I’m in a van cruising along a lone highway through the Karoo. My knees are bobbing and hands shaking as I type. We’re in the middle of nowhere on a bumpy road headed south for the Port Elizabeth airport. There, I’ll board a plane for Johannesburg and after a layover, I’ll board another straight for New York. Robert, my driver, happily transports travelers such as myself along 3 hour long transfers to and fro the Samara Private Game Reserve where I’ve just spent three days – the icing on the cake of my last month’s African travels.
Going on safari is always something I dreamed of doing one day. It’s a classic bucket list trip for any traveler. It oozes exoticism – dimly lit tents under the stars at night, lions roaring in the background, living in the wild and folding into nature. Many people go on safari as a hobby – not a cheap one I might add – and having seen what it’s all about, I can completely see why. In fact, I think I’m hooked.
Most people have heard about Kruger, the country’s largest national park which is home to a wealthy variety of safari camps. Although popular, I was looking for something different, and something that was somewhat of a challenger to the norm. I found my answer in the Great Karoo.
In an area greatly unknown to the South African public, let alone the international market, Samara has endured a true labor of love to put the Great Karoo on the map. The Samara Private Game Reserve sits in South Africa’s Eastern Cape – which is Nelson Mandela’s homeland, and is one of South Africa’s poorest provinces. With unemployment officially sitting at 41% (though non-governmental studies put it closer to 70%) a full 88% of the province’s inhabitants live below the poverty line. Rural communities are particularly badly affected, given the lack of infrastructure and government services. It’s surprising to hear statistics such as these, which inextricably further stirred my curiosity of the region.
One of the things that excites me most about travel is going against the grain, and putting myself in situations and environments where I can contribute or support local communities in the places I visit. The spirited Samara Private Game Reserve exemplifies a best in class operation of what a sustainable tourism organization should embody, which made my decision easy to book my stay.
After a long drive from the airport, Robert and I near the snow mountains (yes, there are actually mountains in Africa with snow) close to the lodge, and little creatures started to pop up: a baboon here and there, some herds of sheep and goats, plus beautiful big brown cows. The closer you get, a few more appear and scurry across the road: impala, tortoise, vivid monkeys, water bucks and black eagles. The nerves do kick in when you see signs that you are entering the reserve at your own risk, but it’s a gentle thrill. And it’s exciting. The haunting beauty of the landscape that first inspired Samara’s revitalization campaign is evident.
An independent and private operation, Samara is the largest private game reserve in the Eastern Cape. Their mission is honorable and simple: restoring the biodiverse ecosystems of the Great Karoo through judicious land management, sound ,environmental practice and enlightened employment ethics with a hope for sustainability for every generation to come.
Pure eco-tourism advocates, Samara’s founders view their operation as a sustainable way to not only uplift people and communities in this region, but to create a lasting synergy and harmony between local people and their land. Seventy thousand acres and over sixteen years later, the broader Samara vision remains to be one of restoration and animal conservation, but the resort is also committed to ecotourism as a means to deliver employment opportunities aside from just agricultural related labor.
While many within both the public and private sectors have questioned the “ROI” of investing in conservation and ecotourism, the local statistics are reason enough for Samara to spearhead their own applaudable initiatives. There’s a distinct correlation between higher employment rates and Eastern Cape stock farms that function as game reserves (which are known to pay higher salaries than other typical labor farms). To this end, Samara recently launched a local commercial enterprise which aims to employ only local builders and artisans. This is, in addition to the Festive Kids Program, which helps youngsters understand Samara’s purpose and operations.
The program involves guided bushwalks, plant identification, planting of particular vegetation, track moulding and animal identification (sounds way cooler than any petting zoo I had the joy of being a part of as a kid). And for several years, Samara has been encouraging guests to help offset the carbon emissions of their transatlantic flights by planting Spekboom (a plant that is particularly effective at carbon sequestration by which carbon dioxide is taken up from the atmosphere and stored elsewhere, thus reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases). It is hoped that this small but mighty effort will help slow climate change, and has resulted in Samara setting aside 9,000 acres on the Reserve land as a pilot scheme.
What I admire most about what Samara does is that they create programs that look ahead, and weave sustainability into community living. It’s clear that they are doing something right, as all of the staff were incredibly accommodating, professional, and simply lovely. You can tell they enjoy their work, and they love what they do.
When Robert and I finally arrive to the lodge at dusk, Nomsa, who is from Zimbabwe, welcomes us by name with a lovely hot chocolate served in a teapot with little white espresso cups. She is somewhat the lady of the house, graceful and joyous ensuring your every need is tended to. I immediately see an animal dart out across the lodge. Naturally I want to think it’s a dangerous lion and that we are real risk-takers by being here. Nomsa brushes the sighting off saying, “Oh yes, it’s just a warthog”. Later as I was relaxing with a glass of wine I found out they are very much the norm.
