We booked for the classic game-drive as our first experience to get a broad perspective of Namibian bushveld animals and identify which game we had already eaten at local restaurants.
Düsternbrook is less than 30 miles north of our apartment in so we decided to drive out there on Sunday around noon to be there in time to a hike before a four o’clock game drive. We found highway B1 close to the northern industrial area of town, and merged onto it just as a truck pulled onto the shoulder to pick up a young, provocatively dressed woman. I am not sure who was giving whom a ride, but it let us know that the highway would be a fertile viewing ground.
A few miles outside of Windhoek both directions of the highway funneled into two lanes at a huge stop sign and collection of small huts. I slowed the Kia down, stopped at the sign, and waited for instructions. There were no cars on either side of the road, and the blue-clad policewoman approached the car. I started to roll the window down, but she waved us through without even checking my paperwork, which I actually have. Beyond the checkpoint the highway remained only to a two-lane road, perhaps all the way to Angola.
Clusters of tin shacks broke the monotony of the brown, grassy plains every few miles. The settlements had no official entrance or exit from the highway but were marked by sudden increases in non-vehicular traffic. Kids rode bikes one-handed beside us along the narrow shoulders while couples sat in the median enjoying the Sunday sunshine and 75 mph breeze. Silhouetted groups of villagers, cautiously looking both ways, wandered single-file across the tarmac ahead of us like animals crossing a road at a national park.
After twenty miles along the main north-south highway of Namibia, we turned left at sign directing us to route D1499. D1499 is considered a ‘district road’ and the classification had me worried about the 6-inch clearance of the Kia, the tires of the Kia, and the torque of the Kia. However, the red, gravel road was wide and firm. I took it slowly, but steadily, pampering the car on its first drive in the bush, about12 miles an hour.
We drove through a series of cattle grids, gates and shallow rivers before reaching the Düsternbrook farm property. Beyond the entrance to the farm the road deteriorated drastically. The road became uneven, the hills grew steeper, and the rivers ran deeper. We scraped the bottom of the car only once, forged the rivers successfully, and arrived the farm parking lot around 2 pm.
Our game drive wasn’t until 4 pm, prime time for seeing diurnal animals drinking at the watering holes, and nocturnal animals starting to come out. We planned to walk by ourselves for an hour before the game drive, but two things worried me:
1. How I would be safe from the big cats I knew they had, the rhinos I knew they had, and the terrifying baboons and monkeys I had already seen.
2. How would I drive the road in the dark without getting stuck somewhere in the bush with the aforementioned baboons ripping us to pieces.
So, we decided on the leopard and cheetah feeding tour that started at 2:30, and avoid all primate attacks.
The driver pulled the hunter green Land Rover safari vehicle, complete with three rows of stadium seating and a canvas roof, in front of the brown, sandstone farmhouse. He was a small, light-skinned black man with tight curls of hair tight to his scalp. From what I know of Namibian ethnicity, he looks like a member of the San tribe, but I can’t be sure yet.
The truck could hold ten passengers, but there were only eight of us. Meghan and I climbed in last, and we took the remaining seats in the first and second row. From my position in the first row I looked down over the driver’s cabin and saw a white plastic tub filled with red meat chunks and what looked like the spine of small mammal. There were also three plastic shopping bags filled with dead, white chickens.
We drove west away from the farmhouse along a tall, wall of wire fencing. Within minutes the driver stopped at gate before opening and closing it behind us. He eased the truck away from the fence into a field of tall, yellow grass along the parallel lines of sandy tire tracks. He pointed to his left, and everyone looked out into the tall grass. A shaped moved, and disappeared, and then reappeared briefly. It was a cat. “This is leopard,” he said in a heavily accented voice.
He pulled the car under a tree, and cautiously climbed out onto the hood, carrying the flesh-covered animal spine in his hand. He climbed onto a tree limb, and untwisted a metal wire that held another bone that had been licked clean, and attached the new bone. His hands worked blindly as he looked out towards the grass, trying to spot the cat. He climbed back into the car and wasted no time in backing it out from under the tree. The leopard’s face appeared directly ahead of where we were parked, and stared at us with pale yellow eyes.
The cat was three feet tall and at least five feet long, without the tail. He sniffed the base of the tree and then scaled ten feet to the branch with the meat easily. He walked the thin tree limb confidently as if he were walking on solid ground. He was power and grace combined. The fur that made him blend into the dry grass contrasted beautifully the blue background behind him as he lay along the branch and worked at the bone. He did not tear at it, but stripped it methodically and delicately, licking himself clean between every bite. He eyed us as we watched him eat.
When the bone was bright white he jumped down and immediately came towards us. He strode with his body slunk low to the ground, his chin plowing through the grass. His yellow, bulging eyes were focused on us. I could hear his every footfall, heavy but soft. His muscles were tense, and he was ready to strike. In that moment I forgot that I was in a vehicle, and I forgot that the driver was armed with a bucket of meat. I felt like there was only him and me, and I was his prey.
