Sue Watt discovers a special lodge in Namibia’s Central Highlands whose residents include 30 rescued cheetahs, 35 leopards and three wild dogs.
Love leopards and cheetahs? Then you’ll love Okonjima. I stayed here recently and loved everything about it. Its two lodges, Plains Camp and Main Camp, are beautiful. The service and food are second to none. But what really blew me away are its cats and dogs.
Okonjima’s lodges fund their AfriCat Foundation which during 21 years has rescued and rehabilitated over a thousand big cats. But as they’ve learned more about cheetah conservation, their focus has changed to educating local communities on living with big cats instead of killing them. And rather than relocating rescued cheetahs to new areas with all the dangers and uncertainties that involves, they now provide a home for them in their own recently extended reserve, spanning 200 square kilometres. Many animals are collared for monitoring and research, virtually guaranteeing good sightings and, for keen photographers like my partner Will, some great photographic opportunities.
Using telemetry equipment, we first track cheetah on foot with our guide Previous. He carries only a stick and a radio for protection. The louder the beeps, the closer we are to the three cats we’re tracking. Aged 20 months, they’re all siblings and only Nebo, the female, is collared. Suddenly, they’re right in front of us on a dusty orange track, walking calmly away. They turn to look at us then lie down just five metres from us, all in a row, dozing in the morning sun and posing for the camera.
Then we go looking for leopards, not on foot this time - far too dangerous – but on a game drive. Leopards are notoriously elusive and Will has never seen one. Picking up a collar signal, we drive into the valley to look for Maha and her 14 month cub. Thick scrub and thorny acacias get in the way. But finally we spot mum drinking from a puddle then ambling through long grasses to rest by a termite mound while cub rests in a tree, watching us through straggly branches. We stay with them for a blissful hour, cameras clicking while the leopards chill.
And the wild dogs? They’re even more elusive and have always eluded me. But Okonjima doesn’t let us down. Ruby, Raine and three-legged Rex (presumably injured in a fight) had been buried alive in a bin bag by a farmer before being rescued, along with four other pups who didn’t survive. Three years on, they’re thriving. It might seem like cheating to find them by telemetry. But with only 4000 remaining across Africa, we’re lucky to be seeing them at all. Their saucer-shaped ears pop up through the grass and I watch them in awe as they prowl around, leaving the camera by my side as Will snaps away.