I was there. I was in Namibia. After a very taxing day of travel, I unfortunately had a fitful night's sleep. I'm not sure how many hours I slept that night but I know I was up for around 2 or 3 in the middle of the night. I woke up to the sun scorching us within our car. Sadly, I'd slept through my 9am alarm which was meant to wake us in time for an activity I had planned at N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary at 10am. It was 9.30am and I felt a sinking feeling within my stomach. We were going to miss the activity - something I'd looked forward to for so long.
In 2013 I'd spent 2 weeks of my summer volunteering at N/a'an ku sê. You can read all about what I got up to here. It was an incredible experience where I got to meet so many rescued animals. I will never forget coming face to face with Samira the cheetah who lay down purring at my feet, so similar to my kitties back home! Nor will I forget the time I got to look after a baby baboon for the night. It's safe to say this experience changed me and to date was the best trip of my life. Not to mention, I went all on my own which was an incredible milestone for me and enabled me to meet so many new people.
Despite it being only half an hour till our scheduled activity and a 40 minute drive according to the sat-nav, I was determined to try my best to make it. So, our stomachs completely empty, we quickly packed up our tent and set off. Goodbye morning cuppa. This was the first time in 6 years that I was getting up without a cup of tea. How was I going to cope?
I was impressed with how keen my partner was to make the activity. He drove like a true Namibian, completely owning the gravel roads. "I felt like I missed out on that part of your life and it was very important to you. I want to be a part of it." He simply said. Those words really meant something to me. He knew how special my time at N/a'an ku sê had been and he wanted to experience it. Perhaps he also knew how important it was for me to return to the place that I'd say had a large impact on me being the person that I am today.
With 5 minutes to spare we hit the N/a'an ku sê gates, signed in and entered the reserve. How the heck did we beat the sat-nav time? I can never beat the sat-nav time at home on tarred roads so I thought beating it on gravel roads would be out of the question.
We located the activity centre and whilst my partner put on the sun-tan-lotion I raced into the activity centre to sign in.
"I'm sorry," the lady at the desk said, looking puzzled. "I can't find your booking. We have room so I can book you in but who did you book in with?"
I showed her my email confirmation, booking number and correspondence with 'Charles' who had confirmed everything.
"Also, we don't do the Carnivore Feed 2." She was referring to the activity I'd booked. "We stopped doing that years ago. We only have the full Carnivore Feed today."
Dammit Charles! Fortunately, there was a Carnivore Feed at 10am, it just was slightly more money that I'd planned. However, I was really keen to take part so I paid the extra and we were booked!
We were the last people booked to go on the tour. The other participants were waiting patiently in their safari vehicles. I began frantically taking out my camera, camera lenses, sun-tan-lotion, mosquito spray, my malaria pills, water - basically everything that I didn't have time to do that morning because I was rushing to make the feeding tour on time. Finally, we were ready to go.
The first stop on our tour was the baboons. We were told that most, if not all, of the baboons at the sanctuary were orphans, rescued when their mothers were either hit by a car or shot by farmers. The babies are bottle-fed and hand-reared, thus can never be released back into the wild as they have grown up with humans. The baboons would see humans as a source of food so would try to demand food from people if allowed into the wild, causing conflict between humans and wildlife. As our guide told us, the most dangerous wild animal is a captive one as they see humans as a source of food and have lost their fear of them.
Next, we went to visit two cheetah sisters who we were told were N/a'an ku sê's oldest residents who had been there from the very beginning. At 15 years of age, these cheetahs were doing incredibly well. In the wild a cheetah will only live to about 10-12 years old. Being in captivity is known to increase their lifespan, sometimes to around 17 years of age. Samira, who I had the luxury of meeting in 2013, lived to almost 20 (wow!) before she sadly passed away peacefully earlier this year.
As we arrived at the cheetah enclosure, the cheetahs excitedly made their way towards the fence, purring with excitement. They knew it was feeding time.
These two cheetahs were raised since they were cubs by the sanctuary's founder, Marlice. They are so tame that they have participated in several adverts for the sanctuary alongside Marlice and sometimes keepers go into their enclosure. However, we were informed that the sanctuary try to do things differently now and try to reduce animal handling as much as possible. The sanctuary's youngest cheetahs, for example, participate on walks with people but people or prohibited from touching them. It makes sense to try to give these animals as wild a life as possible.
Here are some interesting facts which you may not know about cheetahs. First of all, they are the only cat to have un-retractable claws. This means their claws are out at all times, like a dog. This helps them to grip the earth better as they chase prey. Secondly, (and I didn't actually know this one until our guide told us), the black marks around their eyes act as sunglasses! Cheetahs hunt during the middle of the day when the sun is out in full-force and these black marks help to reduce the glare from the sun. Pretty cool! So, no, they do not have tear-stains!
