Sarah Tomkins

Creator of Samara Private Game Reserve in the Karoo

Sarak Tomkins

Sustainable eco-tourism has become an important aspect in luxury travel around the world, and it is no more vibrant today than in South Africa. But among all those who are just now pushing philanthropy, there is one who has been doing it all along…

Owner Sarah Tompkins describes her Samara as a “heart-stoppingly beautiful” place. Set amid open plains between an amphitheatre of mountains, the 70,000 acres of private Karoo bushveld offers breathtaking and far-reaching views over four biospheres and sixty mammal species including Cape Mountain Zebra, Rhino, Buffalo, and Cheetah. But the views at Samara are just the beginning of its captivating character. Samara’s mission statement shows a beautiful passion for true conservation, a mission to restore the biodiversity in the Great Karoo.

One of the most encouraging progams at Samara is its cheetah conservation, an ongoing effort to protect a population dwindled to under nine hundred in South Africa. It began with the story of Sibella, a cheetah rescued from savage captivity and brutal mistreatment and released in Samara in 2003. It was there that she found comfort in her new home along with two other males released into Samara. Despite suffering the occasional twinge from her previous injuries, Sibella has proved herself to be a capable hunter and mother, now contributing to two percent of the wild cheetah population in South Africa.

Samara is also very involved with its local community, specifically with Graaff-Reinet, home to over ninety percent of the lodge staff. As part of their vision to make a positive impact in and around the reserve, Samara invites children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to come out and explore the grounds on a regular basis. Also, in association with the mayor of Graaff-Reinet, Daantjies Jafta, Samara organizes educational visits for the local schools, where the children are able to experience the magic of the Samara wilderness and learn about the country’s growing eco-tourism industry. The children are also able to take part in Samara’s effort to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere. By helping Sarah plant Spekboom, a carbon reducing plant that grows predominantly in the Eastern Cape, the children are excited by their hands-on participation in such an important cause.

Courtesey: Ker & Downey Travel

Reintroduction of lions

Part of the Samara vision is to restore the Great Karoo to its former ecological glory by reintroducing free-roaming lions into the region, who will assume their role as predators, which will keep the local herbivore populations in check and thus help protect the indigenous vegetation from overgrazing. The lions are set to arrive in August 2018 and Sarah Tompkins, the founder of Samara, is truly excited for the event, stating: We are delighted to be bringing lions back to our region. Their reintroduction gives us the opportunity to study what happens when a top predator returns to an ecosystem. Besides that, we can’t wait to hear their roars echoing through our valleys.

Courtesey: SouthernAfrica360


My husband and I were visiting the battlefields in KwaZulu-Natal years ago with friends. We went to Rorke’s Drift and sat around the fire listening to the late David Rattray tell the tales of the battles that had occurred – it was a very emotional experience that brought all the guests together and got them talking. Afterwards, at dinner, we started chatting to our neighbour at the next-door table, who happened to be an estate agent from Graaff-Reinet. He started telling us about another part of South Africa – the Great Karoo – weaving tales of its historical significance, the amazing herds of game that roamed there, the springbok migrations, the now-extinct Cape Lion, the characters of yesteryear and the haunting beauty of the place.

We were captivated by the idea of returning the land to its former glory. On the spot, we agreed we would go and visit the area next time we were in South Africa (at the time we were living in Paris). So, a few months later we did just that, and stayed overnight in the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet with our two young children – that’s when I remembered the Karoo of my childhood, when driving from Johannesburg (where I grew up) down to the coast for Christmas holidays – dry and dusty with nothing in sight but tumbleweed and the occasional sheep.

There was no way we were going to buy one square inch of such a desolate landscape, but we thought it would be a bit churlish to turn back, so we drove out to the first farm, Apieskloof, that we’d arranged to visit, and we just fell in love. There had been good rains and the veld was green and lush – once we turned off the tar road and up into the mountains the beauty of the place unveiled itself – so unlike what I had always thought the Karoo to be like. We were smitten.

