An African Diary IX: Africat

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Day 20: Tuesday December 8th, 2015

Today we are leaving Ngepi. But oh how I love this place! The hippie vibes, the beautiful scenery, but most of all the work this lodge is doing to be sustainable and help out the local surrounding villages. Ngepi runs completely on solar power, all of their water is pumped from the river, they employ almost all of their staff from the once nomadic surrounding villages, they only serve wild game (no large domesticated animals), and they offer an incentive program to locals to plant trees and maintain them so as to ease the camps ecological footprint. The place is filled with adorable wooden signs reminding you to do your part. And the bathrooms! They were hands down the best I’ve come across in my travels. The walls were made of lanky sticks fashioned together into a six foot high fence, the showers were all fenced in with the same stick work (with no roof of course so you could look up to the heavens as you showered with the river water). Trees and vegetation covered the walls all over the shower section, creeping in from the surrounding vegetation. The shower platform itself was just a cute little dipped cement oval with a hippo carving at one end, and the shower head just floated above your head with the plumbing all hidden from view in a tangle of vegetation. It was like taking a rain shower in nature heaven! In the toilets you only had three stick fence walls – two on your side and one behind you – the front wall being left out so you sat and looked out into the thick tangle of forest while doing your business – as nature intended!

Our first morning, I woke up around 8am and had some fried eggs, three pieces of delicious home made bread and a cup of tea, and then sat to digest a while before heading back to camp for yoga. I had the space to myself again and savoured the privacy to practice alone with nature and my scenic view of the river. I inhaled the grass deeply each time my nose swept lightly over it with each cobra pose in my sun salutations.  After a glorious shower in their outstanding ablution facilities, we packed up and hit the road around noon. We had a solid four hour drive today to get to Roy’s Rest camp – our next stop.

Which turned out to be just that – a rest camp. Thus far, this was the only day on our near three week epic journey that we didn’t really do anything at all, nor have any excitement befall us… though we did have a very scary close call on our drive to this camp, when the left truck tire went off the side edge of the road. Keep in mind, in Namibia they do not have road shoulders, the asphalt simply drops away a perilous 12 inches to the dried, loose earth below.  Rug moved over to the left slightly to allow some leeway for a huge semi barreling our way, but our tire slipped off the edge and sent us out of control. Rug struggled to pull the tire back up the big drop off, as it pulled us the other way into the soft dirt. When we got it pulled back on to the road it caused the truck to lurch violently to the right – directly towards the back end of the semi.  We missed him by mere inches, tires squealing, hearts hammering in our mouths. So I suppose there was a touch of excitement, and a whole lot of adrenaline in our day after all, though not the usual kind we were hoping for!

Roy’s rest camp was a quaint little camp filled with eccentric and eclectic decor. It was definitely full of character with all the funky gadgets, statues and art hanging on the walls. We set up camp and went straight for the little pool.  We’d left the warm humid climate of Caprivi and were reaching back into that dry, unbearable heat of the desert lands. It was an early night after dinner as we wanted an early start tomorrow to reach our next and final destination – Okanjima, home of Africat!

Day 21, Wednesday December 9th, 2015

Driving along the B1 highway we powered through 350km and closed in on our next stop, the Okanjima Nature Reserve.   A massive black sheet-metal cut out of a running cheetah stood audaciously on the road as a gate and we knew that was our turn off.  As soon as we turned off, several warthog shot into the road, their tales pointing high. A few minutes later five giraffe were grazing beside the road with oryx and kudu mingled about.  We checked into Bush Camp (actual name!) where we were given information and then directed to the campsites about a five minute drive away. That afternoon they had the Africat tour available at 4 if we were interested to learn about the program and see some of the ambassador cats, ones that were either saved, but unable to reenter the wild because they wouldn’t survive due to previous lives in captivity – or some cats that were set to be released back into the wild soon and were currently in rehabilitation. Naturally, we signed up!

