Sunday, March 10, 2013

Karoo paradise and historical treasure trove


 

Top and above: Samara provides every comfort
in its natural Karoo setting

The enchantment of Samara private game reserve, not far south of Graaff-Reinet, comes in a combination of factors: the location amid imposing mountains, the wide open plains viewed from those mountains and, of course, the wildlife - all enhanced by the lush green veld after a prolonged period if good rains. The acacia leaves are soft and succulent and their thorns gleaming white, and sharp as needles. At night you feel the stars are so close you could pluck them from the sky, and the mornings so fresh you could bathe in them.


Alex and students after their graduation.
But that’s not all. This beautiful location happens to be associated with places of learning which are closely related to it in their function: the hospitality training at the College for Tourism in Graaff-Reinet and its affiliated Tracker Academy whose students learn their skills partly in the soil of the Samara reserve. Through our son Alex, who was instrumental in establishing the academy, my wife and I had been invited to the year-end dinner and graduation ceremony of the students at the college on Magazine Hill in the historic town.
I have not attended many such functions, but the ceremony made a deep impression on many of us in the audience. It was not just the sight of these bright young black people in their academic gowns about to receive the rewards of their studies - many far from their homes - but their beautiful singing at intervals during the ceremony and as they filed out of the venue, all of which left us a little misty-eyed. Also impressive was the obvious commitment of the staff, officials and the executive director Andre Kilian and chairperson Gaynor Rupert, wife of prominent businessman Johann Rupert. Three of the top students had already landed plum jobs overseas even before their graduation.

Samara is about 30 minutes’ drive from Graaff-Reinet via the Tantjiesberg mountain, so named for the tooth-shaped outcrops along its ridge. As a Boer War history enthusiast, the Camdeboo region has long fascinated me, after extensive reading about the dramatic events during the “invasion” of Cape Colony by Boer guerrillas after the fall of the Transvaal and Orange Free State republics to the British in the war of 1899 to 1902. Graaff-Reinet is rich in the history of this conflict.

Karoo Lodge is the central building on the 18 000 ha property, with three stand-alone suites across the way past the swimming pool and other accommodation located elsewhere. Viewed from across the extensive lawn at the back (with resident tortoises) its rear elevation is beautifully symmetrical Karoo farmhouse with neat twin chimneys, exactly as it must have looked on the restoration drawing board.


Meals can be taken under the trees.
The lodge provides luxurious colonial-style accommodation, fine d├ęcor and, due to its limited size, excellent service from locally-recruited staff, some of whom were still there from our previous visit two years before, spoiling us with the same friendly desire to keep us comfortable, especially after a walk or drive in the veld. General manager Marnus Ochse and his wife Anneke were regularly on hand for information or a chat. The three meals a day (plus two tea-time spreads) were all outstanding and served in different locations either indoors; out on the lawn under a shady tree, or on the spacious veranda, where dinner is lit by an attractive arrangement of paraffin lamps at the table.

Cheetah cubs in the bush at Samara
The wildlife experience came with two sources of expertise: the Tracker Academy about 10 minutes’ drive down the road, and Samara’s tall young Zimbabwean head ranger with a marvellous smile, named Test Malunga – affable, humorous and, above all an excellent teacher with a wide knowledge, some self-taught and some from academic studies. On a late afternoon game drive with four other guests we walked with a journey of giraffe and approached a cheetah and her two cubs to within a few metres. The mother lay in the grass hardly taking any notice of us, her elegant tail swinging to and fro occasionally as the cubs played nearby. Although the cubs seemed quite relaxed, Test pointed out the erect hair on their backs.

“They are being very brave,” he laughed, “but they are not really comfortable.”
On a walk in the bush the next afternoon, Test turned our attention to the flora, explaining how acacia trees protect and renew themselves with strategic deployment of thorns, providing browsing animals only with a regulated supply of food. As he explained, elephants have overcome this trickery by breaking off whole branches, or uprooting the whole tree in order to circumvent the natural chemical process. We also watched as a trap-door spider worked his own trickery, his thick legs neatly folded just inside his hole, waiting for prey. With the veld blooming with spring flowers, we observed the function of the Karoo anchor-bush in binding the soil, and learned some of the names of the many beautiful species of ground cover. We crossed a stream twice, wobbling on the stepping stones over the bubbling, sparkling, pollution-free water.



