I have been going on safari in Africa every year for 15 years, yet it was at Samara Private Game Reserve, in the middle of nowhere in the Graaff-Reinet Karoo, that I found the possibility of two elements of a safari that had so far eluded me; a yoga mat and an aardvark.
A strange duo I agree, but a pairing that makes Samara a special safari venue in the absence of Africa’s really big game….. I regretted that line as soon as I wrote it, because it shows what a spoilt safari tart I have become!
You don’t find anything taller than giraffe, any stronger than rhino, any faster than cheetah, or any meaner than buffalo and Samara has them all, as well as antelopes and of course aardvark (which I will speak more of later).
Samara’s cheetah are so habituated that through minimal tracking with the help of a radio collar, guests can step off the game viewing vehicle and walk right up close to where they might be lazing under a bush or shepherd tree. Especially Sybilla the biggest female cheetah I have ever seen. From a disadvantaged past that included a scoundrel farmer who trapped her and some cruel workers who damaged her tendons, followed by numerous hours on the operating table, Sybilla found the best home possible in Samara.
Here she has peace and food in abundance and has raised three litters of 5, 6 and 7 cubs respectively. This is unheard of, as a pair of cubs is the norm, one of which usually doesn’t make it in the wild. Out of Sybilla’s amazing total of 18 cubs, she only lost one! She’s particularly relaxed and yawns on cue for photo opportunities and only saunters off once everyone is done taking pictures.
It’s the ability to walk in Samara Private Game Reserve that made Swiss guest, Charlotte Vollmuth, sum up how this made a difference to her, “You get emotionally closer to the animals when you are touching the same soil as they tread.”
But Samara isn’t all about animals, it’s about rest. The kind of rest that slows your whole body down to the bare essentials and gives itself over to being pampered by willing staff, who do pretty much everything for you. You just have to eat the divine food, courtesy of Liz du Toit, who when asked if she had any particular philosophy on life said, “Philosophy is for old people, I’m too young.” But she had more to say about food; “Food makes me very happy.”
If you eat too much you get depressed and miserable, so I cook healthy food for my guests – all fresh, nothing frozen. If you eat good you are happy.” Sometimes, philosophy in its simplest form says it all.
Back to the elusive Aardvark. I have visited around 190 African safari lodges by now and been on hundreds of day and night game drives, and never have I seen an Aardvark. So when I was told that in July they saw 42 aardvark in one month, I was beside myself with the possibility of seeing one of these rarely seen strange creatures. Trouble was, I was visiting in December. Would the aardvark still show themselves at the start of summer, I wondered?
Oh woe, not an aardvark to be seen in December. I can’t believe it. I didn’t find out if they saw one the day I left, I couldn’t bear to hear the answer. If an Aardvark is something you must see before you die (which may not be top of everybody’s list, but is certainly on mine), I’ll see you at Samara next July.
To temper my despair, I practiced some deep breathing and yoga poses on the veranda of my Karoo Suite, while ‘him indoors’ lay snoozing on the lodge stoep where he felt quite at home sitting on white linen, feet on antique table and a kelim underfoot.
Three Victorian-style Karoo cottages face the thorn veld while three more bedrooms are in the main guest house. Each is decorated a little differently, with elements distinctive to Eastern Cape colonial homesteads, exuding a sense of history from a pioneering past. Wide wrap-around verandas keep interiors cool from 40 degree C
summer heat and fireplaces do the opposite during minus 0 degrees C on frosty winter mornings. Make sure to get your packing right for the relevant Karoo season, as evening game drives can become bitter in anything other than high summer.
Karoo Lodge is not the only accommodation at Samara, there is also the exclusive-use Manor House, where unnamed rich and famous choose to take a discreet African holiday. Decorated by one of South Africa’s most talented interior designers – John Jacobs – it epitomises contemporary luxury mixed with iconic Africa and thankfully neer a leopard-print fabric in sight.
Think of cool white tones, linens with a hint of soft green stripe, a sofa nook with traditional African Kubu cloth cushions and an infinity pool stretching into the landscape ending at a waterhole where rhino come to drink. Even if you have no interest in interiors, Samara Manor House will convert you into being an appreciative audience of exquisite decor.
Owner Sarah Tompkins, suggested that dashing off on a game drive is not always necessary, as when her family arrived for their Christmas break from London, they were greeted by buffalo on the lawn and a rhino and calf at the waterhole.
I tend to agree with her, as our ranger – to be known henceforth as the ‘Tortoise-Tickler’, for his amazing ability to coax giant leopard tortoises almost totally out of their shell by tickling their necks – imparted almost no information about anything at all. He was nevertheless, very pleasant and willing.
The ‘Tortoise-Tickler’ knew nothing about stars either, although he did encourage us to look at them and stopped the night drive so we could look up in awe. With no light pollution, the Karoo night sky is one of the wonders of this world. Stars of the Milky Way shone through their ashen veil – African legend attributes the Milky Way to a teenager who was forbidden to roast her roots in the fire, so threw ash into the air in a tantrum, thus creating the milky way. Many other legends of the African night sky also went untold.
Would I recommend Samara? Without a doubt. It is perhaps for the experienced safari goer who has heard all the info before and does not need to chase after lion and leopard. It’s for the person who wants to relax in the bush, eat fine food based on no premise than it’s fresh, good for you and tastes absolutely delicious. And if you fall into the category of being able to spend top Dollars on a very private affair at Samara Manor House – and it happens to be Aardvark month – please drop me a line and invite me along. I’d be delighted to tell you the other stories about the African night and many more besides.
Getting There: Samara is a three hour drive from Port Elizabeth Airport and the most pleasant way to get there is through the services of Dave McNaughton of Karoo Connections. His vehicles are large with plenty of space for people and luggage. He and his team also run excellent guided tours of the Graaff-Reinet area, known for its rich colonial history with grand architecture and Anglo-Boer war stories, as well as indigenous history visible through rock art and fossils, plus the natural wonders of the Valley of Desolation and Camdeboo National Park. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.graaffreinet.co.za/karooconnections, tel: 049 892 3978, or cell: 082 339 8648.
© Carrie Hampton