Our group walks gingerly through the rugged bush of Samara Karoo Reserve, the breathtaking landscape stretching out before us, a mix of vast undulating plains and dramatic hills dotted with scattered acacia trees. Up ahead our experienced tracker Klippers scans the terrain for the camouflaged colours of a cheetah, the only sound that of our footsteps on resilient shrubs and the occasional call of a hidden bird.
Before long he points in the direction of a sweet thorn bush ahead, a sign for our team to stop. Christian, our proficient and charming field guide, motions for us to fall into step behind him and calmly relays the plan of action. We move stealthily in single file to our viewing point at a bush, mere metres away from the world’s fastest land animal.
Nilady, a sleek and powerful female cheetah, lies nestled amidst the vibrant green sweet thorn bush, basking in the late morning sun. Now and then her head gently rises, triggered by the approaching springbok and oryx oblivious to the danger on their doorstep. There’s a collective intake of breath when she gracefully transitions into a full sitting position and suddenly the mere distance between us is palpable. To my relief at least, after a regal gaze out onto the plains, she decides dinner is a task for later and resumes her mid-morning siesta.
Welcome to Samara Karoo, an award-winning safari destination in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, which has a long legacy of successful cheetah conservation.
Christian informs us that cheetahs, iconic for their speed and grace, are sprinting towards extinction. Their numbers have plummeted by over 90 per cent in the last century and today fewer than 7,000 remain in the wild, primarily scattered across small pockets of Africa – from South Africa to Algeria – and a tiny population in Iran and India. Habitat loss, exacerbated by human expansion, and the illegal wildlife trade, has contributed significantly to their decline.
But Samara Karoo has been pioneering their comeback for almost 20 years, beginning with Sibella, an injured cheetah who arrived at the reserve in 2006 after surviving a near death encounter with hunting dogs on a local farm. Within the sanctuary’s safe perimeters, Sibella would play a vital role in cheetah conservation, not only locally, but for the whole of South Africa. During her time at Samara Karoo she nurtured an impressive 21 cubs before succumbing to an antelope injury in 2016 leaving a genetic heritage that has contributed to three per cent of the country’s entire cheetah numbers.
Tying this fascinating conservation story to our recent encounter, Christian tells us that in Sibella’s final litter, a cub named Chile was born who would go on to deliver Nilady. Now in the fourth generation of Samara cheetahs, Nilady, who was lying just metres away from us moments ago, gracefully embodies the reserve’s conservation efforts.
Samara Karoo’s Endless Beauty
But while Samara Karoo’s cheetah conservation efforts are impressive, there is more to behold in this magnificent reserve that sprawls some 70,000 acres of diverse rolling plains, rocky hills and secluded valleys. From our mid-morning bush walk cheetah tracking to an afternoon quest for a lion pride in the mountains, our journey through the award-winning Samara Karoo Reserve goes from strength to strength.
We head to the foothills of the Candoa mountain where the scenery is vastly different from the arid grassland plains. Our Toyota Land Cruiser navigates the group through the verdant Albony thicket biome, one of five distinct ecosystems on this vast property. Here, green grass and a flourishing forest of Spek boom adorned with delicate pink flowers, blankets the terrain, a plant so powerful it releases twice as much oxygen per hectare as a rainforest.
When the game vehicle is at a standstill, silence reigns. The soft sound of a breeze only punctuated by the song of a red kestrel, the humming of bees and the welcome gurgle of a nearby stream that, Christian informs us, is the first in the area for years due to drought.
As we continue, a black Widowbird glides past, its wings turning a shade of electric blue as it catches the afternoon light while to our right a gang of buffalo look up inquisitively from their grazing to the rare sights and sounds of a vehicle. We learn that despite languid appearances, buffalo are, in fact, the most aggressive of the Big Five, capable even of killing the apex predator, a lion.
Moving on in our search for the elusive big cats, the steep road to the mountain’s summit becomes increasingly challenging, characterised by rocky, rust-red terrain that mercilessly jolts our open air jeep. Seated on the side overlooking the precipice, I hold on tightly, avoiding any glances down at the lush, green-carpeted landscape hundreds of meters below.
Picnic in Paradise
When we reach the top, we are greeted with jaw-dropping vistas and it quickly becomes evident why lions favour this all-encompassing vantage point to survey their domain.
Here the landscape is more arid with long stretches of sun-dried grasslands and scattered rhinoceros bush – named for the mammal’s love of the plant. One side of the landscape is framed by the almost volcanic looking Sneeuberge mountain range, while up ahead the red dolomite cliff edge approaches. To our right lies a natural lake where the sound of our vehicle prompts a tribe of baboons to hastily scatter and the wildebeest to kick back their legs as they too disperse across the plain.
To our surprise when we reach the cliff’s edge, by a shady wild olive tree, a welcoming host waits for us, tray of sparkling wine in hand. Next to a table that has been beautifully set for lunch with glamping style tin boxes for food and tin mugs for fizz, we wash our hands in a bowl with water poured from a jug before sitting down to drink in the breath-taking views.
