by Floyd Cowan
I was getting myself an instant coffee in the cool chill of the Zambia morning when I heard the deep throated roar of a lion. It was primeval. Having never heard a wild lion shake the night out of its throat as the sun was rising over the arid landscape it gave me a gentle thrill. I was in Africa. It roared several times. I looked at the instant coffee, drink it up. Had I been in the wild it would have been chilling, but here it was not threatening. Where it came from exactly, I wasn't sure. There is nothing 'deep and dark' about Africa. It is alive with colours. It is alive with experience. It is alive all around you and you are never sure what you are going to come face to face with.
"They are just saying good morning to each other," Lunda, my guide from Mukuni Big 5 Safaris tells me. "It is a territorial thing. Saying I'm here."
I'm here. I want to be, but it is their territory.
My one disappointment on this trip was that I never saw a wild lion. I've seen them in zoos, where they look magnificent, but slightly diminished. You want to see the star in his natural environment, when he is truly king.
My limited time at Mukuni Big 5 Safaris was pretty cool - I was to do the Walk With the Cheetah. Jeffery from Bushtracks picked me at 7:00am for the short drive from the Royal Livingstone Resort to the Cheetah Experience.
At the Mukuni Big 5 Safaris they offer several experiences: The Elephant Back Safaris, Lion Walks, Caracal Interaction, and of course The Cheetah Walk.
Me and a fellow from India who works in Lusaka, but was down for the weekend walked with the guides out to the compound where the cheetahs live. Where the cheetah's pace against the enclosure and eye everyone closely.
As we walked, Lunda explained to us what we needed to do in order to not annoy the cheetah. "We have two female cheetahs, Lulu and Lillian. They don't respond to their names. They are not like other pets. Use an affectionate tone - they respond well to that. If you use a harsh tone they take it as something bad.
"Approach from behind, talk to them in a nice tone of voice. Reduce your height, crouch down, and keep talking and pet them. Don't do it lightly because that is like tickling them and they don't like that. Firm, but not too hard. Their skin is 8 to 10 times thicker than ours. Play with their tail because that's what the cubs do. So they like that.
"Let them lick your hand. If they lick you that is a sign of acceptance.
DO NOT touch the inside of their ears and do not touch their paws. If you have a cat you know that touching their paws irritates them."
I was a little bit nervous. I wasn't afraid of the cheetahs. I wouldn't be here if there was a high chance of being mauled. I was afraid I'd do something wrong. I'd touch them in the wrong way. With the cats and kittens I've lived with teasing them was half the fun, but I wasn't about to tease Lulu and Lillian.
When we got to the meeting point with the cheetah handlers they repeated everything that Lunda had told us. Usually it takes more than two repetitions before I get something, but this time I got it quick. There was no way I was sticking my finger in the ear of the Lillian. When I later saw how quick they are, I was even more glad I didn't do that.
So all went well. I did as instructed. I approached Lillian from behind, I squatted down and began to stroke her. I wasn't enamoured. She felt rough and hard. Neither was she with me. It took her awhile, but eventually she began to purr. A little deeper than most kittens I have known, but it is a comforting sound. Very comforting.
She wouldn't lick me. Okay, what is happening here? I asked myself. The Indian fellow was getting generous licks from Lulu. Maybe the soap maybe the shampoo? I rubbed the back of my hand in the dirt, rubbed off the dirt. Hopping not to be rejected I again offered my paw. She gave me a tentative lick. "Okay - I'm being paid for this," she rolled her eyes.
She licked Lunda's closed cropped head.
"It is like licking another cheetah," he explained.
Having never licked a cheetah, I took his word for it.
"They are built for speed. They have semi retractable claws, but when they are running their full claws come out - for traction."
Their top speed is 120km per hour, but they can only go for 600mts and then they need 20 - 30 minutes for rest. So if they miss their pray, they'd go hungry.
"They accelerate from 0 - 60 within one second. In three to four steps they are at top speed. They have a very large heart, 1/3 the size of the human heart, but it works very hard.
"In the wild the Cheetah has a nine-year life span. In captivity it can live up to 18 years. It is the only cat that can see in colour.
In colour, in close range, it was very hard to get a picture of any of the cheetah's at full speed.
Another group joined us to watch the cheetah's chase a white plastic bag that was pulled on a wire. They sometimes caught it before the point where it was slowed at the finish. They would pounce on it in delight and then were distracted away from it by a handler who gave them chicken.
"If you can't get a picture of Mugaisa, you are not going to have a chance with Susan," said a guide who was emceeing the event.
Lulu is a speed demon. Mugaisa, at 4 years 2 months was the slowest and four year old Lillian was faster than him. However, it was the old lady, Susan, at four years five months who was fastest of them all. They were all incredibly fast. I got great pictures of the dried turf that those retractable claws had chewed up.
On the way back to the Royal Livingstone Jeffery asked if I wanted to stop at a tree that offers views of Victoria Falls. At first this didn't appeal to me, but as we drove by it I was impressed with the size of this big old tree, so I asked him to stop.
There is a sign on the tree saying what the fees are - but there is no one collecting them. Jeffery and I climbed the ladder to the platform where there are views of the Falls.
My bags were pretty much packed so I had time for breakfast before heading for the airport.
Dimitri and Ronel were also eating so I said a quick goodbye, but as it turned out we were on the same flight to Johannesburg.
Once again I had the incredible omelette, and as I was eating Moses came by. He had given some thought to the message he wanted to give you. "People have a mental picture before they leave home of what they expect the place to be like. It wows you when we exceed that mental picture. That is what we try to do through everything we do. The people are always warming and welcoming and smiling. The Royal Livingstone has the most brilliant prime location, and Sun International does all that it can to protect their investment here and ensure that our guests have a very special time. With the Falls and the River, this is one very special location in the most beautiful country in Africa.
"The Royal Livingstone was built as a Victorian style hotel and we endeavour in everything we do to give it the look and the feel of a hotel from that era. We have invested in the training of the staff so that they are prepared to welcome and take care of international clientele who have diverse interests and needs.
"Sun International look after their people, they look after their assets, they endeavour to be as green as possible and they give back to the community. Just by the Royal Livingstone being here, other businesses have sprung up so it has had a positive affect on the economy and provided jobs for people who otherwise might not have one."
I've thought of that many times since saying goodbye to Moses and the staff at the Royal Livingstone - they far exceeded my mental picture of what I was expecting. The WOW, was a big one.
Mukuni Big 5 Safaris
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