Bouncing along on the back seat of a 4×4 safari vehicle for 3 hours, rain pouring onto the seat next to me, splattering my face at every turn, a cold wind winding it’s way though the cracks in the blankets wrapped tight around my legs and no animals in sight…
One might think that this was a rather disappointing safari drive.
And for some it might be.
But on a recent visit to the Karoo Game Reserve of Samara, this was my very experience on the last game drive of our stay… and it was anything but disappointing!
Yes, the rain may have dampened the dry, red earth turning it to thick, red mud, but the earth’s tears did nothing to dampen my love for this part of the world!
Instead it solidified exactly what I love about it…
Samara – A safari for the soul
Samara is located in the Great Karoo of South Africa where it spans over 400,000 km² of semi-arid landscape at the heart of South Africa covers an area the size of Germany.
The name ‘Karoo’ comes from an ancient San word meaning ‘Land of Great Thirst’
One of South Africa’s best kept secrets, The Great Karoo is just that, great, but it can be hard to see why on your initial arrival. This a place of vast skies and wide open plains, yet what appears to be little life at all.
Yet, stay a while and the greatness is revealed amidst its’ stark, desolate beauty…
On my previous visit to Samara I fell in love with the simplicity of Karoo life and the slow pace at which it unfolded, so when an invite arrived for me to return to the place that had made such an impression on my soul, I jumped at the chance.
A Karoo Safari Experience
Over 200 years ago, the Great Karoo was a haven for wildlife and vast herds of eland and Cape buffalo roamed the grasslands, black rhinoceros thrived in the dense thickets, and herds of elephant meandered up from the coast to feed along the green mountain slopes.
There was an abundance of black-maned Cape lion and an epic springbok migration, when up to a million migrating antelope converged into a single herd over 3 miles wide! Sadly over the years this wildlife was eliminated and replaced by fences and sheep farms.
Samara’s vision is to recreate the Karoo of old – restoring degraded habitats and reintroducing the wildlife that once roamed the semi-arid land.
Since 1997 they have embarked on various exciting projects including releasing the first wild cheetah back into the region in 125 years, the first desert-adapted black rhino, the first endangered Cape Mountain zebra on private land, and, most recently, reintroducing the first elephants back into the Plains of Camdeboo in over 200 years.
The grand vision is that one day Samara will be able to sustain the abundance and diversity of wildlife documented by the early explorers in the region.
During my visit to Samara I was fortunate enough to encounter some of Samara’s most celebrated residents… a family of Cheetah.
Often overshadowed by bigger predators in other game reserves, at Samara the cheetah sit at the top of the food chain and, since they have become habituated to people, one of the highlights of a stay at Samara is the opportunity to track these wild cheetah on foot therefore allowing you a truly unique bush experience!
On my last visit I was able to get up close and personal with Sibella, the matriarch of the Samara cheetahs who had 2 cubs, Chilli and Pepper. Sadly Sibella passed away a few years ago, but on my recent return visit to Samara I was able to once more see Chilli – who now has a family of her own!
A coalition of 4 adventurous cubs who will soon reach maturity and head out to fend for themselves, but for now, aged 18 months, they are very much still taking hunting lessons from their mom!
We were fortunate enough to see one such lesson in action… a very lucky little springbok managed to see another day, while a few minutes after we had moved on another bokkie wasn’t quite so lucky, yet the other visitors were luckier than us to catch all the action from start to finish! (There’s nothing like the envy of a missed game sighting opportunity to eat away at you. I’m still disappointed!!)
The Samara Mara – a unique Eastern Cape Safari experience
Every inch of Samara has a special beauty, but there is a particular piece that is quite unique indeed.
Perched high on a mountain plateau (that involves a hair-raising 4×4 ride up the most extreme road I’ve ever been on) is the ‘Serengeti of the South’, otherwise known as the Samara Mara!
Arriving at the top you’re greeted by golden grasslands that stretch off into the distance, reminiscent of the Masaai Mara, the landscape teems with life – herds of Black wildebeest, endangered Cape Mountain zebra, eland and gemsbok roam the expanse of this unique grasslands biome that is one of South Africa’s most biodiverse (second only to the Cape Floristic Kingdom.)
On our trip to the top we were treated to an unexpected treat – lunch with a panoramic view out over the Plains of Camdeboo. A white linen table cloth, comfortable chairs and feast for the stomach as well as the eyes… not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Our lunch was followed by a visit to Eagles Rock look out point where those who were brave enough to peer over the edge down the sheer drop beneath managed to spot the elusive ellies of Samara munching on the spekboom 100’s of metres below…. and obviously in one of the most impossible parts of Samara to reach by vehicle!
Luxury Accommodation in the Karoo
On my first visit to Samara with my family I recall driving past the gorgeous Manor House and wishing we could get a sneak peek inside… this time I got to spend 2 nights in the Manor House luxury accommodation at Samara.
