Captivating Camdeboo

“Just one beep. That’s all we need,” says Jaco from the front of the Land Cruiser. “Just one beep.”

Standing up, antenna in hand, he surveys the plains around us, hoping for a sign of Sibella. But there’s nothing – just a ground layer of grass and a scattering of trees and shrubs, stretching towards an amphitheatre of mountains.

I’m in Samara – over 28 000 hectares of private game reserve in the Great Karoo, just 55 kilometres from Graaff Reinet. Addo Elephant Park and its endless procession of tourist buses is an hour’s drive to the south, and yet they feel half a world away, surrounded as I am by such silence, such stark beauty.

It’s that same visual splendour that convinced Englishman Mark Tompkins and his South African-born wife Sarah to buy a farm here some 10 years ago – a farm “blessed with grass, buffalo grass, tall indigenous trees and a vista of mountains and valleys so unexpected for this part of the world that we were humbled by the aching beauty of it all. We went away totally and completely smitten,” they remember.

By all accounts their little piece of the legendary plains of Camdeboo was something of an impulse purchase. But they took it seriously – wanting to restore the paradise that had once existed where sheep now grazed. It was a paradise where millions of springbok once roamed amongst the Bushmen, where lions strode majestically, where rhino and cheetah walked unhindered across the semi-desert terrain.

“The dream ensued ? amass enough land to have a self-sustaining eco-system that would carry the game, the herds of antelope that used to inhabit this area and the predators to keep the balance that helps maintain these fragile eco-systems.”

And so they incorporated neighbouring farms – 11 in total; sought the help of Professor Graham Kerley, Director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at UPE; began replacing grazing crops with indigenous vegetation like the ubiquitous spekboom; and slowly reintroduced the indigenous animals they’d read about in the stories of old – with the exception of lion and elephant.

“There must be something in the water”

But one of their greatest successes is Sibella. The first wild cheetah in the area in 125 years, she was almost killed by hunters – who inflicted serious injuries to her leg tendons and mouth – before being rescued by the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust. After five hours of life-saving surgery and months of rehabilitation, she and two male cheetahs were released into Samara in December 2003 – and, like the Tompkins’, it didn’t take her long to feel at home.

Given the freedom of the reserve and no threat of natural predators, the big cat has since given birth to over 20 cubs then distributed to other reserves by De Wildt. “There must be something in the water,” the Tomkins’ laugh, proud of their part in revitalising the country’s 2000-strong wild cheetah population.

When we find the radio-collared Sibella, the cheetah is walking elegantly along a dry riverbed, her cubs bounding behind like the playful (if oversized) kittens they are. We carefully approach the young family in single file, careful not to make any sudden movements or sounds. But with Jaco leading the way and calling out her name, the calm 50kg predator calmly eyes us aloofly. The cubs, on the other hand, are as curious as we are – one young tyke uncharacteristically scrambling up a tree in front of us.

Not being a leopard he struggles to get back down, but manages to join his brothers and sisters as their mother heads off, eyeing the unsuspecting herd of kudus in the distance.

A chic mix of African, colonial and modern styles

Food is on our minds too as we drive back to the lodge – a traditional Karoo homestead with broad stoeps and corrugated iron roof. In fact it’s the Tomkins’ former homestead, now incorporating three guest rooms. Each is individually decorated in a chic assimilation of traditional African, colonial and modern styles, like the remainder of the building – porcupine quills, African ceramics, zebra pelts on the wooden floors, old Karoo wool baskets, riempie chairs, and comfy white couches combine to create a very comfortable, inviting atmosphere. With such a personal touch, this is no dreary, soulless place decorated by committee – you feel like you’re visiting a close friend’s house.

And lodge manager Elaine van der Merwe ensures that you feel right at home – from the glass of Angel Punch when you first arrive, to the cold towels that greet your return from the game drives. But it’s the simple, yet refined, meals – and their unique settings – that really emphasise Samara’s attention to detail.

Our lunch of chicken lasagne, rounded off by a roasted pineapple on creme fraiche, is served beneath a tree, near the lodge’s swimming pool. Later that evening, after an up-close encounter with Sibella and her cubs feasting on one of those kudus, a romantic dinner is elaborately set out on the back lawn. The starlight is complemented only by flickering candles on the table – and delicious food. A parma ham, asparagus and goat’s cheese salad is followed by gemsbok (presented with all the flair of a five-star city restaurant and all the generosity of a farm kitchen), and a dessert of malva pudding.

There’s no set menu, but Executive chef Quintinn van Rensburg ensures that you won’t eat the same meal twice – and probably not in the same place either. So you might have an intriguing pea cappuccino, more-ish rack of Karoo lamb, and an elaborately sculpted creme brulee by the lodge’s fireplace, a picnic lunch alongside a river, or a back to nature cookout in the boma.

With a maximum of just 12 guests at a time, such flexibility is possible, while also ensuring that sought-after sense of tranquillity.

“…totally and completely smitten…”

I am most aware of this blissful silence as I walk along the moonlight path from dinner to my room, one of three freestanding suites that provides as much country comfort and rural charm as the lodge – with its fireplace (for the cold Karoo nights), aircon (for the hot afternoons), comfortable couches, walk-in shower, free-standing Victorian bath, outdoor shower, and yellowwood four-poster bed.

But, despite the room’s appeal, there’s not much need to linger – by 7am the next morning I’m back in the Land Cruiser, holding on tightly as Jaco tackles the steep, rugged road up Kondoa. Eland and oryx cautiously watch us from a safe distance before darting over the rocks and into the bushes, as we climb steadily up the mountain that looms majestically behind the lodge.

At the summit, the landscape transforms. Expansive, rolling grasslands, swept by the wind, look like a khaki sea. Mountain zebras gallop in formation over the distant rise. Two male cheetahs lie outstretched in the shade of a bush.

But it’s the view – the vast open space, the patchwork quilt of greens, browns and beiges, stretching out to an amphitheatre of mountains – that makes me understand how the Tompkins’ were “totally and completely smitten” by this place.

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