Whistling for cheetahs in Namibia

by annhills

Who needs breakfast at Tiffany's when you can have brunch with cheetahs? At Okonjima in Namibia, you can see these elegant creatures at close quarters and witness wildlife conservation at work

A particularly spellbinding moment in my life came during a stay at Okonjima, home of the AfriCat Foundation, when I stood in an open-topped Jeep and called in five cheetahs for a spot of brunch. Situated in the area of Otjiwarongo, AfriCat is a non-profit organisation committed to the long-term conservation of Namibia's large carnivores, especially cheetahs and leopards.

At the lodge

We stayed in a small bungalow situated in the garden at Okonjima, overlooking the large open-plan lodge and the open-fire entertainment area. The garden, which was a mass of colourful flowers, had a small lawn with chairs and sunshades to relax on and a pool for the birds and small wildlife to drink from. That evening, we were welcomed into the Lapa (the 'gathering place'), which is an enclosure of large wooden stakes, several feet high, situated just behind the main lodge. The Lapa contained seats and a large warming campfire. We all took our seats and the rangers sang and played instruments, trying to get everyone to join in, before we walked over to the main lodge for dinner.

Eating meals in an open-fronted, thatch-roofed building was a new and pleasurable experience, as we sat in the cool dining area and looked out over the garden. The sun suddenly disappeared - a strange experience, as it happens so quickly. From lovely setting sun one minute to night the next - it seemed that fast!

In the darkness, we set off to a high parapet overlooking a large barren area. All the leftover fruit had been put out for the animals and we sat watching as black-backed jackals and porcupines tucked in to it. Tiredness overtook us and we headed back to the bungalow, only to be told that later that night a lion had graced the leftover feast.

Brunch with cheetahs

The following morning, we set off early in an open Jeep. Although you cannot have contact with the animals that are to be returned to the wild, there are opportunities to see other animals; for example, tracking a leopard that has a radio transmitter collar, or watching lions feed from behind the safety of a very high fence. However, for me the most beautiful and elegant creature to walk the planet is the cheetah. AfriCat has five that cannot be returned to the wild, and they are used by the rangers to explain the work of the foundation. We drove into the park (taking care not to lean too far out of the jeep, as the thorn bushes are painfully sharp) and looked around to see if we could observe any cheetahs.

The Jeep stopped and all was quiet. The ranger explained that he was to whistle for the cheetahs and they would be given titbits while the rangers told us all about them and the work of AfriCat. I asked if I could whistle in the cheetahs myself. I have always been able to produce an ear-splitting whistle, learnt at a young age and very useful when my children and dogs were outside playing and too far away to hear me shouting. (My two grown-up children still look round if someone whistles loudly; training lasts a lifetime.)

Happily, the ranger agreed to my request, so I stood on the Jeep and whistled two or three times, but saw no movement anywhere - until quietly and majestically out of the bush strode the first cheetah, followed by another, and another, until all five were in view and circling the Jeep. Cheetahs close up are the most elegant creatures, and our faces lit up, watching them patrol around the Jeeps, waiting for some food.

The rangers explained all about AfriCat’s work to save these beautiful animals, which were by now impatiently crying for food or sleeping in the shade next to the Jeep. The cheetahs were given pieces of meat, either thrown a little distance away so they loped after them or thrown into the air, where they leapt athletically to catch a morsel. It was brilliant to watch and occasionally jaw-dropping. Once fed, the cheetahs knew the show was over and there would be no more food, so they strode elegantly back into the bush. It was impossible to follow their movements, even after they'd gone only a few yards into the undergrowth, but they left an impression on everyone there. After a few minutes of silence and calm, we left.