A Mother and Son, the remarkable story of a cheetah cub who almost died, and the mother that saved him.

Aero loving on Storm.

A mother and her son. This is a remarkable story of some of the cheetahs I worked with while I was employed as a Biodiversity Monitoring Officer in Southern Africa.
My main duty was monitoring the cheetahs on the reserve. Some cheetahs were wild. Others were being reintroduced into the wild. It was the most fascinating line of work. Long hours tracking cheetahs in all manner of terrain, getting to know each one as an individual, seeing them succeed, seeing them fail, and seeing them rise again.Some of these cheetahs were captive their whole life! No one believed they could ever make it in the wild. But then they were given the chance. And they proved all the “experts” wrong. Cubs that had been taken from their mothers at birth, raised as pets, and then, through some very simple steps, released into the wild. Experts said it was impossible for them to hunt. No mother had ever taught them. But instincts showed otherwise. One of the first cheetahs I met and released was named Ava. She “couldn’t hunt”.
In less than 24 hours, however, she had made her first kill.
But today I want to share a very special story, of two very remarkable cheetahs that hold an everlasting place in my heart, and taught me very meaningful lessons that I want to share with the world…

Storm trying to walk after getting a little better, and Aero encouraging him.
Aero keeping Storm warm

Aero was a very special cheetah.
She was a remarkable example of caring love and sacrifice. Aero was in captivity her whole life, she had many liters of cubs during this time, but never was allowed to raise them. She “was not able to”.
She “wouldn’t know how to”.
During these years Aero was fed a diet of chicken. Which is not natural for cheetahs. And does not have all the nutrients they need. 
10 years of age, Aero was finally given the chance to be free. She was released into the wild, and began making kills. And she was finally allowed to have cubs, that she could keep.
When I started monitoring Aero, she had three cubs.Two females, and one male. The male’s name was Storm.
As I began my monitoring career, Storm became very sick and was struggling greatly.
I was told that, before I arrived to start working, he had a run in with the fence surrounding the reserve, and had gotten his little paw stuck. However he had been fine, just stressed by the experience.
Only days after starting my job, I came to find him one day, unable to walk. And I thought perhaps he had been climbing the fence again and this time had broken his leg.Storm was calling out, lying next to the fence, and unable to get up at all. He could only roll, as if his leg was not working. I had to do something. 

When we finally were able to get Storm to a vet for medicine, he could barely walk anymore

However, I had another issue…The reserve manager and anyone that would know how to help this cub was away on holiday. AND they had no phone service. So I couldn’t even call them. But I did have the number for the vet in the area…who ended up being on holiday as well.
Needless to say it quite a stressful situation.
It came down to simply trying to keep the cub alive through the very cold and sometimes, wet, nights until we could get a vet to come see him.
A lot of cheetah mothers will often abandon their cubs, especially if their cubs are so ill that they lose the ability to walk!


But not Aero.
When her little one became ill, she gave him continuous tender love and care. No matter how he struggled, she never abandoned him.
I remember how Aero acted. Vividly. From the moment I met her, Aero was simply, calm and gentle in nature. She allowed me to come quite close to her young cubs, and never showed me any aggression. She showed me tremendous respect, and of course, I did the same for her. I respected her boundaries, and her cubs’ boundaries. 

