Emma Jude Jackson
Roam Private Game Reserve
"In the Karoo you seem to be going up a winding ascent, like the ramps that lead to an Indian fortress. You are forever pulling up an incline between hills, making for a corner around one of the ranges. You feel that when you get round that corner you will at last see something: you arrive and only see another incline, two more ranges, and another corner, surely this time with something to arrive at beyond. You arrive and arrive, and the more you arrive, and once more, you see the same vast nothing you are coming from.
Believe it or not, that is the very charm of a desert - the unfenced emptiness, the space, the freedom, the unbroken arch of the sky. And then it is only to the eye that cannot do without green that the Karoo is unbeautiful.
Every other colour meets others in harmony, tawny sand, silver-grey scrub, crimson-tufted flowers like heather, black ribs of rock, puce shoots of screes, violet mountains in the middle distance, blue fairy battlements guarding the horizon. And above all broods the intense purity of the South African azure, not a coloured thing, like the plants and the hills, but sheer colour existing by and for itself."
- Anglo-Boer War correspondent George Stevens (1900), from “The Historical Karoo” by Chris Schoeman.
Left to right: Don (lodge manager and extremely knowledgeable head guide at Roam), Agnes (from Spain, who is in South Africa for the duration of lockdown to set up her new ecotourism company) and Claire and Mark (who happened to be passing through the Karoo at the same time).
I heard this piece from “The Historical Karoo” by a fellow guest (thank you, Mark!) while out in the middle of nowhere, watching the sun set across the Karoo. It sounded so apt. We had just spent a good hour knocking about in the back of the Land Rover finding a completely remote and picturesque plateau to fully appreciate the Karoo's endless horizons from.
There are moments that really stand out in this environment and the setting sun is always one of them, and not only the sight of it but also the silence. Coming from a digital life in the city, my ears never fully adjust to the emptiness but they certainly try to. Second to silence, I love quintessence, like the sight (and sound) of a herd of gemsbok hooves galloping across the terrain, kicking up dust in their wake, silhouetted by the intense orange of a sky fading from azure to black. Sheer colour existing by and for itself.
The Karoo is majestic.
A fire waiting for us when we returned to the lodge.
I adore the Karoo and find any excuse to explore it, so with lockdown affecting interprovincial travel in South Africa at the moment, I decided to make the most of these unusual limitations and see what game viewing opportunities we have within the Western Cape.
Roam Private Game Reserve is a 5000-hectare conservation initiative in the Karoo's ancient and endless semi-desert landscape, located half way (kind of) between Prince Albert and Beaufort West. Offering both an escape from normal life (one with very limited cell reception) but also an education on rewilding the Great Karoo, I was fascinated to learn a great deal about the unique landscape and what it takes to both set up and run a game reserve. And then what it might take to run it for many, many, many years after that, because that is what real conversation is, a very, very, very long-term operation.
Game-abundant areas like the Kruger National Park are better known for traditional safari (and first-time safari-goers) but as I explore more and more of South Africa, I have been fortunate enough to spend time at other beautiful reserves (with meaningful and ambitious conservation stories), that offer a completely unique experience in some of the best and most accessibly remote wide open spaces we have in Southern Africa. I believe I have graduated to "seasoned safari-goer" now!
On first impression, Roam is a comfortable and homely manor house on an enormous farm, run by a wonderful and experienced couple who really care about what they do. The accommodation is extremely comfortable, the food is delicious, and there are many activities to keep you (and your kids, if you have them) busy. Or, you can lie around and do absolutely nothing just as easily. I opted for all the activities and spent almost as much time "out in the field" as I did back at the lodge. Game drives can run for anywhere between 2 and 4 hours and still feel so vastly different in the morning and evening as the light changes. Every drive feels like a brand new experience.