The dream was reignited and we bought the farm. That was 20 years ago – we are celebrating our 20-year anniversary in November of this year. We purchased an additional ten farms to create what is Samara today. Originally, it was just a private retreat for the family but we decided to open it up to the public in 2005 because we felt it needed to benefit society, not just ourselves. We opened two small lodges and got started in the ecotourism business and today we employ 50 people, and we are going from strength to strength.

Samara is a family business. My eldest daughter Isabelle is now involved with the strategy and marketing, and many of our staff have been with us for years – we have employed different generations of the same family.


First, we removed all internal fencing and all sheep, goats and cattle. Then, instead of restocking immediately with game such as zebra and antelope, we let the land rest and recover for a number of years. Some areas of land were very badly degraded – ‘moonscapes’ of bare red earth showcasing significant erosion with not a single blade of grass.

We worked on soil erosion control measures in order to slow down the flow of water and soil and create areas where plants could start to grow and anchor the soil. Twenty years later, you can really see the difference, but there is so much more left to do. The sad thing is that it takes days or even hours to cause significant damage yet the recovery period takes decades, perhaps even centuries. So, Samara is really an ongoing project for our family, a lifelong project.

In terms of our restoration goals and what we have managed to achieve so far, this varies across biodiversity levels. Plant communities have recovered considerably and many herbivore species have been reintroduced. Ecological processes have been partially restored (e.g. river flow) and apex predators such as cheetah and leopard are back in the area, as well as megaherbivore species like black rhino. We are still working on the restoration of the full complement of species that once occurred in the region – from elephant and lion to brown hyaena and even potentially hippopotamus. Erosion control, land rehabilitation and landscape restoration through spekboom planting remain ongoing projects.

Courtesey: RUTH COOPER of Bizcommunity - July 2017


We recently celebrated an important birthday. Wednesday 9th November marked 19 years since the Tompkins family bought the first farm that would form the nucleus of Samara, and 11 years since our flagship Karoo Lodge welcomed its first guests. The Samara project has advanced in leaps and bounds since then, so to celebrate, here are some of our milestone moments from the past few years, and a glimpse at our plans for 2017.

2004: First wild cheetah back in the Great Karoo in 125 years

Many of you will remember Sibella, our treasured wild cheetah who defied the odds to become a global ambassadress for cheetah conservation. Born a wild cat in South Africa’s North West province, Sibella’s life nearly ended at the hands of hunters, whose dogs tore away the flesh on the back of her legs, leaving her at death’s door. After five hours of surgery and weeks of rehabilitation at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust, she was introduced onto Samara, the first wild cheetah back in the Karoo in 125 years. During her lifetime (14 years – ancient in wild cheetah terms), she was a record-breaker of note, contributing almost 3% to the wild cheetah population in South Africa through her various litters and featuring in dozens of magazines, newspapers and television programmes across the globe.

2008: First property in South Africa targeted for fracking

In late 2008, Samara was targeted for shale gas exploration using the highly-controversial method of fracking. The process involves injecting a mixture of sand and toxic chemicals into the water table at high pressure to extract shale gas deposits far beneath the surface of the earth. In a water-scarce environment like the Karoo, such a proposal, and the refusal of the company to divulge which chemicals they planned to pump into our waterways, set alarm bells ringing. Consulting a range of experts in the field confirmed our initial fears – that the Karoo could not afford to be exposed to uncertain shale gas development, particularly given the potential devastating impacts on the economic survival and quality of life of rural communities, not to mention the consequences for the Karoo’s fragile environment. For two and a half years, Samara and Derek Light, our appointed lawyer, led the battle against fracking on behalf of the people and biodiversity of the Karoo. We succeeded in demonstrating that the exploration company had not followed due legal process, and managed to get Samara and neighbouring properties excluded from the exploration area.