It is a wild feeling, coming so close to a large, feline predator. Knowing what they can do. Knowing they take down prey larger than I am. But it is an even more incredible feeling, to have such a predator trust you. To come to know so many predators as individual beings, and have them know ME as an individual being.It is what makes these stories so much greater and more meaningful to share.
Storm needed to be fed by hand, but he wanted nothing to do with the delicious food offerings he was being given. His sisters did not mind eating it though. So I was very stressed waiting for the day that either the vet could come out and check him, or to be able to take him to another veterinarian in town. And just simply trying to keep him ALIVE till that day.
A former head ranger of the reserve, Jeandre, was visiting the lodge at the time, and helping out teaching new rangers.He assisted me greatly by coming with me to try and care for Storm, and giving me advice to try and figure out what to do. Jeandre also knew Aero, as he had been there when she first arrived. This was a massive relief for me.
There was also the reserve fence patrol/maintenance team Gavin, Joseph, and Ashley. And though only Gavin spoke some English, they helped me so much also through a lot of the trials.
But the true hero is Aero. Finally getting Storm to a vet, we were given medicine to help him, but still there was no answer to his ailment…nothing was broken. Yet he could not walk. And it what was even crazier, was that it seemed to be changing from limb to limb. One day his front leg ceased to work, the next day it was his back leg. But Aero did not abandon him.
Some morning I came to him, expecting to find him dead or abandoned, because it was a very serious situation with no answers. But there was Aero. She would be lying with him, cleaning him and keeping him warm.
Not only did Storm have to be fed his food by hand, but he now had to be given shots and medicine as well! And he did not like this, as you can imagine.Have ever tried to make a dog or cat take a pill? Try and get a cheetah cub to do it. With mama cheetah trying to keep you away.
Storm was very upset by all of this, and would call for help from Aero.And at first, Aero did what any mother would do, she defended her cub. She kept her other two cubs away, and would then stand over her Storm, in his defense. She would slap the ground, hiss and snarl, and you could never turn your back to her. During this time I discovered a very simple solution to calm a charging cheetah…and it is now used by many cheetah sanctuaries across Africa…but this is another story.
The cub needed food and medicine to continue living. He HAD to have it! So something different needed to be done. If Aero knew it was safe, then Storm would trust her and be more likely to cooperate.
I took her view of the matter into consideration, and started really working with her to show her I meant no harm. Everything needed to be done with calmness and assertiveness. Thus, Aero began to trust me.
And it was not long before she began to bring her other two cubs out when I would come. And then each morning and evening, Aero would lie down or sit next to me, while I worked with Storm. She was so calm sitting next to me. It felt as if we were simply two individuals on the same team, working towards the same goal. There was no aggression. She watched her cub, and did not even question what I was doing. It got to the point, when I was there with Storm, no matter how he argued with me on being cared for, Aero did not respond to his squeals of displeasure, she merely lay there, trusting what was being done. Knowing her cub was not being harmed.
Aero’s presence next to me helped Storm to remain calm, and it gave me an overwhelming love for the incredible family bond they shared. She doted on her son. No matter what, she was not giving up on him.
But Storm almost did not make it. Needless to say I spent many a sleepless night praying and worrying about the cub. Getting up before dawn to check on him, and give him his food and medicine, often  afraid I would find him dead. But he was a VERY determined little one. And his mother was always with him when I would arrive, and his sisters were there too. He was very much a mamma’s boy. Aero certainly had him spoiled.
Storm was almost put down when management thought he surely could not ever make it. And certainly would not be able to hunt if he did. There was no answer to what was wrong with him. But one thing that was found, was he had a massive deficiency in almost all nutrients. So we began loading him up with vitamins, calcium, and everything imaginable. And it turns out, due to Aero’s diet in captivity, she had none of the nutrients needed in her milk to give her cubs. And stress brought on issues as well, resulting in the extreme problems Storm was struggling with. Management came to the conclusion that the cub down would probably have to be put down, so that his suffering could be ended, and a full on biopsy could be done to figure out the problem, and maybe learn a solution.
But I definitely could not see this happen, after all that he, and Aero, and I had been through. We were in it to win it!!
I had to trust in Aero’s instincts. If she, who was a cheetah and whose natural instinct is usually to abandon a cub that can’t make it, still stood by her son, then we HAD TO ALSO.
And sure enough, with some convincing to give him more time, we then put all focus on his extreme vitamin deficiency, and with a lot of care, love, prayers, and support, the little cub pulled through. Aero never gave up. She never ceased in the comfort she gave Storm. And Storm never stopped fighting to live.
How can it be, that the Earth’s fastest predator never gave up on her son, and laid calmly next to me as I worked?

Sometime months later, I watched Storm, now grown into a young adult, learning to hunt with Aero, running as well as any cheetah. 
And only just recently, Storm, now quite a strong young adult, and one his sisters, made their first kill on their own.

Is this the same cub who “could never run again”, who “should be put down”? I do not doubt, for Aero showed me what was true, this young cheetah will “storm”  through life, sure to be a powerful and unstoppable force. He was worth believing in.
Everyone is worth believing in.No one should give up. We may not all have an Aero in our life to believe in us, but we can all be an “Aero” to anyone. We can choose this.
There is so much we can learn from these two cheetahs, but one simple lesson that Aero portrays is this: we must never give up on our loved ones. Aero is a cheetah. But surely if the world’s fastest predator can have the care and determination to stand by her young, no matter his struggle, then we as human beings can give the love and determination to stand by ALL those who need us.
Being so privileged to gain the trust of a cheetah mother, seeing that incredible support she showed her cub, will remain with me all the days of my life.
And I hope all who read this story will be as moved and inspired as I am to have lived it.


Family. An Inspiring True Story, Taught by Cheetahs.

Sometimes wildlife can remind us of how important our loved ones are.
This picture I am sharing today holds a beautiful message.
During my time monitoring cheetahs in the wild, and working for a cheetah conservation program, I witnessed this moment between these cheetah cubs and their mother.

Mother cheetah being comforted by her cubs

The mother had been struggling with hunting. It was during the time of a great drought, and her prey opportunities became less and less by the day. And she had four growing cubs to feed!

So day after day, I tracked and monitored this cheetah family. Hoping and praying that something would happen for them. That this struggling first time mother would catch a break…or you know, at least catch an antelope!

I found the mother and her four cubs, resting after a very long day of failed attempts at hunting.
They saw me every single day, so to them, I was just part of the environment.

I observed then a most remarkable moment between the cubs and their mother…

The mother had collapsed wearily, seemingly at her wits end.

And then, her little cubs all gathered around her, and began washing her in the same way she always did for them when they wear weary or afraid.
It was so moving and touching, seeing this happen, and hearing their sweet purrs of comfort.

The mother cheetah then began to relax, and feel comforted, purring loudly with her encouraging babies.

And only days later, I watched this very same mother cheetah, make an absolutely stunning kill at her full speed. (This is around 70mph).
This is another remarkable story for another day…

I am so blessed to have witnessed such incredible moments in the wild. And to learn from them. And share this with the world.

