I’ve had dreams of vast, brown plains sprawling with dense thickets; mountains and their shadows sheltering teaming communities of wild animals.
Somewhere, out there in South Africa, the Great Karoo is enduring, standing the test of time despite the invasion of the human race.
Along the Eastern Cape’s coast, Addo Elephant National Park boasts unforgettable big five experiences. Lying further inland, the area surrounding the old town of Graaff-Reinet is rich in biodiversity, hosting the Camdeboo National Park, while just a bit farther east, one can explore the peaks of Mountain Zebra National Park.
Our journey takes us between the mountains south of the Camdeboo, to a thriving Karoo paradise known as the Samara Mara.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Samara Private Game Reserve has been untouched for millennia, hosting the majestic and elusive creatures that make the Karoo so intriguing. However, as its rangers point out, the land remains littered with the evidence of the decimation caused by sheep farming in the region.
Samara is first and foremost a restoration project, aiming to rejuvenate a 27 000-hectare area of the Great Karoo. Just three hours from Port Elizabeth International Airport, its accessibility belies its sense of remoteness.
The owners have, in consultation with SANParks and other advisors, restored indigenous wildlife and vegetation to the plains and mountains that make up the majority of the reserve. It now hosts healthy populations of giraffe, wildebeest, buffalo, two species of zebra, and several iconic species of antelope.
The smaller species are hunted by the reserve’s dozen-or-so cheetah, while jackal, foxes and the elusive brown hyena prowl in the shadows.
Samara is also a haven for dozens of bird species, ranging from swooping black eagles and peregrine falcons to towering ostriches and secretarybirds.
The absence of the big five can hurt any private reserve, but Samara has made up for this gap in the ecosystem by promoting its quirky ‘Funny Five’, made up of the mischievous vervet monkey, the peculiar but elegant giraffe, the beastly warthog, the easily-bewildered wildebeest, and the inexplicably-designed aardvark.
Samara’s wealth is in its animals, and they cover every square centimetre of the reserve.
No genuine Karoo experience would be complete without a stay in an authentic, time-worn 1800s building, and Samara’s Karoo Lodge ticks all the boxes.
Its’ got the comfort, the rustic, antique decor, the spectacular views, and even that homely smell that only time can imbue. Communal areas are tastefully decorated and make one feel as if they’re visiting a real Karoo home, and not simply a room for the weekend.
By far the lodge’s greatest feature, however, is its staff – the warmest, most earnestly-helpful people you could come across. If there is such a thing as famous Karoo hospitality, it’s being sold by the tonne at the Karoo Lodge.
From housekeeping to rangers, everyone seems genuinely happy to be doing their jobs, and it’s a joy that reflects right onto Samara’s guests.
From the moment you arrive, you’re treated like royalty – the hassles of daily life are thrown off, and relaxation takes centre-stage. Baths are run every evening, and someone’s on call at all hours to bring you your nightcap, or the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had.
The lodge is completed by a pool and lapa braai area, and a couple of resident leopard tortoises that munch the days away.
Is there a better way to enjoy a slab of Karoo lamb than in a true Karoo homestead? Not likely.
Samara offers three meals a day as part of all overnight packages. From breakfast to dinner, you’ll be smacking your lips in anticipation of the chef’s next masterpiece.
Breakfast is what you want it to be, with eggs, sausage and bacon on demand alongside a selection of fresh fruits, yoghurt and cheeses.
Lunches are light and often salad-based, keeping you fresh in between game drives.
Dinner, on the other hand, is a hearty three-course affair, and can range from traditional Karoo meals to orient-inspired buffets.
Drinks are always available from the lodge’s bar, and meals are accompanied by a selection of wines.
Samara is a fully-functioning conservation project, and as such, has a full team of rangers working day and night to protect its furry and feathered inhabitants.
Our guide for the trip, Gibson, has previously worked at Addo Elephant National Park, among others, so his pedigree is exceptional.
The knowledge and experience of the rangers, who double as safari guides, shines through at every bump and turn, ensuring that visitors come away well-educated on the creature of Samara.
Game drives are included in accommodation packages, and take just before sunrise and sunset. The three-hour meanders take visitors to all the far-flung corners of the Samara Mara, as well as up the mountains to the wildebeest, buffalo and zebra-dominated plateaus.
While the drives get bone-chillingly cold, they’re absolutely worthwhile – as the sun emerges from behind the Camdeboo mountains each morning, the plains of Samara begin to glow.
Inch by inch, tree by tree, the rays tell animals that the day has begun, and you have a front-row seat to their remarkable rousing.
The pinnacle of your Samara adventure will be cheetah tracking – on foot. Yes - you can track wild, free-roaming cheetah on the ground, thanks to radio collar technology.
Early in the morning, with frost still clinging to the thousands of intricate spider webs littered across the sparsely-vegetated ground, we had the privilege of pursuing a mother cheetah and her four playful cubs.
Coming face-to-face with one of Africa’s apex predators is both terrifying and exhilarating, not to mention humbling.
In what the accompanying rangers called a ‘once in a lifetime experience’, the four curious kittens ran right up to one of them, bouncing off his legs before sprinting back to their quite obviously agitated mother. This is the kind of magic that Samara plays host to.
Morning drives are capped with hot coffee and rusks high above the plains, while sunset can be spent with a picnic basket on the edge of a plateau, with panoramic views of seemingly endless Karoo landscapes.
Most tourists come to South Africa in search of the classic big five experience, complete with grassy savannahs and towering baobabs.
Samara offers something radically different, reintroducing the Great Karoo to locals and curious foreigners alike.
Old-fashioned living is coupled with fine dining, exceptional comfort, and the wonders of the Samara Mara’s ecosystem to give visitors a fulfilling, tranquil and rejuvenating African adventure.
Make no mistake – it’s no big five replacement. It is, however, a quintessential South African experience that uncovers an entirely different and long-overshadowed national treasure.
Find peace, wonder and contentment among the thorny acacias – make the Great Karoo your next destination.