Big Cats on the Garden Route
July 7 – 9
Oysters digested and disappointments forgotten, we left Knysna to continue our way east along Garden Route toward Nature’s Valley. We stayed at a commune backpackers’ hostel called Wild Spirits. We arrived before check-in so our room wasn’t ready, but we did have time for a quick tour of the grounds which included some wild horses, a hiking path through the “Magic Forest,” a spread of homemade granola and other goodies that were available to snack on and plenty of patchwork pants and dreadlocks. The place fits just about every laid back, hippy stereotype you can think of. And we loved it. I could go on and on about it, but I think the pictures below pretty well sum up the type of place it was. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re less of a visual person, it can also be summed up by my fear-stricken comment to Dave, “What do we DO if they offer us DRUGS???”)
We had plans for that night (which I’ll get to below), but we had a few hours of sunlight to fill so we zipped further down the N2 to Stormsriver Mouth to check out its well-known suspension bridge and some rocky shorelines. We also took an impromptu hike up to a viewing point where we spotted the only whales we’d see the whole time in South Africa. (Note to our future selves: next time there is even a remote possibility of an impromptu hike and its more than 80 degrees out, do not wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. BIG mistake.) (EDITOR’S NOTE: …big. HUGE.)
It was brief, but we saw them. They flashed some fin then swam further from shore for what we presumed was some privacy to “expand the pod,” if you will. (EDITOR’S NOTE: To clarify, we presumed this because it is mating season, not because we could “just tell,” despite what Dave may claim…) Then it was time to keep the sweat going with a healthy hustle back to the car to make it back in time for our sunset date.
Why the rush to get back, you ask? We had a date for a leisurely sunset stroll with CHEETAHS! That’s right, we walked cheetahs. On leashes. Like, full-grown, real, living, breathing cheetahs.
I had read about Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center on a few “Things To Do On the Garden Route” lists we found, and found out that our friends Ryan and Laura did the cheetah walk a few years ago and loved it. That was all we needed before booking this. After we arrived, we had some free time to check out the other animals before the sunset walk started. There were meerkats (which you cannot help but laugh at), old, crinkly Marabou storks (part of the “Ugly Five” animal group for good reason) and a few other critters. But they all paled in comparison to the cheetahs.
The two we got to walk with (accompanied by trained guides to, you know, keep an eye on these the beastly, carnivorous cats in case we made a wrong move or they were being aggressive) were named Tandy and Shaga. After I was thrown into their cage and hogtied them to allow the guides to put their leashes on a quick orientation video, we were ready to roll. It’s easy to say you’ll be cool and calm about this whole experience, but once you see the size of them up close and hear their deep purr as we walked it’s a whole different story.
Pretty sure they could smell fear, and Shaga (a male, the first one we walked and the larger of the two) had to know he owned me. For weeks leading up to this I had convinced myself that if one of them went after Noelle I would be able to choke it out and tell that story to anyone who wanted to (or didn’t want to) hear it for the rest of my life. But reality set in when we saw them and my nerves kicked in. I’m pretty sure Noelle would have been the more likely of us to put one of them in a sleeper hold. Sucks to admit, but facts are facts. Any subtle movement from him and I was ready to run for the woods. To clarify, this has nothing to do with strength. I’m totally stronger than my wife.
Eventually we switched over to walk Shaga’s sister, Tandy, who is definitely less unpredictable. She also loves the cameras so we got to pose for a few family portraits with her like these below.
An hour and a half later later we returned the cats to their fenced-in area where we watched them absolutely inhale some raw chicken meat while looking around at all of us like, “Come at me while I’m eating, see what happens.” It was a pretty surreal experience and one we’ll not soon forget.
The next day, after a quick stop at the Farm Stall up the road (of course we bought locally grown foods, per the approval of our Wild Spirits hosts) for some fuel for our drive back toward Cape Town and our final South African stop – Stellenbosch.