In this picture I photographed of this cheetah family, I want to share what I learned from them…
Love your loved ones.
Forgive your loved ones.
Be there for your loved ones.
Be strong for them.
The love and support of family is so important…because we are always better together.

How truly special it is that we can see and learn these messages from the wild world around us.

Follow me on Instagram @savannah.on.the.savanna for more photos and inspiring stories of wildlife.
#cheetahconservation #cheetahcubs #family #familyiseverything #loveiseverything #cheetahlover #africanwildlife #babycheetah #movedbynature #wildlifeconservation #conservation #givelove #strongertogether #bigcats #bigcatconservation #cheetahsofinstagram


Welcome to Africa

My very first trip to Africa…15 hours straight in from one continent to the next. I landed in Joburg. I had about, an hour, to get to my next flight. Which considering the amount of time it takes to get out of a plane, and figure out how to navigate through an airport in a foreign country you’ve never been to, alone…lets just say one hour really is not enough time to be relax.

So I get out of my plane, and I have to go and pick up my checked luggage, and re check it. Thats the rule. It does not go to your final destination, you must re check.

So I manage to get the bag pick up. I was tired, but excited and a little stressed, so that kept me awake. I waited for my bag impatiently, trying not to look at my watch, knowing it would stress me out even more to know how much time I didn’t have.

One by one, all the other people on my flight came and got their bags as they came out in the baggage claim.

Still I waited.

Eventually, I began to see the same bags come around again and again, and no new ones were being put on. Oh how wonderful, my bag, MY bag, is the one that does not show up, and clearly has gone missing.

I was distraught.

So I went to the nearest information desk, exhausted and trying not to cry, I didn’t really have anything super valuable in my bag that couldn’t be replaced, but being super tired and stressed, well, thats just a terrible mix.

I told the lady at the information desk my problem, her English unfortunate was not that great, but she understood me. she said id better just run and try to catch my flight. She tore off a scrap of paper from something, scribbled a number on it, and handed it to me. She said when I got the chance, call that number, and they could help me find my bag. I thanked her, and I called my mom. It was super early in the morning back home, my mom probably about had a heart attack as she listened to me rapidly try and explain what was going on, while running. And then I said, “I have to go.”


I hung up. To much going on to focus properly. And certainly not enough sleep!

In Joburg, there are a lot of people who stand around looking for lost passengers, and these people will come and help you…for a price. Now I knew about this, and soon as I saw one of the men, I went right to him, gave me some USD, and asked him for help getting to my gate.

I don’t remember what he said his name was, it was an African name I had not heard before, but he was definitely from the area, and had a thick accent. I do remember he had one eye that was clouded over and blue, while his other eye was dark brown. I actually saw him again several years after that, but obviously he didn’t recognize me.

He was very pleasant, and very willing to give me hand getting through everything. And with his help, I got through security and made it to my gate on time. He also told me, when I arrive at my final destination, a small town where I was to be picked up, to check the airport there, sometimes the employees from Joburg forget they are not supposed to send bags all the way through, and they send them anyway.

At the gate in Joburg, I arrived in time to try and send a text to my mom, which did not go through. Great, she’ll probably think I died or something now. And then came a shuttle to pick me up with the other passengers, and it took us to the small plane that would then take me to my final destination.

I boarded the plane, and sat down. I tried to call my mom, the call wouldn’t go through. I called the number I had been given about my lost luggage. The number did not exist. Either it was not written correctly, or it was not active anymore.

So, there I sat, trying not to be to upset, hoping my mom wasn’t worried, and hoping my dad wasn’t on his way to rescue me since I could not contact them, and trying to think of how many things I lost, and what I would need the most to continue my African adventure…

I need a jacket, it gets cold at night, maybe another pair of shorts and an extra shirt…thats probably about it. I can survive without the rest.

We took off.

We rose higher and higher, entering the clouds. I was lucky enough to have window seat…and I looked wearily out the window at the view…my heart soared.

I saw the new world, a bright, beautiful new world of which I had always dreamed I would see one day. Since I was just little, I remember thinking, one day I will see Africa, I will go to the far off place. All those documentaries I watched as a kid and as an adult, always my favorite were the African ones. And now…I had followed my childhood dream. I was here.

I could see the Drakensburg Mountains, so different from any mountain range I had seen before, and as they fell away, my heart soared even higher still, as the bush came into view…the African savanna…savanna country. I could see animals in wilds below, though I was not so sure of their species yet. Forget the stupid lost luggage! I am coming home for the first time!

As we landed on the tiny airstrip, I saw warthog and wildebeest meandering around the runway. Oh what joy! And we landed. At this point I must mention, I came in on a 12:30 flight, just like in the song by Toto, Africa, ‘she’s coming in 12:30 flight..’

And in a later post, I will tell my story of when I ‘blessed the rains down in Africa…’

I stepped out of the plane into a glorious African day, I breathed in the wild air, heard sounds of birds and insects I had never before heard in my life, I smelt the new smells of the bush and African plants, the sun warmed me and my heart danced. I knew in that moment, this was were I belonged, God made me for Africa.

