By Cameron Wilson
At Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park in northern Namibia, you get to meet the cats and give them a good scratch behind the ears.
Usually, this goes off without a hitch, but six-year-old Zeeu has snagged a tooth on my tatty T-shirt and now we’re both wondering how to extricate ourselves.
She had started out licking my shoulder, then progressed to an investigative nibble.
But we straightened all that out, and now Zeeu and I are best of friends, so I can get back to chatting with Tollie, patriarch of the Nel family, whose farm is steadily turning into a home for Namibia’s dispossessed wild cheetahs.
“There are 7500 cheetahs in Africa, and 2500 of them are here in Namibia,” Tollie says.
“The trouble is, they all live on farmland where they can be legally shot if they are a threat to livestock. Relocation doesn’t work, because the moment a cat is released it goes back to familiar hunting territory.”
These wonderful cats and the people determined to save them are what brought me to Namibia, but my encounter with Zeeu is the tail-end of a trip that began nearly three weeks earlier, when I set out on a camping trip with Wild Dog Safaris.
Our group (10 plus two guides) was barely out of the capital Windhoek before I discovered a couple of profound truths: a good bush shower is the best thing in the entire world and the sound of lions at night is thrilling and not scary at all.
Even for an African first-timer like me, big-cat communication is easily grasped. The roar-moan of a lion says “I’m here, Aslan is in his heaven and all is right with the world”; the polite cough of a leopard says, “Um, I’m here, but please don’t tell the lions”.
The joys of a bush shower and big cats for company were highlights of our stop at the Africat Foundation, a non-profit group whose mission is to save Namibia’s large carnivores and find solutions to alleviate conflict between them and the farmers.
Here we met rescued leopards, cheetahs and lions being rehabilitated for release back into the wild.
Our first sunset game drive at Etosha National Park on day three left me similarly moved. The light was soft and brilliant all at once, picking out colours on the birds so startlingly pure, words such as turquoise and magenta were invented to describe them.
When our driver, Willem, pulled over for a bit, we sat in silence near a shallow pool where an ancient bull elephant was drinking alone.
Despite his size, he could have been vulnerable to predators, yet an act of violence in this moment seemed unimaginable – as if the entire continent was holding its breath at the sheer impossible beauty of an African sunset like none that had come before or ever would again.
As our vehicle rattled along the park’s rough, chalky roads, giraffe and zebra with little ones in tow were twitchy and quick to canter off.
A pair of elephants bush-bashed away from us through the acacia trees, hips swaying and ears flapping in a show of indignation at this rude mechanical intrusion.
Then Willem turned left and the acacias and spiky grasses thinned and abruptly vanished and, through the shimmering heat haze, we were suddenly faced with the astonishing spectacle of four oryx standing at what looked like the edge of the world.
The Etosha Pan is a giant salt lake which occupies a quarter of the park and provides the animals with a limitless source of mineral salt-lick.
Against this stark, featureless backdrop, it was also immediately clear why the oryx was chosen as Namibia’s national symbol: the handsomely painted face, muscular gait and lethal symmetry of the metre-long horns portray a seriousness of purpose its daintier antelope cousins, the impala and springbok, could not hope to muster.
A few days later we had reached the Naukluft mountains at Sossusvlei, widely held to be Africa’s most beautiful desert landscape.
It was not easy to abandon my safari buddies on our last day together, but it had been a record rainfall year and the Namib Desert was carpeted in grass and wildflowers for the first time in three decades.
The Wild Dog crew headed off for a sunrise trek into the dunes; I was going to see them from a hot-air balloon.
Travelling at exactly the same speed as the wind means you have no sense you’re moving at all so, in a balloon, the earth slips by beneath you as if on a giant conveyor belt.
Things felt so completely still that when I spied an ostrich sprinting, a burst of sand erupting with each footfall, its movement seemed unrelated to real time or the real world.
And so, at last, being nibbled by one of the cats at Otjitotongwe becomes the perfect remembrance of my visit to Namibia – world cheetah headquarters.
The Nels (Tollie, wife Roeleen and son Mario) are getting on with trapping nuisance cheetahs on nearby farms and giving them a safe home.
The 19 cats fenced in on their property undoubtedly still feel wild – they are fed haunches of oryx, donkey and kudu only because there is insufficient prey inside the 240ha enclosure to sustain them.
I fancy there’s a twinkle in Tollie’s eye when he tells me that some inquisitive wart-hogs regularly burrow under the fence and kudu leap over it.
“They don’t last long,” he tells me. “We’re hoping to double the area when we can afford the fencing.”
The gruff Afrikaaner farm-boss is now nowhere to be seen. “I wouldn’t mind turning the whole place over to the cats one day,” Tollie confides.
The Sunday Telegraph