Elephants and lions will soon be ranging through the Karoo again as land that was once overgrazed cattle farms is restored to Big Five territory.
Twenty years have already passed since 11 decrepit farms were bought by Mark and Sarah Tompkins and pieced together to create Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet. Restoring degraded land and reintroducing species that once roamed freely is no quick fix, but it’s recovered enough for a family of six elephant to be reintroduced soon and then, perhaps in 2018, some lions.
Out on a game drive one evening ranger Julius Mkhize has the Land Rover tilting at a precarious angle as we drive slowly up a mountain. A glance around shows that none of my fellow passengers are looking nervous, so I relax and place my trust in him as we grind up 1,300m from the Plains of Camdeboo to a plateau on the surrounding mountains.
At the top we cross scrubland dotted with rare Cape Mountain zebras and wacky wildebeest chasing each other like cartoon characters. Then we walk to the very edge of a plateau, inching onto Eagle’s Rock and thinking those inevitable thoughts about how it would feel to tumble over the edge into oblivion.
The views are magnificent even in the haze. Mkhize scans the broad plains with binoculars and manages to spot a solitary rhino in Samara Private Game Reserve far below. Back at the Manor House, housekeeper Candice Afrika is waiting to serve us supper.
With a dedicated team of housekeepers and a chef, guests at the Manor House never need to visit Samara’s main lodge, a 15-minute drive away. Instead you live in tasteful isolation with four en-suite bedrooms, endless intriguing ornaments to ponder, various patios and lounges to relax in, a full kitchen, a welcoming bar, and a skinny swimming pool that looks delightful but ices the toes in the Karoo’s stern winters.
Samara is a 40-minute drive from Graaff-Reinet and three hours north of Port Elizabeth. It’s the sort of place where you guard your time jealously, happy to chill on a settee watching monkeys skitter around the garden, and reading in between breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and a four-course supper. One afternoon a masseuse sets up a massage table on my own strip of wrap-around patio. Vervet monkeys squabble with baboons in the trees outside as I’m pushed and pummelled into utter relaxation.
But there are cheetahs to be tracked, so the next morning we saddle up at 7am for a game drive. Samara reintroduced the first cheetah to the area in 125 years when it released three adults 12 years ago. There are now two adults, both fitted with microchipped collars so the rangers can track them to make sure they’re safe and for some cheetah research Samara is involved in. The chips are handy for tourists too, because after an hour of walking behind a bleeping antenna, we spot the mother with her four young cubs.
They’re accustomed to being observed, and we silently watch the cubs cavort and wrestle with each other to hone their hunting skills. They’ll certainly need their wits about them when the lions are introduced.
For details of Samara, see here: