We tiptoed along as the sun lowered behind us. The wind howled. Tendai pointed ahead and we could just make out the body of a large animal with three small, spotted heads bobbing around it. The body, we would later learn, was a kudu carcass. The spotted heads belonged to a hoard of little cheetahs.
Warning: Dead carcass imagery combined with extreme cheetah cuteness below.
We crept to within about ten meters of the cubs and I raised my camera to my eye, shooting madly. There were four cubs total. Their mom, wearing a radio collar, reclined under a thorn bush.
Tendai kept moving closer. Ray and I exchanged glances. Surely it can’t be safe for humans to walk within a few feet of a family of wild cheetahs eating a fresh kill?
But Tendai beckoned and he seemed to know what he was doing. Soon we were close enough to hear the cubs purring as they tore into the kudu’s flesh. The cubs occasionally glanced our way between bites. The mom ignored us.
Ray and I were at Samara, a private game reserve in the Great Karoo. Samara, as you’ve already guessed, is not your average game lodge. It’s luxurious, to be sure, like many other South African game lodges, with delicious food and excellent service and the usual trimmings. But the cheetahs set Samara apart.
The Story of the Cheetahs
Mark and Sarah Tompkins started Samara 20 years ago, on land previously used for livestock farming. The Tompkins family gradually restored the land to its natural state and stocked it with wild animals that were originally indigenous to the Karoo but had long ago disappeared from the region.
The first cheetah, Sibella, came to Samara in 2004 and the cheetah population grew over time. Most of Samara’s adult cheetahs wear radio collars so researchers and staff can track their movements. (Cheetahs are severely endangered.) While the cheetahs are definitely wild, they are accustomed to human observation and don’t mind people coming into close proximity, as long we maintain healthy respect.
There are no lions or other big cats at Samara, so cheetahs are the apex predators. This charmed existence allows Samara’s cheetahs to behave a bit differently from cheetahs in places like the Kruger where they have to compete with bigger, stronger cats. For example, we were able to observe Chilli and her family with their kudu carcass on two consecutive evenings. Since there are no other predators around, they could relax with their kill in the same spot for as long as they pleased.
Seeing wild cheetahs up close was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (This was my aim for the weekend — it was Ray’s birthday and I wanted to do something he’d never done before. As far as wildlife goes, Ray has seen almost everything.) But tracking cheetahs is not the only great thing about Samara:
There’s the lodge itself, opulent yet understated, with its beautiful view, cozy fireplaces, and hearty food.
Our bedroom in the Samara Manor House. The four-bedroom house is usually reserved for small groups or families, but there was a wind storm just before we arrived and Samara’s larger Karoo Lodge was closed for repairs. So we stayed in the Manor instead and had the place pretty much to ourselves. (Photo: Ray)
There’s the incredible Karoo scenery. The vast semi-desert is a totally different environment from other game reserves I’ve visited in South Africa.
There’s all the other wildlife.
There’s the staff.
There are the sunrises and sunsets.
And finally, there’s the aardvark.
Samara is known for its aardvark, one of the hardest wild animals to spot. (They’re usually underground and come out mostly at night.) As our final game drive drew to a close, we joked with Tendai that an aardvark was the last animal he needed to find for us.
Just a few minutes before we arrived back at the lodge, Tendai came through. We jumped out of the truck and followed the aardvark on foot until we were just close enough to see it clearly. Then it caught wind of us and scampered away.
Perfect ending to a perfect trip.
Samara Private Game Reserve is a 3.5-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Our stay at Samara was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.