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 south headed 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.
I’m returning from my first safari, after a month long journey in South Africa. Robert, my driver, happily transports travelers such as myself along 3 hour long transfers to and fro the Samara Resort Lodge 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 starts 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.
I planned this experience totally last minute, while I was in Cape Town. As the final days of my trip approached I thought I’d be crazy not to splurge on heading out to the bush to see some of the world’s most beautiful animals in their natural habitat. 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 felt it was simply too chaotic to try to navigate where to actually go; the area boasts hundreds of camps at varying price points, amenities, with different game to see. So with my last minute decision to make this journey, I chose to focus on some necessary criteria that would suit my needs and help me figure out where to safari in South Africa:
- authentic accommodation that reflects the indigenous area with a stylish touch
- a reasonable price point
- a solid roster of game to encounter
- a little bit of luxury – the option for a spa is always reassuring 😉
With that in mind, after a bit of research I discovered the Karoo region and the Samara Lodge in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The Eastern Cape 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*.
An independent and private operation, the Samara Lodge 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 view to sustainability for every generation to come. At 70,000 acres and over sixteen years later in development by the founders, Samara’s dream continues to develop and evolve in the Eastern Cape’s Great Karoo. 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. They even left their land alone for many years, allowing for organic rejuvenation, letting it recover from the effects of generations of agricultural exploitation. In an area greatly unknown to the South African public, let alone the international market, Samara has endured a true labor of love to say the least to put the Great Karoo on the map.
After 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.
We finally arrive to the lodge at dusk and 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. That goes for the aardvark and vivid monkeys too, who pop their heads in and out from under the roof and observe you just as much as you observe them.
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 astouning, 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 out 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. Rhinos are huge – they walk slow and you can just tell their power is immense. If one of them were bothered by a human or in the odd event that they were provoked to charge you, you would be totally smashed. We watched the mama and baby rhino cross the road in front of us, and later on we were lucky enough to see another rhino solo. Tantganie spotted him, from far away in the car. We got out and began walking to get a closer look, but when you trek it’s a whole other ball game. It’s so hard to see the animals in the wild, they are completely camouflaged. But sure enough, after looking at tracks on the ground, and observing the territory we found the rhino.
We stood still as we approached the animal, and realized it was a mother with another baby rhino. 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 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. A big fan of cats, this was another highlight for me, being a few feet away from these gorgeous animals, watching them just be together.
We started to cruise back to the lodge, but first, we stopped at a gorgeous spot to watch the sunset with a panoramic view of the mountains. And, a happy hour safari style. Tantganie pulled out a tray from the hood of the car and violá – we had a bar setup complete with biltong (South African beef jerky) snacks and some peanuts. I opted for a gin & tonic, which was delightful, and was the best gin & tonic I’ve ever had in my life.
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, then mingled with the other guests, and waltzed 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 thought 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: Samara is launching a commercial enterprise in the Karoo, and aims to employ only local builders and artisans, and to encourage further investment in the local communities through tourism. Samara is also running a carbon sequestration project using the Spekboom plant (Portulacaria afra). With genetic origins in tropical forests, Spekboom – or ‘pork bush’ – is a small-leaved succulent, endemic to dry areas, but was removed through overgrazing. It 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) and it is hoped that it will help slow climate change. Spekboom sequesters approximately 10 tons of CO2 per acre per year, stored both above and below the ground. For several years, Samara has been encouraging guests to help offset the carbon emissions of their transatlantic flights by planting Spekboom. This work has been escalated, however, with Samara setting aside 9,000 acres on the Reserve land as a pilot scheme.
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 😉