Highlights at Roam include tracking wild cheetah on foot and other notable species that can be spotted on wilderness walks and guided game drives include giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, bat-eared fox, zebra, kudu, springbok, gemsbok, ostrich, eland, meerkats and over 200 species of bird. Guests are encouraged to get involved in learning about the conservation side of safari, but can even partake in other activities such as mountain biking (I'm sure there are many a South African mountain biker who would love this place), and stargazing. Morning coffee in the bush and sundowners are a given. As is being the only vehicle on the road. In fact, the only vehicle as far as the eye can see, for days on end.
Another quintessential Karoo scene.
Can you spot him? There are discussions underway to have more intimate meerkat encounters in the future.
At Roam, you learn about much more than what you would expect of a typical safari. We were all fascinated by these fluffy stems (among other things), that were completely camouflaged by an abundance of quartz and the landscape. Like an animated spider emerging from under a rock.
Rocks may not be of much interest to everyone but they are to me and I left Roam with a deeper appreciation.
The main lodge has a small pool on a deck overlooking a watering hole. I can imagine that cooling off in this pool would be a welcome relief in the glorious but unrelenting Karoo heat during the Summer months.
Eggs Benedict on my first morning.
The meals at Roam exceeded my expectations. While you can opt for self-catering on exclusive-use of the main lodge, some of Roam's packages include all meals and now that I've experienced the lovely home-style cooking on offer, I think it's a steal. Abigail (Don's better half) prepared every meal for us with love.
Tracking cheetah on foot is a very special experience. Over the last few years, with the help of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Roam has successfully introduced three cheetah (brothers and a female) to the reserve and a highlight is tracking them on foot. We were able to get within 10 metres of them one morning, which is nothing short of thrilling. Due to the landscape at Roam, it is extremely difficult to keep track of cheetah however, so as part of the EWT rewilding programme and expanding the population, they are fitted with GPS collars to monitor behaviour and movements. If all goes according to EWT and Roam’s plan, there may be cubs to meet within the next year or 2.
You can see how they just disappear into the landscape. Being left to sleep in the sun in peace is every cat's dream!
Goes without saying in the bush.
Returning from a long morning game drive to a lunch set-up on the verandah.
The main lodge has been fitted with simple and comfortable African-inspired décor and accessories, including some beautiful weaving and beautiful fabrics. There is also a fireplace in the second lounge at the back for colder weather, and a shelf filled with books and board games. Roam is the kind of place where you could take advantage of exclusive-use and spend a week with family or friends really disconnecting from the outside world.
On the last morning, I was taken through another conservation exercise that I found to be fascinating, mainly because I was reminded of how far some birds travel across the world on their migratory routes. I find all migrations in the animal kingdom to be quite astonishing and birds are no exception.
Bird ringing is the process whereby registered ringers permanently mark wild birds to study their lifecycles (births, deaths, age of breeding and survival rates), habits, populations and movements. To do this, metal rings (marked with unique numbers) are attached to the bird for future identification. The birds have to be trapped in a net (some do get a bit tangled but none are harmed) before data is quickly captured and they have a tiny, almost weightless metal ring put around one of their legs. Then each bird is released, one of which I was able to release myself. So let it be known that there is now a wild bird named Emma, living out the rest of her days in the Karoo (and possibly even further beyond that too).
If you'd like to find out more about visiting Roam, you can connect with the team here:
Roam is suitable for couples, friends, families, young and old, beginners and more experienced safari-goers, and everyone who enjoys getting out into nature.
Speaking of birds, I think my most memorable moment from the whole trip (although there are several worth noting) was on the last night when we were making our way back to the main lodge after sundowners and we saw the perfect silhouette of an owl sitting in a tree in the distance, outlined by nothing but an intensely orange sky. A moment in memory of Terry Shean, veteran photographer and father to Claire, who passed away recently.
This was the perfect sighting to set me off on the next part of my road trip, which was to take me up to Graaff-Reinet and along the N9 and the Owl Route to Nieu-Bethesda. More photographs can be found in On The Road, a collection of photographs from various trips I've taken around South Africa over the past 2 years.