During my time in South Africa I visited two other animal sanctuaries and spent 4 days in Kruger National Park.
I’ll start with Kruger. It was awesome. Just getting there was incredible as it took us a day to make it to the edge of the park, where we stayed overnight before a very early start. It also gave us the chance to stop at Moholoholo animal sanctuary. Fun fact, Emma Watson once worked here. But more importantly there was a lot of animals including the wonderful honey badger, some huge vultures and a very friendly and quite terrifying giraffe in the car park. A really nice place to visit but really just a warm act for Kruger
We were at the entrance gate to Kruger when it opened at 6am.We arrived at Orpen gate which proved a very good move as within about 10 seconds someone shrieked “LION!” and sure enough a male lion strolled on by without giving us a glance. It was a pretty incredible start which was quickly followed by zebra, giraffe and all manner of antelope. This resulted in us seeing 4 of the Big 5 before lunchtime. The big 5 is the collective term of buffalo, lion, elephant, leopard and rhino. The only one we were lacking was the leopard.
So we stopped for lunch at Skukuza camp which is the centre of Kruger. As I was wandering around the gift shop a volunteer ran towards me and exclaimed “There is a leopard outside!”. After reactions that would rival a cheetah, I was at the riverbank looking for a leopard. Which I couldn’t see at first, until the girl that saw the leopard came back. She described to me exactly where the leopard was which was just as well as it was incredibly hard to see even with binoculars. All around us people walked by, either unaware or unmoved by the leopard, whilst we were buzzing for hours.
We saw a cheetah on the night drive which is a very rare occurrence and a really nice thing to see since we all worked in a cheetah sanctuary. Then next day our highlights were, a baby hyena and a serval which our guide had never seen in 10 years of monthly visits to Kruger. It was exceptionally lucky. There are animals everywhere from crocodiles to lions. It really is an amazing place for anyone into animals and it seemed such a natural place.
As we were leaving we received a reminder that humans run the park. A huge fire was raging. To stop invasive plants and a build-up of dead material, areas are periodically burned. The size of the fire was incredible, especially in a place that doesn’t have a fire service. Some workers with a hose on a pickup truck assured is it was deliberate and totally under control. However one pickup truck with a hose was hardly an effective control measure and you could easily imagine the fire getting out of control. Fortunately everything seemed calm at the exit gate and all we could see was a vast swathe of burnt material and a huge cloud of smoke.
Another human reminder quickly followed as two armed guards went past us on patrol. Poaching is still a huge issue despite foot and helicopter patrols. Every camp has a “Sighting board” where you can write what animals you saw and where, but even here you can’t report rhino sightings as poachers might find them first. Stopping the poachers is admirable but unless the consumers are stopped one poacher will replace another.
All in all an absolutely incredible place and it was nice to see people trying to protect wild animals. The same cannot be said for the animal sanctuaries we visited unfortunately, but more on that later.
So after the initial introduction to the animals, our days tended to follow a similar pattern. Up early to clean the enclosures and refill all the water buckets. As it was Winter this was very cold (as low as –10°C!) and often meant breaking ice on water buckets. We also fed the servals which was tricky as there were 3, 2 in one enclosure and 1 in the other. Unfortunately the two together were distinctly unfriendly and would try to take the food out of your hands with much snarling, teeth baring and swiping. Once all fingers and toes were accounted for we had breakfast and set about planning the days work.
Each day differed at this point, from painting to digging up rocks, deep cleaning the enclosures cutting up meat etc. One person always had to babysit the cubs, Rafa and Duke, which I imagine is far more fun than babysitting an actual baby. The cubs were full of energy early in the day and chased each other frantically for hours before the sun came up and they dozed in the heat. These times were fun as you could sit next to them and stroke them or give them toys to play with (although getting the toy back was tricky, cheetahs are very possesive). The cubs enclosure backed on to Shaka’s meaning they could see each other which led to some tense standoffs. Rafa would tend to backoff but Duke would stand his ground and hiss (a cheetahs’ way of signalling aggression) whilst Shaka looked on, clearly curious and bemused at the angry bundle of fur next door. Shaka was about 4 or 5 times the size of Duke and so Duke’s bravery may have just been stupidity but you have to give him credit for trying.
