Being semi-arid and incredibly large (almost 500,000 square kilometres), many still think of the Karoo as a never-ending, wide-open space with little more to it; that area one drives through with barely a glance, other than to fill up with fuel en route to the Cape or inland from the coast. But if you’re one of those people, you will be missing out on an area that offers so much more, from fields of flowers, quirky shops and farmstalls to boutique hotels and diverse safari destinations.
A safari was the reason I found myself heading north from Gqeberha’s Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport to the expansive Great Karoo, home to the largest ecosystem in South Africa. Some may describe it as vast and desolate, but it’s actually extraordinarily diverse and a unique habitat of enormous conservation significance, thanks to the variety of topographies, vegetation biomes and wildlife. It is also home to Samara Karoo Reserve, a half hour drive from Graaff-Reinet, the oldest town in the Eastern Cape (and the fourth oldest in South Africa).
Samara Karoo Reserve is a conservation journey on 67,000 acres of born-again wilderness in South Africa’s heart-stoppingly beautiful Great Karoo region.
Samara Karoo Reserve was started in 1997 by Mark and Sarah Tompkins, who purchased 11 farms encompassing five vegetation biomes in an incredible conservation undertaking. In the past 26 years, 67,000 acres of land have been restored, cheetahs have been reintroduced after 130 years, elephants are back after 150 years and lions after 180 years. If all goes to plan with regard to removing game fences, Samara may soon be part of South Africa’s third largest protected area, three million acres, in a global biodiversity hotspot.
Fortunately, the public can also experience this conversation success, as 17 years ago the reserve launched its accommodation offering. The Manor is an exclusive-use four-suite villa ideal for families and groups, while the farmhouse-style Karoo Lodge (currently undergoing renovation and due to reopen on 15 December) offers eight two-sleeper suites and two four-sleeper family suites. The latest addition is Plains Camp – four deluxe tents sleeping eight guests.
While tents may not be for everyone – think bucket showers, candlelight and oil lanterns, and a communal mess tent for dining and lounging – there is something about an explorer-style, off-the-grid experience that just cannot be beaten. Designed with sustainability in mind, this is true immersion in nature, with no distractions (thanks to the very welcome lack of connectivity, although a power bank in the mess tent allows for charging) and no pretension. The tents do, however, offer luxury: enticing double beds with sheepskin throws, Karoo-style furnishings by local artisans, wood-burning fireplaces (yes, thanks to the special fire-retardant tents), a spacious bathroom/dressing area, a coffee station and a large deck from which to enjoy the view of the plains and mountains in the background. It’s the kind of view that tends to make people fall silent – spellbinding being a very apt description.
In addition to game drives, here you can enjoy guided morning walking safaris which are designed to show you natural wonders rarely seen from a vehicle, from ostrich eggs and beetles to game tracks and fascinating flora. The open terrain also means an open landscape that allows for easy and safe walking, as visibility is good while walking, says General Manager Marnus Ochse
With Marnus and our guide Mzimasi Dlakavu, we tracked rhinos and cheetahs, seeing both species close-up on foot, a bucket-list experience. Some of the cheetahs have radio collars for research and monitoring purposes, which also enables guides to be able to track them and offers guests unrivalled cheetah viewing. The lion encounter was fortunately on our game drive – a magnificent black-maned lion brought in from the Kalahari, two huge lionesses and sub-adult males who were trying their utmost to taunt the older male made for 45 minutes of entertainment and incredible photo opportunities.
In addition to the Big Five, the 60-strong mammal species include two species of zebra, black wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest and giraffe, while 225 bird species will keep the twitchers busy.
While the entire reserve is beautiful, a special place to stop and breathe is atop the mountain plateau, which overlooks the Samara Mara (named after the famous Masaai Mara landscape) and where grasslands are framed by mountains and animals roam in herds. That perspective of perfection when you’re perched up there is humbling and a reminder of our place in nature.
If you’re interested in responsible travel and are looking for a place to switch off and connect to nature while enjoying all the excitement of a true safari and the privilege of guided walks in the wild, there is no better place to be than Plains Camp.
Plains Camp Launch Special: R4,750 per person per night sharing on a Stay 3, Pay 2 basis, inclusive of meals, twice-daily safari activities and accommodation. Valid for travel dates up to and including 30 September 2023. Terms and conditions apply.
Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) respects your privacy and is committed to protecting your personal information in line with global data protection standards. To understand how we process and protect your information we encourage you to read our Privacy Notice
By clicking subscribe you agree to TSAM processing your personal information for the purpose of this request.