After six days in Etosha National Park, we failed to spot any big cats – and this was what I had dreamt about when envisioning an African safari! Therefore, we took matters into our own hands and went to the one place we could guarantee a sighting of these magnificent creatures: Okonjima Nature Reserve.
For years, I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. I’d seen pictures of magical sunsets, vast open plains, and some of the most unique wildlife on the planet. Above all, I wanted to see the big cats. Lions, cheetahs, leopards. And not just in a zoo. I wanted to see them in the wild – soaking in the desert sun, hunting, playing. I’d seen videos and pictures where a couple of cheetahs jumped on top of the hoods of safari vehicles and took a nap. I wanted to be in one of those vehicles!
So I was naturally ecstatic to finally have an opportunity to travel to Namibia, where we would spend three entire weeks – one of which in a wildlife-dense national park – and have ample opportunity to finally observe these beautiful predators.
Etosha National Park
After a few days in Etosha National Park, we still hadn’t seen any cats, but I wasn’t too dismayed; we’d seen so much other wildlife, and we still had time. Then we learned when best to find them (at sunrise or sunset) and where best to find them (on the west end of the park). And it worked! We saw our first cats!
…but they were waaaaaaaaayy in the distance. These lions were wonderful to watch through our binoculars, but they weren’t anywhere near close enough to get decent photographs (and that’s torture for a photographer such as myself). However, now that we knew the secret, I trusted we’d get another chance.
But we didn’t.
Another three days of busting down the gates at sunrise and 10 hours of driving and parking at watering holes yielded us everything but cats. We saw nary a whisker for the rest of our time there.
I was so disappointed.
Along the road
But there was still a modicum of hope. We might yet see one along our many other drives throughout the country (though the highest concentration – thus the greatest chances – were back in the park).
After another few days of camping feline-free, we were scheduled to keep driving yet farther away from any potential sightings. So I turned to good ‘ole Google, and I discovered the Okonjima Nature Reserve.
We made a quick decision to backtrack four hours to visit the reserve, nixing a few of our other plans. I was going to see African cats, darn it!
The Okonjima Nature Reserve is a 200 square kilometer haven for predators, originally established in 1986 as a guest farm.
Much of Namibian land is actually used for cattle farming, and farmers don’t much enjoy having their livestock hunted by local felines. Therefore, these amazing animals are often shot to preserve their livelihood.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t actually address the underlying problem. Cats are territorial, and when one leaves an area, another is quick to take its place. Killing one of these felines only encourages another to come instead.
The AfriCat Foundation was created in 1993 to address this growing issue, originally serving simply as a reserve for leopards and cheetahs rescued from farmlands. The foundation’s mission now is to educate local farmers on alternate means to protecting their herds (like fences and grazing schedules), and it has since expanded to accommodate leopard, cheetah, hyena, jackal, and other large carnivore populations.
Okonjima is home to the AfriCat Foundation, and every day, they strive to stop the hunting of these animals, relocate those in danger, and research and track populations to better understand their behaviors. At the reserve, they also welcome guests to experience safaris to see these gorgeous predators, spread awareness of the project, and raise funds for the research and care.
About the cats
Cats on the reserve come from several kinds of situations. Some were relocated from farms where they might have otherwise been killed by frustrated farmers. Some were rejects after someone’s “pet” grew too large for the care they could provide. And some were cubs orphaned when their mother hunted too close to a homestead.
Now, Okonjima is home to around 35 leopards and at least a dozen cheetahs. Though both once shared the reserve, they have since been separated. Being larger, leopards can easily injure or kill any cheetahs they encounter, and being territorial, they all too often did. The cheetahs at Okonjima haven’t grown up in the wild, so they’ve never learned how to kill quickly or when to run from other predators. For their own safety, they are now relegated to their own segment of the reserve. They will sadly never survive in the wild.
There are many animal encounters around the world geared toward tourists with only one goal in mind: profits. Want to ride an elephant or pet a lion? Do you want to pose for a photograph with a cheetah? You can find establishments that will provide these, but we elect to not support them (and encourage others to do the same). While they claim the money goes toward caring for and maybe even rehabilitating the animals, they are motivated to retain (or gather more) animals to continue to provide this service. And training an animal to interact with humans is taming it; it will be unable to return to the wild.