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We headed back to our camp to wait until the tour started. The campsite had a huge covered area where we could set up our table and chairs, a clothes line, a sink and counter bar, and plenty of room still for a dance party if we so wished.  We dropped our gear and headed straight for the pool, just a minute or so hike through the bush.  It was wonderfully refreshing and it amazed me how they could keep their pools so cool in such intense heat, while in Canada, all of our pools had to be heated!  After attempting to remove the 100 or so huge bugs that had collected in the crisp blue waters, we enjoyed a nice swim. After cooling down, I found as level of a space as I could for my mat in a bit of shade so I could get a practice in since we had two hours to kill before the Africat tour.  As I arranged my mat on the ground, I stood up and my head connected with the thorny acacia tree above me that was providing me with shade, and I cried out in pain. My buff was yanked off my head and I reached to feel tenderly where the pain was coming from and pulled out a large near inch long razor sharp thorn, now half red with my blood. I carefully moved my mat a safer distance and kept my eye on that tree! As always, in nature it was a beautiful practice, albeit the few bug encounters I always have.

I hopped back in the pool after to cool down again and then we began walking back to our camp along the little trail.  I thought I heard something in the bushes and suddenly RIGHT in front of me, a large male warthog emerged and stared at us. “Yikes!!! Warthog!” I announced to Rug, startled, and gingerly began to back away.  The warthog just stood there and looked at us. We backed away a safe distance and just stood there, unsure of what else to do. I had no doubt those long horns could do some serious damage to me if he felt so inclined. Rug began to toss small rocks in its direction in hopes of scaring it off, as we had come to a serious stand off, but the fellow didn’t even budge. “Yeahhhh, let’s just take the long way around on the road”, I suggested.  I had no plans of facing off with a warthog just to make it back to camp quickly.

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Our guides picked us up from our campsite at 4pm sharp and gave us the lowdown on what our tour would encompass and we set out in the open concept land cruiser.  We stopped several times, whenever our guides Impsa and Jisu spotted any wildlife, to give us information.  No tour we had been on thus far in Namibia had been nearly as informative and it was nice to be learning so much about the animals and birds we’d been getting to know so well.  I pointed out an oryx  as I always do because they are my favourite and Impsa said, “Ah yes oryx, the pride of Namibia! Our national animals! And you know why he is the animal of Namibia?  You will find oryx in all parts of Namibia, even the most unforgiving areas of the desert, because he is strong and resilient just like the Namibian people!”.

Now I knew why I was so immediately drawn to the oryx other than just his handsome regal look – he was like the Raven in the North, my home. The one creature that represents my home the most because they are so resourceful and resilient, just like the people of the North! They struggle through unbearable -40C winters, perched like frosted marble statues on the power lines and lamp posts, covered in hoarfrost, puffs of frosty breath coming from their nostrils, toughing it out – just like we do, year after year. Except, of course, that here in Namibia is was +40C!

We learned that the warthog (this being just after we saw about 20 right next to the vehicle!) was called such – because they had these lumps on their faces that looked like warts.  The males have four and the females only two. The younger ones have very pronounced tufts of white fur on the sides of their faces that look like a pair of tusks from a distance, which helps to fool predators. Once they grow a real pair, the whiskers fade away and are much less prominent. Neat!

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Our first top was to see Wahu – the celebrity leopard, so named, for that is the sound a mother leopard makes when searching for her babies.  He was brought to the Africat foundation when he was but a week old.  A mother had just had a littler of cubs and was moving them from one den to another (so her new birth smells wouldn’t attract an aggressive male) and Wahu had come out of the den alone while the mother was away. A nearby  farmer saw Wahu and called Africat, thinking it was a baby Cheetah (at this time Africat only worked with Cheetahs) and told them to come and rescue the cat. When they found out it was a leopard they asked the farmer to return it to where he found it so the mom might find it and move him. The farmer balked at such a suggestion. He’d lost enough live stock to leopards and threatened Africat that if they didn’t take it, he would use the cub as bait for the mother and shoot her and the cub. Thankfully, they interceded and took the cub.  Wayne, the founder of Africat – read his story here – took the cub in and bottle fed it every two hours for months and it lived in his home with him for two years. However, males will become territorial around the age of two, and Wahu’s instincts came in to play one weekend while Wayne was out of town. When he returned, Wahu tried to attack him when he entered the house because he had become territorial over his home. And so Wahu was given his own piece of land on the reserve and they began to use Wahu as the face of Africat and as an educational and research tool.  He was fed and cared for and given a large roaming area, but could never be released into the wild because he was raised from birth by humans and would be killed by the first male leopard he encountered in the wild.