We also spent time with two adult cheetahs who were friendly enough to be approached, Nala and Jasmine. Nala was the original ambassador, a 9 year old female who was very friendly and lovely. Jasmine was the mother of the cubs and whilst friendly, she quickly became bored of adoring fans and wandered off to do her own thing.
As you may see, there was a Disney theme in naming the cheetah with one other being called Jade. Jade had a genetic condition were essentially she had flat feet (I know the feeling). She also had an aversion to males which made things tricky. She had been trained to take a chick from your hands which meant getting close and holding the chick above her until both front paws came up off the ground and she stood on her back legs before we dropped the chick into her mouth. Some days she would do this, others we would be forced to back off from the hissing, teeth baring cheetah. Incidentally the other cheetahs were called Tessa and Shakira thus ending the Disney theme.
Feeding occurred every day and was normally several kilograms of horsemeat for the cheetahs. Things got a bit tense at this point and cheetahs were very eager for meat regardless of whether or not your hand was on the bowl. Shakira liked to try and knock the bowl out of your hand whilst Jasmine felt obliged to put her face in it as you lowering the bowl to the ground, meaning her teeth were inches from your fingers. Tessa however was my favourite. She would crouch down behind some rocks as you entered and as you walked in she would sprint towards you and you had to put the bowl down before she got to you or else teeth baring and hissing would occur. There is an thrill about a hungry adult cheetah sprinting towards you that you just don’t get in daily life. That or I am just insane.
Cheetah feeding normally was followed by the zebra feeding, Don Juan and Hector, who were lovely but very timid and we sat for an hour or two watching them come close and back off several times before eventually feeding.
This was our routine every day but we had occasional field trips and surprises along the way. In hindsight I don’t approve of some events but we’ll get to those later.
I packed my bags and flew to South Africa to work in a cheetah sanctuary for a month. I made a few discoveries along the way. Firstly, long haul flights are very lonely and stressful on you own especially when you don’t sleep and arrive in a foreign country with a language that, in truth, only resembles English. I had 3 hours to wait between arrival and pickup, which is a long time in what I kept being warned, was a very dangerous airport. Indeed coming off the plane and seeing a desk marked “Firearm and Weapon Check in” did little to disprove this warning.
Nevertheless I sat in arrivals and met a lovely English girl called Emma who was out to do a volunteer project and so we passed the time and she filled me in on South Africa and all of her career aspirations and past experiences before being picked up and leaving me alone again.
I went to my pickup point and met up with 2 other volunteers and the project co-coordinator, Estelle, who drove us back to the centre. I visited in June which was Winter in South Africa . Everything was burnt by the sun making the entire country a dusty brown colour and the constant sunlight meant it was very warm. Grateful that I had packed lots of suncream (I once got sunburned watching fireworks) we drove on. The first thing we saw upon arrival was a large enclosure with two cheetah cubs. No matter who you are or how tired you are you can’t help but go “D’awww” and smile at a cheetah cub. It’s just a reaction.
There were already volunteers there when we arrived and they greeted us warmly and introduced themselves. I am not good with names and so instantly forgot all of them.
Some 20 hours of travelling I had finally gotten to the Cheetah Centre. “Dump your stuff and come back out and we’ll introduce you to Shaka” was the first request along with a wave in the direction of a cheetah who was eyeing us with considerable suspicion. We came out to find a harness clad Shaka sitting on a table in the enclosure with the volunteers round about and so we joined in, all of us a little shocked that we were this close to a cheetah some 5 minutes after arriving.
Shaka was being trained to be an ambassado,r which means he is on show to the public and people can stroke him and interact with him. However, he was only 11 months old and still a cub. This meant he was not overly keen to sit on a table and be stroked and so we had to train him. One by one we were asked to approach slowly and stroke him whilst Hardus, the animal keeper, kept him occupied with pieces of meat. After a few people and, several leaps from the table by Shaka, it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive and every sudden movement by Shaka was somewhat alarming. I managed to stroke him for a while which was interesting. Cheetah fur is quite rough and thick I discovered. Not unpleasant but not soft like a cat or dog.
A quick tour of the centre and introductions to the animals followed. 2 cubs, 6 adult cheetah, 3 servals, 1 caracal and 2 zebra. Again whose names I mostly forgot by the time I was writing my diary that night. All in all in an eventful day and this was before that work really started.