Two and a half hours outside Gqeberha, nestled between vast open Karoo planes, you’ll find Samara Private Game Reserve and Lodge. While at first glance a replica of many other private lodges promising luxury and wildlife in 5’s, behind 67,000 acres of restored farmland awaits a story of dedication, passion for nature, and a caring team of conservationists.
The Back Story
This year did not start with a fizzle but a big bang. Our company had many internal changes coincide with a big project, and so there was very little time to ease into the aftermath of an already tumultuous 2020. After many late evenings and overtime hours on weekends, I was positively exhausted and out of touch with any sort of mental and physical selfcare.
The Samara getaway was a gift straight from the equally overworked gods. A two-night stay away from work and in another province altogether seemed like the ultimate distraction, and I grabbed it with open arms. I was ready to forget about my own story for a while and indulge in someone else’s; and what an escape it was.
The Samara Story
“Every guest who stays at Samara embarks on a holiday with purpose,” explains founder, Sarah Tompkins. In supporting the game reserve, guests contribute to the rewilding of a landscape which had at one point been turned over to agriculture. Because of this the land and wildlife was eroded. Samara’s vision is to return the 67,000 acres of land back to its former glory, the quintessential Great Karoo vision: a thriving semi-arid ecosystem, with grasslands housing wildlife and the predators that stalk them.
The Samara story was born in 1997 when 11 farms were joined to create the Samara Private Game Reserve. While thousands of animals, including elephants, white and black rhinos, giraffes, and cheetahs, roam its plains already, stakeholders are still expanding this haven, with 3 million more hectares to be added to the conservation.
Samara’s vision is to have guests immerse themselves in their journey – as they heal nature, nature will heal them. Guests are motivated to take part in the various activities that the lodge has to offer, but to do so with the conviction that their experience is always second to the safekeeping, rehabilitation, and appreciation of the star-studded cast which compliment their holiday. This trade off, however, comes at no cost of a 5-star experience.
The Special Story
I arrived at Samara on a hot Friday afternoon – the journey was tiring and long, so I was very excited to let the weekend of rest and relaxation unfold. We were met with a smiling Veronica and homemade ice teas. Within the first 15 minutes already it was evident that nature invades all areas of this lodge, with a hotel attendant shoo-ing away naughty Vervet monkeys intent on stealing a few crumbs from that afternoon’s tea and cake.
The best way to describe our Karoo Retreat cottage was quaint elegance – an open plan arrangement with a sitting and sleeping area leading into a luxurious bathroom. The rooms are expertly equipped for two guests while taking into account that certain ablutions are best concealed behind a door (a feature I will never take for granted after working at a boutique hotel during varsity). While I was enamored with the claw-foot bath tub, my companion only had one station in mind: the outdoor Karoo shower, complete with landscape mountain views and curious, feathered visitors.
It’s fair to say I could have stayed here for months; every possible amenity you could ask for was supplied, while the furnishings felt homey and cosy. It was the cliche’d “home away from home”. The queen-sized bed was sent straight from heaven, but the carpet was soft and worn, ready to accept bare and dusty gamedrive feet. The bath tub was French extravagance, but the view South African pride. And man, what a view. We spent many hours outside under the covered patio – morning coffee, lunch time snoozes, and late night chats complete with red wine and the sounds of the wild settling in (or waking up).
Before our first game drive I felt a sort of childlike abandon, jumping into the pool and gearing up with hat, camera, and binoculars to boot. Our rangers, Mzi and Christiaan, were the perfect companions – knowledgeable yet receptive to feedback when my companion, a wildlife enthusiast, attempted to school them with his own knowledge. Mzi has a way with animals; sensing when they’re near yet cautioning when they’re too close. A cheery whistle means a gemsbuck or giraffe is in sight, an excited “Pumba!” means he’s spotted an warthog, and silent awe fills his voice when he’s speaking of elephants – the first animals who stole his heart and landed him at Samara. Christiaan stems from Colesberg in the Northern Cape and while it is evident that his heart will always belong to the farm, there’s an inspiring respect in the gentle way he tracks animals and studies them. With the sound of tourist chatter and shutter speeds frequently shoo-ing these trackers’ beloved animals away, one can still see their interest in the animals they live amongst.
