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eastern cape

Cheetah family feeding

Five Cheetahs and an Aardvark

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.

Three cheetah cubsThree cheetah cubs — wait, make that four — hover around the kudu that their mother (lounging in the background) killed. 

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.

CheetahsGet ready for lots more cheetah pictures.

Cheetahs

Cheetah tongue

Cheetah mom stands upMom, whose name is Chilli, finally pays us a bit of attention, giving us a polite warning to keep our distance.

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.

Mom and baby cheetahMom and baby. These cubs are about four months old.

Cheetah family feedingAre you bored of cheetah photos yet? I hope not.

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.

Cheetahs chowingChowing. The cub at the back on the right is called Stumpy because he was born with half a tail.

Cheetah cub

Enjoying Samara

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.

Heather in the Samara Manor HouseOur 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)

Afternoon tea at SamaraAfternoon tea at Samara: devilled eggs and lemon meringue pie.

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.

Karoo Shepherd's treeA Karoo shepherd’s tree, the most distinctive tree species at Samara.

Heather and Ray on plateauRay and I sitting atop Samara’s mountain plateau, with the desert stretched out below us. (Photo: Tendai)

There’s all the other wildlife.

Giraffe familyA family of giraffes.

Giraffe nursingA baby giraffe nursing — I’d never seen this before.

Mom and baby animalsI can’t say the name of this animal in my post, as Samara is concerned about tech-savvy poachers. But you know what they are. 

Mountain zebraWe saw beautiful game on top of the mountain plateau. This is an endangered mountain zebra.

Black wildebeestBlack wildebeest with their funny horse-like tails.

There’s the staff.

Tendai and BenedictOur dynamic guiding duo, Tendai (left) and Benedict. All of the Samara staff members are excellent.

There are the sunrises and sunsets.

Sunrise at SamaraI barely caught this stunner of a sunrise in the parking area of the lodge.

Sunset at SamaraSunset the same day.

And finally, there’s the aardvark.

Aardvark at SamaraWe saw an aardvark! They’re similar to anteaters but eat termites instead.

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.

Cheetahs

Samara Private Game Reserve is a 3.5-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Our stay at Samara was complimentary. Opinions expressed are mine.

South Africa’s Wild, Wild Coast: Part 3 (With Donkeys)

Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.

Our epic trip to Dwesa Nature Reserve wasn’t the end of our Wild Coast adventure; we still had another stop at the Amapondo Backpacker Lodge in Port St. Johns.

View-from-the-Gap

View from “the Gap” at Port St. Johns.

Port St. Johns, a town of 6,000, is the unofficial capital of tourism in the Wild Coast. We intentionally planned it for the end of our Wild Coast trip because we knew it would be an easier, more relaxing place to visit than the remote, wild Dwesa Nature Reserve.

Also, a friend recommended Amapondo and when we googled it, we found out that there is a donkey living there. That pretty much sealed the deal.

Before I get into Amapondo and the donkey, I’ll say a few words about our journey from Dwesa to Port St. Johns. After our crazy adventure on the way into Dwesa, we were apprehensive about the trip out. So we planned everything as carefully as we could, asking advice from locals on the best road out of Dwesa and leaving super-early in the morning.

We did pretty well for the first part of the drive. Our first hour that morning, driving on a smooth gravel road and watching the countryside wake up around us, was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

River-reflection

Crossing the Mbhashe River on our way out of Dwesa.

Pastor-and-horse

I met this man while shooting the photo above. He is a pastor and was on his way to church. I’m guessing he’s been riding to church on horseback every Sunday for at least 30 years. 

But after that first blissful hour, we still somehow lost our way (damn you, Google Maps) and wound up on another bumpy, horrendous road. It took us four excruciating hours to drive the 60 kilometers back to the N2 highway. Then we headed back to Mthatha, where we traded in our rental car. (We’d gotten a flat two days earlier and were driving on the spare.)

I’ll have more to say about our rental car experience — which has turned into an ordeal of note — in a future post.

So we got our new car and at last, we were on our way to Port St. Johns. The roads are paved all the way in to Port St. Johns but the trip still took forever due to road works. Another reminder to always double the time you think it will take to get anywhere in the Wild Coast.

