Big sky country and the Great Karoo's legendary feline
This is the Karoo desert – the Great Karoo – at its finest, an area so huge, and once so teeming with game, that it was said that once upon a time, every year, millions of migrating springbok raised a dust storm so severe that the sun disappeared for days.
But that was long ago before the first European settlers came and much of the land became degraded and overgrazed, and the game was shot out.
I’m on my way to Samara private game reserve in the Eastern Cape, just 20km south-east of the historical little town of Graaff-Rienet. Owned and rehabilitated by Mark and Sarah Tomkins, who are slowly restoring the land to its former pristine state as well as restoring the indigenous game that once roamed here, Samara stretches from the heights of the Karoo mountains, which form part of the Great Escarpment, down into the wide plains typical of this unique area.
I’m here for the beauty of the area, but also to check up on a legendary animal – Sibella the cheetah. Badly injured in a Limpopo farmer’s steel trap, she was rescued and brought to Samara in 2003, where she was nursed back to health and released back into the wild.
We find her one bright Karoo morning, when the grass is still glistening with dew and the dawn chorus is still singing.
Since then, she has produced four litters of 20 cubs, and single-handedly is now responsible for 2% of the whole of South Africa’s cheetah population.
We find her one bright Karoo morning, when the grass is still glistening with dew and the dawn chorus is still singing – larks, pipits, doves plus any of the resident 220 bird species that are awake, including our national bird, the blue crane.
We’re prepared to go tracking her over mountain and hill, but fortunately for us, she is lying with her latest cubs, now 18 months old, beside the road, all softly purring in the morning sun. Their bellies are very full, as they pulled down a kudu the previous night and feasted well.
When you visit Samara, you can choose to stay in a typical Karoo cottage or homestead, or in a tented camp tucked away under a soaring mountain face. You’ll dine in a 250-year-old farmhouse with wide verandahs and floors polished over the decades by hundreds of feet, as old leopard tortoises amble about the surrounding green lawns.
Or you can become a volunteer at Samara. While I was there I met a 75-year-old Belgian, two young English people and a South African, all of whom were doing volunteer work ranging from mending roads to monitoring game.
But whether visitor or volunteer, you are assured of a memorable stay.