Our first encounter was with a group of giraffes who seemed very interested in everything else besides our presence. Mzi allowed us to get out of the vehicle and move closer towards them on foot, allowing for a close-up view of these gangly, mesmerising animals. After this, it was time to track some cheetahs. Having only once seen a leopard (albeit kilometers away and possibly a trick played by my imagination) I didn’t have high expectations of spotting anything significant. Mzi and Christiaan, however, had a different plan in mind and took us to a pack of cheetahs enjoying a lazy late afternoon.
Seeing Chilli and her cubs was a definite highlight; tracking them on foot sealed the deal for both me and my companion. Like voyeurs, we absorbed their every move, yawn, playful jump and nap; and from only 5 meters away. Completely oblivious to golden hour and the round of drinks being passed around, we couldn’t get enough of their antics. Sensing this, Mzi and Christiaan gave us our time and we made our way back to the lodge long after dinner had started.
With the excitement of the day, we sunk into our chairs and into our food with vigour. I cannot write about Samara without mentioning the food. We looked forward to every hearty meal, knowing that the kitchen performed another act of magic by taking local ingredients and recipes and turning them into something gourmet. The first night’s dinner was served underneath the stars and next to the fire pit. Our drinks were dutifully topped up and the silence was golden – already I could sense an easing of the past months’ tensions.
We were up and back in the game drive vehicle before dawn, the next morning. The goal was to see the reserve’s lion family but with the onset of heavy fog we were doubtful. Mzi and Christiaan expertly trekked us up the mountain, and after some back and forth and lots of doubtful squinting, the main attraction commenced: Lions in the Mist.
Taking us into the heart of their group, we went eye to eye with a family of five: mom, dad, and three cubs. It seemed their curiosity was as active as ours, with the cubs coming close enough to the vehicle for me to smell the snack they caught during the previous night. It was surreal, something out of a movie: these powerful yet beautiful creatures were close enough for me to touch them. Though I’ll admit, I did more than once silently move seats when their curiosity seemed a little too close for comfort.
Ending the morning on a high note, we had some bush coffee, a combination of Amarula and coffee, after which we returned back to the lodge for breakfast. Again, I cannot fault Samara for their attention to detail and the care with which they interact with guests. Making sure all was well, we had another visit from the previous days’ Vervet monkeys and they concurred – the muffins were superb!
The rest of our trip was spent lounging, reading, and spotting the rest of the reserve’s main attractions on our last game drive. Here, we also left our mark by planting our very own spekboom. As part of their reforestation project, Samara encourages guests to take the spekboom that is placed in their rooms, and plant them either on the reserve or at home.
“This project is vital. With just one plant, we’re revitalising the nutrients in our soil, binding it to prevent soil erosion and fighting climate change through carbon sequestration. Ultimately, our aim is to broaden the project to create sustainable green jobs. And at the same time, we’re creating a meaningful way for our guests to protect the environment, too,” explains Isabelle Tomkins.
It took some elbow grease, but our spekboom is well on his way to being an elephant, kudu or eland’s next meal. Our last night was spent much like the first, with a glorious dinner, fine wine and the contentment of an active day.
Sequel to the Story
Too soon, we were on our way home. On the drive to the airport, it was almost incomprehensible all that we had seen in a mere two days. I left Samara with a happy heart, a restored energy, and appreciation for stories which add life to my own. While this trip was a once in a blue moon experience, it truly made me realise the magnificence of what our country and its scenery offers.
The team at Samara is dedicated to fostering the beautiful revival of wild terrains and promoting the born-again wilderness for what it was always meant to be. This is clear in the tenderness and appreciation with which the game drives are presented, the wait staff serve iconic South African meals, and the owners and managers speak of the reserve as their own personal Eden. At its core, the Samara Story is one of rehabilitation and an appreciation for the narratives untouched by human actions.
Luxuries and amenities aside, the Samara Story is one I won’t soon forget. It slowed down the fast pace with which I barreled into this year and quietened the noise. In only two days, it felt as if the past two years’ turmoil was deemed insignificant. I felt a renewed sense of direction in both my career and personal life.
So thank you Samara, your story is a beautiful chapter in mine.