So here we were in Wahu’s home.  We entered a long narrow wooden enclosure and sat down.  In front of us, about chest level from our seated positions, the enclosure was left open all along the entire length.  There was a gate that could be brought down quickly with one pull of a cord if anything threatening happened. So we felt quite safe.  Three slabs of donkey meat sat up on three different trees in the open space in front of us. Wahu came strolling in, elegant and powerful, his lithe body gracefully moved as he sniffed about. Following his nose, he nimbly hopped up on the first tree, repositioned himself to sit and began to gnaw on the hunk of meat and bone. He was breathtaking. His speckled body, his fur hanging loose around his well fed belly.  Wahu was 17 – most cats usually lived no longer than 15 in the wild. Yet Wahu held his huge regal head high, his intelligent eyes sparkled- still sharp and calculating.

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He went from one piece of meat to the next, jumping up and down from the trees like it took no more effort than to yawn.  He pulled one of the bones down and came and sat right in front of us to chew on it and then to lick himself meticulously clean.  It was beautiful to get to see Wahu so up close and personal and he looked like a very happy kitty indeed. While I’m no fan of animals in captivity, Wahu had a 9km range for his kingdom all to himself, and while that’s a small area for a large cat, remember that he lived in a house his first two years of life.  Zoo’s hardly have enough space for their animals to pace about, heaven forbid they leave the viewing area of the paying customers.  And more importantly, remember that Wahu doesn’t have the skills to be on his own, having been raised by humans – to let him out into the reserve would be the end of him.  Instead he has his own little kingdom, is well cared for, fed daily and has most importantly been an educational tool for over 40,000 young people. Africat has tried to reason with and educate the older generation who are the farmers which the cats currently have the most confrontations with, but it hasn’t been successful.  The farmers want only to kill all the predators to protect their livestock.  Africat has tried to offer helping them build pens for their livestock for night time when most attacks happen, suggested cow bells on all stock, and taking dogs in the field (all noise will deter a cat from hunting as it thinks it’s been spotted), but farmers want nothing to do with it.  They see no point in having such predators, see no value in their lives. Instead they allow trophy hunters to come in and set up barbaric traps.

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So Africat has instead turned to focus their energy on the youth of the next generation of farmers.  By bringing in so many youth to Africat, they are learning by seeing up close these beautiful threatened animals, learning the value of their lives contribution to the circle of life, and it is Africat’s hope that these encounters and this knowledge touches the children’s hearts and stays with them because it is they who may be the ones inheriting the farms.

We left Wahu to his cleaning and carried on to the next stop which was to see the Africat clinic where they do all of their check ups and medical work on the cats and to learn more about the program and its history.  A Scottish fellow by the name of Jim Maltman loved Africat and its mission so much that when he passed on he left his house and land back in Scotland to the non profit organization.  They sold the house and land and with the money were able to build their beautiful clinic and procure the medical gear needed to sustain it.  And of course, the clinic was named after ‘Wee Jimmy’.  There was one room that had  taxidermied zebra, oryx, eland, lioness, cheetah, lepoard, dik dik, steenbok, hartbeest, wildebeest, springbok and kudu (and no, none of these were poached!).  It was crazy to stand right next to them and see how huge they really were! When you’re used to seeing them from inside a large vehicle it distorts your perception of their size.  They were all so huge!  Okay, except the dik dik, steenbok and springbok which are the smallest of  the antelope family.

There was a display wall for people who come and want to “adopt a spot”, where for $200N you can help the animals, or for $2500N a year, you can adopt a Cheetah. We saw the costs of just feeding a cheetah for a year and this place relies solely on donations and volunteers to keep up and running! I knew Rug and I just had to adopt one! We talked about it among ourselves briefly and decided before we left the park we would look into it more.  And finally, after learning all about Africat, cheetahs and leopards in general, and seeing pictures naming each of the cats they had on the reserve, we were off to go visit the cheetahs themselves!