I followed the other passengers to where the bags were to be picked up. A man with a sign that had my name on it was waiting there to pick me up. Because I was arriving a day later than the usual pick up, I had had to make arrangements with Trophy Taxi Service to take me to my final destination. They are a fantastic business by the way. They were very professional and I highly recommend them.

My taxi driver led me to where the luggage was to be picked up. A little blue tractor arrive, pulling behind it a trailer full of luggage. They unloaded all the bags into a pile on the road. and went off for the next batch. Everyone began picking through the bags. Then lo and behold, my green Deuter backpack was there! I guess the employees at the airport had decided to send it on…which they really are not supposed to do…but, no worries now!

Advice: I suggest when traveling to Johannesburg, and then catching. flight to somewhere else, always check to see if your checked luggage has arrived in Joburg first, and if it never comes out on the conveyor belt, honestly you can probably assume its been sent on, though, it really is not supposed to be sent on. I had my bag sent to my final destination twice, the rest of the time, it arrived and I re checked it. But now I try never tp even check a bag.

Off we went! It would be about an hour plus to reach the reserve where I would be staying as a volunteer.

I was still fighting sleep as we went, but the excitement I felt kept me awake. As we drove, I would see vervet monkeys, baboons and warthogs along the sides of the road. I saw some impala antelope, and wildebeest. And the birds, oh so many lovely birds that I had never seen before! I was head over heals in love.

Drakensburg Mountains

We will skip ahead to my arrival at the reserve…we arrived at the gate of the reserve, where awaited me was my first friend in Africa.

He introduced himself as Alpha. That was his name.

I later learned that the generations growing up during the horrible Apartheid, had to choose English names in order to attend school. And so many of the mothers of these children would find an English book, quite often the Bible, and pick out a name for their son or daughter to use.

So the first person I met on the reserve, the reserve I returned to year after year, and received my Field Guide qualification on, was a man named Alpha. We shook hands, and he loved my name when I said it, and with a big smile, said it a couple more times, “Savannah. Suh-VAN-ah….welcome to South Africa!”

I said thank you and farewell to my taxi drive, and I followed Alpha to the open game vehicle he had driven to pick me up in. I got in the passenger seat, and we started driving down the little dirt, bush road, into the wilds beyond.

As we went along I asked Alpha some questions about himself, and about what wildlife he had seen, and experiences he had had. We got along good, though it didn’t take long to realize his English was a bit limited. This is when I learned, that when any native there that does not speak great English does not understand you, they just smile real big and say, “O-kaaay.” which in translation mean, “I have no idea what you are saying.”

I then noted in the open glove box in front of me, amongst some old tools and nails and screws, a hand made slingshot. The wood was obviously from some kind of sturdy tree that must have grown on the reserve, and the sling itself was made of two strands of tire rubber and a little bit of leather glove scrap.

Having grown up with a slingshot, I complimented on the handiwork. Alpha was very pleased that I even knew what it was, and he stopped the vehicle, and said, “Would you like to shoot some?”

Well, yeah of course I would!

He pulled out some rocks he had been carrying in his pocket, and a few more that were in the glove box. We got out, and he let me go first. I shot at a tree a good ways off and hit it. Alpha was impressed, and said I could again. He then showed me the way he liked to shoot, and so we went back and forth a bit, shooting the stones into the bush. But it was getting later in the day, and we needed to get to the main camp.

The rest of the drive with Alpha was very enjoyable, despite any language barrier, when two people share a passion in something, no language is required. He pointed out little things of interest, birds and trees, and then we pulled up at the main camp, which was a research base for wildlife conservation purposes. Here we said our goodbyes for the day, he had other work he had to go do.

I stood awkwardly in the shade of the open car port, a couple rangers came by, one British and one Dutch, they said a quick hello, and that, “Mike will be here in about an hour.”

Mike was the manager that was supposed to pick me up and take me to my camp.

The rangers then got in one of the open Land Rover vehicles, and drove away.

Now I felt even more awkward, and very much out of place.

And still I was not able to contact home. I felt a bit upset, out of weariness and exhaustion, and the worry that my parents were most likely worried.

But then there were giraffes.


What lovely creature! Like dinosaurs from some prehistoric, their long and beautiful necks, the ginger leaf like patterns, my heart returned to a state of bliss. This was Africa. These were giraffes. Everything is going to be just fine.

After an hour or more, there came Mike driving down the dirt road. He was a tall, stern English South African.

There wasn’t much of a greeting, and I was feeling a bit confused. But Mike let me send a quick email to my parents to say I was fine, and then he said he would take me to the Garonga Camp, instead of the Bush Camp, because the plans had changed. So now I was feeling confused. Where in the world was going?

Well first we went to Mike’s house, to get his dogs. He had two dogs, Khala, a border collie, and Shongi, a ‘sausage dog’. The came running to the open vehicle and got in. And, like most dogs, wasted no time in realizing I was a good person and got into my lap up front. Both of them. I was feeling happy now. Dogs are truly blessed creatures.

