Samara Karoo Reserve

Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Book from Book from £557 per night

Awesome landscapes and great lodging in one of the largest privately owned game reserves in South Africa, 2.5 hrs north of Port Elizabeth

This is the Great Karoo. Its vast plains and magnificent mountains once hosted the largest migrations the world had ever seen. After years of excessive hunting and farming, Samara's owners are carefully turning back the clock to re-wild and re-establish its flora and wildlife. Their management of the land and its biodiversity is truly inspiring - and these efforts have paid off, with Samara now the only free-roaming Big Five reserve in the Great Karoo. Today you can not only see cheetah, both white and black rhino, lion, giraffe, the rare mountain zebra, aardvarks and a host of other wildlife, you can (if you want) walk right up to them in the bush.

What sets this place apart is that with just a handful of jeeps, you'll have 27,000 hectares all to yourselves: no chance of traffic jams around waterholes here. You'll also have your own knowledgeable ranger. Stay at the Karoo Lodge to enjoy colonial comforts in the homestead, or prime waterhole viewing from the Sibella Family Suites. Groups can take over the Manor House and stay in stylish luxury with an in-house chef and butler.

On our evening game drive we drove up the side of a mountain, then marvelled at unfettered views stretching 280km. We felt on top of the world: elated yet very, very small. When we returned, our bath was poured, along with a glass of port to prepare us for a delicious dinner. Completely unforgettable.

Highs

  • Varied landscapes and an amazing setting: some of the most heartstopping views in the world
  • Arguably the best value-for-money 5-star Big Five experience in the malaria-free Eastern Cape
  • Top notch guides: ours knew everything, drove brilliantly and made us feel very safe
  • Great conservation across 67,000 acres and eco-credentials (all guests get a cutting of the drought-resistant Spekboom succulent on arrival to plant)
  • Inspiring programmes and activities for older children; under 8s are not usually allowed on scheduled game drives, but can enjoy shorter "Bumble drives"

Lows

  • It's a 2.5 hour drive from Port Elizabeth, and the last half hour is on a dirt track, but you pass through spectacular country and we felt a real sense of adventure
  • It can get cold in their winter and very hot in summer (but it's a dry heat thankfully)
  • As with any cross country jeep drive, it can get bumpy; and if you're not comfortable with heights you might feel giddy up at Eagle Rock
  • The Manor House is reserved for sole-use during peak season (Christmas and New Year)

Best time to go

This place is beautiful all year round, but October to April is their summer. It is hottest in February and can reach over 40 degrees celsius during the day; but it does get colder at night so you may need some warmer clothing for early mornings and nights.

May to September is their winter, and temperatures can range from 0 to 20 degrees celsius during the day - so both warm and light clothing is advised. Fleeces and hot water bottles are provided for game drives

Our top tips

  • If you get the chance to track white rhino or cheetah on foot, it can make your trip
  • Keep your doors closed to stop any cheeky monkeys getting in
  • You really need at least 3 nights to get a flavour of the reserve (and to justify the long drive) - but we could easily have spent a week becoming absorbed in the remoteness and otherworldliness of Samara Karoo Reserve
  • Great for...

    Eco
    Family
    Great Outdoors
    Romantic
    • Safari Lodge
    • 13 suites
    • All meals included
    • All ages welcome: shorter game drives for under 8s
    • Open all year
    • Outdoor Pool
    • Spa Treatments
    • WiFi
    • Pet Friendly
    • Disabled Access
    • Beach Nearby
    • Off-street Parking
    • Restaurants Nearby
    • Air Conditioning
    • Guest Lounge
    • Terrace
    • Garden
    • Gym
    • Fly camping
    • Conservation activities
    Room:

    Rooms

    Stay at the Karoo Lodge for a homestead feel with traditional colonial decor: cosy living rooms with fireplaces, antiques, animal prints and maps on walls, a wrap-around veranda gazing out to the Karoo. Choose between Homestead Classic or Luxury Suites in the main house, the standalone luxury Karoo Retreat Suites set down a path in the garden, and the Sibella Family Suite, a little further away by a waterhole. The four Homestead Suites are spacious, comfortable and open out onto the veranda; you're close to the creature comforts of the homestead bar and living room. The three Karoo Retreat Suites feel closer to the bush; each time we walked along the path, we felt a tinge of excitement at what wildlife we might see. These are self contained cottages with corrugated roofs and covered patios with outdoor seating. Bedrooms are large - expect earthy colours, 4-poster beds, polished concrete floors, netted windows, sofas, fireplaces and plenty of wardrobe space. Limestone bathrooms have walk-in showers and roll top baths, double sinks as well as bathrobes and slippers; but if you want to wash alfresco, there's an outside shower too.

