Seeing the most beautiful leopards and cheetah in the wild was an amazing way to end our trip to Namibia.
We left Onguma and were on the road by 8 a.m. and after the 8 km of reasonable gravel inside Onguma we reached the tarmac of the B1, turning left and heading, in the first instance, for Otavi, where we were looking for the Khorab Monument which marks the spot where German forces surrendered in 1915. Turning off the B1 through the town the road deteriorated dramatically. Eventually it became just a dirt track which looked pretty bad. We had to abandon the quest and returned to the road and headed off to Okonjima - beautiful jacaranda trees though.
Okonjima is home to the Africat Foundation which looks to rehome large carnivors such as cheetah and leopard which have come into conflict with humans, for example on farms.
The reserve spreads over 20,000 hectares and the animals are fitted with tracking collars then released to live wild. Not only can the animals be studied, this has the wonderful side-effect of helping to locate them for tourists to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.1 There is a strong belief that education can play a big part in helping the people of Namibia understand the creatures and their environment.
Okonjima lodge is pure luxury with gorgeously furnished public areas, all with open sides for coolness and a good view. Our room, a rondavel, was fabulous with loads of space. The sides also opened up and outside was a small water basin where animals and birds came to drink.
After a very nice lunch we went back to the room and found warthog and guinea fowl congregating outside. I spent a happy time photographing the colourful birds - though I needed help with identification!2,3
It's a bird-spotter's paradise here!
At 3:30 pm we met for tea and snacks before setting off on our cheetah-tracking expedition. The vehicle was equipped with a radio-frequency tracking device but we had to go some way before a signal was detected.
We followed it to a bluff overlooking a dry river bed where the signal was very strong so we back-tracked, drove down the river bed and there he was - a magnificent large male leopard lying in the shade.
He looked asleep but wasn't. Our guide demonstrated the animal's deceptive lassitude by rattling the grasses on the opposite side of the car - the leopard immediately became alert looking for what had caused the disturbance.
The guide told us that he was about nine years old and had recently had an injured paw but this was almost completely healed. He was always getting into trouble, apparently, and had been fighting a younger male who was mating with "his" female. His name is Nkosi which means "lord" or "king" and he is one of the most beautiful male leopards at Okonjima.
He was totally unfazed by our vehicle. He'd recently eaten but the guide said that if any of us got out of the vehicle he'd happily accept dessert!
However. he was remarkably tolerant of our maneuverings to see him from different angles. Such a privilege to be able to observe this glorious creature.
Now we were looking particularly for cheetah, passing baboons and a couple of Egyptian Geese on the way.
Okonjima is actually a Herero term meaning "place of the baboons".
As we drove along I spotted a second leopard. He wasn't picked up by the tracker because he had no collar, he was probably a cat bred in the wild and was unknown to the guide.
He was sitting in the grass probably waiting for dinner to pass. He knew we were there, though.
I was thrilled to bits to have spotted him!
Eventually he wandered off after a couple of warthog.
We were off again looking for cheetah and we were beginning to wonder if we would be unsuccessful when, half an hour later, a signal was picked up. Each collar emits a different frequency so the guide knew immediatley which cheetah it was - a two year old female.
We got as close as possible with the 4x4 then got out and were given instructions by the guide: be quiet, walk in single file, don't run if she mock charges, which apparently she is prone to do.
We didn't have far to walk when we came upon her lying beside a termite mound with the remains of a steenbok kill. An absolutely beautiful animal called Pins - one of her sisters was called Needle. She is a shy creature, keeping her distance from humans, and not often sighted. The guide said she had been rehomed with her mother and four siblings but that she was the only sibling to have survived and maybe this was why she was a little stressed.
We were very close to her, no more than four metres distant, but this cat was not totally happy that we were there.
She tolerated us for a while, then shifted position and sprang. It was only a mock charge but scary enough! We stood our ground, as instructed, and she eventually relaxed. Then we backed off a little just to put her more at ease.
We stayed with her a good length of time, a wonderful experience.
A Namibian lady with us said she'd been coming for 16 years and this was the best drive she'd been on for getting really close to both leopards and cheetah, Nkosi on the dry river bed and Pins only 4m away from us.
There was a very good sunset to accompany our excellent G&T sundowners before returning to the lodge for dinner. We were rather late as we'd been so lucky with our spotting, and it was actually dark so the guide switched on the lamp and we had an impromptu night drive, spotting more game up close than we'd seen the previous night at Onguma!
The following morning before breakfast I was still adding to my tally of birds and finally managed to get a photograph of the fabulous crimson-breasted shrike.
Andrew had an absolutely enormous Bushman omelette for breakfast which seemed to have everything in it: sausage, bacon, onion, mushrooms, tomato and cheese!
We could have gone on another game drive but we had already had such successful sightings of big cats that we decided instead to do a walk in the bush. Okonjima has several trails and we did the Giraffe Trail, a very easy 5 km walk with an expansive view over a wide plain at its furthest point.
Instructions were to avoid large holes in the ground which might house warthogs, and disused termite mounds which have holes where snakes can live (we'd already seen small creatures darting out of termite mounds).
We saw a number of oryx on the walk, quite close, but they didn't seem bothered by us. There was also a lovely steenbok and a small fox-like creature with a bushy tail running down the track in front of us - it could have been a jackal.
Showered and refreshed we finally left for Windhoek airport. Okonjima was our final stop on an incredible tour through Namibia where we had met some lovely people and excellent guides, seen so many memorable landscapes and animals. My favourites will always be the elephants but it really is hard to pick one over another - the beautiful mountain zebra, giraffe, kudu and all the antelopes, rhinoceros, and the fabulous birds and finally the magnificent big cats - all worth travelling half a world away to see in the wild.