Weekend Escape: Cuddling killers in the Midlands
Jackie Clausen romps with some furry friends on a getaway in KZN
I've always had a soft spot for my furry friends, so recent news stories about tourists in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo being scuffed-up by "tame" wild cats didn't dissuade me from visiting a cheetah and wildlife centre run by the Woodlands Lodge in the Nambiti Game Reserve. I have great respect and awe for wild cats and wouldn't mess with them, tame or not. That being said, a scar from a big cat could possibly be the coolest souvenir to take home with you - if you make it out alive, that is.
The Nambiti Game Reserve is within easy driving distance from Durban and Jo'burg, situated between Ladysmith and Newcastle, so it was an easy Sunday drive on a crisp winter morning. We were starved when we arrived and begged the receptionist for something to tide us over till lunch. The chef whipped us up some fresh, flaky croissants, hot out the oven.
As we were licking the crumbs from our fingers, in sauntered Yakira, a scruffy, fluffy feline. It took us a few seconds to realise this was a cheetah cub. Unlike the regal, spotted coat of the adult, the cub's covering is a clever disguise to blend it into the dry savannah.
The cheetah has become so endangered that there are believed to be only about 900 left in South Africa. Hence the new breeding efforts at Le Sueur Cheetah Project, next to the reserve, to which Yakira will hopefully contribute her own offspring one day.
In the meantime, she is content being mothered by lodge manager Elizke Gouws, who has nurtured her since her own mother rejected her at just a week old. She happily plays with the lodge dog, a Whippet named Sailor, who tears across the lawn after a tennis ball. Yakira instinctively watches and tries to give chase but her legs have not yet gathered the speed and agility that will one day see her outrun her playmate.
Elizke offered to take us up to the cub quarters, where we met Yakira's three sisters and two bigger cheetah cubs, a leopard cub, serval cubs and a lone meerkat named Zulu. While Yakira's sisters, at seven weeks old, are still unaccustomed to human contact and hissed and spat as they huddled together in a corner, the older cheetah cubs, Sky and Storm, were up for a tickle and loudly purred their pleasure . I had to remind myself that these were wild animals and would one day be big enough to eat me. I was also wary of Vega, the male leopard, who at six months was bigger and heavier than my Dalmatian but looked like a huge, plush toy. He packed a serious punch as he playfully tackled the rangers with his bone-chilling killer instinct. In a few weeks, the public will no longer be able to go into his enclosure as his play will be too boisterous.
We booked to go on a walk after lunch but this was no ordinary stroll. We headed out into the reserve in a 4x4, with Sky and Storm seated upfront alongside Elizke. When we got to the farm outside the reserve, we disembarked. The cats sped off and we tried to keep up through the long grass until we reached the dam and sat down to enjoy the sun, with the worn-out cheetah cubs under foot.
We chirped madly about the events with the other guests over a scrumptious, homely dinner that evening but post-adrenaline exhaustion had set in and we had an early game drive to look forward to, so the idea of sitting around the pub seemed like far too much effort and we dragged ourselves off to bed.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY:
Woodlands Lodge offers four-star fully catered accommodation. Their current special is R1295 pps (R1495 high season), which includes all meals, hot beverages and game drives. To book the whole lodge, it's R14000 per night (maximum 10 guests).
NEED TO KNOW:
An entrance fee to the reserve of R20 plus VAT per person will be added to your account. The lodge is family friendly and children are welcome. Kids under 2 stay free, under 12 pay 60% of the price. Bring tennis rackets and swimming costumes as there is a newly surfaced court and private swimming pool at the lodge. Binoculars and a camera are a must for game drives or sitting at the newly built hide next to the lodge. Nambiti is a Big-Five reserve.
Visit the Le Sueur Cheetah Project (R250 per person), where you can interact with adult cheetah.
At Woodlands Lodge, you can visit the cub crèche and see the cheetah, leopard and serval cubs (R200 per person). Cheetah walks are R300 per person. They're two hours long and include a drink and light snacks.
From Johannesburg: Head for Ladysmith on the N3. Take the Ladysmith toll off-ramp. Turn left and drive towards Ladysmith on the R103. Drive through the town, following the N11 to Newcastle. Turn right onto the D45 and follow for about 10km. At the Y-junction, turn right. Travel alongside the game fence for 2km until you reach the gate.
Directions from Durban: Travel on the N3 towards Ladysmith. After Escourt, take the Bergville/Colenso R74 (R103) off-ramp/exit 194, turn right and travel past Colenso towards Ladysmith/Newcastle. Continue through Ladysmith, following the directions for the N11 to Newcastle. Follow directions as above.
Call 083 377 9340; 083 630 7073 or visit www.woodlands-lodge.co.za