Tracking a mother cheetah and her five cubs on foot must be one of the highlights of my life. Watching the cubs chase each other up trees, their striped tails dancing behind them, I had to pinch myself that I was this close to the fastest land animal. Only five months old, they were already kicking up the red earth as they ran circles around us and practised their hunting skills. Weaving our way through bones whitened by the sun and droppings and dung, we stopped for coffee with two white rhinos.
Samara Private Game Reserve was founded in 1997 by husband and wife team, Mark and Sarah Tompkins. The couple bought 11 failed farms in the Great Karoo, removed the fences and livestock, rested the land and restocked it with indigenous wildlife. Tens of thousands of acres of land are now home to black rhino, lions, zebra and elephant, to name just a few. Samara is about a three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth Airport. If you rent a car at the airport, make sure it’s pretty sturdy, because you have to drive for a bone-shaking 45 minutes on an unpaved dirt road – but I promise it is worth it. Driving to the Karoo Lodge reception is a little eerie as the trees form a canopy above the winding road.
The reserve has a homely, rustic feel, without that colonial aspect so common to lodges, and this extends to the rooms. You feel in touch with nature simply because you are surrounded by it. The Karoo Suites have private covered patios with outdoor seating – perfect for curling up with a book, or simply watching warthogs and monkeys wander by. Each suite has a fireplace, air conditioner, a freestanding bath and outdoor shower.
On our first night, we were treated to a four-course meal under the stars in the boma, a traditional reed enclosure, with a campfire in the centre. It turned out that this was the case every night. There is no shortage of food: From coffee and bran muffins before the 5am game drive to afternoon tea and cake and sundowners on game drives. All meals and hot and cold drinks are included in the rate, as well as selected local drinks on game drives.
Samara was home to Sibella the cheetah, the first wild cheetah introduced to the Karoo in 125 years. Sibella was rescued from hunters by the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust and underwent surgery and extensive rehabilitation. Since then, she has reared 19 cubs from four litters, helping to grow “14.2% of South Africa’s current cheetah meta-population”.
Samara's mission is spreading wider than the Eastern Cape. One of Sibella's descendants is Malawi-bound in order to boost cheetah populations at the Majete Wildlife Reserve. This is the second South African cheetah to be relocated to Malawi.The staff at Samara go out of their way to make you feel welcome, waiting at the door with hot towels after a game drive, the roaring fire and the thoughtful good night quotes on your pillow. Oh yes, and the bubble bath waiting for you after dinner. Those little spoils, on top of the luxurious accommodation and abundant wildlife make sure that I will return.
PS. I suggest packing layers as early morning game drives can get especially chilly. Ponchos and blankets are provided, but it’s handy to have your own gloves and scarves. However, if you forget something, there is a gift shop that sells beanies that are wonderfully cosy.