Every big city needs a country retreat; a place of fresh air, bare beauty and brooding silence. Wedged between dust-bowl towns, sheep farms, high-plateau grassland and kilometre upon kilometre of empty veld, the conservation luxe Samara Private Game Reserve – near Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape – trims the edge of the dense thicket and vast wilderness of the remote Great Karoo. Run on core principles of an equal respect for land, wildlife and people, conservation and community go hand in hand at this top safari outfit whose dedication creates spectacular memories. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or an avid gastronome, here are our highlights that prove why it’s a dream destination for any kind of traveller.
The luscious fantasy of an African safari – antiques, zebra skins, nineteenth-century lithographs, wicker baskets, tartan blankets and Stanley flasks – may be just that. And yet at the astonishingly placed Samara Private Game Reserve it all comes true, in a stylish interpretation of the original Karoo farmhouse beneath the looming stars. While other lodges in the overpopulated reserves farther north lean into the excitement of traditional safaris, Samara is more about settling into the overwhelming quiet and escaping into profound simplicity. The location is sensational and there’s a real sense of calm and feeling of romance. Intimacy and heart-racing views across the endless, silent plains rule at this one-of-a-kind luxury lodge with a thoughtful focus on sustainability in the otherworldly Great Karoo.
With so much open space and only nine suites, the eclectic Karoo Lodge – a bright, richly decorated space with punchy furnishings such as tangerine armchairs – is the perfect place to disconnect. We recommend booking one of the three memorable moody Karoo Retreat Suites, which are larger and set apart from the main lodge. The standalone sandstone-hued cottages sit right on the plains and blend into the landscape. What’s inside is pretty special, too. As you’d expect from a safari spot that’s on top of its game, they’re a retreat from the elements and everything has been carefully considered. Our refreshingly contemporary cottage provided all the coddling we needed and boasted an aesthetic that drew influence from the varied landscape – think organic fabrics, woven rugs, clean-lined furniture, an indigenous-wood four-poster bed, bedside lamps emanating a rosy glow as well as natural elements that blend indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly. Best of all were the little luxuries … extravagantly deep sofas, a huge clawfoot soaking tub and our own deck overlooking the game-filled plains of Camdeboo to take in the quintessential view with a just-brewed cup of coffee. Samara ticks boxes nobody had ever imagined. But all that downtime is for after a game drive.
An adventurous spirit carries over into the bold interiors of the main homestead. The immensely welcoming lodge is a triumph not just because it delivers on all fronts – including fresh, nourishing and inventive food – or because the chef listens and remembers what you express interest in. What you’ll remember long after you’ve returned home is the staff, and their warmth, enthusiasm and as-you-like-it flexibility. Fynbos-scented G&Ts and Amarula espresso martinis are poured at the bar that doubles as a museum with its collection of artefacts. Lunch is served as a picnic-style feast in the bush where baboons romp in the trees – there’s plenty of bubbly as well as fresh salads, fruits, sandwiches, wraps and chicken kebabs. Dinners are typically served as four courses, both indoors and out: Expect dishes like prawn rissoles, lightly spiced carrot coconut soup with homemade bread, rack of lamb with ‘squeaky’ Karoo mash and hot, gooey chocolate pear pudding. Our favourites were the flaky tomato and camembert tart drizzled with fragrant herb oil, the beautifully presented stuffed chicken roulades with a creamy filling and the amazingly hued ‘sunset’ soup – a heart-warming beetroot and butternut soup.
Although Samara can’t compete with the game-viewing on offer at Big Five reserves, it stands out amongst the five-star lodges in South Africa thanks to its impressive array of experiences that extend beyond game drives. These include walking safaris, conservation safaris, fly camping, mountain biking and the most extraordinary multisensory offering – tracking a coalition of eight wild cheetahs on foot. The guiding is excellent, and the trackers’ keen knowledge of the bush and game-spotting vision is unnaturally brilliant. It almost guarantees cheetah sightings on every morning outing and, if lucky, encounters with the elusive aardvark. Thanks to conservation efforts, healthy populations of white rhino, zebra, giraffe, springbok and black wildebeest also call Samara’s own 67,000-acre conservancy home. But sometimes it’s the ineffable – the feeling of coming back to warm refresher towels, a glass of well-chilled sherry and the attentive staff after several hours in the bush with top-notch guides choreographing the action – that truly defines the experience here. Don’t miss planting your own spekboom tree – the proudly South African wonder plant is water-wise and super-resilient, helps fight climate change and improves the quality of the air we breathe. Plus, its succulent bright green leaves are a firm favourite in the animal kingdom, especially for elephants, kudu and black rhino.
Petersburg Road (off the R63 to Pearston), Graaff-Reinet
031 262 0324