Incidentally, unlike Dwesa, Port St. Johns is a pretty doable one-day drive from Durban and you won’t need an SUV to get there.

In keeping with the pattern of this trip, we arrived at Amapondo just before sunset. Then we had to carry our luggage and food up 75 rickety steps to our hilltop chalet. There was much grunting and swearing along the way, and I should mention that carrying all of our stuff back down those steps when we left two days later was even more horrible. I think I almost cried a few times.

The view from the top was worth it.

Port-St.-Johns-sunset

Sunset from our deck at Amapondo. See the abandoned building in the middle of the frame? File that for later.

Amapondo-cottages

Our chalet (on the right). It cost R550 ($45) per night for two people.

Amapondo-bedroom

Inside the chalet. It was cozy and nice for that price. Although I do wish the fridge was a little quieter and the curtains were a little heavier — a lot of light filtered in throughout the night from the bright lights that illuminate the pathway outside.

As I said though, we chose Amapondo mainly for the donkey. And we were not disappointed.

Donkeyzile-and-Charlie

Two donkeys for the price of one!

Turns out there are two donkeys living at Amapondo. The older one is Donkeylizwe (pronounced “don-key-LEEZ-way) and the younger one is Charlie. They like to hang around the restaurant and knock over coffee cups. There are many other animals at Amapondo as well, including a cat, which Ray and I named Patches, and a pack of rambunctious dogs.

Girl-cat-donkey

Typical Amapondo scene.
 Donkeys-and-Ray

Ray and the donkey duo.

As for the rest of Port St. Johns, we once again did not allow ourselves enough time to explore. We got up late (it was Ray’s birthday), had a leisurely breakfast (Amapondo serves decent food) and I spent an hour or two on my computer while Ray walked around looking for a place to paint graffiti.

In the early afternoon we drove up to one of the highest points in Port St. Johns — an airstrip that lands a few small planes a week — to check out the view.

Runway

We were lucky to catch a microlite taking off from the airstrip.

Heather-river-mouth

Me, looking over the mouth of the Umzimvubu River. (Photo: Ray)

Then we headed over to the Gap and the Blowhole, to check out a different view.

View-from-the-Gap2

“The Gap” is the V-shaped formation on that rock jutting out into the sea. The Blowhole is beyond it somewhere.

Ladies-at-the-Gap

This sign makes me laugh. The only way to actually see anything is to go beyond this point, and everyone does (except for people like Ray who are afraid of heights). These ladies have set up shop to make a bit of cash from passing tourists.

Kids-at-the-Gap

I think these kids spent the whole day running up and down the hill, chasing tourists. They are very fit. I walked as far as the people at the bottom of the photo.

I walked down to the edge of the Gap but wasn’t brave enough to climb down the rope ladder to the Blowhole. At least not by myself, in flip flops.

Our last activity of the day was climbing up to that abandoned building near Amapondo, which I instructed you to file away earlier, where Ray painted a birthday graffiti piece.

Bias-piece

Ray’s birthday present to himself. See more photos of it — and other graffiti by Ray — on Ray’s Instagram feed and mine.

We left Port St. Johns the next morning, bound for Durban.

Thus, the long tale of our Wild Coast adventure is finished. I still have more to say though — about the time we spent in Durban on our way to and from the Wild Coast, and also about our rental car debacle. You still have a bit more 2Summers holiday whining to look forward to.

Bias-piece-Port-St-Johns

Thanks Port St. Johns, it was fun. (Except for the 75 steps. The steps really sucked.) 

Scenes From the Eastern Cape

I’m in the Eastern Cape at the moment. The Eastern Cape is one of my favorite South African provinces; the people are friendly, the pace is slow, and the scenery is beautiful in a non-dramatic kind of way. It’s seriously cold though, especially in the evening. There’s frost on my car windshield in the morning, and the mountains are capped with snow. (By the way, ice-scrapers don’t exist here so forget about scraping the windshield. You just turn your car on and wait for the frost to melt.)

I spent most of the last two days visiting rural villages in the Queenstown area, about two hours inland from East London. I’ll probably have more say about what I’m doing later, but for now here are a few photos that I shot along the way.

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