Way back in the mists of time – just over ten years ago – I had the good fortune to spend almost five months in Namibia. Around a month of this involved taking a road trip.
I was travelling with Someone at this point. But I’m thinking that he will probably value his anonymity, so let’s call him Spock. Not such a random name, as he is a doctor! (Sorry to disappoint anyone who thought I was travelling with a logical, emotionless alien.)
So Spock and I had set off travelling north from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We were keen to travel as far north as we could, and decided to head to the Epupa Falls on the border with Angola.
Our guidebooks very clearly told us to not even contemplate going that far in ‘a saloon car’ as eventually the roads disappear, so we hired a 4×4 Toyota bakkie, with a roof tent – the best kind of tent ever! This meant that we could make use of the many campsites along the way, often run by local communities or by families.
One of the most exciting things for me when I travel, is seeing animals in their natural environment. We had been privileged to see a lot of the famed desert elephants on our travels already, and had also seen other animals like warthogs, springbok, and the magnificent kudu. I had once heard lions roaring, and Spock claimed to have seen a leopard.
But I really wanted to see cheetahs.
You know, cheetahs? These beautiful spotted cats with the black ‘tear marks’ and the thick banded tails. The ones we become emotionally invested in through watching The Big Cat Diaries or David Attenborough’s whispered commentaries on the BBC. The almost-endangered cheetah that we make donations to the World Wildlife Fund to protect. Those cheetahs!
I had discovered that, despite having the largest population of wild cheetahs in the world (or maybe because of it, as over 90% of these live outside established game reserves on what is now livestock land[i]), cheetahs are often shot as vermin in Namibia. It is a common problem in many countries in Africa where the needs of the expanding population encroach on the land used by the animals, leading to all manner of issues from destroyed crops to deaths of children.
With the worldwide known cheetah population only standing at around 7,500 adults, each cheetah counts. Somewhat disturbingly, I had had a long conversation with a woman whose job it was to go to hunting fairs in Germany and the USA to sell hunting licences to shoot animals such as elephants, lions, and of course, cheetahs. The road to the airport from Windhoek had at least five taxidermist businesses, offering their services to hunters who were presumably driving to the airport with their dead ‘kill’ in the boot, and would drop them off to be taxidermed. And presumably have the resulting horror Fed-ex’d to them at home.
I can see no pleasure in this myself, and my travel journal of the time is, at that point, just one long rant against the whole idea.
With a lot of distance to cover, we had to plan ahead where we wanted to spend each night. On that particular day, I recorded in my travel journal that we were running very late, due to Spock taking literally hours, to get ready in the morning. (You see – I was right to change his name – less likely to face a libel suit). We had planned to reach Opuwo before darkness fell, but ended up chasing the sun as it dropped low in the sky somewhere near Kamanjab, still several hours away from our destination. As in many parts of Africa, it is not advisable to drive in Namibia in the dark. Large critters like elephants are likely to step in front of the vehicle, and they tend to win every time. So I was flipping through the guidebooks looking for somewhere to stay, while also scanning the road, when I spotted a sign which said the magical words ‘campsite’ and ‘cheetah’.
For some reason, I didn’t record the name of the campsite in my journal, just left a blank space, obviously hoping to fill it in later. It was an enormous farm – thousands of hectares. But the information we read there said that the farmer had hand raised some cubs after their mother had died, and he and his family decided to open up their property to provide a safe environment for cheetahs. He would go to other farms where cheetahs were reported to be a problem and at risk of being shot, and would trap them and bring them back to his farm, which quickly became a reserve. He even paid the other farmers for the privilege of doing so.
There weren’t many other people camping there, and we’d arrived too late to watch the evening feed when the son of the family threw chunks of meat to the pregnant cheetahs and those with cubs in the fenced off reserve. I’m not actually sure that this as something I was keen to see anyway. But there were a few of these lovely big cats sitting in the shade behind the wire fence, incredibly beautiful close up. Not quite their ‘natural habitat’, but at least they were safe.
The next morning, we went to the farmhouse to pay for our campsite use. It was a low building, surrounded by a high chain link fence, with a large sign attached saying
DON’T ENTER – RING BELL
We got out of the bakkie, and Spock rang the bell. Two full grown cheetahs promptly came galloping down the driveway towards us. I probably sprinted just as fast as they did, back into the truck, leaving Spock to take his chances and accept his fate.
The farmer appeared, and laughed at me as he petted the heads of the cheetahs who pressed around him. He told us to come in, but to be calm and not make any sudden movements.
The cheetahs were tall, about half way up my thigh, and absolutely beautiful in their elegant poise.
“Let them get your scent first, then you can stroke them,” the farmer advised. They nuzzled me and Spock and obviously decided that we were alright.
Petting cheetahs! What an amazing, unexpected pleasure. They were just so lovely, nuzzling my hands, and angling their heads so I could scratch them underneath their chins and behind their ears. And, just like any contented cat, they purred, but this purr was as loud as a tractor. A deep clattering rumble from far in their throats. They looked totally blissful. Their fur, which I had naively assumed would feel soft like cat fur, was wiry, but not rough, thick but also somehow silky. Their tongues were as rough as sandpaper, and they seemed to enjoy exfoliating my knees and arms. The farmer prosaically advised me that they do this to their kill, to get rid of the skin to get to the flesh.
I could have stayed there all day, petting the cheetahs and finding out more about them, but I think that the farmer needed to get on. And we had to make up for lost time the day before. I was reluctantly dragged away.
I have since read that cheetah cubs, when they have been orphaned and are hand reared, cannot be returned to the wild as they depend on their mother to teach them how to hunt and kill – how to be cheetahs. I am also sure that I heard somewhere that they grow up to become more like dogs in their behaviour. Except for the purring.
As I hadn’t noted the name of the farm in my travel journal, I had to do some detective work to find it for this post. I knew that it was north of Otjiwarongo and Kamanjab, but south of Opuwo. There were a couple of possibilities, but it wasn’t until I saw photos on a review that I recognised the farmer in one of them. It’s called Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guest Farm, but campsite looks more luxurious than I remember, with a bar and a pool and several bandas. But that’s maybe just time and memory – and the cheetah experience wiping away all trace of anything else! Some of the reviews complain that it lacks an authenticity of experience, and it does seem that there are a lot of visitors, and that the encounters with the hand reared cheetahs more orchestrated, but from what I read, there are over 20 cheetahs who live there as wild in the enclosed farmlands. So maybe we were just fortunate to be there when we were, and when it was quiet. And, whatever your experience, it cannot take away from the fact that the lives of these increasingly rare animals are being preserved in a country where they seem to be fair game to anyone with a gun.
But for us, it was a spur-of-the moment needs-must overnight stop, which gave me one of the most magical experiences of my time in Namibia. And for that, I do have to thank Spock for his tardiness in the mornings!
For more information about cheetahs, have a read of
Or have a look at the website of the Cheetah Conservation Fund
[i][i][i] This statistic is taken from the third edition of the Namibia Handbook, published by Footprint Handbooks Ltd