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They had three very large fence enclosures side by side.  The first had two brothers named Peanut and Raisin.  We drove in and had to drive around until we spotted them relaxing in the middle of a red earthen patch. We slowly approached them and they craned their agile necks to follow our every move, but clearly didn’t want to get up and move from their relaxing position. We got surprisingly close and they laid their watchful eyes on us and then ignored us. I couldn’t believe we were 30 feet away from two cheetahs! These are not tame friendly cheetahs, they are very wild, just currently in rehabilitation before being released back into the reserve to ensure they can fend for themselves and have the best chances for survival.  They let us know when we got to close as they would show their teeth just like a house cat when it hisses.  But otherwise they merely watched us and then continued to bask on the ground.

The next enclosure had four cheetahs which were even more difficult to spot.  Each was named after a type of plane and we found them hiding under a tree as it had begun to rain lightly.  They sat cleaning themselves and each other. What better time to bathe than in the rain! They watched us momentarily and then ignored us as they went back to their grooming.  They were so beautiful, so striking to watch! The last enclosure had three males under one tree and two females (all siblings) under a tree just across the way, all hiding out from the rain, yawning and bathing. The sisters began to clean each other and it was so precious to watch! All of the cheetahs yanwed so frequently, I started to yawn myself! But I did at least manage to get some great shots of them mid yawn! And they are far more photogenic mid yawn than I am, let me tell you!

It was such an incredible day, to learn so much about these big cats, these endangered, threatened, beautiful animals, and the organization that is trying to rehabilitate them back into the wild.  I couldn’t believe how close we were able to get to see them so intimately! It was decided then and there that we would sign up for cheetah tracking in the morning – we wanted more of this awesome place and these remarkable creatures!

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Day 22: Thursday, December 10, 2015

It rained most of the night, the steady knock of the drops on the tent roof was soothing and rhythmic like a lullaby. It also managed to drown out the sounds of whatever creature it was that got into our cooler that we stupidly left out on the covered platform area in the corner. My guess is baboons, only because the only thing they took from the cooler were the bananas -typical 😛  The alarm clock woke us up at 6am and we quickly got ready. I splashed my face with cool water in an attempt to shake the sleep from my eyes. I needed them to be in top shape this morning because we were going cheetah tracking!

Impsa and Josu picked us up at 630am and we were off. It was cool this morning, the dark ring of clouds still hanging low in the sky, threatening, and a damp wind was blowing from the east. The sun was up but there was no sign of him.  We cruised to a mountain top to try and get the best signal for the tracking equipment.  All of the cats were collared with satellite tags in in them.  Within a few kilometres of us, we detected a couple of cheetahs and two leopards.  We went for the strongest and closest signal, and headed down the mountain into the open plains below.

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It wasn’t long before the signal peaked and our guides spotted her long before we did, their eyes so well trained, mine still swimming with sleep.  She was lying down, face buried in her freshly caught breakfast, a baby impala. Everyone – meet our girl, Dizzy! She is 8 years old.  She was released into the reserve after her rehabilitation in 2012 and since then has had two litters of four cubs. Unfortunately, none of the first litter made it to adulthood. Three of the four from her second litter made it, but sadly, one by one they all succumbed to the wild, despite Dizzy’s best parenting efforts.  Dizzy herself took a venomous snake bite to the eye and was left half blind. Her grown cubs had learned to hunt from her and so were able in turn to take care of her and hunt for her when she was ill.  Giraffe head bashes, zebra kicks and other harsh realities of the wild left Dizzy childless once again, having outlived all 8 of her babies. I couldn’t help but think how heartbreaking her story was, and yet how resilient she is! And so it goes without saying how exciting it was for us all to to see her fending for herself and feeding herself, a successful hunt, even with one eye missing, considering cheetahs are very reliant on their eyesight.