Khala the dog

We looked for elephants as we drove, we found some tracks that were fairly fresh, and Mike said he had seen a herd earlier. But we never saw any elephants that day. Still, the very prospect of seeing the world’s largest land mammal, in this very reserve, let’s just say I was very happy.

We arrived at the Garonga Camp, which was an old Farmhouse, refurbished to work as an extra camp for volunteers. There was a small swimming pool to the side, and an old stone storage building on the other side. Surrounded by a low wire fence. Beyond the fence was a large orchard, in which grew the fresh produce for many of the lodges on the reserve. There was a small stone house near the farmhouse, which is where they farmhands stayed, and then on the other side of the farmhouse was an open carport and a very old scrappy looking building, which is where tools and equipment was kept. And then behind the farmhouse, the bush became thicker, with larger trees, there was a dried out river bed there, and beyond that…the wild unknown.

Certainly this was not the Bush Camp I had signed up for, but, I had nothing but hope and excitement for whatever adventures would be held here.

I had arrived just in time for the afternoon drive. I don’t remember if I even went inside the farmhouse. I think I left my bag with Mike, and he sent me to the waiting game vehicle.

The other volunteers were already in the vehicle, and the ranger driving that day was named Toko.

Toko is of the Zulu tripe, he has an amazing life story, growing up during the apartheid, what he went through is truly stunning. Yet he tells all his stories seeing the humorous side of everything. Toko went into the Special Forces in South Africa. He was one of the first black men to join the military, and the way he managed to pull it off is very funny. Toko became one of the finest trackers, probably in the world, he did work with anti-poaching, his work on this particular reserve actually started as fence patrol, and he was almost eaten by a lion one night as he patrolled on his little motorbike. The only reason he wasn’t eaten was because he had a backpack on.

So Toko has many fantastic stories, and he is a fabulous storyteller.

I met Toko, introduced myself, and was about to get in the back of the open game viewer with the other volunteers. Then Toko stopped me. He asked me, “Can you track?”

I answered that I could a little, it had always been something I enjoyed, since I was very little.

“Do you know what a cheetah track looks like?” Toko asked.

I answered that I did, and he asked me to explain, and I did.

The reason I knew was because, before coming to Africa, I had been determined not to look like a helpless fool, so I put tons of time into researching different tracks, learning about the wildlife, and learning the sounds of different common birds and mammals. Knowing that I would want to know what I was hearing at night.We were meant to be searching for cheetah and white rhino this evening, for research purposes.

After explaining the cheetah track to Toko, he pointed at the small seat at the front of the vehicle, designated for trackers.

“You can track for us.”

Thus began my friendship with Toko, and the unleashing of my love for tracking.

We drove all over, the wind that blew into my face on the drive was sweet and exhilarating. I was so in love with Africa, and to be there, I was sure that I could feel God’s pleasure.

We eventually found cheetah tracks. And we followed them on and on into the evening, and I actually didn’t do to bad a job as the tracker, and was able to keep on the trail. That is, until we reached a very rocky area, and eventually, even Toko said we had better try again tomorrow.

We then turned our attention to the white rhino.

Toko knew the area where one had been seen, so we started there. And sure enough we have tracks. I was amazed by the size of the three toed tracks, so dinosaur like and strange. Toko asked me, which way I thought they were going. I pointed, hoping I was right, since these were tracks I had never seen in my life. I was right. And onward we went.

I learned that day, that animals like using the dirt roads to travel by, because, like us, they know its easier that crashing through the thick and thorny bush. Who wants to deal with that, when its clearly easier to take the large trails made by man? The big cats even use the roads to hunt, knowing they can tread quicker and quieter on an open road.

The rhino tracks eventually went off the dirt road and into the bush. And we came to a stop. Toko said he would go on foot to see if he could find the rhino. He told us to stay at the vehicle.

I learned the names of the other volunteers, there was a British family, and a girl a few years older than me, I was 18 at the time, and her name was Charlene. She was from Sweden I believe. There are some stories to be shared involving her later.

Toko came back, after we had all begun enjoying our surroundings and trying to figure out species of birds that flew by, and Toko assured us the rhino had moved on too deep, but tomorrow, we will find him.

By this time golden amber light of the evening began to fade into a deep purple and blue, night was fast approaching. The first stars began to appear in the sky, as the sun sank in deep red on the western horizon. It was getting chilly, and I had not brought my jacket, since I had rushed to the vehicle. But that was not a problem. Happiness made up for the chill in the air.

Evening falls in the bush…moon near mid-upper left corner

We were nearing the camp, Toko handed me a spotlight to shine back and forth to look for eyes. And then, I saw them…my joy was complete, as two spotted hyenas strayed out of the darkness, eyes gleaming as we pulled up close to them. Spotted Hyenas are one of my most favorite mammals. And now, I was seeing them in person, and so close! I almost cried I was so joyful. I kept the light shining on them, and the other volunteers took down research notes, and got pictures. The two beautiful creatures moved away into the night, to go about their own business.

As the lights of the farmhouse came into view, a black-backed jackal came out, and went across the road, to quick for pictures, but it was such a beautiful sight, its eyes glowed a sapphire blue in the light.

