Her body is lithe, slinky. Her eyes large, yellow. She runs along the wire fence of her enclosure, interest piqued at the gawking visitors. Beautiful yet savage, cunning yet indolent, the big cat is as enigmatic as it is intoxicating. She sure is a beauty.
In the warm afternoon at Emdoneni Lodge, I’m about to have an encounter with a cheetah. I’m in the Hluhluwe area of KwaZulu-Natal, visiting the lodge and to see the popular Zululand Cat Conservation project (formerly known as Emdoneni Cheetah Project).
The project began in 1994 when Ida Nel, wild animal lover, offered to care for three cheetahs from Namibia. Not long after receiving the cheetahs, the lodge received an injured serval - and the Emdoneni Cheetah Project was started.
In 2000 Louis and Cecillie Nel took over the project and grew it into what it is today - a sanctuary for injured and orphaned cat species, as well as a breeding centre. Today the project looks after cheetah, serval, caracal and the African wild cat.
Few things raise the pulse quite like sitting with a big cat in the grass - no touching allowed. It’s one of those experiences which makes your heart grow and break at the same time. Their population has decreased by about 30 percent in the last 20 years, and with less than 9000 cheetahs left in the wild in southern Africa today, they are sprinting toward extinction.
These symbols of power and physical prowess are facing many threats, most of which are caused by human activities from habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conduct and climate change. The Emdoneni Cheetah project not only cares for orphaned and injured cats but also breeds and releases them into the wild where possible. And if it wasn’t for conservation efforts such as this, that number tragically would just keep on dipping, until extinction.
Nestled in a sand forest, Emdoneni is tucked away between the trees, sunlight filtering through the dark leaves. Outside, the swimming pool takes centre stage, perfect for lounging and soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. Overlooking the pool is the boma, lending itself to those unhurried all-day lunches or the spot to steal a few hours to get off the grid and fall into a good book. You might be forgiven also for whiling away too much time in the lounge areas - they are so visually inviting you’ll want to sit and just absorb the colours and textures of the decor that surrounds you.
Once we managed to let go of the city trappings and really submerge ourselves in the tranquillity that is the lodge and its surroundings, we made our way to the St Lucia Estuary.
An hour down the road, it is part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. Home to about 800 hippos, 1200 crocodiles and a myriad of birdlife, the Heritage Tours and Safaris cruise, along the mangrove-rich shores of the estuary, is simply magical.
You learn the most unexpected things on trips like this. While close encounters with pods of hippos and sunbathing crocodiles are, of course, the main attraction of the cruise, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the industrious little yellow weaver bird. Quaffing something nice (naturally!) and being entertained by our captain, who was an oracle of information, we pulled up to a cocooned section of the water.
Who needs Tinder and speed dating if you’re a beautiful and bright male weaver bird who constructs elaborate nests to woo gorgeous girls? Hard at work, he ties knots with his beak and feet, creating the perfect ball-shaped abode. If a female is impressed with his efforts and how he’s constructed the nest, she’ll occupy it. If not, and he’s given the cold shoulder (so to speak), he tears down his love pad and builds until one of the females are satisfied.
There’s no shortage of hippo, crocodile and bird sightings. This is the Africa many of us dream of - an abundance of wildlife, beauty and tranquility. Two hours later, we hopped off our vessel and headed back to the lodge to a blazing fire on the deck, and pre-dinner drinks. With cheeks burning slightly from the crackling fire, it is a lovely thing to sit in the late-evening African sun.
Often even the most talented wordsmith can’t paint the mood and the magic of a new experience, and this has been one of those times. As soon as you step into the cheetah enclosure, you know you’re in for a special moment. You’ll never forget your Emdoneni cheetah experience and the privilege of getting close to these beautiful cats.
After just two days at Emdoneni, we felt rested, refreshed and invigorated. And that, let’s face it, is what holidays are for.