Another piece of useful information is how to tell the difference between a cheetah and a leopard. Being a cat nerd, I've known this since I was around 5, however, I've seen that many people don't know the difference. My partner, for example, found it incredibly useful when our guide explained the differences. Cheetahs are a lot leaner than leopards. Leopards have a far bulkier build. Leopards also don't have the black marks around their eyes which circle the eye and then stretch down the side of their nose. Cheetahs have narrower faces. Finally, there is a drastic difference in their spots. Cheetah spots are single black dots whereas leopards have rosettes (basically, circles with holes in them). Jaguars don't occur in Africa but if you were to include them in this comparison, they're even more bulkier than leopards and have dots in the middle of their rosettes.
Our guide threw 2 hunks of meat into the cheetah enclosure, one for each cheetah. The cheetahs frantically raced over to the meat, sinking their teeth into it before both turning and fleeing from the fence. They settled down far enough away from each other and started to devour their meals.
Our next stop was the leopard enclosure where there were two leopards. Leopards are normally solitary animals and these two normally live apart from each other. However, when feeding time arises, they come into the same enclosure in order to get fed. Unlike the excitable cheetahs, the leopards took their time coming to the fence. One leopard, a male named Billy, took a very long time. Our guide was calling and calling. Then, out of the thickets, the large male came swaggering over, scent-marking a couple of trees as he came.
Unlike cheetahs, leopards are ambush hunters - they don't endure a chase. Perhaps the most impressive trait about a leopard is their ability to haul prey up to 3 times their own weight up a tree. They are forced to stash their meals high up in trees out of the way of other predators like lions or hyenas who are a lot stronger than leopards.
The two leopards in the enclosure kept out of each other's way as they waited patiently for their meals. Once the meat was thrown, the female took her meal and retreated to her own enclosure. The male was in little hurry to move his prize and instead licked it for a while before eventually taking it to a more shaded spot to eat.
Next to be fed were the African Wild Dogs. If you don't know much about African animals, it's possible that you may never have heard of African Wild Dogs. If you haven't, it's no wonder - there are under 500 of these guys left in the wild. That is a shockingly low figure. These predators require such large territories to roam that humans have made it almost impossible for them to thrive anywhere and so their numbers have dramatically been compromised. Wild Dogs are mainly found in Botswana although some can be found in the north east of Namibia.
African Wild Dogs are incredibly successful hunters. Nearly 80% of Wild Dog hunts end in a kill which is a very impressive number especially if you consider that lions only succeed around 30% of the time. They hunt in packs and during their hunts cover vast distances, using stamina to run their prey. When it comes to hunting, they are vicious and within moments of bringing down a kill, the meal is over.
The dogs at N/a'an ku sê are not fed every day. Today was not one of their main feeding days but so we could see just how they operated when it came to a kill, our guide threw a piece of meat into the enclosure. At once the air was split with a chorus of high-pitched squeals of excitement. Th dogs all raced forward, everyone for themselves. Several clasped the meat in their jaws and began tearing viciously until there was nothing left. As quickly as it began, it was over. Their sheer power left me in awe. You certainly wouldn't want to be prey to these carnivores.
African Wild Dogs live in highly complex social groups. They are incredibly sociable animals and taking care of their pack is their number 1 priority. So despite their aggressive hunting nature, they're real softies when it comes to friends and family.
After waving goodbye to the Wild Dogs, it was time to meet the caracals. Cara-what? You may be thinking. Caracals are a type of wild cat, considerably smaller than a cheetah or a leopard. They are sandy-coloured and have large black tufts on their ears. These cats are incredibly rare and are largely nocturnal so seeing one in the wild is a real treat.
When I visited the sanctuary in 2013, I was fortunate enough to take a caracal called Alex out for a walk. I had been impressed with how loyally he stuck with our group and even more impressed to see how these cats caught their prey. Their hind legs are much larger than their front legs, purposefully designed to give them a really powerful leap which is perfect for catching birds as they take-off. When feeding the caracals at N/a'an ku sê, the keepers throw the meat high into the air. The caracals leap, twist and grab the meat, putting on a jaw-dropping display.
Today the caracals weren't quite in the mood to show-off their acrobatics. They started off by hissing and snarling at one another. Caracals are another example of a solitary cat. They really were telling each other to back-off. Our guide told us they were being polite today and normally they attack each other, spitting and clawing at each other.
The first piece of meat was thrown and a caracal gave a jump. It wasn't the most ambitious jump I'd seen but those on the tour who'd never seen a caracal leap before gasped in astonishment. The second caracal had an even more half-hearted approach and just waited for the meat to drop at his paws. I guess he'd learnt that he didn't need to jump to catch his food, especially when his companion had already began gnawing on their piece, so there was no competition.
If you'd like to see photographs of caracals leaping for their food, check out my blog post here.
Our final stop on our tour was the lion enclosure. Before we were allowed out of the car, our guide had to brief us that we must not try to intimidate the lion as he couldn't guarantee that an angry lion could be secured behind the high electric fence which marked the boundary to his enclosure. He had no doubts that the lion could leap over it if he truly wanted to.
There were three lions in the enclosure, all siblings. Their story was as follows. Many years ago, a group of lions escaped from Etosha National Park (Namibia's main National Park in the north of the country). The lions were found by farmers on their farmland and shot all adults. After discovering there were cubs, they asked Etosha to take them back. Etosha refused to come to collect them and that's when N/a'an ku sê stepped in and rescued all 5 cubs. The cubs were separated into 2 enclosures: 1 with a male and female called Meatball and Gobillina (who I had the pleasure of meeting on my last visit) and the other with Clarence and 2 other females (whose names I sadly cannot remember). Meatball was sadly killed a couple of years ago by an infected honey-badger wound.
