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.
Through 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Crowned by trees, this was the perfect spot to see the valley and almost the entire 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.
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.
A man-made lake glowed invitingly at a distance. Apparently, hippos relax there occasionally, so we headed over to take a peek.
Sadly, only shore birds and hints of a gorgeous sunset to come greeted us there.
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.
Raised 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.
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.