Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Samara Private Game Reserve – Eastern Cape

In the Great Karoo, on the plains of Camdeboo, is the vast 27,000 ha Samara Private Game Reserve. Home to some rather interesting and infrequently seen animals – for Lana and I, this was hopefully , to be an especially memorable visit – we had heard so much about Samara.

Well let’s see what happened !  Samara Private Game Reserve with its 5 star Lodges is located some 30 kms south east of Graaf-Reinet  and  250 kms,  (or approximately an 2 hour 45 minute drive) from Port Elizabeth. Here, historically vast herds of Springbok and a wide diversity of species roamed free – to be decimated by the 19th Centaury hunters,  compounded by the erection of farm fencing.  Well Samara is changing that, expanding their farm size, removing the fences and returning the indigenous wildlife to this fragile area.
Samara Private Game Reserve, is fortunate in having 4 of the country’s 7 Biomes – on the slopes and upper plains of the surrounding hills are the ‘Plateaux Grasslands’ which change to ‘Valley Bushveld / thicket’ as one descends to the plains of Camdeboo. Here we find the ‘Savannah and Nama Karoo’ biomes. It is this lower veld type that primarily led to the demise of the indigenous wildlife, as sheep and even cattle were brought in and found to thrive on the Karoo thickets, especially the sheep,  giving ‘Karoo Lamb’ International recognition  for its quality and unique flavour. One must admire and appreciate the turnaround that Samara’s owners, Mark and Sarah Tompkins have achieved in the past decade and a bit, with the reintroduction of many wildlife species, back to their original habitat.
At Samara, it, in my opinion, is all about the wildlife.  The land has been allowed to rest during the past 12 years, but aeons of veld mismanagement, drought and overgrazing has taken its toll and recovery is and will be slow.  Not so slow though, is the transformation of decrepit farms to an Internationally recognised excellent wildlife destination. 

The relocation and reintroduction of species endemic to the area, and in particular the Cheetah, with Samara’s offered game experience with them, makes Samara a destination of choice. Here we have a family of free ranging Cheetah, now totally independent of man, fending for themselves in the bush , with guests having the opportunity to walk up reasonably close to them, and share their lives, all be it for a brief moment. This is not a petting zoo or quasi rehab centre, it’s the real thing, they are living wild, but tolerate man in reasonably close proximity to a point. The Cheetah are conducting life in the Karoo as their distant ancestors did.  Acinonyx jubatus are classified as vulnerable.  So often Cheetah, in the Private Game Reserves have Lion as a cohabiter (well you have to have the Big 5 and lion is one of them, seems to be a common trend) . What normally happens is that the lion kill the Cheetah – well this does not happen at Samara thankfully, as there are no Lion here.

The Aardvark we saw and followed

Samara has another really incredible draw card, reasonably regular daytime sightings (particularly in winter) of Aardvark , and some of these sightings, with these animals seeming totally unconcerned with the presence of those watching them in awe. It is with respect that one is able to experience the foraging of so elusive and threatened an animal.  The Aardvark, Orycteropus afer is classified as vulnerable.  Destruction of their habitat and persecution has reduced Aardvark numbers significantly. An animal rarely seen in the warmer parts of South Africa, possibly as their ant and termite prey are active all night, thus the Aardvark feed late at night, whereas in the colder parts of the country such as the Karoo and at Samara, the insect activity probably declines late evening, encouraging the Aardvark to start their foraging earlier and are thus more visible.
Many of my colleagues and friends have never seen an Aardvark, I have previously only seen two and that was late at night and only briefly on each occasion.  Let me tell you about this amazing wildlife destination.

Lana and I had driven up from the Port Elizabeth area, the road was good tar and we passed over some rather scenic passes before entering the vast plains of the Great Karoo. Samara is easily found nestled up against the Aasvoelberg with a good dirt road right up to Samara’s Karoo Lodge where Lana and I were to spend the next few days.  An old farmhouse modified to suite guests needs, was where we met the most friendly staff of Samara. Carien welcomed us with warm towelets and a refreshing drink and introduced us to the hospitality of the Karoo. What a lovely comfortable, homely Lodge.

Our ample suite with four-poster bed, was free standing and a little way off in the Lodge grounds. We were warned to be careful, as the Lodge is not fenced and there are animals on Samara that could possibly be dangerous. Well there are Buffalo, Black and White Rhino and Cheetah, so Ok to walk the Lodge grounds during the day, but a Ranger would escort us from and to our Chalet at night.

We prepared for the afternoon guided game drive, cameras and warm clothing, as this part of the World can get quite chilly once the sun sets. 

