From our farm stop-over we headed for Sesriem and the dunes of Sossusvlei. We stopped over at a lodge campsite en route, where we discovered they did a big cat walk. They turned out to be rescue animals, which you could walk in with. Two Cheetahs, a Leopard and 3 Caracal. Most were raised from cubs whilst one, a naughty Caracal, had been caught killing sheep. The guide took us in to see the Caracal first, telling us we had to do an eye test before we could go in. We looked around, no caracal, but there had to be something we were missing. Then we spotted her, a Leopard sat right next to us in the adjacent enclosure. She was beautiful. Her name was Lisa and she had been raised from a cub. Unlike the other cats we couldn’t go in with her as she was too unpredictable. Leopards are solitary animals and the only other leopard they will tolerate (except when breeding) is their mother. The owner’s son was who she saw as her mother, and from the pictures we saw they obviously has an amazing relationship, but even he would check her mood before he visited. But she still loves company and misses the attention she got when she was a house cat (until she was about 3 years old), so we put our hands against the mesh fence as she rubbed her head and face against them. Wow.
The Caracal were pretty cool. Romeo, Juliet and Shakespeare. We couldn’t touch them but got fairly close. Shakespeare started purring as we approached him. We watched and admired for a while, then Romeo sidled over near him and the purr changed to a growl, so we left them to it and moved on.
Romeo and Juliet. Fancy one of these curled up on your lap?
Next were the Cheetahs. We went in to the enclosure and looked for them, finding the male, Bushman, first. Our guide called him. At first he was elusive, stalking behind a bush. Then he came into the open and crouched. Our guide called again. Suddenly the cat sprang forward and sped towards us. Err, keep nice and calm now and don’t run like some prey.… Taking our lead from our guide we stayed still. As you do. Bushman charged towards him and came to a skidding halt at his feet, giving him a rather boisterous rub and starting to chew at his leg. “NO, Bushman!”. “He wants to play with me!”. Riiiight…. Angela had rolled up trousers which she promptly rolled down for full protection. Gareth had shorts on… But he settled, walked across to Angela, flopped down across her feet and started purring, loudly like an engine. “You can stroke his head now”. She gently slid her feet from under the cat, crouched down and scratched his head. Oh yes, cheetahs like a head rub as much as your domestic cat. Behind the ears too. OMG. I can’t tell you how bizarre it feels to give a cheetah a head rub. An animal that could easily kill you. Amazing and not just a little nerve-tingling at the same time. Gareth leant down and gave / got the same treatment.
Bushman, who enjoys a head rub as you can see
We left Bushman and went looking for the female. She was lying under a bush. Her name was Wild and she was more reserved. She started purring and then slowly got up and went over to the guide. “I always wait for her to come to me” he said. We took his lead and waited and watched. He stroked her flank and she was settled. Then she walked across to Angela and rubbed alongside her, stopping for a gentle stroke, still purring. She then stepped over to Gareth and took a great deal of interest in his legs. Not sure if it was the sweat, sun cream or just his sweet smell but she started to lick his calves with a tongue that is designed to rasp flesh from bone! Gareth stood there not sure what to do, with feelings somewhere between amazement and nervousness with not a little pain thrown in. What do you do when a big cat starts licking you? Never show fear. Was she tenderising his calf ready for dinner? Or just intrigued by the taste. After a bit too long the guide said “You can move back if you want to”. OK, thanks, I might do that! That had the desired effect and she wondered back to the shade.
Wild – the calf-licker
On our way back we met Bushman again, who decided to have another run at us, again going for the guides legs. “He still wants to play” (he had known them since they were cubs) “but he cannot, he is big and a wild animal”. Indeed. We were a bit conflicted about keeping big cats like this in enclosures. Rescued or not, even though they had reasonable sized areas and were well looked after, they had nothing like the vast spaces they would inhabit in the wild. But the chance to get so close to them was incredible.
Next stop, the dunes.