“The Karoo does that to you. It clears the clutter in your head.”
Douglas Rogers, Daily Telegraph
This was the most exciting trip I’ve ever been invited on through my blog – sometimes I actually have to pinch myself when emails like this land in my inbox. Would I like to travel to the Eastern Cape to stay at luxury private game reserve Samara for two nights and experience all it has to offer? Would I like to take my husband along too? Yes please. Fortunately our wonderful in-laws said they could take care of the kids, so we quickly found a suitable date, and I even managed to organise it over Gareth’s birthday weekend, so I knew it was going to be extra special. Here’s a little video that introduces just how special it was:
As you can see, spending time in the Eastern Cape has a way of making you feel instantly relaxed. It encourages you to take a big breath and just…unwind. The people who live there are typically unpretentious, real and warm, and they don’t fuss about unnecessary stuff. A trip back there always reminds me of what’s really important in life. And this trip was no different.
We landed in PE just after lunch, picked up our rental car and set off into the Karoo. The further we drove away from civilisation, the more relaxed I felt, and by the time we got to the gates of Samara about two and a half hours later, there was not another human in sight.
And this is key to your time at Samara. Karoo Lodge, where we stayed, can only take 18 guests at a maximum, so your experiences are always personalised and intimate. It’s not like the Kruger where you’re racing with 10 other cars in order to spot a lion’s tail as it disappears into a bush. Instead you’re sitting with 1 or 2 others on an open Landrover and watching a family of giraffes graze silently, moving over the savannah in great strides, for as long as you want to. But I get ahead of myself.
On arriving at Samara we dropped our bags and were urged to get the last of the light by going for a quick sundowner game drive. Gibson was our guide and Mzi was our tracker and they were wonderful, relaxed, and informed hosts. I learned that a warthog’s warts are there to protect its eyes when it’s fighting other warthogs, plus what really makes their tails stand straight up in the air. I learned that waterbuck smell so bad that it sometimes puts predators off eating them. And that giraffes with darker markings are older and male. We chatted about the veld and the plant life, the birds and the animals, and as we sipped on an ice cold G&T and watched the sun set on Gareth’s birthday, I knew Samara was a soulful place indeed.
On our arrival back at the lodge we were greeted with a warming glass of sherry, a hot face towel and an invitation to have a bath before dinner! (Samara has their own water supply, and also recently experienced wonderful rains). That night we ate a delicious three courses inside the renovated farmhouse, sitting snug by the fireplace, and we were even surprised with a homemade cake for Gareth, plus candles and a Happy Birthday song – we felt very special indeed.
The next morning we got up early, had some tea and rusks and set off at sunrise in search of game. We were trying to track the family of cheetah who live on Samara, but didn’t have any luck finding them until the next day. Samara is known for its cheetah, having brought the first wild cheetah back to the Great Karoo in 2003 (after 125 years with none in the area) – a rehabilitated cheetah named Sibella. Sibella went on to rear 19 cubs across four litters during her lifetime, making a significant contribution to the ongoing conservation of cheetah (there are fewer than 7,100 remaining worldwide).
After a beautiful game drive, packed with interesting sights, we headed home and spent the most leisurely few hours, doing nothing. Doing nothing? You heard me right. When last did you do that? Sure we lazed on the verandah and soaked up the views, and listened to the birds, and said hello to the ancient tortoise and troops of monkeys making mischief around the garden. We read magazines and chatted and even dozed off in the shade, but what a pleasure it was to slow…right…down.
Samara is all about laidback luxury. You’re supremely comfortable and indulged, in your four poster bed with your outdoor shower, but this is not a fussy or pretentious place. Karoo Lodge is all centred around a renovated farmhouse, which is enclosed by a generous verandah filled with gigantic cushions, and numerous couches and cosy chairs looking out into the bush. There’s a fireplace, a bar, various lounges and a dining room.
It’s the kind of place you want to find a little nook and then settle down in with a mug of tea (or G&T) and just relax. At night when you return from your game drive, the lodge is aglow with lamps, looking like the haven of comfort that it is.
That afternoon we set off again on what was to be the most spectacular game drive in terms of scenery. Samara covers four vegetation biomes, each so different. Driving up into the hills, the entire landscape changes and you feel like you’re in another world. The views are simply spectacular, especially because as far as the eye can see, you can’t see a single settlement or town – it’s just pristine land. When you live in a city like I do, there is something incredibly healing about being in wild places like these.
As the sun set after another incredible few hours adventuring, we saw herds of wildebeest running along the plains, the mountains changing to a hue of blue as the light faded from the sky, and we were the only witnesses to this entire spectacle. It felt like something that some people wait their whole lives to witness, but here we were.
That night the weather was warmer, so dinner had been set up for us beneath the stars, inside the boma. Samara also offers guests the unforgettable opportunity to sleep out under the stars, so you can fall asleep to the sounds of the bush all around you, and look up at the night sky where the stars are brighter than I remember them. Dinner was fabulous, and I’m still thinking about the panacotta and the delicious tomato soup.
On our final morning, Gibson and Mzi were determined that we find these elusive cheetah. Using a tracking mechanism linked to their radio collars, we eventually narrowed the cats down to a specific location, and set off on foot to track them. As you walk in single file, the adrenalin starts pumping as your guide tells you that they are “just around the corner”. And with a swift point of a hand we suddenly saw the whole family of five, resting lazily under a tree (my heart!). Gibson told us that they had very recently eaten (he could tell by their full bellies) so we were not a threat to them and were safe. We stood about 20 metres from them, watching them yawn and play together, so close we could hear them purr. What an incredible experience.
Samara also has a Tracker Academy, which picks 16 young people each year and teaches them the dying art of tracking, as well as valuable skills that will help them gain employment in the ecotourism industry. This knowledge means they can track wildlife, including cheetahs, through incredibly difficult terrain. Samara will shortly have all the Big Five animals, but it’s the wide variety of other wildlife that is equally impressive. Gareth has been to game farms many times in his life and he saw things he had never seen before, like bat eared foxes, a spotted genet, porcupines, and oryx.
I’d say that the sweet spot in terms of length at stay at Samara is probably three nights minimum, so that you can fit in all the game drives, guided walks, wilderness picnics, star bed sleep-outs, hiking, mountain biking in untouched land, conservation activities and the kids can even take part in a children’s programme. Karoo Lodge with it’s rolling lawns, fenced off swimming pool and child minding services is perfect for families, and their award-winning kids’ programme includes spoor spotting, orienteering, rock painting, storytelling and heaps more.
If you have a large party you can also rent out the entire Manor House, which looks incredibly luxurious and amazing! Samara’s rates per person per night are much reduced in the off-peak season from May to August (think about half price!), and there is also a 15% discount if you’re a South African. So that works out to R2895 per person per night, which includes five star accommodation, 3 x three-course meals a day (plus a delectable afternoon tea each afternoon!), 2 x game drives per day, selected drinks during the game drives, and really excellent wifi (especially considering the remoteness of the location).
We returned to PE feeling more peaceful, like we had fewer cobwebs in our heads. I almost felt like I’d been a laptop with about a million programmes open and Samara had encouraged me to Shut Down, BREATHE and then Restart. With a clean slate. With renewed knowledge into what really matters. Anyway, maybe I’m overthinking it. Either way, put it on your bucket list, please.
We were both guests of Samara in order to review their offering (we paid for my husband’s flight, our drinks and any tips).