    100m from the main house, the 2-bedroom Sibella Family Suite is the most recent addition: slightly more basic and less spacious than other rooms but with a waterhole right in front, which no doubt attracts its share of wildlife.

    Alternatively, the more contemporary Manor House (a 10-minute drive from the Karoo Lodge), provides oodles of style and luxury for somewhere in the heart of the Great Karoo. If you didn't look out of the window, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in a boutique city hotel. With 4 double bedrooms, this is an ideal option for families or a group of friends to book exclusively. Here you get a personal ranger, chef and butler. South African designer John Zwiegelaar has created an impressive home with high ceilings, a swanky bar area and lounges. Outside, the 21m infinity pool and watering hole are enough to attract animals and fashion shoots in equal measure. Rates are usually based on exclusive use (min 6 guests) but for a group this works out not much more per person than any other option. Alternatively, if you're not coming as a group, you can book one of the 4 double or twin ensuite bedrooms individually (with the exception of Christmas and New Year).

    Features include:

    • Air conditioning
    • Airstrip helipad
    • Extra beds
    • Family friendly
    • Fireplace
    • Hairdryer
    • Internet access
    • Mosquito net
    • Phone
    • Safe box
    • Terrace
    • WiFi

    Eating

    There's a restaurant in the Karoo Lodge where you can either cosy up inside next to an open fire in winter or cool down in summer along the wrap around veranda. A full breakfast spread followed our morning game drive, including fresh fruits, yoghurt, muesli, pancakes, muffins, cheeses, peeled plums and passion fruit. And they'll take orders for cooked dishes, putting a South African twist on old classics: the Eggs Benedict on homemade roosterkoek bread was bang on.

    Their menu was reassuringly balanced with delicious dishes. For lunch we chose a Karoo lamb burger, but failed to leave space for afternoon tea and cakes. Sundowners will be brought out on your evening drive. At dinner we kicked off with tomato and red pepper soup and a decent salad (blue cheese, walnut and smoked salmon), then venison or chicken in sherry sauce with roasted veg. We loved their filling apple crumble with ice cream and custard.

    In The Manor House meals are flexible as to where and when you take them as you have your own staff. They can arrange for sample menus and discuss specific requirements prior to arrival for each individual group. The picnics in the river and up on the mountains looked awe inspiring. Inside, we liked the funky bar area and thought the setting by the long infinity pool was a beautiful spot for alfresco dining.

    Features include:

    • Airstrip helipad
    • All meals included
    • Bar
    • Children's meals
    • Coffee / tea making
    • Communal dining
    • Family friendly
    • Minibar/fridge
    • Organic produce
    • Restaurant
    • Room service
    • Vegetarian menu
    Eating:
    Activity: Bush walk

    Activities

    • Game drives tend to leave early in the morning or in the late evening to catch most wildlife. They typically last 3-4 hrs as the landscape is so vast, but you may be able to ask for shorter trips. There are covered jeeps and well trained friendly rangers. Each time you depart, there's no telling what you might see, but of the larger mammals you should expect giraffe, cheetah, lion, a small herd of elephant, rhino and antelopes on the plains, and rare mountain zebras if you venture up. The joy is not having many other jeeps to bump into and the awesome landscapes
    • Try and get to the top of Eagle Rock, where the view is one of the best you could hope for in the whole of Africa
    • In the middle of the day, lounge by the swimming pool, read on your veranda, choose from their massage menu (including Swedish, head and foot)
    • Completely unplug from modern life and go fly camping - this includes a guided bush walk in Big Five territory, a traditional braai cooked on an open fire and a camp-out in breathtaking surroundings
    • The night sky in The Karoo is a magnificent sight, so why not sleep under the stars in the Star Bed. This once-in-a-lifetime experience must be reserved at time of booking due to limited availability
    • Tracking cheetah on foot is a unique experience: some cats have radio collars. This is in conjunction with the Tracker Academy (16 young people are hand-picked to enrol on the programme, to learn the art of tracking and conservation awareness), whose practitioners track wildlife, including cheetahs, through incredibly difficult terrain
    • Book the Conservation Journey Package for hands-on conservation sessions and personalised tours of Samara's rewilding projects
    • Other trips on the reserve include a visit to ancient cave drawings, which require a little more walking than you'd expect on a normal game drive. Bring your mountain bike to follow one of the several cycle tracks, guided or self-guided

    Activities on site or nearby include:

    • Birdwatching
    • Plantlife / flora
    • Private Vehicle and rangers also available at Karoo Lodge (extra cost and subject to availability)
    • Safaris
    • Swimming
    • Wildlife

    Kids

    A great option for families, with an understanding of hungry minds and energetic bodies, there are lots of children's activities on offer, babysitters, and separate game drives for under 8s - look out for the Funny Five (giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, monkey and aardvark). And the reserve, although now well-stocked with wildlife, isn't teeming with predators (there are lions and cheetahs). And there's the excitement of getting to see the many creatures that wander into the camp, from large shiny millipedes to vervet monkeys, buffalo and baboons.