From this outstanding vantage point, the lucky few to visit this top-of-the-world location can scan over 180 kilometres of magnificent terrain. Down below the plains of Camdeboo stretch out, where once upon a time a staggering 12 million springbok would cross in what was then the world’s largest migration. While those days may never return, the ethos of Samara Karoo is to rewild this land to closely resemble its former glory.
Following a leisurely lunch, we set out to find the lion pride. Our skilled tracker uses a wire frame designed to pick up the GPS collar signal of a lioness which guides us to their approximate area, making the search relatively straightforward. About 15 minutes into our drive, the device registers a strong signal, prompting us to venture off the beaten path.
There, right on the cliff’s edge, nestled among a line of thorny bushes, two lionesses are grooming one another as a form of social bonding. To our surprise, just behind them, a male lion raises his head in a magnificent yawn, his shaggy mane billowing in the wind.
Mesmerised, we linger as the pride takes notice of our presence but continues with the task at hand. After capturing numerous photographs, we realise that soon the sun will be setting, and it’s time to start the descent from mountain to plains.
As the jeep rolls along the rust-coloured tracks, a tower of giraffe peek at us from behind the bushes, while swift herds of kudu, oryx, and red antelope dart ahead of the jeep on the road. Along various points of the journey, striking dazzles of zebras run alongside the vehicle before confidently overtaking and leaping in front of us across the road in single file.
While sightings are abundant on our excursion, we learn that at Samar Karoo, the mission transcends the typical ‘Big Five’ checklist found in many reserves. The team here are driven by a deep commitment to conservation and sustainability, patiently waiting seven years for the natural grasses to flourish after acquiring the land before reintroducing large animals.
Recognising that animals need access to a natural ecosystems – to be able to move away from drought to watering holes for example – and that this can only be achieved in scope, the team are now patiently waiting to ‘drop fences’ with nearby properties to allow for greater space.
Mere moments from reaching camp, our eagle-eyed tracker Klippers spots motion in the distance. The jeep comes to a halt and, with binoculars in hand, we strain to see what caught his attention. To our surprise, it’s Nilady, and this time, she’s fully alert.
With stealthy movements, she trots forward, back arched and gaze locked on something ahead. Her movements make it clear what’s on her mind – the distant springboks are dinner tonight.
Nilady skilfully uses our jeep as a shield, allowing her to get closer to her unsuspecting prey and we find ourselves yet again, mere metres from this beautiful big cat.
Once back in potential sight of the herd, she lowers herself into the grass for camouflage. It doesn’t take her long to single out an unfortunate soul, and when she begins her sprint, the horizon bursts to life with the frantic scattering of animals. Herds of zebra, springbok and kudu run desperately across the plains against a backdrop of a fiery red sunset. For one of them, this sunset is to be their last but also, tonight, Nilady will not go hungry. On that astounding finale to an unforgettable day, under the already darkening skies, we complete the last few meters to our Plains Tented Camp.
At the camp we are greeted with glasses of sherry and a crackling log burner in the communal mess tent where we all discuss the incredible day’s adventures and wait for dinner to be served. This takes place at an elegantly dressed dining table with local food and wine. It’s a chic throwback to the classic safari days of old with no electricity, where stories are shared by lantern light while outside the wind howls through the plains and licks at the tent.
When it’s time for bed, a guide walks you to your tent, a necessary precaution given that the camp is not fenced. Inside your awned room there is no electricity. Instead the tent is gently lit by solar-powered lights that have been soaking up the sun’s energy on deck throughout the day. By the end of the year, the entire Samara Karoo Reserve, not just the tented plains camp, will transition to off-grid operations powered entirely by solar energy.
In keeping with an ethos of sustainability, expect nothing disposable in these beautifully decorated rooms where beds are crafted by a local steel maker and tables are constructed from native wood by a local joiner. From the coffee and tea served in quaint jars to the use of biodegradable toiletries, a commitment to sustainability is found at every corner of this special camp.
Here, guests won’t find the luxury of running water either. Instead, hot water is heated over an open fire and provided in thermos flasks for you to pour it into bowls for hand and face washes. The same principle applies to the outdoor private shower, however, this is for daytime only. In either the morning or afternoon sun, a staff member will fill an overhead water bag at your request, allowing you a warm shower while gazing out at the sprawling plains beyond.
The water, thanks to an innovative bio-rock system within the camp, can be recycled for irrigation.
When night falls and temperatures drop, a hot water bottle is placed in your bed, soon to be complemented by the much-needed warmth of log burners that the team are currently implementing, ensuring that even during cold winter nights guests remain cozy.
As you close your eyes in anticipation of another day of magnificent scenery and sightings, you drift away to the sounds of the spectacular creatures that call this piece of natural paradise home. This is indeed, as the team so succinctly say in their slogan after all, a ‘safari for the soul’.
Emirates Airline operates five daily flights to Johannesburg daily at approximately AED 5,000 per person.
Several airlines connect Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth including Fly SafAir and Airlink. It is then a three and a half hour drive to Samara Karoo Reserve which can be organised by the team on your behalf at a cost of approximately AED 750.
For more information or to book a stay at Samara Karoo Reserve, visit the website here.