Okonjima has a strict no-interaction policy. Cats won’t look up at you as you approach, because vehicles don’t mean mealtime. You can’t pet these felines; they are very much wild animals. They have been conditioned to not view safari trucks as a threat (though they’ll run from any white vans, as those contain veterinarians!), but they still hunt on their own and could potentially be released into safer lands.
The education they provide is a sustainable approach to an ongoing problem, and we hope to see these carnivores no longer threatened by humans in the future. If you like the sound of their mission as much as we do, you can donate to their cause here.
As this was an unplanned detour, we didn’t have many options as far as where we slept. Okonjima does have a few campsites, but these were full when we arrived. That meant we had to pay for a (rather expensive) room. We still got the least expensive room available (a Garden Room in the Plains Camp), but it blew the budget for that day, for sure.
We also considered staying at a campsite just outside the park. However, safaris are only available to those who stay on the reserve. I was there for cats, so we bit the bullet.
With the steep price tag comes a luxurious accommodation. For the first time in weeks, we had our own private bathroom with hot running water and fresh towels, and we had a real bed. Note that we had been camping on top of our truck until this point. Even our room key was in the shape of a sprinting cheetah!
The night’s stay also came with a three-course dinner and a fully-equipped breakfast the next morning. For dinner, we were treated to a carpaccio atop fresh greens, an oryx steak with rice (tasted very much like a top-quality beef steak), and a fried pudding for dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! In the morning, we each ordered custom omelettes in addition to our buffet of fruits and cold cuts.
We barely spent any time in our room, but it was a great relief to have that place to truly freshen up. And the meals were heavenly – far better than the cans of Koo Chakalaka over rice that we’d been consuming every day thus far.
But I was there for the CATS! I could have slept on rocks and I’d still be happy if I got to see some big cats!
Excursions are an additional cost beyond the rooms. Each would run us about $100 for the two of us, but we knew that going in, and we weren’t about to turn back now! Not knowing whether we’d have better luck at sightings in the evening or morning, we weren’t sure which to choose. We finally elected to go on a leopard safari (“nature game drive, looking for leopard”) that evening, with an option to see the cheetahs (“AfriCat Carnivore Care and Information Center”) the next morning.
We set out with our guide, Gideon, where we would track Lila. Each of the resident leopards has radio collars. This allows the researchers with AfriCat to monitor the cats and their movements, behaviors, and established territories. Unfortunately, these only have a range of 2km.
When we first set out, we couldn’t get a signal on Lila. She holds a vast territory in the park, so we had some searching to do. We drove over the rugged terrain, and Gideon stopped periodically to hold up the ancient receiver, hoping for a faint blip. Nothing.
Gideon changed frequencies to check for one of her (older) cubs: Vamos. Still nothing.
We wandered the area for a while without luck (though we saw other animals – like jackals and warthogs), and I was beginning to fear we’d strike out. Gideon kept trying for both leopards to see if we could catch a trace of either one.
These warthogs are common in Northern Namibia and are often the prey of leopards and cheetahs.
Finally, we got something – Vamos. Driving through the thick brush, we found her hiding spot. One of our safarimates exclaimed, “there she is!” but I couldn’t see her. Aaron spotted a paw, and I saw a hint of movement – no clear sighting. Gideon moved the truck around for a better view, but by then she was moving away and out of our reach.
So we resumed our pursuit of Lila. Just as we were about to give up on her, we finally got a signal – on the far edge of her territory. Following the beeps, we pulled up alongside her… at least where we assumed she was. No roads led toward the signal, and no matter how we positioned the vehicle, we just couldn’t see Lila anywhere. She could see us, I’m sure. And I have no doubt she was laughing at us. But we wouldn’t see her that day; she made sure of it.
The evening was getting late, and we were nearing the end of our allotted time. Even after so many days of trying, after going to a dedicated cat reserve and paying for a safari.. I still wouldn’t see a cat??
Gideon could hear the chatter of the other trucks out that night, and one of the others had located the leopard they were tracking: Amali. So as a last-ditch effort, we’d go to their location to see if we could see her.
