Spanning in excess of 67,000 acres, Samara Karoo Reserve is an incredible conservation success story. Situated close to the town of Graaff-Reinet in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, it is a love story that started in 1997, albeit with just enough trepidation to turn the ambitious land rehabilitation and species reintroduction projects into the most amazing wildlife reserve.

The manicured lawn at Samara Karoo Lodge. Photo by Dook
The manicured lawn at Samara Karoo Lodge. Photo by Dook

Commencing my journey at Cape Town International Airport with my favorite Southern African airline Airlink, 1 hour later I land at Port Elizabeth International Airport. Following a road trip through a few small Karoo towns, arriving in time for lunch is always a good idea. The table is set on the pristine lawn adjacent to the sparkling pool, with the overhanging branches of a tree allowing for some shade. 

Dreamy suites allow for a great night’s sleep. Photo by Heléne Ramackers
Dreamy suites allow for a great night’s sleep. Photo by Heléne Ramackers

I am staying in Samara Karoo Lodge Family Suite no 2, sans family, which is a short walk from the main area. The extensive refurbishment of Karoo Lodge took place in 2023, during which time the lodge was closed for 8 months, and the result is simply spectacular. With two bedrooms separated by a lounge area, the suite can comfortably accommodate 4 adults plus one child under the age of 12, with the youngster sleeping in the shared living area on an extra bed. 

The bathroom comes with a freestanding tub, double vanities, and a large shower. Photo by Maike McNeill
The bathroom comes with a freestanding tub, double vanities, and a large shower. Photo by Maike McNeill

“The redesign pays homage to this special region we call home,” says Samara co-founder Sarah Tompkins. “A great deal of love and hard work has gone into retaining the lodge’s quintessential Karoo character while embracing a modern approach to safari living.” 

A lounge area divides the two bedrooms in the Family Suite. Photo by Maike McNeill
A lounge area divides the two bedrooms in the Family Suite. Photo by Maike McNeill

A collaboration with Graaff-Reinet architect Peter Whitlock, James Bisdee of Randcivils, interior designer Amy Kidger of Hinterland Studio, creative director Paul Duncan, and horticulturalist and landscaper Arthur Mennigke led to inspired spaces. Taking their cues from the natural landscape and local culture, a combination of traditional Karoo style and modern South African design saw the light, with personal touches eliciting Samara’s journey as a family-run conservation project. 

A hand-embroidered cushion forms a focal point on the bed. Photo by Maike McNeill
A hand-embroidered cushion forms a focal point on the bed. Photo by Maike McNeill

Portraying an authentic celebration of the soulfulness of the Karoo, local artisans were called upon to breathe life into the new spaces. Metal four-poster beds form a dreamy backdrop to the magnificent beauty of the surrounding landscape. A focal point in the bedroom is the large hand-embroidered cushion on the bed by Casamento, in a sense honoring the botanicals that are indigenous to the region.

Meals are enjoyed on the verandah. Photo by Maike McNeill
Meals are enjoyed on the verandah. Photo by Maike McNeill

An area where meals are enjoyed is out on the verandah of the main building, delighting in the fresh Karoo air and possibly spotting some wildlife in the distance, or even on the lawn. Baboons seem to love foraging for ants, and warthogs might have a roll-around when the grass is wet to cool themselves down. A popular meal choice at Samara is the delicious Karoo lamb, served in the format of gourmet burgers or rack of lamb.

Samara Karoo Lodge has a few comfortable lounge areas. Photo by Maike McNeill
Samara Karoo Lodge has a few comfortable lounge areas. Photo by Maike McNeill

Samara’s core values encompass the 4 Cs – Community, Conservation, Culture, and Commerce. The one can’t function without the other. “Samara forms part of a group called The Long Run,” General Manager Marnus Ochse tells me. “The Long Run helps us streamline some aspects of our business that really focus on the 4 Cs. Community has been at the heart of what we do at Samara from Day 1, employing people from the surroundings and giving back to various projects. The community has also been involved in the renovation of Samara Karoo Lodge, which incorporates the cultural side of things.”

One of Naledi’s cubs. Photo by Heléne Ramackers
One of Naledi’s cubs. Photo by Heléne Ramackers

With a big emphasis on conservation, Samara started with the reintroduction of cheetahs in 2004. Sibella was the very first cheetah to set foot here in over 130 years, and her story has many facets – from near tragedy to triumphant queen of the Karoo, she has been instrumental in contributing 2,4% of the wild cheetah population through her various litters. On an afternoon game drive with head guide Roelof Wiesner and tracker Elroy (Klippers) Pietersen, we find Naleli and her four cubs, an exceptional mother who has successfully raised two litters of cubs. 

A herd of elephants making its way down the mountain. Photo by Heléne Ramackers
A herd of elephants making its way down the mountain. Photo by Heléne Ramackers

In 2017, elephants returned to the landscape for the first time in 150 years with a translocation of a small herd of only six individuals. In 2023, an elephant calf was born, causing lots of excitement. Two famous bulls make for quite the sightings – the one affectionately known as Kahle, which translates to gentle in Zulu, causes a roadblock on our early morning game drive up the mountain. Remaining respectful to animals, Roelof gives way to the large pachyderm who does not want to let us pass.

What a specimen – a lion named Marakele. Photo by Heléne Ramackers
What a specimen – a lion named Marakele. Photo by Heléne Ramackers

The most elaborate reintroduction was to bring wild lions back into the Karoo, where they had been exterminated in the 19th century. In 2019, the ‘vanishing kings’ returned to this region, with two prides – The Founders Pride and The River Pride. Fortunate for us, we happen upon both prides, with the majestic Founders Pride lion named Marakele feeding on a wildebeest up on the plains. He is a magnificent beast; camouflaged against the grasslands on the Kondoa mountains with only his black mane giving him away.

The landscape is simply stunning. Photo by Dook
The landscape is simply stunning. Photo by Dook

Samara’s rewilding and restoring is still in full kilter. Expanding the reserve with an extra 9,900 acres, they want to add more iconic species such as brown hyenas and possibly African Wild dogs. “If you really want to achieve biodiversity,” Marnus continues, “Each species plays a role within that system. People might think elephants are destructive, but we’ve seen a positive adaptation to the landscape since they were introduced to the property. The same goes for lions – they have changed the behavior of certain species.”

Samara Plains Camp. Photo by Maike McNeill
Samara Plains Camp. Photo by Maike McNeill

As for Commerce, the success of the lodges plays a big part in establishing a thriving eco-tourism business. Samara has three stunning lodges, all completely off the grid. Samara Karoo Lodge was the first lodge built, followed by The Manor, and then Plains Camp. Was it serendipity when the Tompkins family initially set foot here and invested blood, sweat, and tears into this special part of the Great Karoo? One thing’s certain, guests return again and again because when you’ve been fortunate to visit Samara, you leave a piece of your heart behind.