Botswana’s Mokolodi Nature Reserve: My Evening with Cheetahs

A late afternoon at the Mokolodi Nature Reserve was another welcome escape during my busy work week in Gaborone. Only 15 km south of town, the Reserve was a short, beautiful ride away from my hotel. We drove under Botswana’s endless sky, red, rugged earth stretching to infinity, and I felt all my worries, and meetings, and deadlines melt away.

Outskirts of Gaborone, Botswana

Driving to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Botswana

Driving to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve, BotswanaThrough the thatched-roof gate, over 12 thousand acres of stunning acacia bushveld welcomed me. As I waited for the 2-hour safari to begin, I sat by the round, field-stone structure of the Mokolodi Restaurant, spacious, open, and at once weathered and luxurious–I made a reservation there for dinner later that night. Over my head, weaver finches darted among their elaborate nests, landing upside down to feed the fledglings.

Intricate nests of weaver finches

Papa finch watching his nest

Papa finch watching his nest

Lulled by all this activity and quite comfortable in the shade, while all of the world around seemed to be flooded with afternoon sun, it was almost an imposition when our safari truck was ready, and it was time to head out.

Mokolodi Nature Reserve truck I shared my adventure with an older Canadian couple, at the end of their month-long consulting trip in Botswana, and three kids from a local school. The children won the safari because they are the best students in their class. They were so excited to see everything, so proud of their cameras, and the guide was wonderful in encouraging them to explore the Reserve.

Kids on safari

Animals grazed peacefully around us, occasionally lifting their heads at the kids’ gleeful descriptions of, well, them, like this stately male impala with his harem–“The McDonalds of the bush!”, the kids and the guide chanted in unison, i.e., quick, easy prey:

Male impala and his harem

A breeding herd: A ram with his harem

We saw lots of impala: breeding herds, led by a single dominant ram; bachelor groups of young males evicted from the herd to find their own way; and lone rams, mature males beginning to vie for territory of their own.

Lone ram, male impala vying to establish his own territory

A lone ram, staring me down

Then, a little down the road, something startling: I will never forget the first time I saw a kudu–a disorienting experience, my eyes gradually piecing together an animal with a body of a large moose and a graceful neck and head of a grey deer. Male kudus are majestic, their horns spiraling into the sky. We spotted several males, but none came close enough for a photograph; females were more cooperative, even if they refused to pose.

Kudus, they look like a cross between a moose and a deer

Female kudus, grazing

A warthog (“the gardeners of the bush,” the kids explained), several courting ostriches, and an endangered Lobatse hinged tortoise (everyone’s particular favorite) later, we climbed a hill.

Warthog, tilling the earth and helping things grow

A warthog, tilling the earth and helping things grow

Ostriches, strolling through the veld

Ostriches, bushveld strolling

We found a Lobatse hinged tortoise, an endangered species

Our endangered tortoise!

Crowned by trees, this was the perfect spot to see the valley and almost the entire Reserve.

Kids looking over the Mokolodi Nature Reserve Our guide was a little frazzled because we had not yet spotted the Reserve’s famed white rhinos and giraffes. In the fertile rainy season (December), such charismatic fauna has the entire veld to roam and munch on, so their movements are harder to predict.

Our guide, looking for giraffes, Mokolodi Natural Reserve

Our guide, giraffe-searching

Giraffes and rhinos did not make an appearance, in the end, but we were perfectly content, resting under the whispering branches, basking in gentle breeze, and watching the evening approach.

Mokolodi view - rainy season

Mokolodi in rainy season

Mokolodi from a hill

Mokolodi’s town view

A man-made lake glowed invitingly at a distance. Apparently, hippos relax there occasionally, so we headed over to take a peek.

Man-made lake in Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Botswana

Sadly, only shore birds and hints of a gorgeous sunset to come greeted us there.

Mokolodi lake: not a hippo in sight

The Mokolodi lake: serenely hippo-less

The lake would have been the perfect spot to watch the day end, but there was another appointment still to make: Duma and Letotse, the resident cheetahs.

Cheetah and IRaised by Mokolodi guides since they were cubs (their mother was shot by a farmer before she could teach them to survive on their own), for over 15 years they roamed over acres and acres of enclosed Reserve land, occasionally meeting the adoring public.

I was a little nervous as two lithe, predatory creatures ambled toward me. Letotse was more interested in dinner (which was not me, thankfully), but Duma settled by my feet. “He wants you to pet him,” the guide translated. I felt awkward, foolish, like one of those people who raise lions under their beds and end up headless. Duma was a wild beast, and, surely, I should respect that. Just then he brushed his head gingerly against my arm, and I heard him PURR. I ventured a tap, and the purr got louder. It was all so strange: He never really looked at me, his dark amber eyes always staring just past me, but there we were, me petting him, getting more and more comfortable, and him nestled next to me, purring like a locomotive.

The sun was setting, and the restaurant, full of candles and more breathtaking views of the bushveld (September to November, rhinos join you for dinner in the sandy expanse by the veranda), beckoned. Duma had other things to do as well, it appeared. His brother waited for him patiently under a tree, and off they headed together into the dusk.

Duma

I just learned that, about a year after my visit, Duma died from renal failure, and Letotse passed away in June. I am sorry that they are no longer there, and it is sad to think of Letotse wandering around their hills by himself for months. Still, both were well beyond the normal life expectancy for cheetahs, and their presence at Mokolodi did help begin the Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB) project that works to protect the country’s large cat population through research, outreach with rural communities, and education. I look forward to going back to Mokolodi one day and seeing the work that these two cubs inspired.

Good-bye, DumaOther posts about southern Africa:

4 thoughts on “Botswana’s Mokolodi Nature Reserve: My Evening with Cheetahs

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