Monday, June 13, 2011

Cheetahs, Clarens, and Durban Beach

On Friday morning, our trusty clan donned hiking shoes and jeans, and made our way (including a few wrong turns) to see wild cats in person.  I was very nervous (of course) because not only would we be seeing these animals - we would be basically hanging out with them, touching them, talking to them...I assumed they'd be mostly babies (what harm can a baby lion do?) - but I was quite wrong on both assumptions. 

An amazing woman named Suzette ushered us into the sanctuary, and explained to us that no matter how comfortable we felt around the cats (I guess she wasn't talking to me) we should never let our guards down because a wild cat is a wild cat.  The main purpose of the sanctuary is to help repopulate the world with the endangered cheetah, but also raises other species for game parks in order to deflect cost.  I simply couldn't believe it as we entered the park, and sneaked closer and closer to two 1-year old sleeping lions.  They seemed docile enough, but we were reminded time and again that one must never turn her back on a lion - it will jump up on your shoulders, and grasp you with 2 inch long curved nails, which Suzette showed us by pulling back the lion's fur around his paws.  We were encouraged to come up on the animal quietly, two at a time, and stroke his downy fur, which was at the same time smooth but strong, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't breathe throughout the entire thing.  But then we crossed the yard and approached the cheetahs.

I assumed that there was a fence between us and the two cheetahs - Fila and Bibi.  We got closer and closer, and the cheetahs started to become leaner, clearer and more defined as they paced up and back along the fence.  There was no fence between us.  I froze for a few seconds...Fila had been teased by some children and had therefore developed an aggressive character - we were warned by Suzette not to look Fila in the eye, or touch her.  Bibi, on the other hand was more passive, lying in the sun and unaffectedly looking up at her visitors.  The sheer beauty of these cats was astounding.  Extremely lean and fit, the cheetah has a silky spotted skin and golden eyes.  The long curved tail is used for turning while running without losing a second, since the cheetah can maintain an enormous speed.  Most terrifying, the shoulder blades ooze up and down as the cheetah slinks around the yard; slowly, Fila started walking back toward us as she saw us approach her friend, and we were told to back up, don't look her in the eye.  We couldn't touch Bibi at all then because Fila was just too close.  Pretty sure I didn't breathe during that one either.  I thought Suzette must be slightly mad...

We proceeded to see a plethora of new species - wolves, leopards, grown lions, and smaller cats that apparently can be very nasty. No matter how hard you try, it seems one cannot tame a wild cat, but Suzette pours everything she has into caring for these beautiful creatures, and the experience was quite exceptional.  Four string players repeatedly putting their fingers inches from razor sharp jaws is something I don't think I'll ever see again. 

On Saturday, we made our way half way to Durban from Bloemfontein, traveling over the top of another tiny sovereign country in the middle of South Africa: Losotho.  It's very complicated to pass through the country so travelers mainly avoid it if possible, especially foreign nationals.  After about three hours, our troupe arrived in a miniature mountain town called Clarens, which at once conjured images of mountainous villiages we'd all remembered in the States - Santa Fe, Aspen, was a breathtaking chalet village, and as threw on our sweaters and coats, we meandered to a wood burning cafe that could have been in Germany - we drank beers and ate steaks and schnitzel, and finished with a delicious desert called a milk tart.  Red checkered table clothes covered the wooden tables and from each chair hung a cozy Aztec looking wool blanket to  warm our legs.  Everywhere arose the aroma of wood burning and I couldn't figure out where I was - with frosty fingers in mid June, smelling smells I only usually remember from Christmastime.

Finally the next day, Sunday, we arrived in Durban Beach, and checked into our Art Deco beach palace right on the water.  I mean - I'd call it something else but that's really the only way to describe it.  Interestingly, I was just in Miami Beach, and most of the buildings look exactly the same.  Wiseman, our guide, driver, friend, and choirmaster, said that the beach front was actually modeled on Miami Beach.  Markets of crafts and clothing line the beach, and each of our white rooms are filled with glass, porcelain, mirrors, and a huge window that frames the sea.  I swear - there are palm trees here...

Now I am going for a walk on the beach.


  1. Sounds amazing. It is always more fun to watch those animals in the wild than in a zoo. Thanks for sharing with us your adventures.

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  2. Clarens is the epitome of relaxation - I swear the people that live there must have one of the longest life expectancies on the planet!
    info clarens