I watch a beautiful sunset over the lodge, and wait for the other guests to return from their game drive. Before I know it, up zips the jeep with cheering. I think to myself, they must have had a good drive. Dinner is served at 7:30 in a candle-lit dining room. The food is delicious – and I’m pleasantly surprised. Robert said the food would be good, but ironically the lodge doesn’t promote this aspect of the experience. But who doesn’t love a nice surprise? It’s something I gladly surrender to.
Quite possibly one of the most delightful moments from a hospitality standpoint was returning to my room after dinner, belly full from the cauliflower soup, red wine and venison, to a gorgeous bubble bath in the white clawfoot tub that the maid had drawn for me. Slippers and robe neatly positioned in proximity to the bathtub, I sunk right into these luscious, silky suds and unwound from the day of travel.
The next day we rise at 6:30am to have some coffee and rusks (South African biscotti) before we depart at 7am for our first mission. The sunrise when I woke up was astounding, and I’m traveling with a young couple from Cape Town along with our trail guide, Tantganie, the husband of Nomsa. Tantganie is simply the man. As we go about our day – by that I mean by spotting and marveling at the wonderful wildlife around us – he tells us about his life working with animals from training elephants to life as a trail guide.
After we drive for a bit we stop for a “bush coffee” – coffee with a splash of Amarula. He tells us about his years working with elephants, how they would use positive reinforcement as a strategy versus the “faster” and cruel methods of breaking the animal’s spirit in training. He also nonchalantly mentions the responsibilities you assume as a trail guide – that it changes your mentality, makes you aware, and that you must be at peace with yourself because you can die any moment. It’s an admirable job, to willingly employ such behavior to share the wonder of nature and wildlife with others. He also tells us how if in danger, you can shoot an animal if it is 5 meters away. More then that and it’s considered negligence and is a huge problem. Tantganie doesn’t carry a weapon though; he feels by not doing so you are a better guide as you inherently don’t take the unnecessary risks due to a feeling of false protection.
Tantganie spots a rhino and quickly realizes it’s traveling with a baby. I never thought I’d see a rhino in my life; it’s one of those creatures you know exists because you remember learning about all the wonderful creatures of the world as a child, but to see one in person was extremely grounding. After another cruise around, we spot another rhino only to find that it was a mother with another baby rhino. Two for one! The mother was nursing the baby, which was so beautiful to witness. Seeing our guide Tantganie react to witnessing this as well, smiling and simply appreciating having seen this, made it feel so much more special.
We hopped back in the car again and were off to another part of the Karoo to look for cheetahs. I don’t know how Tantganie does it, but he stops the car in the middle of nowhere and directed us to get out. We were going to look for the cheetahs on foot. After 15 minutes or so, there they were. A mother surrounded by her cubs, purring away under the shade of the trees in the late afternoon desert heat.
Before returning to the lodge after our day out, we stopped at a gorgeous spot to watch the sunset with a panoramic view of the mountains, and a happy hour safari style. It was an excellent surprise and something I never imagined I’d be doing, alone (yet with new friends), in the middle of the Africa desert sipping on a fabulous G&T.
That evening we were welcomed back by Nomsa and other staff to an incredible dinner under the stars by the bonfire outside. It was breathtaking, and I felt super spoiled and lucky to be amongst such incredible scenery, nature, and hospitality. Another bath awaited me as I brushed up before dinner, mingled with the guests, before waltzing outside to sit under the stars and dig in to another delicious meal. We were kindly interrupted at one point to look at the aardvark scurrying about outside our dinner area. I never though that would happen in all my days of dining al fresco.
Things to consider if you are evaluating Kruger parks versus a visit to the Karoo:
1) The Karoo is malaria free – a big consideration if you have young children and any immuno-compromised people in your group.
2) The Karoo is easily accessible from a major centre – most are just 30 minutes to one hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth. Kruger is a good 4 – 5 hours’ drive from Johannesburg.
3) Karoo camps are generally smaller than their northern / Kruger counterparts. I always prefer boutique, mom and pop style accommodation so this was perfect for me.
4) They’re fenced which makes a big difference. It’s a more controlled environment and there’s no natural migration of game. Most lodges can tell you exactly how many animals of each species they have at any given time. Some lodges also have enclosures where they keep some species for protection or conservation purposes.
5) The Karoo camps are big on social impact and the environment: From their Festive Kids Program, plans to offset carbon emissions through planting of Spekboom, to commercial enterprises to employ local builders and artisans, the Samara Private Game Reserve in specific punched above their weight in delivering functional and essential sustainable tourism.
6) The Karoo region itself is amazing to explore – think of it as the African Joshua Tree of California, with way more wildlife. It’s also the home to the official Burning Man regional event, AfricaBurn which is held in April. So now you have a reason to go on safari and dance!
Have you ever been on a safari adventure? We’d love to hear your stories and tips in the comment section below! Read Next > A Quick Guide for Your First African Adventure