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wet and wild

So long as we were making our way north – first along the Namibian coast, and then through desert and scrubland – it was pretty easy to stay in the moment. But Etosha was the turning point, both literally and figuratively. There is no more green space further north until one crosses the border into Angola, so after three nights in Etosha, we turned back towards Windhoek, acutely aware that our Namibian travels were drawing to a close.

We had one last stop on our itinerary – a small, private conservancy at Okonjima, halfway between Etosha and Windhoek, operated by the AfriCat Foundation. This organization does remarkable work, rescuing orphaned cheetahs and leopards and rehabilitating them into the wild.

Farmers in the surrounding hills falsely consider these small predators a menace to their livestock. When the mother is killed, the kittens rarely survive, but AfriCat gives them a second chance. The dozens of cheetahs and leopards that now roam the 55,000-acre game reserve were all rescued before they reached their first year; some were just a month or two old. Unlike the pitiable pet cheetahs we saw at Bagatelle at the start of our trip, the cats at Okonjima live a normal life. AfriCat raises and releases them back into the wild, where they are monitored but otherwise left to hunt and live on their own.

We only had one night at Okonjima, but wished we had stayed longer. The terrain is covered with lush vegetation. It reminded us of the Kenyan conservancies we so loved, and stood in stark contrast to the arid, treeless plains of Etosha. And the land was teeming with wildlife – giraffes, kudus, springbok, steenbok, warthogs, impalas, waterbuck, and more – we saw tons of birds and animals on our short drive in.

With just one afternoon drive at our disposal, we had to be selective. Many of the cats are collared, so it’s possible to pinpoint their location with the help of a radio transmitter. However, because the terrain is vast one must choose whether to go cheetah or leopard tracking. We chose the latter, but by the time we set out it was clear that our game drive would be cut short by rain.

Watching the storm clouds sweeping in from the west, our driver pointed the car in the opposite direction – away from leopard territory. This proved a wise decision. We found a group of four cheetahs reposing in a thicket. The guide grabbed a massive stick and then motioned for those of us with cameras to join him as he climbed out of the car. Slowly, without making any sudden movements, we circled the cats to get some good pictures.

No sooner had we returned to the vehicle than the first drops of rain started falling. The downpour was ferocious, and shortly after we left the cheetahs our guide got a call on the radio. The rain was of sufficient intensity that the home base called back all the cars – we had to ford a small river, and the staff was concerned that we might get stranded by the swelling waters if we stayed out too long. We felt fortunate that the timing worked out at least for us to see the cheetahs, and this was before we returned and learned that other tour groups had to abandon their safaris entirely, without even seeing the cats.

We saw and did a lot in two weeks, but given Namibia’s sheer vastness, it was too little time to do the country justice. With another week at our disposal, we would have loved to venture further south to the Fish River Canyon and, even more so, spend some time in the Zambezi region. This faraway strip of land that protrudes east towards Botswana’s Okavango Delta encompasses several national parks, which host hundreds of birds and animals. If we do return to Namibia, another visit to Okonjima will be a must.

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