Please let me see a leopard. Please let me see a leopard…
And then there she was. Just sitting right in the middle of the road! No more tracking, no brief half-glimpses through the vegetation, no fleeting tail tip.
Amali – Our first encounter
We were fortunate to see a leopard after a lengthy drive to the edge of the reserve. It was a very special moment.
There she was. Amali. In all her splendor.
I had my camera on her immediately. The other truck was still there, watching her from the side as we approached. They soon left, leaving us alone with this beautiful, beautiful creature.
I couldn’t get enough of her. And she couldn’t care less about us.
She walked right next to our truck, scratched at some bushes, and marked her territory. Then she pooped in the middle of the road and lounged on the side while she silently regarded us.
All the while, my shutter clicked. I took well over 200 photos of her.
I finally got my African cat. I was on cloud nine. It was exactly what I wanted, and I couldn’t be happier. I was sad to leave her.
Though we were late in leaving Amali, we still stopped for our “sundowner” – cocktails meant to be enjoyed while watching the sunset (we missed it – for a very good reason!). We watched the stars start to come out in the darkness left behind the one that had just departed while we got to know each other a little bit.
an African sunset
Our guide served us drinks at sunset. It was an enjoyable way to celebrate spotting Amali; our first leopard.
The desert gets chilly really quickly, but Gideon had some blankets on-hand for the dark and rough drive back. Though he searched the brush with a red light for more wildlife, we didn’t see anything more. I didn’t need to.
I learned later that two of the eight vehicles that went out that night didn’t see anything. One other was with us with Amali, but I’m not sure how much the other four saw. I think we lucked out with the best encounter. I was (and still am) very grateful for how things worked out.
The next morning, we regrouped with our same companions and guide to visit AfriCat, learn more about their mission, and see the cheetahs. We had kept the cheetahs as a backup option in case we didn’t see any leopards, as this was (pretty much) a guarantee. For their protection, the cheetahs are kept in captivity, so there was no need to track them this time. Though we were successful in spotting leopards (see what I did there?) the night before, I wasn’t going to refuse an opportunity for more big cats.
I’d heard of AfriCat before, it was interesting to hear about their history and work. We saw the facilities they use for veterinary work (there’s a full-time vet on-site) and full-sized models of the most common African animals (used in their education programs). We learned they use trap boxes and tranquilizer darts to check up on and collar the cats, and that they use radio collars because GPS is simply too expensive. It was all quite informative.
Then we got to see the cheetahs!
We most looked forward to seeing the cheetahs. The reserve keeps them away from the leopards in a separate area to keep them from becoming prey. They were so playful and had many of the same mannerisms as our house cats.
Their enclosure is still large enough to drive into, so we weren’t just browsing cages, as I had initially feared. We were able to get close to them, admire them, and laugh at their antics.
Sam, a young male cheetah, was playing with a phantom when we first arrived. Pouncing and dashing in crazy circles, he looked just like a house cat. Imagine a big wild cat acting just like a kitten! In fact, he was so focused on something no one else could see that we inadvertently spooked him when we drove closer. He dashed right up a tree!
When we were done laughing at Sam, we admired a few of the others lounging about. In particular, I took a fancy to Tuck. I couldn’t get over the fact that he had his paws crossed, a position our kitty Mochi particularly loves!
Was it worth it?
So we drove 8 hours out of our way to get to Okonjima, and we spent five times our daily budget for less than 24 hours there. Was it worth it?
I finally saw my cats! Granted, we had some luck on our side. We could have been one of those two trucks who struck out, and perhaps I’d be singing a different tune now. But given our experience – the room; the food; the enlightening visit to AfriCat; and above all, the cats – it’s sitting right up there among my favorite experiences from Namibia.
I only wish we had looked into it sooner so we didn’t have to backtrack quite so much, and if only we could have afforded to stay longer.
Do you have aspirations of visiting Africa? Have you already been? What’s the one African animal you’d most want to see?
Note: We were not sponsored in any way by either Okonjima or AfriCat. We legitimately had an amazing experience, believe in their mission, and encourage others to support them by visiting or donating to their cause.
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