The Camdeboo in the Great Karoo has more than 9 000 species of plants, rock paintings reflect past Khoi-San tribes and fossils date back some 250 million years, writes HELEN UECKERMANN
Early morning: It is icy cold and silent. My feet are planted in the dust. Miles of boundless semi-desert stretch ahead. Steam emanates from a mug of hot chocolate. Nothing moves on the never-ending plains of the Camdeboo in the Great Karoo.
It is an ancient land of thirst with more than 9 000 species of plants and the largest variety of succulents found anywhere on earth. Rock paintings reflect past Khoi-San tribes and fossils date back some 250 million years.
There is a whisper of snow on the mountains and frost patches on the yellowed winter grass. Temperatures hover just above zero degrees. The contours of the Sneeuwberg Mountains cut sharp shadow lines through sand and bush. To the right Nyala stand motionless in the morning sun.
The buck move, the moment is gone. Wayne Reed, field guide, waves: “Come!”
Picnic gear cleared away, we’re wrapped in ponchos, earmuffs in position, hot water bottles in laps and cradled against chests. We move on, the 4×4 kicking dust on a steep dirt road up the towering Kondoa Mountain through Wolwekloof Pass.
Below, to the west on the farm Apieskloof, lies Samara Private Game Reserve’s luxurious Karoo Lodge with its broad stoeps (verandas), log fires and colonial Karoo style interior.
Surrounded by a mountain amphitheatre and 70 000 acres of Karoo land the five star lodge is the stuff African dreams are made of. Staff cater for every need. Scrumptious meals are served in front of crackling fires.
The elegance of the lodge contrasts with the stark, unforgiving landscape. A stylish interpretation of the original farmhouse, it has a comfortable living room, snug bar and dining room. With six suites, it caters for family groups and individuals. The suites all have wide verandas and are decorated with antiques, 19th-century lithographs from South African artists, zebra skins on the wooden floors and indigenous-wood four-poster beds.
The Karoo Lodge is one of three luxury venues on the reserve. The Manor House comprises eight air-conditioned en suite rooms with views over the Karoo landscape. Dining options include a boma, veranda, dining room and breakfast room with the exclusive services of a personal ranger, chef and butler.
The Mountain Retreat is secluded, wild and remote with no electricity. Situated in an isolated part of the reserve, solitude and privacy are ensured. The exclusive services of a personal ranger, chef and butler are again included.
Situated in the Eastern Cape, about three hours drive from Port Elizabeth, award-winning Samara is owned by Mark and Sarah Tompkins, who bought surrounding farmland to expand the reserve, restoring it to its former natural glory and restocking it with cheetah, white rhino, zebra, giraffe, springbok, black wildebeest, oryx, blesbok and eland.
The diverse malaria-free Samara landscape includes four of South Africa’s seven biodomes: Grassland, Nama Karoo, Thicket and Savannah. It is rich in Shepherd Trees, some of which are over 700 years old, and home to a wide variety of Aloe species, the oldest counting approximately 500 years.
At the top of Wolwekloof Pass a plain of waving yellowed grass comes into view.
Wayne accelerates slightly to keep up with three mountain zebra and a blesbok running along on our left, about 100 meters away. On our right, black wildebeest prance against the backdrop of the Sneeuberg Mountains. It’s an unforgettable sight.
We move towards the edge of the plateau bringing a 180º vista of the Camdeboo plains into view. In the distance you can just make out the farmhouse of Cranmere Farm where the writer Eve Palmer penned the classic The Plains of Camdeboo. The Cox Comb Mountains, about 100 km away, shimmer in blue against the horizon.
“The last annual springbok migration here was in 1896,” says Wayne, pointing down to the plains. “Millions of buck passed here, non-stop for two consecutive weeks. And when they were gone, it took another two weeks for the dust to settle.”
He takes out his telemetry receiver, pointing it to the sky to pick up the signal of the elusive cheetah in the reserve. Cheetah are the world’s fastest land mammals and Samara has taken great strides to alleviate the dwindling habitats and species integration through a cheetah rehabilitation project. Two of Samara’s cheetah, Sibella and Beethoven, are collared for research purposes.
The receiver produces a faint bleeping sound. “Let’s see if we can spot one of them,” Wayne suggests and sets off through the veld for a nearby gorge. “They recently caught a kudu cow and a young wildebeest. Maybe we find them. Standing close to a wild cheetah is a humbling unparalleled experience,” he says.
He searches for a while, but our luck’s out.
Dinner time at Samara: Executive chef Elizabeth du Toit has prepared a five star spread served by expertly trained young butler Etienne Carelse.
Then it’s a quick walk to the suite, accompanied by a guide in case of a buffalo charge. Buffalo bulls can be grumpy and are responsible for the most human deaths per annum, he warns.
In the suite, an open fire burns, the lights are low, the goose-down duvet is plump, small bottles of Amarula liqueur rest on each pillow. And in the spacious bathroom, a hot bubble bath awaits, two glasses of sherry, heated towels, bathrobes and slippers within easy reach.
Such is the magic of Samara … complete peace amidst the wide, never-ending plains of the mystical Camdeboo of the Great Karoo.