History of the Great Karoo

Samara’s corner of the Great Karoo is a land of immense historical significance, of age-old cultures, intrepid explorers, colourful pioneers and eccentric characters.

The land beneath our feet is alive with millennia of stories. Celebrated as a veritable treasure trove of fossils, the Karoo basin is famous among palaeontologists for the record it holds of the transition between reptiles and mammals – crucial to our own evolution as humans. Fossils of part-reptile, part-mammal creatures known as Dicynodonts have been found on Samara. These specimens are 253 million years old – predating the dinosaurs by several millennia.

Samara has the only known San rock art of a cheetah

Relics from a more recent past – the Stone Age – have also been found at Samara, with evidence of tools and weapons located along the floodplains of the Milk and Apies rivers. One of the last of the Stone Age peoples, the San, inhabited Samara’s craggy hills until the late 19th century. Nomadic hunter-gatherers, they made their homes under rocky outcrops and in sheltered valleys, often with extraordinary views of the landscapes they called home. One such shelter has been found on Samara, with rock art dating back thousands of years. Uniquely, these San paintings depict the only known painting of a cheetah – fitting when one considers Samara’s cheetah conservation success.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European explorers set out to discover more about this ‘Place of Great Dryness’. Sent on reconnaissance missions by authorities in the Cape, many colourful characters passed through the Karoo, mostly hugging the more temperate mountain ranges rather than braving the arid flat plains. François Le Vaillant, a young French ornithologist, camped on the southern section of Samara by the Plaat River. Somewhat of an eccentric, he journeyed with a tame baboon called Kees, who acted as companion and ‘taster’ of all unknown foods. He also owned a cockerel which served as his alarm clock. Every evening without fail, he would dress up in his finest gear, lay out all his silver, and consume a four-course dinner by candlelight. His travel journals recount tales of vast herds of game, of leopards, black rhinos and buffalo. So huge and so numerous were the infamous Cape lion that he dared not travel with his oxwagon at night.

"Samara is special. It is in the centre of the Karoo, one of the most fascinating parts of South Africa. The Karoo is psychologically at the heart of South Africa and until you’ve experienced it, it’s almost impossible to understand South Africa’s history and psychology."

- LUCIA VAN DER POST, FINANCIAL TIMES

The famous David Livingstone also meandered through this corner of the Karoo, describing Graaff-Reinet, our local town, as ‘the prettiest little town in all Africa’. Dubbed ‘the gem of the Karoo’ by other early travellers, Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s 4th oldest town, founded in 1786 by the Governor of the Cape Colony, Cornelius Jacobus van der Graaff, whose wife’s maiden name was Reinet.

Initially a trading outpost, in 1795 it was declared a republic, the first in South Africa, by its fiercely independent and self-reliant citizens, in defiance of the colonial rulers in Cape Town. The republic exchanged hands between the Dutch and the British several times, until the Great Trek of 1835-1846. Some of the most famous leaders of this journey, which had significant ramifications in South African history, lived in Graaff-Reinet. Andries Pretorius, who commanded the Boer forces against the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River, owned the title deeds to Fonteinplaas, one of the 11 farms that constitutes Samara. He was instrumental in the creation of the South African Republic, and the country’s capital, Pretoria, is named after him.

Samara’s history is teeming with stories, and many fascinating characters made this land their home. During the Second World War, a German spy eked out an existence on top of Kondoa Mountain on Samara, reporting back to HQ on the movements of the British across the Plains of Camdeboo using a secret radio concealed in a hollowed-out wall. Olive Schreiner, famous author of The Story of an African Farm, lived in nearby Cradock. Eve Palmer, who wrote South African literary classic The Plains of Camdeboo in 1966, grew up on the Karoo farm of Cranemere, which shares a boundary with Samara.

It is the stories of these celebrated individuals, as well as those of the countless unnamed families who have endured the harsh conditions of the region for centuries, that weave such a rich tapestry of historical experience in this special part of the Karoo.

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