We pulled into the camp, or farmhouse rather. And another ranger, named Andrew, introduced himself. He had already started a fire for us, and we all went in to prepare for dinner.

I have no memory of what we ate to be honest. But I do remember eating it outside by the fire, with Toko and Andrew and Mike, who had not yet gone home. The other volunteers had been at the camp a week or more already, so I guess some of the magic and joy of the bush had left them. But not me, this was my dream, and I intended to spend every singe moment of it, living.

Fire with moon in background

I listened to the rangers chat and share stories, but I found myself ever distracted by the wild sounds of the night beyond. The chirping of crickets, the whisper of bat wings, the frog like ‘prrrup’ of a African Scops Owl, the rising and descending whistles of a Pearl-spotted Owlet, the yelps and howls of black-backed jackals, and the blessed whooping of spotted hyenas. When I did not recognize a sound, I asked the rangers what species made it, and when I was certain I knew a sound, I confirmed it with them. Thus, unknowingly, beginning my journey to becoming a ranger myself.

I ‘enjoyed’ my first cup of instant chicory coffee after dinner, its a taste you just get used to and eventually you forget what good coffee tastes like and then you begin to enjoy it. I drank this with Toko and Andrew by the fire, the other volunteers came and went inside and out, while Mike had gone home for the night.

It was getting to be time for bed, the other volunteers were going now, and Toko retired also. Only me and Andrew left. I stayed out with him and helped him put out the fire, and we enjoyed a brief moment of complete peace. The sound of sizzling embers as the fire died, and we watched the last clouds of smoke descend in the heaven. Staring up at the sky, the smoke died away, and all became clear. The night above was alight with so many stars, due to lack of any pollution, that the light of the stars themselves cast shadows. Here I was almost driven to tears again, so moved by the beauty and natural joy around me. For just a moment we marveled at this beauty, and the sounds of a nocturnal bush. But then it was time for bed.

I did ask Andrew to let me stay outside, to let me sleep out. But this was not allowed. He promised however, that he would check the condition of an old sleep out deck beyond the dried riverbed behind the farmhouse. And if it was fit, the next night he would let me go there to sleep. This worked for me. Everyone went to bed, and the house was dark. But sometime, during the middle of the night, I awoke, the calls of hyenas seemed so close, I got up silently, creeping across the cold hard floor of the bedroom I shared with the other volunteers, and I went out of the room, and went to look outside the clear glass door at the entrance. It was dark outside, and the nocturnal wildlife seemed to be in a frenzy of music. I thought, though I could not be certain, that I saw dark shapes beyond the fence encompassing the camp. But I do not know what they were, or even if for sure I saw them. I returned to the warmth of my bed. And thus ended my first day in Africa. This, was my welcome to Africa.


The Night of the Leopard

One of the many things I love about Africa, is its stories. There is not one person that goes to Africa that shares a story that is the same as someone else. There are similarities in many yes, but every story is as unique as every form of life on the continent.

I recall one special, and frightening, venture during one of my numerous trips in South Africa.

I had become accustomed to sleeping outside in the Bush, beneath the light of the stars of the southern skies. Mind you, I did have the option to sleep in a canvas tent, but since the first time I slept beneath those stars, I never wanted to be ‘indoors’ again.

Left to right: Dave, an amazing tracker and a good friend, Toko, Head Ranger and phenomenal Zulu tracker and friend, Abby, who is now Dave’s wife, me, and Callum, another friend from the UK.

So in this particular camp, aptly named Bush Camp, there was a ‘kitchen tent’, and then there were about three large canvas tents, big enough to room two people each, then there was a smaller ranger tent up the hill, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would one day become my ranger tent for a time several years later, then there was a very small stone building a little further beyond that, this was the Head Ranger’s quarters.

The Head Ranger at that time was my friend Toko, a Zulu tribesman, a tracker of legend, and certainly a character with many fantastic stories, and I am pleased to say this was my first friend in Africa, and we shared quite a few adventures together, and he bestowed in me my love of tracking, and taught me the majority of what I know.

Away from the tents, overlooking the dried up river bed, was a observatory deck. It was open, no roof, with only the branches of a boerbean tree as cover, and maybe about six plus feet off the ground. This had become my bedroom every night, with Toko’s permission.

So every evening, I set up my sleeping bag on top of the ‘sleep out deck’, readied my flashlight and headlamp, my hunting knife, and my travel Bible, and an extra jacket, as it was winter time and could get a bit chilly some nights, and thus got ready for the approaching night.

Oh how glorious it was.

Bush Camp was already fantastic, no electricity, tents, only the light of fire lit lanterns, (me and other volunteers always brought our own flashlights for personal use, but we generally only used the lanterns to save batteries), and we would cook dinner over the fire or use the stove in the kitchen, which was a gas light stove, and then around a roaring fire, all of us and Toko, would enjoy meals by firelight, telling stories, and enjoying the waking sounds of nocturnal life in the surrounding bush. This was my paradise. But I took it one step further, to be as out in the Bush as possible by sleeping on the observatory deck every night.