Just as he was about to leap onto the hood of the truck, the guide tossed big piece of pink meat over the leopard’s head. The cat’s eyes followed the piece of meat through the air as it reared up on its hind legs and changed its direction in one swift movement. He pounced on the meat as it hit the ground at the base of the tree, clutching it between his giant front paws.
In the minutes that followed the driver fed the cat every time it finished with a piece of meat and started to charge the vehicle. The sound of our cameras beeping and our gasps of amazement contrasted the silent stealth of the great cat as it ate its free meals.
When the driver threw a chicken to the leopard he took it in its mouth, walked away into the tall grass, and then stopped to take one last look back at us. He knew the routine as well as the driver. The chicken meant the end of the photo opportunity for the tourists, the end of the visit from the hand that feeds him, and the end of the free supper. The whole thing lasted about five minutes, but it was enough to witness the beauty and strength of the leopard. It was a complete set up for us, the tourists, but it was well worth seeing.
We left the enclosure through the same gate we came in, and headed further west along the dusty road. Again the driver stopped outside a metal gate, drove through and then closed the gate. He drove up a hill and then down a small gully where a small circle of ground was clear of grass and bushes. He parked along on the outside of the circle, and pointed to his right. “They come now.”
The cheetahs also knew what time it was, and there were four of them.
They trotted single file into the clearing, and moved directly to the driver’s side door. The first cat put his front paws up on the driver’s door and lifted his black nose and soft brown eyes close to the truck, it’s wet nostrils flaring as he smelled the meat. The cheetah then began to whimper, the sound like that of a dog waiting for a treat at the dinner table. The driver’s trepidation and caution with the leopard was replaced by an intimacy and playfulness with the cheetah.
The driver threw pieces of meat to each cheetah individually. They sprang into the air to catch the meat in their mouths, their front paws outstretched to balance themselves. The cheetahs were quick, and acrobatic. They each took up a space around the truck that became theirs. They stayed there and waited for meat to be tossed to them. Until, that is, the driver threw meat between them. At that point the whimpers became deep growls and fierce competition ensued; teeth were barred, claws came out, and the action was lost in a cloud of brown dust.
The Cheetah has a sprinter’s frame. Not steroid induced frame of the modern sprinter, like Ben Johnson, more like Carl Lewis. Their long, lean front legs end high above the neck for elongated strides, while the back legs are thick and full of muscle. Their bodies are lean and aerodynamic, with a torso that virtually disappears at the hip. Their resting pose is frequently as if they were at the starting gate of a 100 meter dash; head and forelegs low to the ground, back legs raised and ready to spring towards the glory.
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, but the ones we saw did not have much stamina. After five minutes of whirling around and gorging themselves on red meat, they started to pant, and stop begging for food. In the lull, the driver gave another speech, “this one father, three are cubs,” and tossed out the first chicken. A noisy battle ensued between all four cats. In the end, the father emerged from the cloud of dust and feathers and trotted into the bush. He also knew the chicken was the end of the bounty, and he left with his spoils.
In his wake the others turned to the driver and waited for their turn. He tossed them one-at-a-time to increase the excitement. Before a chicken hit the ground it was caught, pulled apart and torn between multiple cats. Once a cheetah controlled a carcass cleanly, the game was over, and the losers waited patiently for the next toss. Some carried their prize off into the bush and disappeared, while others opened them up and crunched on the bones in front of us.
Today all four cheetahs got a chicken. Tomorrow they would play before another group of tourists snapping photos under brand new safari hats. And again would have full bellies, and lie down satiated. It’s an easy life in the bush when there’s a chicken in every mouth.
When we left the farm we drove along a broad, gravel floodplain. The sun was starting to cast a gold-red light over the trees, and the animals started to come out of the bush to drink at the river. Meghan spotted the first group of animals, but was unimpressed because they looked too much like deer to be considered game. I think they are called Cela.
Across the river, further upstream was a large dark mass moving slightly. I thought they could be wildebeest, but could not be sure. Meghan told me to stop the car and jumped out. She was clearly not worried about baboons or cats. She scrambled through the underbrush and popped out on the gravel riverbed snapping pictures with her camera.
“There’s lots of poop, but I tracked them and found wild boar too.” They were wildebeest. We continued driving and saw an oryx standing beside the road staring at us. We did not bother him, but it seemed he would move if we approached. Meghan started the video.
It is like she is doing an imitation of David Attenborough on the video, her voice hushed and reverend as she tells me where to drive for optimal oryx viewing. I realized I was hungry. I had an oryx loin before and it was tasty.
Meghan started to jump out of the car again, but the oryx was too far away. Further up we saw a group of five animals cross the road twenty yards ahead of us. By their gate, and their size we knew they were cheetah. Not cheetah penned up for the feeding show, but wild cheetah roaming the land outside the farm. When we came to where they crossed we stopped the car and saw that they were just in eyesight, watching us.
Meghan opened the door and got out to take more pictures. Clearly she was not worried about be attacked by the cheetah. She is now queen of the African wilds, and ready to track, spot, and chase any game.