We parked the jeep and then, after careful instructions from Impsa, got out and walked single file, always ensuring to stay within her sight.  We walked up to her until we were – and I’m not kidding you – 15 feet away from her – FIFTEEN FEET from a wild, feeding cheetah.  She didn’t even glance at us. She would look from time to time to her left, at the prompt of some unheard by us sound, but otherwise continued to enjoy her breakfast, gnawing through the tiny undeveloped bones of the baby antelope.  It was undoubtedly one of those spectacular moments of my life where I couldn’t believe it was even real life and not some crazy dream. I was out in the wild, and 15 feet in front of me was a cheetah eating a fresh kill.  I felt so happy for her in that moment. The African wild is a harsh place, one not many survive, and yet here she was after all her trials, surviving!

We stayed about 10 minutes standing there, watching her enjoy her breakfast, all the while hearing the sad and plaintive calls of the mother antelope just off in the distance calling for her baby. A harsh world indeed, but that was the circle of life. It is so fascinating to reflect on that lesson the Lion King taught me when I was 8 years old, and to come to Africa and see it right before my eyes, 15 feet away.  We left Dizzy to eat in peace and went in search of any of the other cats that were near. We tracked a very shy male leopard to within 50 metres, but never got a glimpse. We tracked a female leopard to a dense thicket but again missed seeing her. It was so exciting hearing the tracker beep louder and faster the closer we got, our drivers expertly maneuvering us through the reserve. There were a few close calls with the heavy rains, and some muddy deep spots that we very nearly got stuck in! We went in search of the other cheetahs but they were on the move, most likely hunting in the cool morning.

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We began to head back and gave one more try for the female leopard, but she was still in the thicket.  We got closer and closer, but kept losing her in the thicket.  The guides caught a glimpse of her, but my untrained eyes were no match and I couldn’t spot her, nor could Rug. I finally took out the binoculars and then was sure I spotted about 50 leopards hiding in the bush! I was now convinced that leopards had the absolute best camouflage! Everywhere I looked, I was sure I was seeing the beautiful spotted coat of a leopard hiding in the bush. It would take almost 30 seconds of staring and refocusing to finally realize no, it was just grass and trees all crossed together that somehow looked exactly like a leopards coat. I finally gave the binoculars up because I was just getting too excited thinking I was always seeing her! We left and tried from a path on the opposite side of the thicket to see if we could get closer and spot her. The signal was stronger here so we sat and waited in silence… and lo and behold, out saunters MJ, our girl!

She’s the oldest of the leopards out in the wild on the reserve at 15 years old and has a grown brood of cubs out there all living solitary lives.  Leopards are much more territorial and aggressive than cheetahs, so we weren’t going to be getting out of the vehicle this time! The bush was too thick as well, making it even more dangerous.  MJ came out, her camouflage still impeccable, but at least we got to see her. She was profoundly beautiful. She sat down and stared directly at us. She sat there, unmoving for five minutes simply staring at us, us staring back, she mildly curious, us utterly enthralled. She was completely silent and we didn’t hear a single twig snap or a branch move when she approached nor when she had had enough of us and slipped back into the thicket.

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Leopard tracking is difficult. These animals don’t like to be seen and are highly reclusive. The fact that she came out to see us, to investigate was amazing as leopards usually run and hide from the sound of an oncoming vehicle.  We considered ourselves very lucky indeed! Three hours had gone by in a blur and we made our way back to camp.  I thanked Impsa profusely for all of the knowledge he shared with us and for his awesome tracking skills. He was hands down the most informative and knowledgeable guide we’ve had in all of our time in Namibia. It was the absolute perfect way to end our time in this miraculous country.  Three weeks had just flown by! I couldn’t believe we were already at the end of our awesome self-drive safari tour through my first African country! As always, every day seems to top the last with some truly remarkable and unforgettable experience. Being a cheetah lover since I was little, it was a fairy tale perfect ending!

Stay tuned for one last Africa post as I extended my trip to Namibia to visit with my friends family, the Von Hagen’s, who so graciously and generously took me in for an extra almost two weeks. Coming soon!

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