Until now the luxurious Manor House has been an exclusive-use villa ideal for families and groups looking for privacy, indulgence and complete relaxation. However, in the next few weeks Samara will be opening up 3 of the 4 luxury suites for bookings by independent travellers, couples, and even single travellers. Manor House is a brand new boutique hotel in the heart of the Karoo!
Each of the Manor House’s spacious suites has received a facelift to prepare for the change. Each room has its own private veranda with gorgeous Karoo views. Bathrooms are spacious and have freestanding baths and showers, while rooms have king size or twin beds and are equipped with tea and coffee stations.
This means that couples looking to really escape it all or those who prefer a more modern aesthetic when it comes to accommodation can opt to book a room at Manor House instead of at the Karoo Lodge which is usually the accommodation for non-group bookings. Manor House will still be available for group bookings and certain times of the year will be reserved exclusively for group bookings.
I loved my time at Manor House as it felt like a gorgeous personal home with a modern safari touch. The layout of Manor House ensures that there is so much space that you hardly know anyone else is around. Spacious living areas create separate private spaces to unwind in blissful solitude, while you can also choose to be a bit more social around the fire or the dining room table. My room (suite) was large, light and airy with a huge comfortable and peaceful views out across the Karoo landscape to the purple mountains beyond.
The decor of Manor House is contemporary and reflects the local landscape with gorgeous collections, antiques and art on display. This space has been designed by talented South African interior designer John Jacob Zwiegelaar.
The alternative accommodation option at Samara is the equally romantic Karoo Lodge, the family-friendly 5-star offering.
This traditional lodge is a renovated 1800s farmhouse that has a warm, welcoming atmosphere. The wide verandah is a welcome respite from the heat of summer, while the cosy fire will draw you in on cold winter nights.
At Karoo Lodge children of all ages are welcome and although kids under 8 are not permitted on game drives there is a dedicated children’s programme to keep them entertained.
While staying at Manor House I lapped up the luxurious Karoo accommodation and made the most of lounging fireside after returning from evening game drives and soaking in a long hot bath… a true treat for a Capetonian on strict water restrictions!
Conservation in the Karoo
At 70,000 acres, Samara is the largest private game reserve in the Eastern Cape, located in one of 36 Global Biodiversity Hotspots. The area encompasses under-conserved vegetation types and provides a home for many endemic, as well as endangered species.
In 1998 a visionary dream by SANParks and conservation NGOs sought to link, through ecological corridors, Camdeboo National Park in the west, and Mountain Zebra National Park in the east. Samara Game Reserve is ideally located in the middle of a chain of conservation areas between these two reserves and can serve as an important catalyst for this grand vision of 1.3 million acres untraversed conservation-friendly land where biodiversity can thrive.
At Samara each guest pays a conservation fee which contributes towards this grand vision of creating South Africa’s 3rd largest protected area.
A Soul Safari
So back to my bumpy game drive in the rain… What is it about that experience that has etched itself into my memory bank of travel experiences?
That particular wet game drive certainly didn’t offer the most exhilarating game viewing, BUT it was one of the most memorable game drives I’ve been on, primarily because it was in that moment that I was reminded about the restorative power of nature and the way this part of the world connects you to nature and, in turn, to yourself!
Spending time in the wide open places, exposed to the elements are the experiences that deliver true freedom. And this is essentially why we travel.
Far removed from the daily deadlines, relentless grind and terrible traffic…. we travel to connect with nature. And in Africa you get exactly that!
In Africa there’s nothing left between you and nature… and that’s exactly how you tap into your soul.
It’s on the wild open plains of Africa, wind whipping your hair, rain lashing your lashes, that you tap into each one of your senses and fully experience life in all it’s gory glory!
- Feel the rain on your face and the wind in your hair.
- Hear the call of the blue crane and the yelp of the wildebeest.
- See the endless horizons and the inky black skies dotted with stars.
- Smell the rain on the red earth and the smoke of the fires welcoming you home.
- Taste the freshest air in the world…
Samara gets under your skin and creeps into your soul. It is a true a safari for your soul. A place that will leave you feeling restored, relaxed, revitalised and refreshed…. and longing to return!
I certainly hope to be lucky enough to return to this magical place. And next time I hope to be a little bit luckier at spotting an aardvark!
Getting to Samara
Physical address: Petersburg Road, off the R63 to Pearston, near Graaff-Reinet
Samara Private Game Reserve in the Great Karoo, a 40-minute drive from the historical town of Graaff-Reinet.
Travel from Cape Town via the N1. Approx 7.5 hours.
Fly from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. The flight is 1 Hour. Hire a car and then travel from PE International Airport to Samara. Approx 3 hours.
Reservations: +27 (0) 31-262 0324
Reception: +27 (0) 49-891 0880
Rates range from R3170 – R6270 in high season. These rates include luxury en-suite accommodation, all meals, tea and coffee, two game activities (drive or walk) daily with experienced guides, a children’s programme (children under eight years are not allowed on scheduled game drives), selected local drinks during game activities, Wifi and VAT.
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Images: Kathryn Rossiter