Thanks to the effort of the Samara Private Game Reserve, lions once again roam the Great Karoo
With the night sky polaroid slowly developing, a guttural lion’s roar echoes across the Eastern Cape’s Camdeboo Plains. It’s a sound amplified up here on the Samara Game Reserve’s Milky Way Sky Bed – a secluded, raised, wooden platform set against the Groot Karoo mountainscape. At Samara, the wilderness is your bedroom and the sounds of the bush lull you to slumber.
Until they were wiped out by early settlers and farmers, lions roamed this part of South Africa until around 1840, explains Sarah Tompkins, the game reserve’s co-owner. That trend has, of course, continued and, according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Is lion Samara have declined by 43% over the last quarter of a century. South Africa has around 3 000 wild lions, not counting those held in captive facilities often linked to canned lion hunting.
“It’s important to establish new populations of lions in areas where they once existed,” says Sarah. “Available habitat for lions is shrinking and any new habitat is critical for the survival of the species. Such reintroductions restore ecosystem processes that have been absent from the area for centuries.”
A three-year-old lion and lioness form the nucleus of Samara’s pride and will be joined by another female in a few months’ time to ensure genetic diversity. A small pride such as this helps to minimise the risk to Samara’s other big cats – cheetahs – and keeps human-wildlife conflict with neighbouring farms at a minimum. “The male is of an age where in a natural open system he would be ejected from his pride of birth and would need to seek out his own territory and mate,” Tompkins explains. “By moving him from his home reserve onto Samara we are mimicking these natural migratory processes.”
Samara was once a patchwork of 11 angora goat and sheep farms, encircled by dolerite-capped mountains and rugged horizons – the semi-arid Groot Karoo region remains the world’s mohair capital. Today, after more than two decades of conservation and rehabilitation efforts, Sarah and Mark Tompkins, along with their team, have restored indigenous wildlife, vegetation and biodiversity to Samara to recreate a fully-functional Groot Karoo ecosystem. The lions will, for example, impact on kudu, wildebeest, zebra, eland and warthog populations, ensuring will the vegetation is not overgrazed.
During our sunset game drive, we each snap off a Spekboom branch and the following morning after our sunrise walking safari, plant it within designated overgrazed areas. It’s a planned exercise and part of Samara’s Collaborative Conservation Initiative to help prevent soil erosion and combat climate change. Hectare for hectare, Spekboom is 10 times more effective at sequestering carbon dioxide than the Amazon rainforest, says us our guide, Benedict Phepeng, because they can photosynthesise at night, unlike other plants.
Samara’s landscape is beginning to resemble the descriptions found in Eve Palmer’s 1966 literary classic The Plains of Camdeboo that details an annual migration of millions of springbok, wildebeest and eland that followed the rains. The migration is reminiscent of the one that stampedes across East Africa and has earned Samara the moniker Serengeti of the South and Samara Mara.
Conservation has always been the Tompkins’ priority and since buying the land in 1997, they have supported the SANParks’ initiative to link the Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra national parks. The aim is to create a mega-reserve of buffer zones made up of conservation-friendly land and ecological corridors that would naturally reinstate ancient migration routes. “The area under conservation will cover 1.3 million acres not traversed by a tar road, making it South Africa’s third largest protected area,” says Sarah.
Though such rehabilitation and conservation efforts are time-consuming and costly, it’s a process with which this team is already familiar – they have already reintroduced vulnerable Cape Mountain zebra, followed by cheetahs in 2004, and elephants in 2017.
The arrival of Sibella – a female cheetah rescued from captivity – is probably one of South Africa’s most successful conservation stories. Samara is home to the only recorded San rock art of a cheetah and she was the first cheetah to return to the Groot Karoo in 125 years. Sibella’s offspring are helping erase cheetahs from the IUCN Red List. “We have contributed a significant number of healthy wild cheetahs to the population – in excess of 40 individuals have lived at or been born on Samara,” she says.
Walking forms an integral part of the safari experience at Samara and a highlight of our visit was tracking Chilli, Sibella’s daughter, and her five fluffy cubs that were born on Spring Day. We saw them thanks to the tracking skills of our guide and tracker, Mzimasi “Mzi” Dlakavu – a recent graduate of Samara’s Tracker Academy. The awe of standing within metres of a wild cheetah transforms you from voyeur to wildlife custodian humbled by the forces of nature, where only the strongest will survive to see the spring rains quench this land of thirst.
Two-and-a-half-hours from Port Elizabeth, Samara lies in the bowl of the Groot Karoo’s Camdeboo plains, some 50km from Graaff-Reinet.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit is in Spring (Sept to Nov) as the first rains begin, and Autumn (Ma to May) with its temperate weather. Summer (Dec – Feb) is very hot and Winter (June to Aug) is naturally milder with clear skies ideal for star gazing.
The lion’s movements are tracked and game rangers carry rifles during walking safaris.
WHAT TO PACK
This is a malaria-free area. Pack standard safari outfits, comfortable walking shoes, hats, sunglasses, binoculars and a swimming costume.
Samara is a Big Five game reserve with 65 mammal species, 50 reptile and amphibian species and more than 225 bird species.
Samara’s five-star lodges accommodate up to 26 guests.
Karoo Lodge is a restored 19th-century farmstead that faces the towering amphitheatre and is decorated in safari chic décor that’s accentuated with family heirlooms and antiques.
Karoo cottages are found near the main homestead. Each of these fully-equipped, luxury cottages has a fireplace, air-conditioning, covered patio and outdoor shower.
The Manor House exudes quaint farm-style charm and is available for exclusive use. It comes with a private chef, butler service, game ranger and 21-metre swimming pool.
The Milky Way Star Bed (October to April) offers a romantic experience for two in nature.
Enjoy locally-sourced produce cooked with South African recipes handed down from generation to generation. Meals include breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner, while game drives include a coffee stop, sundowners or lunchtime picnics in the wilderness.
Prices range from R2 900 per person, per night sharing in the low season, to R6 630 during the high season, across various accommodation options. These fees are fully inclusive and includes two daily activities, either game drives or walking safaris. Hikes, birding excursions and mountain biking are also available. Conservation fees: R75 p/p p/n for South Africans and R140 p/p p/n for international guests, while children pay 50%.
WORDS Iga Motylska
IMAGES: Iga Motylska & Samara Private Game Reserve