My eyelids are heavy from over 30 hours of nonstop plane travel, layovers, and driving as we approach our first stop in Namibia. But no amount of jetlag can keep my eyes closed, this is not something to miss. This is my first wildlife experience in Namibia.
Different types of antelopes take a break from munching on grass and stare at us as we drive by, making sure we’re not a threat before they go back to eating. A large bird’s head sticks out above the tall grasses. A family of baboons crosses the road.
We are at the Okonjima Nature Reserve, 140 miles north of the capital city of Windhoek. This reserve houses the AfriCat Foundation which rescues cheetahs and leopards that are injured or in danger, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into the wild.
Checking into accommodations in the middle of Namibian nature is not as simple as walking through a lobby to a front desk, going through a couple of formalities, and taking an elevator up to your room. First, you have the challenge of locating the main lodge. Once you’re there, they may serve you a welcome drink and invite you sit down, but there’s usually too much interesting stuff to observe to just sit there. If you’re lucky (like we were in this case), they’ll upgrade you or give you an extra room. Then you have to actually find where you will sleep which often involves a little walk or sometimes a drive to a secluded hut.
We leave the main lodge and find our huts which are beautiful and lavish inside minus the TV and mini-fridge of typical hotel room. As we settle in, I realized that the walls are actually made of tent material. For a second, I have visions of predators surrounding our room in the middle of the night before writing that off as an unlikely scenario.
At dinner time, we grab our flashlights and follow a footpath back to the main lodge. Each group or couple is seated at separate tables which seems a little funny to me after years of hosteling. With so few people out in the middle of nowhere, it seems strange to have it set up that way, but this is definitely not the backpacker trail. Glamping is a world of its own.
When you arrive at lodgings like this, they ask if you have any food allergies or restrictions. If you say you eat meat, meat is meat. You may get served plated dinners featuring eland or oryx meat. In the beginning of you’re trip, you’ll be puzzled about what you’re eating. And then when you’re driving around the following day, you’ll see some sort of antelope species, look it up in your guidebook, and realize that’s what you had for dinner last night. It’s as local and indigenous as you can get.
After dinner, we head straight to bed. We have to be up early the following morning because we have signed up to go on a morning tour to track a cheetah.
At breakfast, we meet our guide and his assistant, have a few bites to eat, and head out in a bonafide safari vehicle. Our guide has the distinguished voice of a television narrator and a deep knowledge of the wildlife and flora and fauna of the reserve. This is our own real life nature documentary.
We pause to observe animals in action including a pair of fighting warthogs and huge millepede. We get out of the truck at the top of a hill and spot giraffes below and then drive down to see them a little closer. They’re hidden behind the trees they’re eating, but every so often they raise their heads enough for us to see them more clearly.
And then it’s on to find a cheetah. Our guide explains that cheetahs and leopards run into problems when they wander onto farms and go after livestock. The foundation exists not only to rescue these cats, but also to educate farmers on how to deal when these types of situations arise and how to set up their farms in a way that will help them avoid confrontations with predators.
Eventually the tracking equipment lets us know that a cheetah is close by. We get out of the car to find her. We chose cheetah tracking because you are allowed to get out of the vehicle and get closer to the animal whereas in leopard tracking, you are required to stay in the vehicle. Cheetahs are less likely to attack you.
We find the cheetah and she has her back to us. We can see that she is in the middle of a meal. She is eating some type of antelope. Our guide explains that she has been hunting on her own and she is reaching the end of her rehabilitation phase and nearing a point where she can be released.
We stay several yards away and walk in a circle around her, quietly and slowly, careful not to make any movements that can be perceived as threatening. She eats her meal leisurely taking long pauses to look around. She has blood smeared around her mouth and our guide tells us they refer to that as cheetah’s lipstick.
At one point, she looks up and looks straight at us. She knows we’re watch her. And she goes on eating.