    They also put together a personalised pack for children on arrival, containing drawing materials and spotter books; and every night there was a story placed on our daughter's bed ("How the Zebra got its stripes" was a favourite). Note that children aged 14 and upwards are considered adults and will need to be booked into their own room at adult rates.

    Best for:

    Children (4-12 years), Teens (over 12)

    Family friendly accommodation:

    Karoo Retreat Suites can take up to 2 kids, whilst Homestead Suites can take 1. The Sibella Family Suite has interconnecting rooms (1 double, 1 twin), but for younger children we'd opt to stay in the Homestead Suites (in Karoo Lodge). Larger family groups can book the 4-bedroom Manor House on an exclusive use basis and have their own staff, chef and ranger.

    Babysitting:

    Babysitting is available by arrangement

    Creche/Kid's Club:

    Their Samara children's programme specially caters for children of all ages, taking them on adventure safaris, providing private dinners and hosting young children at the Lodge - which allows parents to enjoy stress-free game drives. In the Cub's Den children can play amongst giant and miniature wrought-iron cut-outs of animals found on the reserve. There’s also a sandpit and an outside play area as well as an indoor playroom where kids can paint and make things.

    Children's meals:

    A children's menu is available

    Kids Activities on site:

    • Tracking and Orienteering
    • Cheetah tales
    • Star naming and stories
    • Trampoline
    • Croquet
    • Table tennis
    • Create your own Bushman paintings
    • Face painting - camouflage
    • Play dough and Samara puzzles
    • Crafting with African beads
    • Eco-challenge (Orienteering, treasure hunt, games etc.)
    • Spekboom planting
    • T-shirt painting
    • Air-rifle target practice for older kids

    Families Should Know:

    Children (and parents!) will need good and constant sun protection. Malaria is not present here. The swimming pool is fenced

    Distances:

    • Airport: 3 hours
    Kid Friendly:

    Location

    Samara Karoo Reserve is located in the Eastern Cape, 45 minutes from Graaff-Reinet, a good 3 hours' drive from Port Elizabeth and approx. 7.5 hours' drive from Cape Town via the N1.

    By Air
    Port Elizabeth (285km) - internal flights only. For international flights use Cape Town International or Jo'burg. Click on the links below for a list of airlines.
    Samara can arrange charter flights from cities and other game reserves too.

    From the Airport
    Samara can arrange transfers from the airport or hire a car.

    By Car
    For car hire see our car rental recommendations. The final approach to Samara is along gravel road so it's preferable to have 4-wheel drive.

    Detailed directions to Samara will be provided when you confirm your booking through our site.

    More on getting to South Africa and getting around.

    Airports:

    • Port Elizabeth 290.0 km PLZ
    • Cape Town 760.0 km CPT

    Other:

    • Beach 285.0 km
    • Shops 55.0 km
    • Restaurant 55.0 km

    Our guests' ratings...

    Based on 1 independent review from i-escape guests

    10/10
    Room
    10/10
    Food
    10/10
    Service
    10/10
    Value
    10/10
    Overall

    We had a 3 night stay at Samara with our 3 year old daughter, and had such a fabulous time. It did seem expensive to us, but was worth every penny and was the highlight of our SA trip. The Karoo Lodge is beautiful - extremely comfortable and almost like being in a luxury home - and it was such a privilege to spend time in the breathtaking reserve that the team have created. The staff couldn’t do enough for us, and all of the safari team were top - extremely knowledgeable, very approachable and we felt absolutely safe in their hands. There is a real sense of pride in what has been done here - particularly with the cheetahs, who we quite amazingly tracked on foot to within 10 meters. Samara were fantastic with our daughter - they couldn’t have made it easier to safari with a little one. And we were able to take her out on bumble drives 3 times - a real treat. Only point to add - factor in a little more time than they say to get there, and a 4x4 is really advisable for their unpaved road.

    10/10,

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