It feels wrong to be cuddling a cheetah.
They’re supposed to be wild and dangerous, but this one’s all soft and fluffy. He’s rumbling like an idling Ferrari as he slobbers up kudu mince from my palm.
I’m smitten. All memories of the heart-stealing young elephant with the sweeping eyelashes I’d met the previous night are forgotten.
I’m losing my heart to everyone in this mysterious patch of land heavy with magical possibilities. It’s the area of Hoedspruit, near the Kruger, and my head is full of tales of witchcraft involving potent potions brewed from the marula fruit. When the marula fruits fall much of the harvest is sent for pulping into the delicious Amarula liqueur.
But some are kept and fermented into beer, revered as the only alcoholic drink with the power to boost a man’s libido rather than leave him flagging. Magical stuff indeed.
I’d already popped into the Amarula visitors centre and savoured a creamy cocktail. Now I was at The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, hugging Michael the cheetah and hearing owner Lente Roode explain why it’s not a bad thing for nature to appear so tame.
The centre has released about 250 cheetah into the wild, and also shelters wild dogs, hippo, and an ancient clawless tiger abandoned by a bankrupt circus. There’s a stinky vulture restaurant too, with hundreds of ugly flapping scavengers holding fierce tug-of-wars over grisly bits of bone. The local school kids love it, but I’m choking behind a handkerchief. You can tame nature, but you sure can’t make it smell nice.
When Lente rescued 12 elephant from a repossessed farm in Zimbabwe she found herself facing equally mammoth bills. The answer was to go against her principles and offer elephant rides to bring in money. Then she developed Camp Jabulani, an upmarket lodge to generate more cash and keep the sanctuary funded.
It’s a whopping R7,000 a night to stay at Camp Jabulani, which includes an elephant safari in the moonlight. It’s utterly magical, as I sit astride the placid Jo and lumber off into the bushes, watching the ball of sun descend and a full moon rise pink and huge.
Jo starts shredding a tree for supper, until his groom urges him to catch up with the others. Now I’m hanging on to stop myself from tumbling off as Jo spurts off at a canter.
The next night we pause our game drive to park by a dam for sundowners, incongruously sprawled in luxurious armchairs in the bush. As we drive off again we spot a lioness, her head down low on a mission. Another lioness is behind her, with a shaggy-maned male off to one side. They’re hungry and hunting, totally immune to our intrusion.
We double back to the dam to make sure the staff are safe, and moments later the three lions silently slink over the grass where I’d stood only moments earlier. I watch in awe, grateful to be in a vehicle, rather than facing down a lion with only a cocktail stick for protection.