Early one crisp evening I stroll alone from the patio of my cottage in South Africa's heartland of the Great Karoo into the surrounding scrubby bush. Purple mountains ring the horizon and fluffy clouds scud across the lavender arch of the sky. The air is pure and sweet.
A loud hiss stops me in my tracks. A large, beady-eyed tortoise is telling me to get out of the way. I know it's a leopard tortoise because of its attractive spotted back. I've read they can live up to 75 years. They are found throughout our African savannas, from Sudan to the southern Cape. What I didn't know is that they hiss loudly and can look quite intimidating – especially when they meet a stranger. I take a step back. Do tortoises bite? It gives me another glare before lumbering on its way.
I'm staying at Samara Private Game Reserve in the Great Karoo, a three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth on the way to Graaff-Reinet. Samara itself, at 28 000 hectares, is home to four of South Africa's eight vegetation biomes: Nama Karoo, subtropical thicket, grassland and savanna. These biomes harbour rare, indigenous game and critically endangered birds, including black wildebeest, mountain zebra, eland, blesbok, aardvark, black and white rhino, the Cape vulture and flocks of up to 400 of our national bird, the blue crane. And then there is one of South Africa's most iconic creatures and Samara's drawcard – the cheetah.
TRACKING THE GREAT CATS
Mark and Sarah Tompkins started Samara in 1997, as a passionate project to rehabilitate and conserve the biodiversity of the region. Before the family acquired this huge and spectacular area of the Great Karoo, cheetahs had last been seen there 150 years ago. The Tompkins reintroduced the big cats. Soon after, the story of Sibella the cheetah became world famous. Sibella was severely wounded by a steel trap and brought to Samara, where she was nursed back to health. She subsequently raised nine litters of cubs before she died last year. On a previous visit to the game reserve, we tracked the radio-collared Sibella and her cubs and found them obligingly lying by one of the rocky roads not far from the 260-year-old restored Karoo Lodge - the main lodge at Samara.
During my latest visit to Samara, we decided to seek out some of Sibella's cubs, now grown up. On this occasion, however, it takes a lot longer. I am joined by German neurosurgeon Linda and her husband Igor, my friend Coral, game ranger Gibson and tracker Mzi, who waves his radio transmitter above his head as we scour the bush for Sibella's progeny.
Eventually, we find one of Sibella's daughters dozing under a tree with her own four cubs.
Gibson parks the Land Rover and pulls out a small table where he prepares snacks and sundowners for all of us. We sip our drinks as we watch the five cheetahs and the sun begins to sink behind the seemingly limitless horizon. The shadows lengthen; the mountains etched against a reddening sky. The cats sit up, groom themselves, stretch, drink from a nearby puddle and begin to amble off when the mother spies a steenbok in the distance. The cheetahs crouch, quiver and watch their potential prey intently, but the wind is blowing in the wrong direction and the bokkie darts off into the bush.
Cheetahs at Samara Private Game Reserve. (City Press)
Samara is an ecological triumph. This once-neglected and overgrazed farmland stretches from the height of the Karoo mountain complex, part of the Great Escarpment, and down into the plains below. The Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany thicket is one of only 36 global biodiversity hot spots and ideally located in the middle of a chain of conservation areas, ranging from the Camdeboo National Park in the west to the Mountain Zebra National Park in the east. Slowly, this huge area is being rehabilitated and its long-gone wildlife denizens are returning to their home. Samara has played an important role in job creation for the region, and even has a sponsored Tracker Academy that trains unemployed, previously disadvantaged people. It gives them the opportunity to use their new skills as trackers at any of the game reserves in the region. Samara has its own volunteer programme that brings people of all ages and nationalities to the reserve.
During another trip into the bush, we drive almost vertically up a mountainside. We cling to our seats as our vehicle jolts and bumps over a dirt road littered with boulders and deep ruts. But the 45-minute, bone-shaking drive is worth it and we reach the mountaintop the reserve calls Samara Mara – a nod to the vast savannas of Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. Sweeping grasslands stretch away as far as the eye can see, dotted with Cape mountain zebra, black wildebeest, eland, oryx, fresh green grass and hundreds of wild flowers. Standing on a rocky outcrop, Mzi points to the great plains of Camdeboo unfolding 180km south to the horizon. A small herd of elephants has recently been introduced to Samara. They haven’t quite found their feet yet and hide away in the forest most of the day, only coming down to water in the middle of the night.
"They'll soon get used to visitors," Gibson says confidently. He was a ranger at Addo Elephant National Park before coming to Samara four years ago, so knows elephant behaviour well.
Samara Private Game Reserve bush. (City Press)
STAY IN COMFORT
Guests can stay at the 19th century Karoo Lodge with its wide verandas that overlook green lawns, where monkeys and baboons play and friendlier tortoises amble, or maybe in one of the three Karoo cottages hiding in the bush a short walk from the farmhouse. The staff are capable and friendly; the food superb. If you’re looking for total privacy, the luxurious five-star Manor House is an exclusive-use villa ideal for families and groups wanting to be alone.
After a memorable dinner of home-made soups, succulent Karoo lamb and decadent desserts, Linda, Igor, Coral and I sit on the spacious wraparound verandah so typical of Karoo architecture. A new moon rises, the wind rattles softly around the windows and Venus blazes in the sky opposite. A Cape eagle-owl with glowing yellow eyes flies into one of the big trees opposite. It hoots softly.
"Welcome back," it seems to call. And judging by the number of guests who return again and again to this breathtaking wilderness, it's a familiar cry.
Samara Private Game Reserve luxury bedroom. (City Press)
- Turkington was hosted by Samara.
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