, to red hartebeests, oryxes, waterbucks, giraffes and zebras.
On the truck with us was a German couple hell-bent on finding an aardvark. They’ve travelled all over Africa during the past decade in search of the elusive little creature without any luck, but had been told their chances of spotting one at Samara were excellent. Having never seen one either, I was excited by the prospect of a rare sighting.
Once on the game trail, we all peered intently through the thicket on either side of the road, optimistically trying to spy the grey outline of a rhino, when Tendai’s radio suddenly crackled. After a few brief exchanges on the two-way, he sped off in a cloud of dust; one of the trackers had found an aardvark! We drove for a while, then left the vehicle and set off into the bush on foot – Tendai, meanwhile, had been exchanging shrill whistles with the tracker to determine his location. At this point, the Germans were so excited that they could hardly contain themselves, and they nearly broke into a sprint in the direction of the tracker’s distant whistles.
Finally, after a few minutes, we laid eyes on the weird and wonderful little creature. It was digging with its oversized claws in a furious search for ants, and didn’t pay us the least bit of attention. Aardvarks share similar traits with a few creatures: rabbit-like ears, pig-like build (hence ‘vark’), a peculiar kangaroo tail and a snout akin to that of an anteater. But, amazingly, it isn’t related to any of these. It’s a nocturnal mammal and is classified as its own species entirely – the last survivor of its relatives.
And what a fascinating animal it is. I finally understood why it features so prominently on so many safari bucket lists. The Germans barely paused for breath as their cameras clicked away, and the aardvark stayed completely placid and indifferent to our presence – quite unusual given their shy nature. After nearly an hour of marvelling at the aardvark and getting every conceivable camera angle of it enjoying its ant buffet, the sun had nearly disappeared and we decided to bid farewell to our bizarre little friend and have a few sundowners at the game vehicle.
That night, we sat down to a world-class dinner, enjoyed wine and then sank into one of the couches in front of the fire with our stomachs full and hearts content. That set the tone for the weekend. We went on two game drives every day, were fed three enormous meals daily and just relaxed. In summer, you can lounge poolside and make bonfires in the boma, but, since it was still a bit brisk during our visit, we were happy to soak up the sun on the veranda while savouring the incredible views and enjoying the silly antics of monkeys that frolicked on the sprawling lawns around the house. On frostier evenings, we remained close to the toasty living-room fireplace.
On our final game drive we were lucky enough to see three rhinos (both black and white), buffaloes, giraffes and antelopes, but Tendai had saved a surprise for us…
On the day of our arrival at Samara, a cheetah had escaped the reserve and roamed on to a neighbouring farm. Luckily she was collared, but the rangers had to track and dart her by helicopter, and then had to re-acclimatise her in a camped off area for a few days after what must’ve been a rather traumatising experience for the animal. So, when Tendai led us into said fenced area on foot, I was hesitant to be in such close proximity to the world’s fastest land mammal and one of its most effective killers. But he reassured us that we were safe, and we set off in search of the big cat.
After walking nearly the whole perimeter without seeing her, we ducked past a thicket, and a spitting noise erupted from the bush which, needless to say, made my stomach drop. Tendai motioned for us to stand still and then back away slowly. We then walked around the thicket and got a good look at the nervous cheetah from the other side. What a magnificent feline. She was on her stomach and surveyed us with wary eyes; a menacing growl rumbling from her stomach suggested we shouldn’t linger for too long. We took a few snaps and left her in peace. She would be released back into the vast expanse of the reserve the following day.
A thrilling end to a perfect weekend. In Samara we had discovered a Karoo gem, and will happily make the long drive again.
Samara Private Game Reserve is about 700 km from Cape Town and 200 km from Port Elizabeth.
The reserve has a thriving cheetah population and is at the forefront of conservation of this endangered species. Led by highly trained rangers, you can even track cheetahs on foot.
It is also famous for its spectacular sightings of aardvarks – so much so that the likes of National Geographic filmed a special about them here.
Children of all ages are welcome at Samara. They also have something called ‘active babysitting’, involving activities such as short walks, collecting bugs and playing in the dedicated kids play area, which has a sandpit, swing and slide fenced off from the main lawn (Karoo Lodge only). Babysitting for infants and toddlers is also available.
There is a variety of suites available at the Karoo Lodge, starting from R2 420 pn per person in low season (very affordable compared to other safari lodges of this calibre), as well as The Manor, which is a stand-alone house a little way from the Karoo Lodge, with wonderful views of a watering hole.