Cheetahs, tribes and rare elephants

Trip Start Aug 17, 2003
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Trip End Jun 04, 2004


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Sunday, September 7, 2003

Had an amazing sight first thing the other morning - there we all were happily munching on our cornflakes for breakfast, when an elephant walked past, about 200m from our tents. The elephants in this region are desert elephants, a different species from the normal African elephants, which have adapted to the desert conditions. So not only was there an elephant just breezing past our tents, it was an incredibly rare one!

Once we got over the shock (and I'd picked the thorns out of my feet which I'd got from sprinting across the campsite from my tent to get my camera!), we headed further north to Kamanjab.

We were staying for two days at the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park. This is run by a Namibian family who found an injured cheetah on their farm - and she and her unborn cubs moved intottheir house...! They then decided to continue to help to protect the cheetah, and have developed the cheetah park. It was pretty controversial, as the cheetahs there are only semi wild - they have a large area to roam in, but they are fed dead meet by humans every day, so they are not fully wild.

However, in Namibia, cheetahs are not a protected species - and farmers consider them pests as they kill livestock etc - so they kill them. In fact, this is apparently totally endorsed by the wildlife/national parks association. And it is illegal to export cheetahs, so they can't be exported to other national parks in Southern Africa. So many farmers now trap them and bring them to this farm instead of killing them.

We first went to see the tame ones which live in their house. That was amazing - these wild animals, docile with the family who own them as if they're cats, but you can see in the way that they play with each other that they are still totally wild. We were given a whole list of things to remember - to always stay 2m away, not to look them direct in the eye (they see that as a challenge, and will go for you), not to touch them unless a member of the family was already touching them.

This was all well and good, except when we were waiting to go in turn to be able to stroke them, they were wandering amongst us - one licked my knee for ages. So I'm not allowed to touch them - but what if they're licking me??? And then another of them jumped up onto the bench and took a liking to my bag - he took off with it in his mouth!!

We then went into the wild enclosure (right next to the campsite!!) and saw the "wild" cheetahs. In fact, they proved that the hunting instinct is still fully there despite the fact that they are fed everyday at 4.30, by killing a rabbit right in front of our truck. And while they accept humans, they were still being fairly aggressive, so some eleement of their wildness must be continuing.

See for yourselves at www.cheetahpark.com

The next day, we went and visited a local Himba tribe. The chief of the tribe is actually a white guy who decided to live a "traditional" life, and has set up a small village now, with his two Himba wives, and 13 adopted children, mostly from abusive or poor families. It was great that he was able to explain to us in good english all the details of the village life, as we understood so much more than we would probably have done on most of the usual tours - but it was also strangely exploitative. We felt a bit uncomfortable looking at them, and especially taking pictures (imagine someone coming to your house and staring at you and taking pictures).

It was so interesting though to hear about their traditions that we soon stopped feeling uncomfortable. He explained to us the hair styles (pretty intricate) and the jewellery and clothes they were - both of which show clearly the status of the person - eg. male or female (not immediately obvious in the kids), married or not, with children or not etc. HE also explained how the huts are made, how the village is run, and daily rituals such as cleaning (without water, which is very scarce in Namibia - they have a "smoke bath", lieke a sauna every day), and the make up.

This is particularly unique - they cover themselves in a mix of butterfat and ochre, which they literally put all over their bodies. This means they end up looking really red from head to foot. Very distinctive! But it obviously does something very good for their skin - we met one woman who was 65, and didn't look over 50!! Think I'll pass on the butterfat moisturising treatment for now though - not sure turning orange would be a good look!

He also told us about a number of other traditions, some of which seem quite odd to a western viewpoint!! One was the maturity rituals - when they reach puberty, the 4 front bottom teeth are knocked out of their mouth (literally knocked out - with a stick) and the boys are circumcised. All without anaesthetic (cross your legs boys)!! Also, he already has 2 Himba wives, but next year he is getting married for a third time - and his new bride is 16!!
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