People often ask me, “Kelly, what’s it like to be in a cage with an adult cheetah?” I tell them honestly, “I cannot answer that. I have only experienced that situation with 2 adult cheetahs.”
The unfamiliar sound of my alarm was met with some serious anger and disorientation as it went off at 7am this morning. After a couple snoozes, I managed to reach a conscious enough state to remember why this rude awakening was at hand. It was the beginning of our 3 day wild life adventure – and I was excited. The six hour drive to the Cango Wildlife Ranch was no match for Romi’s driving and we made it in 4 and half. We walked through the huge entry way that had been outlandishly fashioned into the jaw of a crocodile. That was when I saw it – a single turnstile that symbolized the gates to my dreams. I charged up to the ticket window knocking over strollers, moving children aside by their faces, and snarling at any adults who assumed anything but a submissive posture. As we exchanged funds for receipts, Romi asked the glass encased woman if they had any cubs at the park right now. To my delight, the woman replied in the affirmative and then, unbeknownst to me, my body started a series of joyous spasms that could at best be described as a form of a celebratory dance and at worst could have landed me on the short bus for the ride home.
We had chosen this particular destination because unlike many zoos or sightseeing exhibits, the animals here were not being held in captivity. Instead they were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild and/or bred to prolong the existence of their species. During park hours they had huge enclosures to explore and for all other times they were let to roam in the 300 hectares of African wilderness across the street. We took a quick tour of the grounds with a portly guide name Imma and saw some pretty amazing animals from alarmingly close distances. At one point, I was watching a hippo come towards me and I actually had to step back to fit him in the frame of my camera. It’s a good thing I did too because moments later he turned his back to me and began violently defecating. So powerful was this eruption that it sent fecal shards ricocheting onto the very walkway that I had occupied seconds earlier. As the dark colored goliath finished, he redirected is attention back to me and caught me with a stone cold look that expressed very clearly, “That’s how I roll.”
Next came some extreme close ups with crocodiles, alligators, and warthogs. I stealthily approached exhibit after exhibit to ensure the most candid photos. The method proved effective as I successfully managed to catch a couple of turtles in the act. And if you don’t know what I mean, I mean GETTING-IT-ON.
All this, of course, was foreplay. I was there to get face to face with some cats and nothing was going to stop me. Not even ninjas. The options were cheetahs, cheetah cubs, and a white tiger. Now I know that many of the ladies out there are thinking, “I would have chosen the cubs. I bet they’re soooo cute.” Well, not to worry. In true American style, I decided to have it all and got something called the 3 cat combo. I coughed up a very reasonable amount of scrilla, and it was go time. First stop, Cheetaville – Population 2. I entered the cage with my eyes alert and my ears perked up. A cheetah confidently strode by me as his mate remained supine in the shade. The guide that was with me quickly settled the male, introduced me to him, and then set me loose. Picture mayhem ensured. After a couple minutes, female warmed up to me as well and my jubilation reached all time highs. The cats appeared quite happy to have me pet them and my face was lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. I interacted with the beautiful animals for close to 10 minutes and then it was time to go. . . into a white tiger cage.
I have never seen such complex and inquisitive eyes as I saw on the white tiger. From the second I got in the cage he took some serious interest in me. I was concernicus. The way the animal weaved back and forth, eyes locked with mine, it eerily reminded me of what it had done about a half hour earlier - right before the keepers fed him. He guide who accompanied me made a lame attempt to ease my worries by commenting, “He likes the color white.” I stared blankly at my white t-shirt, white track pants combo and swallowed hard. Luckily, there was another girl in the cage as well and it turned out she was far more fearful than I. I swear the tiger could smell it because he asserted his dominance over so the girl so quickly and easily that after about 3 pictures, she hightailed it out of there. I pumped myself up by saying aloud, “What is this. . . amateur hour?!?” and then puffing out my chest. It was time to tango. I held my ground as this enormous feline completed his assessment of me. Finally, he let me in. Standing right next to me, the striped purring mass allowed me to stroke his thick coat. Ten minutes later, he was nuzzling his huge furry head right into the side of my neck. With some stellar photos to show for my effort, I pressed on.
Cheetah cub time. Having made it through the previous two predators without freezing up or crying, I felt fully prepared to play with the cheetah cubs. There were three of them and they were excited to see me, let me tell ya. They rose from their nap time as soon as I entered and began chasing each other around and running up next to me to investigate. I couldn’t believe it was all real. I played with one in particular and she was hamming it up for the camera big time. She started affectionately licking my arm and then, just before I left, gave me a rough little cheetah kiss.
When I finally left, I thanked the guides profusely and gave a huge tip to the one guide who had masterfully manned my camera. I have no doubt that the pictures will be instant inductees in the collection of my favorite memories of all time. It was also cool to know that all my other park fees went directly to the animal rehabilitation program. Today was, without a doubt, my best day ever in Africa.
But wait – there’s more. We continued on and 15 minutes more and then arrived at our final stop – Buffels Drift Game Reserve. Our stay at the ranch was a present from Angie and it was the real deal. Once the staff had delivered our bags to our luxury tent, I walked inside and unzipped the flap that connected to the private deck. The expanse of picturesque scenery blew me away and I instantly felt like the rest of the world did not exist. I stood out there for quite some time and let time move slowly as the sun faded over the mountains. The sky transformed into a dark purple and the temperature dropped precipitously. As the chill bit into my exposed arms, I was forced back into the tent. At 7:30pm, Romi and I boarded the Volkswagen GTI and headed off to a place in town called, Jemima’s. Egged on by my partner in crime, I ordered a dish called the trilogy. It consisted of 100g of ostrich, beef and venison and was served with my choice of three sauces. I selected chose the mushroom and gravy, port and cherries, and gorgonzola options and was not disappointed. After feasting until we could feast no more, there was nothing left to do except order dessert. I know I say it all the time, but this was one of the best desserts I have ever had in my life. It was a meringue cream with sliced banana, hot fudge, whipped cream, and topped with a scoop of caramel ice cream. I took solace in the fact that since there was fruit in it, it was probably pretty healthy. Completely satiated, I braved the cold and stumbled to the car. Little did I know that I had an unfriendly homecoming ahead of me in the form of a tent whose nature dictated thermostat was set at 3 degrees Celsius.
I had only been in the tent for 10 minutes before my fingers went numb. They were so cold that I feared how I would handle myself when nature called. The outdoor shower was not much help either, though I did my best to warm up my body with the scalding water that but trickled out of the hanging head. I slept in full sweats, a sheet, a massively heavy blanket and a comforter and for the most part kept my head under the covers. At 11:30pm, the birds outside began their night long concert of squeaking and squawking like it was the end of the world and it was right about then that I was certain of one thing - this was Africa.