Samara Private Game Reserve / Petersburg Rd, Graaff-Reinet, 6280, South Africa / +27 31 262 0324

Samara Private Game Reserve is another de luxe accommodation; Carmella knows how to pick them. From the moment we walk up from the circular driveway onto the front verandah it’s obvious that this place has history to show and money to preserve it.

Carmella has some travel agent stuff to do so we park her on the rear verandah at a table covered with a linen tablecloth and elegant crockery and cutlery.

Walking to one side I take this panorama to show the wraparound verandah. Everywhere I look there are reminders of safari hunts, from camp crockery to bones and maps. With the fastidiously decorated main house and the wide-open well-tended fields I imagine this place used to cater to the 1% hunters.

As I keep walking around the verandah I can see deep into the fields and more shaded spaces to relax. The rear entrance to the dining room has been opened all the way; breezes blow through the house.

I walk into the dining room; very nicely decorated — with photos on the wall of old images of safari outings from days long past —  and a thatched ceiling. There’s one long table, for ten, and two tables for two or four people.

The common living room has leather chairs, the same thatched roof design, a big fireplace, and a small chandelier with an oversized hand-blown glass enclosure.

Perhaps the most visually striking interior is the intimate six-seat bar, with a row of these chandeliers and glass bulbs. It’s obviously a social magnet but with a compact layout. In my mind’s eye, I can see hunters of old and photographers of today sharing tales of the day’s captures with fellow guests.

Its design, long and thin, making good use of an otherwise too-small room, act as a vortex, pulling guests from the main traffic path into its inviting space.

Off the wraparound verandah, there are lots of interesting spaces to hide and read a book or hang out with a small group of friends. Each has that lived-in homey feeling, with the furniture an assemblage built up over time, the artifacts the product of many years and many experiences, the oversized photos documenting lives of service to this land.

Like most of the safari lodges, which are located deep within protected pockets of land, the kitchen staff has an importance much greater than is found in their city counterparts, where options about to satisfy hunger and slake thirst. Guest morale is dependant on a proficient kitchen, and Samara’s does a great job of mixing local spices and flavors with an old-world, colonial palette. One of the things I liked best was their combination plates; having a little bit of everything to share means we get to taste a wide variety of foods we’d otherwise miss if our choices were only main plates.

Local game, great ingredients, and interesting re-imaginings of classic dishes made every meal something to which I look forward to all day.

Samara Private Game Reserve was a grand place to visit; the elegance and calmness were a salve to traveling, and I’d go back in a minute when such salve is needed.

Cattle Baron / 14B, Langeberg Mall, Louis Fourie Rd & Depot Road, Die Voor Bay, Mossel Bay, 6500, South Africa / +27 44 695 0417

Compare the above food photos with the meal presented to us at the Cattle Baron chain of restaurants.

Cattle Baron presents itself as a medium-tier steakhouse, with most of the traditional options available on the menu, but undermines itself at every turn, from merely adequate coffee to thinly-cut steaks to sides served in rectangular plastic dishes, like a hospital cafeteria. Even the tiny flags inserted in the meat and delivered to the table, marking how the meat was cooked, gives the message that the kitchen can’t be trusted.

It’s not that we had a bad meal at Cattle Baron, but uninspiring, with poor value-for-money and many chances to be excellent seemingly undermined by corporate.

Okay, back to Samara. In the late evening we head out for something truly special: we’re going to track a tagged leopard with DF (direction-finding) radio gear. (I’d seen urbanite ham radio operators play DF games from cars, but I’ve never tracked a predator wearing a radio collar.)

The sun was setting after a bit of a drive and we got out and started walking up and down the steep hills of the more mountainous parts of Samara, where the predators hunted.

We’d stop every five minutes and use a hand-held DF rig to try to get a bit of signal from the animal’s collar. It has a small battery, and an accordingly weak signal, so we trekked to the animal’s known hunting grounds in hopes that it hadn’t strayed too far.

Things weren’t looking good, I have to tell you. The paths are steep, covered with broken shards of rock, making it hard to walk without slipping or falling, and the contrast of the bright setting sun and the deepening shadows, made it hard to see. The leopard wasn’t in its expected place, but our guide wasn’t deterred. With good cheer and enthusiasm, he led the way around the hilltops, past piles of bones and animal tracks, until the DF rig started chirping. Then, suddenly, we were almost on top of our quarry. Leopard selfie!

She’s a wild animal, so we gave her some distance, even though she looked and behaved like nothing more than a big housecat. She rolled in the grass, giving us the eye, then she scanned the area, looking like she wanted to play. Carmella, the cat person, really wanted to give it a big hug. I understood :-)

Samara left us with the pleasant sense of historically-aware, guest-centric, luxurious game preserve. Being much closer to the big city of Cape Town, it’s much more accessible than the far-away lodges in Kruger.

Leaving is deflating; the real world is more work than the pampered time at Samara.

Once again, I’m blown away by the desolate stretches of driving. Once again, just in the nick of time, a gas station appears.

There’s a charm to weather-beaten man-made artifacts. The gas station just made me happy.

Next, the African Array Backpackers Lodge.

 

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