2010: The establishment of the Tracker Academy

The Tracker Academy, a training division of the SA College for Tourism, operating under the auspices of the Peace Parks Foundation and led by Alex van den Heever, was founded and is hosted at Samara. The one year full-time intensive course into the dying science of tracking, led by experienced trainers including Karel ‘Pokkie’ Benadie, one of South Africa’s 21 Icons, is the first of its kind in Southern Africa. Samara makes its land available free of charge to the Tracker Academy for all its semi-arid practical training sessions and as part of its charitable donation to the Academy, also provides lecturing facilities and accommodation for the trainees – 8 at any one time.

The Tracker Academy endeavours to contribute significantly to the preservation of indigenous knowledge in South Africa by creating passionate African naturalists. Our aim is to empower the custodians of Africa’s environments to preserve the continent’s last remaining wild areas. Pokkie and the Academy are particularly proud that, 6 years on from its inception, almost 95% of its graduates have found permanent employment in the fields of tourism and conservation.

2013: First desert-adapted black rhino in the Great Karoo

In 2013 we received some very special protégés – the desert-adapted subspecies of the Critically Endangered black rhino. In a custodianship arrangement with SANParks, the body that manages South Africa’s National Parks, we provide a home for this highly endangered subspecies which is perfectly suited to arid environments like the Karoo. We are one of only two private reserves in South Africa to house this subspecies, the population stronghold being in South African National Parks and in Namibia. It is a great responsibility, and one we take extremely seriously.

2015: The second generation joins the Samara Team

Samara has always been a family endeavour, and in 2015 we welcomed the second generation into the Samara Team. Isabelle Tompkins, Sarah and Mark’s eldest daughter, is passionate about the Karoo and Samara’s mission. Her involvement brings a youthful energy and determination to our vision of restoring and permanently safeguarding an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage.

2017: The Samara journey continues

Having reflected on Samara’s history, now seems an appropriate time to look to the future. As Samara progresses into 2017, our passion and drive remain steadfast, our outlook innovative, and our objectives ambitious. Our original vision, dreamed up in 1997, remains the same – to restore the starkly beautiful ecosystems of the Great Karoo, the vitality of its wildlife, the drama of its landscapes, the future of its people.

2017 will witness these plans being set into motion like never before. A central focus is on restoring the remainder of the complement of indigenous wildlife. We are currently in discussions to reintroduce a small herd of elephant and bulls; to bring in a pride of lion from the Kalahari – the closest living relative to the now extinct Cape lion; and to acquire a breeding herd of disease-free buffalo. Other goals include reintroducing hyena – both spotted and brown, and further plains game. This will not only offer Samara guests an unparalleled wildlife experience – witnessing Nature’s Greats set against the stark beauty of this magnificent landscape, but will also advance us further along the path towards Samara’s broader goals – what we call ‘the bigger picture’.

Courtesey: Samara website - Nov 2016

UPDATE: by Endangered Wildlife Trust 2020

In 2003 Cheetahs were reintroduced into Samara Private Game Reserve in the Great Karoo – the first in the region to host them in 125 years. This reintroduction was highly successful, and 30 Samara cheetahs have subsequently been removed from Samara for relocation to metapopulation reserves across South Africa and Malawi. Today approximately 12% of all wild cheetahs in South Africa can trace their genetic lineages to Samara. The reintroduction of lions, the principal enemy of the cheetah, onto Samara in 2019 raised concerns that the Samara cheetahs would be negatively impacted. To our relief, the Samara cheetahs simply adapted their home ranges and moved into areas that the lions rarely traverse. Many thanks to Samara management for your contribution to cheetah conservation efforts in southern Africa.


RESTORING THE GREAT KAROO ONE REINTRODUCTION AT A TIME by Thea Felmore at Africa Geographic March 2019

A Lucky Cheetah And A Lot Of Land by Jim Calio at Huffington Post - December 2017

The big empty from The Telegraph 2007

Their own private game reserve by Lucia van der Post at The Financial Times 2006 (PDF)

Go back to: Leaders in tourism and conservation