On this particular night, I remember  returning from a night drive with Toko, and a little ways off from Bush Camp was a waterhole, and as we passed this I noted a herd of impala, a common but lovely species of antelope, meandering around the water, and then getting back to camp, I noted another herd of impala, near the sleep out deck. None of this was cause for concern, only it was later to be a vital part of the story.

I went up onto the sleep out deck, got comfortable in my downy sleeping bag, and took a deep breath of the wonderful air. I read my Bible, I have always brought my small Bible with me, it has been through every experience with me, across the world. And if I recall correctly, that night, I read the verse, which is now my favorite verse, Daniel 6:27, “GOD sets people free and saves them, HE does miraculous signs and wonders, HE does them in the heavens and on the earth, HE has saved Daniel from the power of lions.” 

Little did I know how much this verse would illustrate my life, more than one occasion.

The night was clear and cool, alive with the gentle chorus of crickets, whilst far and wide came the songs of the Fiery Necked Nightjars, a kind of nocturnal bird reminiscent perhaps to the Whip-poor-will we have in the United States. The lively ‘whoooo-oop’ call of the Spotted Hyena would echo out of the darkness every so often, answered by its brethren from some place even further, but they were not very near camp this night. There was a clan of these hyenas that sometimes visited the camp, but tonight, their song was far away.

Turn volume all the way up, but you can hear the sound of a Fiery Necked Nightjar in the recording I took.

One could say, this was a peaceful, if not lonely night in this part of the bush, only the stars and the shadows to keep me company, and then the occasional chirping of a bat zooming by in the sky above me…yet in me, I felt the primal tapping of something approaching. The more time spent in the outdoors, the more this type of feeling becomes known, and can used. And this night I felt it strongly, that the peace was merely a peace found in the quiet of the moment, it was a fickle peace, which to the untrained, would surely give confidence in relaxing in the presence of this calm. But I had come to know the bush by this point, and the life it held, and now with this feeling, or perhaps, warning, that seemed to be tapping from inside me, I knew the night held more in store for me.

Closing my eyes, I rested, but I did not sleep…and then came the call.

It was a rasping sort of sound, a coughing almost, comparable to the sound of sawing wood. And it was far away. A mere whisper in the crisp boundless air.

It was a call I knew well, a sound which my ears had strained to hear often, yet it was the sound I had dreaded to hear the most, considering my position.

It was the song of the leopard.

Leopard call recording, I did not take this recording, but it is to show what I was hearing.

Now in the Bush Camp area, there were two leopards that I had come to know as the resident leopards. One small female, and one big male. One rarely saw either of them. Only Toko claimed to see them in their territorial wanderings sometimes, and he had warned, that every so often, they would jump on the observatory deck to get a better view of things. When it came to leopards, the general warning was to NEVER look them in the eye, they like to remain unseen, the like the idea of always being hidden. So if you where to see one, you did not look at it, try to pretend you don’t see it, but never turn your back on it. Leopards are stellar hunters, and they are highly opportunistic, and very clever, and VERY sneaky.

Leopards I can honestly say are one of my favorite mammals, I respect them greatly. But I had very little experience with them. We just never saw them, and if we did see them, it was very brief. And my feeling had been that year, that I would have an experience with a leopard. And when the rasping call filled the night, though far away, my heart turned cold. This would be the night of the leopard.

At this point it was quite late in the night. But I was wide awake and listening. It was very cold. I had my headlamp and flashlight ready, I turned on my headlamp just to take a look around…it was barely a light at all…to my dismay the batteries must have been affected by the cold, and so the light was just about dead. Only a shuddering blink of pale light, hardly brighter than the light from which the stars cast on the earth. Well, no matter, I had my back up flashlight. It still seemed to work fine. The leopard began to call again. It seemed closer now, but moving at an angle, perhaps it would not come here. Never the less, I stayed ready.

The calls came and went a couple more times, at one point I thought maybe it was moving away, until it began to sound closer.

I waited in the cold darkness, trying to use my other senses, fearful to use my flashlight and risk killing the battery when I knew I would need it.

So on into the night I waited.

And then came the call again. This time I knew for sure it was heading this way. But still, maybe…maybe he will not come this far.

I waited.

And then, there came a flurry of alarm barks from the impala group that I had seen at the waterhole. Something had upset them.

The rasping call began again. The leopard was at the waterhole.

If I had not been on high alert before, boy was I now!

The voice of the big cat chilled me as he began to call yet again, now he was just up the road.

Still I waited in the silent darkness. Do not waste the light. Keep waiting.

The impalas that had been camping near me, sharing the impending dread along side me, began to bark their alarm call. He was here.

I did not move, I was standing, my knife in one hand, and my flashlight, not on yet, in the other. I was ready. My ears strained for any sound of movement. Anything. Anything. God please let me hear it.

The very slightest sound. A quiet touch of a soft pad on a dry leaf.

I turned my light on…

Up out of the darkness came the leopard, he walked with confident certainty, straight towards me. And oh what a big leopard this was. I thought maybe it was a lioness, he was so big. But those wicked, beautiful rosettes on his pelt, the crescent curve of his tail…there was no mistaking the magnificent leopard.

