The lion king returns to the Great Karoo
Samara reintroduces lions for the first time in 180 years
There she reclined, lithe limbs outstretched, soaking up the sun – and from the moment she sat up and looked at me, I knew it was love at first sight.
I had flown more than 3,000km for this moment and wasn’t disappointed. After all, it is not every day you are invited to meet a very special lion.
Samara Private Game Reserve is a revelation. Surrounded by gaunt, hog-backed mountains, its more than 28,000ha of arid bushveld lie in the heart of the Great Karoo renowned for its desolate beauty and pioneering history.
It was the Khoisan who called it the Karoo – the “dry place where there is nothing”.
Seen through the trembling desert air, its shadowy kloofs and rippling summits dissolve into shimmering swirls of burnt sienna and iceberg blue, and so profound is its all-embracing silence that it is even possible for scientists to record the eerie sounds of our planet rolling in space on its journey around the sun.
Two hundred years ago, the Great Karoo was a haven for wildlife.
Vast herds of eland and Cape buffalo roamed the grasslands. Black rhinos thrived in its thickets.
Herds of elephants meandered up from the coast to feed on the green mountain slopes and every year was marked by the spectacle of the springbok migration, when up to a million merged into a single herd nearly 5km wide, leaving clouds of dust in their wake that took two weeks to settle.
Above all, one animal held sway over the Karoo.
This was the majestic Cape lion whose widespread presence and formidable reputation made travel by ox wagon impossible at night.
Today, the wandering herds are no more.
Fences and guns stopped the springbok in its tracks and the Cape lion is extinct.
Yet the wild spirit of the land itself remains unbroken, reaching out to those who are drawn to its sunstruck plains and boundless space.
Among them is Sarah Tompkins who, with her English husband, Mark, has demonstrated how hands-on conservation can transform a vast area of clapped-out farmland into a hugely successful born-again wilderness.
“I didn’t really choose the Karoo,” she said. “It chose me.”
Having bought the land in 1997, they immediately set about removing the fences and restocking it with indigenous wildlife.
“Our vision was to restore the Great Karoo to its former glory,” she said, “to create a fully functioning ecosystem with all its original species.”
Two luxurious safari lodges were created for the kind of visitors who want to escape from the modern world and return to the one that used to be.
Karoo Lodge is a tastefully restored 1800s homestead.
The Manor is a sumptuous villa overlooking a long turquoise swimming pool and between them they sleep a maximum of just 26 guests.
When I first visited Samara in 2007, the reserve already boasted an impressive list of animals that had roamed here before the settlers arrived, including oryx, kudu, eland and hartebeest.
Among them were rare white and black rhino, the endangered Cape mountain zebra and the first cheetahs to be seen there for 130 years.
In November 2018, Sarah’s dream came another step closer to realisation when two bull elephants arrived from Phinda in KwaZulu-Natal to join the six females that had been acquired a month earlier.
Together they are beginning to reshape the landscape, roaming the mountain slopes in search of succulent cabbage trees and bulldozing new pathways through the bush.
Only one long-held ambition remained.
For the Karoo’s natural ecosystem to function properly it needed the lions that were once its apex predators.
It was time to return these vanished kings to the realm from which they were banished 180 years ago.
In December 2018, I was invited to Samara to meet the four-year-old lioness and her intended mate whose progeny, it was hoped, would return the Karoo to its former glory.
They had arrived a week earlier from Kwandwe game reserve, 240km away on the Great Fish River.
Having been sedated for the long road journey they had woken up to find themselves at Samara in an enclosure the size of a football pitch surrounded by a high electric fence.
This was the first time they had seen each other, as both cats had been selected from unrelated prides to ensure genetic diversity, but a tasty kudu carcass soon broke the ice.
Here they would remain for up to six weeks before being successfully released in January – following a plan drawn up with the expert help of Nelson Mandela University zoology professor Graham Kerley.
“It’s essential they never associate feeding with humans,” he said. “That’s why their meals are delivered down a chute from behind a canvas wall that keeps everyone out of sight.”
The Tompkins’s plans for rewilding the Great Karoo couldn’t have come at a better time for lions.
Of the 200,000 that roamed Africa in the ‘80s, no more than 23,000 survive, with just 3,000 left in SA itself, leading to fears the species could disappear from the wild in three decades.
From our Land Cruiser I could clearly see both lions.
The male was greyer than the female and a year younger, with huge paws that still seemed too big for his body, but already he had the makings of a fine mane.
We watched him slowly rise to his feet and approach the lioness, greeting her with an affectionate bout of head rubbing until she gave him a grimace, exposing her canines as if to say “enough for now”.
I set out with Sarah to see what else Samara had to offer.
Drought gripped the land.
The sun glittered on a million thorns and the wind hissed in the withered yellow grass, but the animals knew where to find water in the Milk River Valley’s hidden pools.
Like the Karoo itself, they were resilient and perfectly at home in the harsh but overwhelmingly beautiful landscape.
Eland cantered away through dense stands of flowering acacias. Oryx and hartebeest watched us from a distance and blue cranes filled the air with their sweet-throated cries.
Shepherd’s trees with ghostly white trunks stood out like markers, measuring the illimitable seas of bush.
Not long afterwards we found a mother cheetah with five cubs resting in the shade.
Her name was Chilli and I was thrilled to learn she was the daughter of Sibella, whom I had met on my first visit to Samara 11 years before.
Sibella died in 2016, but not before producing 20 cubs and raising all but one to adulthood.
On we drove through wild orchards of jacket plums until we came to Wolwe Kloof, toiling in bottom gear up a tortuous pathway to the breezy summit of Kondoa, a miniature Serengeti marooned in the sky along with its cavorting wildebeest herds.
There, a picnic of chicken and chilled sauvignon had been prepared under a canvas awning with stupendous views past dolerite cliffs where kestrels hung in the wind and sentinel baboons kept watch over the Plains of Camdeboo 760m below.
Towards the end of the day we drove back to the boma for one final look at the lions.
They were still resting together as we had left them, their flanks backlit in the golden glow as if carved from amber.
“We’ve called the male Titus but we haven’t yet decided on a name for her,” whispered Sarah. “Perhaps you would like to think of one?”
I looked at her sphinx-like silhouette, lying in the last of the light like a benediction, the founder of a new dynasty whose broad footprints would soon blossom along Samara’s dusty game trails and whose thunderous voices would again echo among the kloofs and hollows of the mountains, telling the world the vanished kings were back where they belonged.
“Let’s call her Sikelele,” I said, “the isiXhosa word for blessed.” – The Telegraph