Then to High-tea, on the lovely wide veranda. Really delectable savoury options, loads of cheeses  and desserts – the individual small milk tarts were particularly good. 

We were fortunate to have a vehicle to ourselves, Tendai was to be our guide  for the next few days. All aboard at 15h30 and we drove a short distance from the Lodge, seeing  a herd of Red Hartebeest before Tendai stopped, clambered out of the vehicle and used a radio scanner to see if he could locate the cheetah, which he had seen in the area earlier that day. A faint signal! We took to the broken terrain on foot, cameras at the ready.  Down into a dry river course,  no signal. On we trudged, the signal strengthened. Anticipation on high.  Eventually we were way out in the veld, when off to our left our guide pointed out Mum Cheetah and her two sub adult cubs.

We slowly walked over to the edge of their ‘comfort zone’ and stopped, cherishing the moment. What amazing an experience this was. Here we were out in the wilds on foot with three fair sized Cheetah lazing in the shade of a karoo shrub, right there in front of us.

The cameras were clicking away nicely as the trio started to move about a bit, from one shady retreat to another. We followed, careful not to get too close and upset the trust that the Rangers had built up between themselves and these wild animals. 

Eventually it was time to leave, in the very far distance I could just make out the vehicle, but it was with an elated gate that we returned to our transport – now that was something really special of a game sighting encounter. Almost unique in game Lodge activities here in South Africa.  Samara you have something exceptional in this particular wildlife experience !
Jeremy photographing Cheetah out in the wilds of Samara

Well what could cap this? We proceeded on our game drive and saw quite a rich diversity of species. Eland, Kudu, Red Hartebeest, Duiker, Oryx, Yellow Mongoose and Zebra. 

Eland cow
Gemsbok or Cape Oryx

We also saw one of the World’s heaviest flying birds, a Kori Bustard (can weigh just over 12kg) proudly striding through the scrub. Then Tendai stopped the vehicle – AARDVARK  he pointed, smiled, then clambered from the vehicle and suggested we join him in seeing if we could get closer to it, it was quite mobile.  Now the Aardvark is quite a wary little fella and with those extended ears and being sensitive to ground vibrations, he was soon aware of our poor endeavours at creeping closer, as we stumbled over the rather rocky scrubby ground. We were not able to approach too close although we followed it for ages, as it sniffed one potential  underground termite source after another.

Our rather shy special Aardvark
Tendai suggested he returns to collect the vehicle  and Lana and I continued to follow as speedily as our stubbed toes and twisted ankles would allow.. It then entered a fairly eroded open sandy area and started digging. Had it found a food source?  By the volume of soil being excavated I thought not and decided to approach closer – the digging was like a mini-eruption as the red soil spewed from the orifice of a fast deepening crater and we watched as the thick tail and furiously working back legs disappeared from sight. I would imagine the sand being  forcibly thrust out of the hole, would be an excellent deterrent, flying in the face of some potential predator.   Our Aardvark sighting had come to an end. Quite a spectacular one too.
Almost unbelievable, two incredible lifetime wildlife experiences in one afternoon! By now the sun was starting to settle in the west behind the Aasvoelberg and Tengerai stopped again, clambered from the vehicle and suggested we join him in a drink – a celebratory sundowner. There was quite a warm glow from Lana and I, complementing that of the fiery orb in the sky.
A magnificent ‘bar roll’ was unfurled and the ice chest opened. 

So many options on offer! Lana and I settled for a Sauvignon Blanc wine and our Ranger a coke. Cheers !! Biltong and nuts, then back to the Lodge in the dark. In the spotlight Scrub Hare, Jackal, Spotted Eagle Owl and then the delightful, lamp lit Karoo Lodge.
We returned to our room to find a prepared bubble bath. What a pleasure, as we shed the grime, freshening up on the Charlotte Rhys soaps and changed for dinner. Our Ranger escorted us back to the main building and dinner. The other guests were a largish foreign group, who really could not converse in English, so we were offered a private dinner in one of the anterooms. Beautiful silver and crystal gleaming in front of a glowing fire, we ate fine fare to the accompaniment of the odd glass of wine or two.
What a day !
Private dinner
Good morning. A 06h30 arrival for the usual drinks and rusks. Today we were going to summit the plateau and enjoy the scenic splendours and wildlife on high. Although not much could beat the high of yesterday.
En route to the valley that afforded easier access to the tops of the surrounding hills, we found three Cheetah out on an early morning hunt, striding purposefully  through the Karoo thickets. We admired them for a while, then let them be.   

