The big cats, Namibia
If you've ever dreamed of meeting your very own Aslan in the flesh, coming eyeball to eyeball with an oh-so-elusive leopard, or falling in love with Boots, Buttons, Bubbles and Bangles, four adorable orphaned cheetah cubs, head for Okonjima in Namibia.
This is no animal playground. Set in 120km of the rolling Omboroko Hills, Okonjima is a lifeline and sanctuary for big cats, particularly Namibia's dwindling population of around 2,500 cheetahs (a quarter of the world total), the speedy, enigmatic and most beautiful of all - and threatened with extinction by farmers who see them as vermin that attack their livestock.
The Hanssen family who own Okonjima had themselves been cattle ranchers until Wayne, his then wife and sisters converted to the cause of preserving the country's precious wildlife and instigated a programme of rescue, rehabilitation and relocation. Importantly, they also set about gaining the support of the farmers whose traditional methods of dealing with predators were either to use vicious traps, or to offer them as shooting trophies for wealthy tourists. In 1993 the non-profit making AfriCat Foundation was born, committed to the long-term conservation of Namibia's large carnivores.
Since then, more than 800 big cats have been saved, each one has a heart-rending miracle: Chinga the cheetah rescued from a rabbit hutch; Chui hit by a car when a cub; Paws caught in a box trap; Matata the lion orphaned as a baby; Shakira, the leopard who grew too big to be a pet. The aim is to relocate as many animals as possible in the wild or, if they can't be rehabilitated, to care for and feed them in their reserves. Research and youth education schemes are also part of AfriCat's programme, and the tourist activities at Okonjima are vital as they provide much-needed funds.
Don't rush Okonjima or you'll miss out on a lifetime of memories: track radio-collared cheetahs on foot in their reserve, take a vehicle safari to spot that most solitary and secretive of cats - leopards - in their own vast reserve where you'll also see zebra, giraffe, kudu antelope and hyena, watch lions that can't be rehabilitated feeding just a few feet from you, and follow a Bushman Trail to learn how former inhabitants survived and adapted to life in the wild. After dinner there are drives to nocturnal hides where you'll see the little guys, too - the honeybadgers, lynx-like caracal and porcupine, their quills shimmering silver in the moonlight.
Okonjima's accommodation is a tourist attraction in its own right. The Main Camp, converted from the original Hanssen farmhouse, consists of ten luxury en-suite rooms overlooking a manicured lawn and campfire where you re-live your experiences each evening. The newer luxurious Bush Camp two miles away on the edge of the wilderness, also with a pool and campfire, consists of a main dining area, bar, lobby and shop, and just eight spacious, thatched, African-style en-suite chalets, their décor reflecting the surrounding earthly landscapes and each one offering complete privacy.
If you want to feel even closer to nature, you can roll up the ingenious canvas paneling and enjoy the antics of some of the 250 bird species by their own birdbath outside.
It's a magical experience - with the bonus of knowing your visit is helping Boots, Buttons, Bubbles and Bangles, as well as a host of other wonderful but endangered creatures.
Tel: 020-8667 9158
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