Cape mountain zebra on the mountains around Samara.
We also took a very rugged drive up onto a mountain location with dramatic views of the Plains of Camdeboo, made famous by the book of the same name by Eve Palmer. Up on the mountain we viewed large groups of quizzical mountain zebra and stately gemsbok.

Observing nature is one thing; tracking wild animals and other creatures is another. To learn more about this skill we joined Alex, Tracker Academy trainers Pokkie and Janetta Benade and the eight students carefully chosen from all over South Africa. Pokkie is an officially recognised master tracker who grew up in the area which is now the Karoo National Park, where he worked for many years, and Alex is a senior tracker and general manager of the academy. Janetta is progressing through the ranks, studying, teaching and acting as house mother to the students who are invariably far from home and accommodated in dormitories. They were fascinated to meet Alex’s parents and we felt like visiting celebrities as they lined up, smiling broadly, to shake our hands.

Before long we were on the trail, finding tracks all over the veld. Identifying and following them is an ancient skill whose usefulness is re-emerging after almost being lost, thanks to the few who have dedicated themselves to its preservation.  Today, trackers are being used in tourism, anti-poaching and research, and many of these young men can look forward to exciting careers.

Master tracker Pokkie Benade (third from left)
with students.
But learning the skill is far from easy. A tiny smudge in the sand can be part of the track of a small animal like a mongoose or suricate; the evidence of claws, sometimes visible, sometimes not, for example, can indicate not only the type of animal but whether it was walking or running. Even the hoof tracks of ungulates (hoofed animals) vary in many ways and positively identifying the differences requires a trained eye. Pads and toes also show subtle differences between animals. Some tracks are much more obvious than others, like the large impression of the rhino or giraffe, but other spoor left by obscure animals, reptiles, tortoises, birds and insects - all playing their part in the ecology - are not. Even the big cats’ tracks are all markedly different.

In spite of my recent part-time theoretical studies of tracking, I was mostly left guessing. The students, after only their first six months before moving on to Londolozi game reserve in the Lowveld for the second semester, were asked in turn, secretly, so that the others couldn’t hear, to identify a random track along the trail, and almost invariably got it right.

Graaff-Reinet is an excellent tourist destination.
The town of Graaff-Reinet is an excellent destination in its own right, especially for history and culture buffs. It has scores of prominent historical homes, buildings, churches, monuments, memorials, museums, galleries and a famous stone prison.

In the centre of town, where Parsonage Street and Church Street intersect, the famous Dostdy Hotel (currently being renovated), Reinet House (once the home of Andrew Murray) and the truly magnificent Dutch Reformed Groote Kerk - said to be modelled closely on Salisbury Cathedral in the UK - form a sort of central assembly on which the rest of the town hangs. Across the road from the Groote Kerk, for example, is the elegant low-slung Graaff-Reinet Club where exuberant officers of the Coldstream Guards once danced on the bar counter and fired revolvers into it in celebration of their imminent departure at the end of the Boer War.

A little way down Church Street you find McNaughton’s Bookshop, with many fascinating books, including the comprehensive Graaff-Reinet: An Illustrated Historical Guide by Tony Westby-Nunn, a treasure trove of information and priceless illustrations which shows in detail why Graaff-Reinet is such a special town.

Following the graduation ceremony at the College for Tourism, a group of us were the guests of Gaynor Rupert for lunch at a restaurant called Polka where we enjoyed an excellent cold buffet (and an excellent perfectly chilled Chenin Blanc) in the yard under vapour-irrigated vines. The restaurant, at 52 Somerset Street, is rated No 1 among five in the town.

Useful websites:
http://www.samara.co.za/
http://www.polkacafe.co.za/about/
http://www.graaffreinet.co.za/