A mother and calf on a walk at Samara in the Karoo
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Returning to Samara for the Big 5

When I first visited Samara Private Game Reserve in the Karoo in 2016, I left with great admiration for the conservation goals that had been set. To revive a huge section of farmed out land, bring back the wild animals that used to roam here, and attract safari enthusiasts seems like a dream of the crazy.

Getting the chance to go back almost three years later to see how things are shaping up, however, blew my expectations out of the water. You see, what was once desolate land is now a thriving reserve that has finally reached its goal of being home to the Big 5, an achievement that took just a few short years (but that must’ve felt like an eternity for all that worked on this project).

A white rhino, gazing while grazing…

I’ve often written about conservation and tourism projects that have since grown up and graduated, but I hardly ever get the chance to go back and experience them for myself. So any opportunity in this vein, I had to jump on.

Also, it would be our last wildlife experience for who knows how long now that we’ve relocated to London (more on that soon, I promise)!

Samara is an easy drive out of Port Elizabeth into the Karoo. The roads are wide, smooth and pretty much empty. You only need a regular vehicle to visit, and you’re provided with instructions and a gate code for easy access when you arrive.

The Karoo can get surprisingly cold, we even got to see a light sprinkling of snow on the mountains!

The distinguishing characteristics of Samara are one and the same as that distinct flavour of Karoo hospitality. Big, warm smiles greet you, small giggles and giant guffaws escape the kitchen doors, and a sense of humour as dry as the arid landscape around you are just some elements to look forward to.

Lion, ellies and aardvarks

When we visited Samara, we were completely taken by the dedication of the rangers and a highlight of our visit was spending time with a non-plussed aardvark names Jules. Samara has since become known for its aardvark sightings, one of the most highly-requested animals to see on a game drive, but also one of the most unlikely you’ll spot.

While there was certainly game to be seen when we visited last, there seems to have been an explosion since our visit when comparing now. Grazers are roaming the open grasslands, the cheetahs have happily continued to breed, and wonder of wonders, there are now lions and ellies as residents.

Not-always-gentle giants. This grumpy bull elephant let us know when he’d had enough of us staring at him by mock charging our vehicle.

The elephants moved into Samara in 2017. Six females were introduced, followed by two bull elephants after that. And at the start of this year, a small pride of lions were brought into the reserve, completing the Big 5.

While it may all seem like a selling point for safari guests, I do believe that the founders of Samara, Mark and Sarah Tompkins, are looking beyond just that. Their dream is to re-establish what was once an incredibly diverse part of South Africa that had almost been lost to agricultural practice. Their vision to protect these animals is admirable, and I think it shows in the staff that work here.

Our Samara sightings

We spent two nights at Samara and we saw quite a lot in that time. Our ranger, Benedict, and tracker, Jason, were in good spirits the entire time despite the cold temperatures and really went all out for us to see as much as possible.

Jason trying to spot lions on the cliffs for us.

We sadly never got a chance to spot the pride of lions. They had headed up the slopes of the mountains and the rain had made it too muddy to track them safely.

We spent a fair amount of time with two bull elephants that roam near to one another. Both were relatively grumpy and in one instance, we got off the vehicle to track one and then had to keep doubling back in the bush to avoid getting in his path.

I feel like rhino have become so incredibly precious that any sighting of rhino is one to be treasured. We were lucky to spend some time watching a white rhino mother and her calf gently grazing. We did see quite a few more rhino this time compared to our last visit, also a very positive sign for Samara and the population in general!

Calf and mother as sunset nears.
This white rhino has been dehorned to protect it from poachers.

One of the most special sightings of our trip was the chance we got to walk with a coalition of cheetahs (did you know that collective noun by the way? I had to look it up). We started early just before the sun started stretching its rays out and tracked the cheetah to a location near our lodge.

Hearing five cheetah all purr at once has to be on the top of my life experiences list. Like cats on steroids.

Once we had spotted them, Benedict got us out of the vehicle and we began essentially following the cheetahs. This group was a mother and her four cubs. The cubs were so playful, and mother Chilli was super relaxed with us tagging along.

At one stage, Alessio did get growled at, a kind of warning to establish dominance and telling him not to get much closer. It worked!

Yes, we were that close!
My absolute favourite image from the entire trip. THOSE EYES!

We followed the group of cheetah for almost an hour as they dashed in and out of bushes, climbed trees and played rough and tumble with one another. The cubs picked up pieces of bark and fought over them, jostled each other out of the boughs of trees and pounced on each other from behind rocks, it was so, so incredible!

Samara has always been firmly dedicated to the conservation of cheetah, beginning with Sibella (who you can read more about here). Sibella is a complete conservation miracle and Chilli is one of her cubs. One of the cubs from her previous litter has even been selected to be translocated to Malawai to assist in the conservation of cheetah there.

The most adorable one-month old cub.

Another sighting opportunity we had while at Samara was a young mother and her solo cub. The mother had had an altercation with a warthog and to protect her and the cub while she healed up, they were in a separate enclosure until she healed up.

You can see the mother’s open wound on her back hindquarter in this picture.

Baby cheetahs essentially look like honey badgers when they’re little and you can barely see them in the grass with their scruffy backs. It’s a form of protection, nature is incredible that way right?

Should you visit Samara?

Well, of course, I’m going to say YES! I think Samara is an incredible safari destination and completely unique at that. I do think if it’s your first safari, you may need to couple this with another reserve to get a bigger variety of game, but if you’re into specialist conservation and an incredible story to tell your friends afterwards, then you need to visit.

For me, I would be happy just for the cheetah experience. And really, you probably would too.

You can find out more about Samara on their website here. Our stay at Samara was by their invitation, but as always, opinion is my own.

Travel & food blogger helping adventurous South Africans find their next escape.

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