Sibella - she has been an excellent mum

We saw numerous Kudu, Hartebeest  and some Eland on the way, but none presented good photo opportunities, quite skittish is the general game here.  Samara have cut a road into the side of the mountain, this rather scenic access brought us to the Rooigrass (Themeda triandra grass) plains (plateau) above. 

Mountain Zebra

Mountain Zebra, Eland, Black Wildebeest and Oryx (Gemsbok) were thriving and at home here, we could not get too close, but with the open grasslands with small herds scattered, this must surely be so much like it was here before man and his rifle created havoc to the then numerous herds. Now all we need is for the lower reaches of Samara to have really large herds of Springbok.  

Black Wildebeest AKA White-tailed Gnu
Cape Oryx AKA Gemsbok

We did not find, but I believe Mountain Reedbuck, Klipspringer  and Grey Rhebuck are also to be seen at these elevated altitudes. And elevated it is, Tendai stopped the vehicle, clambered out and suggested we join him. We followed as he led us through some bush and then down a slope to a massive rock platform hanging over the edge, once vertigo was sorted, I gazed on the most wonderful panorama. The Plains of Camdeboo stretching out forever and the Aasvoelberg  off to our right, all in shades of browns, blue and grey, with a splash of green here and there, spectacular!

Some solar panels were  powering a bore-hole pump deep in the earth with the pipe meandering snakelike to a pan some distance away. I wondered what would happen to the plastic pipe should there be a veld fire. Well apparently due to the type of veld and paucity of cover, fires don’t really get going in this region.   Time for a coffee stop and at another view-site up on high!

Over a rise and a large herd of Eland, knees clicking, came by, what elegant looking antelope and so huge. I guess these are pretty safe from Cheetah, just too large to be prey.
Giraffe, Ground Squirrel, Rock hyrax and a large troop of Baboon were added to our species list as we wended our way back to the luxury of Karoo Lodge, time to relax and then to high tea.   

Ground Squirrel

Actually there was a fair bit of action around the Lodge, baboon hoping for a window to be carelessly left ajar, numerous birds in the Karee bos and close to the Lodge, a well reeded dam was host to a variety of waterfowl such as African Spoonbill, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe, South African Shelduck and Little Egret. I could have spent time there but the delicious cuisine of High Tea called. High tea was interrupted  slightly in that two large exhibitionist Leopard tortoise were mating on the lawn, much to the delight of the foreign guests.

We explored other areas of Samara on the subsequent game drives, adding Ludwig’s Bustard to our life list and a special sighting of some 25 Blue Crane – our National Bird, all gathered fairly close in some sort of meeting, another species on the Red Data list classified as vulnerable, that Samara has space for. Then on the last morning game drive, another lifer for Lana, when Tendai stopped the vehicle, clambered out and suggested we join him in walking over to a Porcupine, hiding in and amongst the Karoo shrubs. It thought we couldn’t see it, but sharp-eyed Tendai had and what a sighting, early morning, out in the open and close too. We crept up to it, but Porky decided that it should retreat  and made a break for it. It loped away, spines bristling and rattling, probably trying to find a convenient Aardvark hole – we were in the way for it to retreat to the one it had just left.

We left our prickly sighting to its breakfast as we headed for ours. Another species to add, a pair of Steenbuck. What a set of horns this little guy had. 

Coffee, rusks and Amarula, sigh ! standing out there on the Plains of Camdeboo for our morning drive comfort stop, the mountains at my back and the wide open space ahead. Clear blue skies, early sun casting its special warm glow to the scene, my eyes follow a Greater Kestrel hovering above searching for prey, and then a cloud of dust in the distance slowly approaches. My mind wanders and thousands upon thousands of Springbok in their striped tan and white livery came foraging by. Some pronking in that stiff-legged, arched back fashion with long white mane  displayed from that secretive pouch on their backs,  Antidorcas marsupialis, marsupium - pouch. One is allowed to dream a bit and my dream could be that of the owners of Samara, the Tompkins, that one day vast herds of Springbuck, would be returned to this so special a place.
May I be so bold as to suggest that one should read Eve Palmers “The Plains of Camdeboo”
The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region that extends across parts of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa. This environmentally important area is the largest ecosystem in the country and is abundant in wildlife, vegetation, and ancient history. “The Plains of Camdeboo” is a celebration of this remarkable landscape. At first encounter, the Karoo may seem arid, desolate and unforgiving, but to those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety. Samara is joyfully so much a part of it.

Photographs by Jeremy and Lana Williamson

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