The Karoo in South Africa’s interior is well known as a place of wide spaces and opportunities to regenerate your mind and soul. You get all that as well as something even more special when you go on an Eastern Cape safari at Samara Game Reserve in the Karoo.
What I love too is that Samara provides a home for the Tracker Academy, which is part of the SA College for Tourism in Graaff-Reinet. Some of its graduates get internships or jobs at Samara, others are helped to find permanent employment elsewhere. It’s a great example of efforts to uplift people from disadvantaged communities. When you visit Samara you may meet Justa Frans, the first formally accredited female tracker in South Africa.
It’s unmistakeable. No other animal on earth looks even vaguely like it. On our first afternoon drive at Samara we’d been tracking an aardvark. After just 20 minutes we’d found one and were now following it on foot, tracker Jason Williams and guide Benedict Phepheng keeping us safe on our Eastern Cape safari.
The aardvark is a strange mish-mash of parts, all uniquely suited to its lifestyle of digging for the ants and termites that make up the bulk of its diet. The nose is a bit like a pig’s but very long, with slit-like nostrils that can close when the aardvark digs. The long tongue can extend 25 to 30cm and is sticky so the insects attach to it.
The long pointed ears look like they might have come from a donkey. The aardvark also has a long tail that’s thick at the base, and sturdy legs with four strong, clawed toes on the front feet. These are perfectly honed for digging, both in search of food and to dig their burrows for shelter. They’re champion diggers: according to Peter Apps’ Smithers Mammals of Southern Africa field guide, they can dig a metre of tunnel in just five minutes. Aardvark holes provide shelter for at least 18 mammal species.
They’re usually solitary, like this young female we were following. What was unusual was that she was foraging during the day, although the aardvark is a nocturnal creature. This is the joy of visiting Samara in winter, when the nights are cold and the clever little aardvarks prefer to start their quest for food during warmer daylight hours. They can travel up to 9km as they forage and they always open mounds on the west side where termites gather as the setting sun warms that side of the nest.
You’d think a prolonged sighting – on foot, nogal – would be excitement enough for one day, but our afternoon game drive had only just begun.
Benedict pointed out a shepherd’s tree (witgat), with its white bark and small green leaves even in this time of drought. Known as the ‘tree of life’, it’s an important source of nutrition for the animals. Its dense shade is also attractive to them on a hot day; temperatures in the shade of a shepherd’s tree can be up to 21 degrees Celsius cooler than the surroundings.
This particular tree has an electric fence around it. ‘It’s 800 years old and they’re special enough to be on Samara’s logo so we want to protect it from the elephants who might want to eat, debark or push it over,’ explained Benedict. Elephants used to roam this part of the Karoo in days gone by and the first elephants were reintroduced to Samara in 2017 after more than a century.
Six cheetahs on a kill
Then we found six cheetahs on a kill and got out of the vehicle to approach closer on foot. Around a bush, down a steep incline and there they were, some resting in a patch of shade, others still worrying at the springbok carcass. This was Chilli and her five one-year-old cubs. ‘The mother would have taken down the springbok,’ said Benedict. ‘The young ones are just starting to learn to kill, but won’t hunt properly till they’re about 18 months old. Then the mother will get them feeding on a carcass and just walk away and leave them.’
A very early morning drive
Given that the last time we’d been to Samara in 2017 the elephants and lions hadn’t yet arrived, we were keen to see them both. But we had to work at it. According to Benedict the best chance of seeing the lions (a male and a female, with another female due to join them shortly) was to start out in the cold and dark at 5.30am.
So there we were, all layered up with jackets and scarves and beanies, driving up Kondoa mountain and hoping to find a lion in an open patch on top. ‘They go down to where it’s inaccessible quite early, so this is our best chance,’ he explained.
Benedict had been right to get us up so early for at least a glimpse of him, the sound of his roaring booming across the mountains.
That wild lions now have safe haven here at Samara is important. With just 3000 wild lions left in South Africa – and threats posed by the cub-petting, bred-for-the-bullet canned lion industry – it’s great to see a conservation strategy that actually helps conserve wild lions rather than breeding captive lions for no good reason. [Update: the first litter of wild lion cubs was born at Samara in late 2019.]
Nearby on open savannah on top of the mountain was a big herd of black wildebeest, their white tails in sharp focus just before the sun rose over a distant koppie. To me they’re attractive creatures with a lot of character, especially when they gallop around and cavort in the early morning – just because they can, as if life is fun.
Benedict parked in the valley and herded us together to try to get closer on foot to two bull elephants feeding in the thicket. ‘They’re still exploring their territory so not really relaxed with people so we can’t get too close and have to be very quiet,’ he warned. Walking on eggshells, afraid of the crack of a twig, we approached. The elephants carried on feeding for a bit then must have smelt us and turned to face us. Nothing threatening or aggressive, but they were disturbed enough to stop feeding, so we decided to leave them in peace.
There are also six female elephants here (two adults and four sub-adults), and Samara is waiting to see how they settle before bringing in more. The carrying capacity of the veld here has been calculated to be 16.
Last morning drive
After a second afternoon drive where guests again saw an aardvark and witnessed Chilli’s cubs dispatch a small warthog piglet, our last morning drive before we left Samara was very atmospheric because of a dense mist blanketing the veld in the southern section of the reserve. A long line of springbok emerged ghost-like from the mist, and we saw some eland, waterbuck and blesbok.
You’ll come to Samara for the wildlife, but you’ll by no means be roughing it to enjoy your game drives. The accommodation at Karoo Lodge is beautiful, with more comforts than home, including a fireplace and air conditioner in your bedroom, and a bubble bath run for you when you return from your afternoon drive.
Note: We were guests of Samara Karoo Lodge, but I was given free rein to write what I chose. We paid for all drinks and conservation fees.
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