His eyes gleamed like glowing embers as he came up to the deck. He turned and walked along side of it, my light remained transfixed on the great cat. He went to the boerbean tree that was next to the deck, and marked it carelessly. And in one swift movement looked up at me suddenly. It was hardly even a split second. But it was to late. Our eyes met.  Anyone who has ever had a cat, knows that certain gleam of want in its eyes. When you leave something delicious on the table. And the cat watches yearningly. With slight curiosity. You can see the thought that passes like a shadow through its mind, ‘That could be an option.’ this is when you realize you had better put what it wants away, because soon as your not looking, your cat is going to swipe it off the table.

This was the look in the leopard’s eyes, as he stared into mine.

I knew the feeling then, of what it feels like to be prey, and how it feels to be near the end of your life, to question and consider your entire life in a single instant, and wonder if it really is the end, to wonder how your family and friends will react when they hear the news…and in that same instant I sure I gained my faith in God. I felt empowered. I was given the courage to stand and face the jaws of death.

And then the leopard looked down. He broke the stare. I’ve never known any cat to break a stare. But this leopard did. And he went down in the riverbed, and cross into the shadows beyond, and his call filled the night, echoing throughout the world, declaring his pride, his fearful presence, and a warning…the warning I did not miss. The night was not over yet.

I did not sleep. Nor did I risk trying to return to my tent, it was to far away, and the leopard could still be close. I fully expected him to come back. And I had to wait until he did. Or at least until daylight touched the horizon.

So there I waited. I was getting cold, and to have had such an encounter, I felt slightly shaky, but I had to put my trust in God now, to save me from ‘the power of the lions.’ Or in my case, leopard.

The leopard continued to call throughout the seemingly endless night. He was moving away, but how could I risk going to my tent? What if he came back during those intervals of quiet? And then as he would move further away, suddenly, his call would come closer, as if he was going back and forth, taunting me.

And the all while, I did not risk using my light. Because it was dying. I only turned it on when I thought I heard something. I was so exhausted, that my mind had gone into the state in which it was going to sleep, while I was still awake. I was seeing things that were not there.

I turned on my light, and there was the leopard! Peaking out of the bushes by the tree, eyes gleaming, whiskers twitching…or was it? The leopard dissolved into leaves and shadows, it was only a dream entering the waking world. Somehow I had to keep going. I looked at the eastern horizon, begging the sun to rise earlier than usual. But it remained black, and glittering with the ever watching stars.

When dawn began to draw near, I heard a rustling near the sleep out deck. Quick as lightening I had my flashlight turned on. I was standing with my knife in hand…a Spotted Hyena jumped with fright, funny enough the reason he jumped was because as my light came on, he caught a glimpse of his own shadow and it surprised him. But he quickly regained his composure. He was sniffing the ground, and following a trail. It was the leopard’s trail, the hyena smelt along the same route by the sleep out deck the leopard had taken, carefully smelling the tree that had been sprayed, and then following the trail downward into the riverbed.

This hyena was my savior.

Predators do not like other predators. And leopard in particular will not generally risk injury, and will be more likely to avoid other predators like hyenas. So this was my chance to get back to my tent, and maybe catch a few hours sleep before everyone would have to be up in the morning for work.

It had been quite some time since I heard the leopard’s call, and the last one I heard had been a good ways off. And now with hyenas in the vicinity, it would be an ideal time to escape. So I clambered down the sleep out deck, I could hear other hyenas moving around the camp and around me, and I could feel those intelligent black eyes watching me from the safety of the shadows.

As I made my way towards my tent, I could hear a growl and snarl here and there from the hyenas, and I kept shining my light back and forth, see the glowing red eyes gleam as light touched them, they were so close. Sometimes the eyes would bob up and down, trying to remain unseen, sometimes they would retreat in the gloom, and then others would just stare, motionless at me. But a hyena will not come when it knows you can see it. Its the ones behind you that you have to watch out for. I continued to check behind me, until I made it to my tent. And oh, how the relief swept over me. Thank you Lord! God bless those hyenas…

Another leopard, not the same one I saw during the night.

the leopard’s rasping call filled the night air, and my heart skipped a beat, I felt a cold chill run through me. The leopard had been in one of the surrounding trees. He had been there the whole time. He had come for me after all. Whether I had stayed on the sleep out deck, or had gone to my tent, if it had not been for those hyenas, I see no reason why that leopard did not kill me that night. He certainly had the chance either way.

When I returned to South Africa the next year, this story had become all the more dark. Within a few months of me leaving, another volunteer around my age had gone up onto the sleep out deck to spend the night, she was supposed to have gone with her friends, and that was the only exception the game ranger in charge would make to allow her to go up there. They had to sleep out as a group. And that had been the plan. But that night, everyone decided against it, unbeknownst to head ranger, who had already retired for the night, but the girl went up anyway.

The next morning she was found dead. Eaten alive by the leopard during the night. No one had heard a thing.

The leopard was shot, having become a man-eater, and though I don’t know for sure if it was the same one that came to me that one night, I do know that I have never seen that male leopard again, yet I have seen the small female leopard that was always in the area also. There was always a small female leopard, and the big male. And since that night, I never saw him again…one can only wonder if this leopard that was shot, was the same who had come to me.