Our guide started calling the lions. 2 beautiful lionesses began to emerge from the bushes.
Then we got our first glimpse of Clarence. The majestic male lion prowled forwards, his hungry eyes fixed on the group of people outside his enclosure. His jaw fell open, revealing a set of razor-sharp fangs. He licked his jowls with a rough pink tongue, a low growl escaping from his maw.
"He's going to tell you this is his territory." A guide explained. "Remember, just let him do his thing and don't try to intimidate him."
The large male lion continued to growl as he slowly came closer. Once he was in front of us, he started digging profusely at the ground, scraping away the earth with his massive paws.
"He's telling you that this is the line to his territory." Our guide told us. "He says, if you cross this line I will kill you. That's what he says."
Clarence's growls got louder as he scraped away at the earth. Every so often he would pause, fix us with a threatening stare and growl. Our guide pointed out that the lion was particularly interested in the youngest member of our group, a small child. It was a morbid thought.
"I am not scared of wild lions." Our guide continued. "But I am scared of captive lions. They see humans as a source of food and won't hesitate to kill you. If you don't give them food, they will kill you."
He told us that we had to wait to Clarence to calm down in order for him to be fed. "Let him do his thing." Our guide repeated.
Eventually Clarence stopped digging and had a drink of water. Once he was finished, our guide decided it was time and threw the meat over into the enclosure. Clarence, his burning orange eyes fixed on the target, used his powerful hind-legs to launch himself into the air. A growl escaped his throat as he raised his paws, clasping the meat between them and hooking them with his claws. He landed back down on the ground, the meat swaying in his jaws. With a flick of his tail he turned and began to swagger away, leaving the females to have their turn.
The process was repeated for the lionesses although neither had as powerful a leap as Clarence. I saw what the guide meant when he said that the lions could easily leap out of their enclosure. They can jump higher than you think!
After the feeding, the guide allowed some time for Clarence to return to the fence to dazzle us with his good looks. As the guide expected, the male lion was a lot calmer now that he'd eaten and stopped growling. It didn't take him long however before he became bored of us and disappeared into the bushes.
The lions were the last stop on the carnivore feeding tour. I'd had a great time and felt like I'd learnt a lot about the animals and what N/a'an ku sê does to help them. Thanks to sanctuaries like N/a'an ku sê, human and wildlife conflict is declining with more farmers becoming educated on the native animals.
One of the biggest break-throughs was GPS tracking on predators like leopards. Now, because so many animals have tracking, when livestock are killed and the farmers immediately point their fingers at the local leopards, N/a'an ku sê can look at the tracking data and say "No, it wasn't the leopard." Satisfied, the farmer won't shoot the animal. Sometimes leopards will kill cattle and in these instances there's sadly nothing that the sanctuary can do to stop it from being shot as the farmer will want to get rid of it. However, this technology has greatly decreased the numbers of animals being shot.
It doesn't come cheaply, however. A single GPS collar for a leopard costs over £3,000! That's an extortionate amount. Not to mention there will be costs in going to dart the animal and give it a health check. That's why visitors like me are so important to the sanctuary. The money which I spent to go on the feeding tour and to volunteer goes towards a fantastic cause. I really encourage you to visit N/a'an ku sê if you ever get the opportunity to.
Upon our return to the activity centre, my partner and I enjoyed a nice cup of tea (at last!) and a cheese and biltong platter. Oh my goodness, the food was to die for! I have never had biltong so tender in my life and bear in mind that biltong is my absolute favourite food in the world. No joke, I was almost crying with happiness over my food. I'm seriously not kidding. Food is so important to me plus I was still super excited after the Carnivore Tour.
We also splashed out in the N/a'an ku sê shop. I indulged in 2 t-shirts and a cap whilst my partner bought 1 t-shirt and a hat. He couldn't wipe the grin off his face and claimed he'd wanted a N/a'an ku sê t-shirt for such a long time. I bought one last time I came and it's a staple top of mine that I always love to wear. He was thrilled to have one of his own.
They often say that it's never a good idea to return to a place, especially one you had such a good time at as it will never be the same. Although I find a lot of truth in that statement, I don't regret returning to N/a'an ku sê. I did it all completely differently this time and the experience itself was completely unique to last time. I didn't compare the two as they feel like they took place in different lifetimes. Last time I was a single solo-traveller who'd just finished school and had no plan for the future - who just wanted to volunteer in Africa. This time I came with my partner of 4 years, a couple of adventurers passing through on our 2-week journey to see the whole country before returning to our busy working lives at home.
Visiting N/a'an ku sê wildlife sanctuary was the perfect start to our journey. It was fantastic to learn about the wildlife and to see them in the flesh. I didn't know what the rest of my trip had in store but I knew I wanted to see some of these guys in the wild. Who knew what wildlife I was going to encounter over the next 2 weeks?