Cheetahs, cheetahs and more cheetahs... do I sense a theme?

It All Started with the Cheetah Hug

Prior to arriving in Africa, we'd heard of something called "the cheetah hug". Word was that it was something that could be done in or around Nairobi somewhere. We didn't know much else. We made all kinds of enquiries as to where we could hug a cheetah and received replies of "What?" and "Huh?" and dumbfounded faces. Finally we found someone who thought, maybe, this was an attraction at the Kenyan Wildlife Service's animal orphanage in Nairobi National Park. So we included NNP on our excursion for the next day.

After a full day of visiting the Sheldrick elephant orphanage, kissing a giraffe at Giraffe Manor, touring the Karen Blixen "Out of Africa" estate and shopping, we arrived at the KWS orphanage - still not totally convinced the hug was going to happen.

We were "assigned" a rather disinterested guide who nodded when we mentioned cheetahs but had to do her routine with the other animals first. It was getting late! Were we going to miss our chance? The other parts of the orphanage were quite neat though.

We had our first lion encounters, albeit the caged variety. Chatted with an interesting Brit big cat handler who told us the dos and don'ts when in the vicinity of lions. He said 85% of the damage comes from the claws not the fearsome teeth and jaws. Okay... that's good to know. We had arrived at feeding time for two juvenile males and an older female who normally penned together. The female had to be separated or she wouldn't have got any dinner - the two guys would have plundered her share of the three goat haunches. Our big cat fellow sort of shooed her into a smaller cage in the distance. He also had a young intern along who he instructed to go pester one of the males. By pester he meant sneaking up on the feeding lion. Not something I'd recommend... the intern was on the outside of the fence of course. They were actually inducing aggressive behaviours to observe. But where are the cheetahs?

There were also some small cats. I mean like pet cats... they were wild... well orphaned actually... but still wild. They looked like grey and brown mottled, slender tabbys. We could hear them meowing the whole time we were within earshot. I like cats but - ugh - they whined the whole time.

We skipped the monkeys - there were no chimpanzees. It was getting near closing time so we headed back. Walking towards the exit we spotted 3 cheetahs with their handlers. As we neared the cage one handler opened the door and motioned us in. I was through the door in a flash - Teri and Lory were little more hesitant - after all these were full-grown 4 year-old cheetahs. In hindsight perhaps I was a bit eager but I didn't think the people running the place would put their visitors in danger. I walked up to one of the handlers who was petting his cat. Her name was Teva. The handler said to squat down and start rubbing her chin just as he was doing. The long, outer hair of her fur was remarkably bristly and stiff, not as soft as it looks. The underlying, dense hair was softer but still a bit coarse. I put my other arm around her body for the hug - pretty cool.

photo courtesy Lory KlassenTeri and Lory came in shortly afterward. I guess they figured I hadn't been bitten or clawed so it was safe. We all gave our cameras to the handlers and many shots were taken. Teva loved to be stroked under the chin, as most cats do. As I was doing this she would lower her head out of view of a good photo. The handler said to force her head up for a better shot. I wasn't sure how Teva would take this and certainly didn't want to upset her. But she was fine with it, it meant a more vigorous rub - liked by most cats I've known.

photo courtesy Teri GaffWe all took photo opps with her alone and then hung around the pen for bit enjoying the 3 girls' company. One was due for a walk and was being led out of the cage on her leash. The other two became quite anxious, pacing along the fence, stretching their necks, watching their sibling being led off. We figured this was a good time to leave, seeing that the two left behind were becoming quite animated.

photo courtesy Teri Gaff
photo courtesy Teri GaffThe three sisters were brought to the orphanage 4 years ago when they were 4 weeks old. I'm not sure the exact circumstances surrounding their capture but they had been found in Nairobi NP abandoned by their mother. They couldn't be trained for return to the wild so they became habituated and tame. They are very well taken care of at the orphanage and appeared quite content.

So we got our cheetah hug and it proved to be very exciting indeed.

(thanks to Teri and Lory for the use of their photos)

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The Contest

Our organizer and guide, Leslie, had kept us in tune with East Africa during the trip planning stages with a weekly email quiz question. The questions dealt primarily with Tanzanian wildlife and the person with the most right answers would win a prize during the safari. When the points were counted it turned out that Teri and I had tied for top honours. On safari day 1, soon after we got rolling, the three of us discussed what to do. Leslie suggested a tie-breaker question - "How many cheetahs will we see during the entire safari?" Sounded fine though Teri and I hadn't a clue what to expect. We gave Leslie our guesses and continued on to our first game drive in Ngorongoro Crater. By the end of the day we saw 7 cheetahs! I had guessed some crazy high number and Teri chose what she thought was a much too low number. We discussed it and decided we now have a benchmark and we could each revise our numbers.

By the end of the safari we saw a total of 14 different cheetahs. Teri's revised number was 21 and mine 23. Congatulations Teri - you win a t-shirt!


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"What? We Can't Get Into Our Nasera Rock Campsite?"

This was where the cheetah theme manifested itself by their absence. It was Day 7 and we'd had our fair share of rain over the past week. We were to leave Lake Natron for the northern Serengeti that day.

The supply truck crew left earlier in the morning and were instructed to report back as to what shape the tracks were in. There'd been plenty of radio chatter with other drivers on how treacherous things were up there. So we waited around camp and it turned out the crew had to turn back, for more reasons than a muddy road. I bet our drivers, Lyimo and Welking, could have made it but we would have been without supplies. This meant we had to use our contingency plan - getting to the Serengeti the long way around with an unscheduled stay at the touristy Jambo Lodge.

So we weren't going to the Nasera Rock area - a place with drives that almost certainly would have had cheetah sightings. Missing it wasn't a terrible disappointment however - the side-trip provided its own adventures and otherwise we might well have missed The Incident.

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Day 10 - Christmas Eve - The Cheetah Incident

Or, as Lory liked to label it, the Cheetah Extravaganza! To briefly summarize, we witnessed three cheetahs attack a wildebeest only to be foiled by a pack of hyenas. I've devoted a whole page to it... here's the link.

The Aftermath
photo courtesy Teri Gaff

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We saw huge numbers of wildebeest and zebra plus lots of lions, gazelles, elephants and giraffes - each sighting special. But it seemed all our cheetah encounters had something a little more special... a little more exciting.

The idea of a cheetah theme isn't so much about the number we saw
but the excitement they brought.

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