Okonjima - Africat Foundation
This page covers the one full day my wife and I spent at Okonjima Plains Camp during our latest visit to Namibia in late September / early October 2018. As most visitors only stay a night or two here the activity programme is structured to enable guests to do up to four excursions per day. We opted for the early morning Leopard trip, then a tour of the Africat facility at 11:00 hrs, rounded off with a Cheetah tracking / sundowner trip late afternoon, however, I`ll start here with some information on the Africat Foundation.
Founded in 1991 by Wayne Hanssen, the AfriCat Foundation is a Namibian organisation promoting the conservation of large carnivores. Although the foundation`s main base is located within the 200km² Okonjima Nature Reserve, near Otjiwarongo in central Namibia, there is a satellite base in the north which borders the western side of Etosha National Park.
En route to the Africat Foundation area for our tour, we stopped at the Okonjima Bush Camp to pick-up more guests. This section of the reserve, several kilometres away from the Plains Camp, centres around a thatched lapa (below) which overlooks its own waterhole.
Above image © yellowzebrasafaris.
The large arched building has three distinct areas: a lounge with a number of fireplaces, a bar, reception area plus a curio shop, and the dining room with traditional wooden tables. There is also a swimming pool. Accommodation comprises just eight chalets and one honeymoon suite all of which are styled on traditional African homes. All chalets are completely open fronted, with unobstructed views of the surrounding bush.
AfriCat has grown significantly since it started out primarily as a welfare organisation and now undertakes research projects, plus child and adult education with a view to the long-term protection of Namibia's large carnivores and their habitats, and the enhancement of the surrounding communities.
Below: Felix our guide shows a selection of tracking collars that have been fitted to Leopard and Cheetah over the years. The collars have to be replaced at regular intervals as the individual animals grow and it`s clear that many of the earlier examples were too bulky and cumbersome.
Jim (`Wee Jimmy`) Maltman who was born at Alloa, Clackmannanshire, on 3 June 1922, became a long-time passionate supporter of the Africat Foundation. He visited Namibia on numerous occasions and spent much of his time Okonjima.
He became involved in many carnivore rescue missions and even at an advanced age he would drive long distances to collect a single cat from a remote farm. He had served in the RAF and also regularly flew in the Foundation`s Maule plane to uplift orphaned cubs.
The Scot made generous financial donations to Africat over the years as a well as purchasing a Toyota Landcruiser for staff use. Jimmy passed away on 21 March 2012 just short of his 90th birthday having bequeathed his home in Scotland to the Africat Foundation in his will. These badly needed additional funds sponsored the construction of the Information & Carnivore Care Centre.
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There are a couple of Cheetah compounds at Africat. Guests don`t exit the vehicles here but during the Cheetah tracking trips you can walk to within a few metres accompanied by guides. Although these cats have never shown aggression in the past the guides always carry a pick-axe handle `just in case.` It`s a different story with the far more powerful and vicious leopards however when everyone must remain in the safari trucks.
The first enclosure visited contained Hoover and Dyson. Four more Cheetah were housed in an adjacent area. As is often the case, the mother cat targeting cattle is killed by the farmer who discovers her cubs while they are still small and passes them on to the Africat Foundation in the hope that they will still have a reasonable life. Without their mother to protect them, the offspring would not last very long in the wild. It is also unrealistic to release these cubs when they reach adulthood as they have no fear of humans and would make easy targets for certain unscrupulous individuals when encountered.
A Tawny Eagle perched on a tree on the edge of the second pen was being dive-bombed by a rival but I didn't manage to get the two birds together in the same frame. This trap next to the Education Centre was previously used to catch leopards for tagging, however, due to a number of problems this method is no longer used.
Hoover, Dyson & Co.
An 05:30 hrs rise is the norm for both the early morning Leopard and Cheetah tracking trips but you don`t need to worry about setting an alarm as the reception give all participants a wake-up call. Coffee and muffins are served in the Barn from 06:00 with everyone ready to go thirty-minutes later around sunup. The early start enables guests to return around 9am for a full breakfast. Once on board their allotted safari truck guests are given a heavy blanket which helps take the chill off but it would also definitely be worth taking an anti-dust face mask during the dry season.
Initially, after much effort, the only signal Felix our guide received on his hand-held tracker was from the largest male Leopard on the reserve but this big cat was high up on a nearby mountainside. With the odds on a sighting running at only fifty-fifty, we began to wonder if we had used our quota after encountering a mother with her cub here three years previously.
Felix drove across the riverbed at the same place (above) where we had spotted the mother and cub last time, but still nothing.
Perseverance eventually paid off though and he picked up a female named Electra. Within fifteen minutes we were parked just a few feet away as she lay motionless, well concealed and totally focused on the entrance to a warthog burrow. The most likely scenario was that Electra had chased a pair of warthogs earlier, one of which had taken refuge inside.
We sat for a while, amazed by her patience and how she was totally unaffected by our presence. Felix had repositioned the truck several times so that everyone on board got views from different angles should anything occur.
The sky was slightly overcast in places and surprisingly it actually began to rain, albeit for just a few minutes. The last time we visited the country in 2015, Namibia was experiencing a drought but things are apparently back to normal and more rain fell a few days later when we were at the east end of Etosha National Park. The wet season in Namibia usually runs from November through to March (January to March being the wettest) and although the landscape is transformed the animals no longer need to come to the waterholes to drink so sightings are much fewer. One advantage is that many species you do encounter will likely have young which arrive at this time to take advantage of the lush surroundings.
Almost an hour had passed and we were already running late, but seconds after the truck moved off on the return journey to camp, a puff of dust appeared from the hole. The warthog within had obviously assumed that the coast was clear and popped up to rejoin its mate!
A split second later, Electra, only a few feet away from my side of the vehicle pounced, and brought the warthog down after a short chase. A small bush and the dust generated by the speeding animals meant that I had been unable to follow events uninterrupted with my camera, but within moments we were back alongside hunter and hunted.
The warthog was large and struggled as best it could but the outcome was beyond doubt. Another Warthog, which I assumed was the doomed animal’s partner, appeared and stood watching events at a distance for a few moments before he or she realised the situation was hopeless, and trotted off.
Witnessing nature at work, especially so close at hand is fascinating but the sights and sounds are often far from pleasant. Felix said that this was only the second Leopard kill he had seen in ten years working at Okonjima, so we were very lucky, if that’s the right word, especially being almost right on top of the action. Cheetahs in the wild would never let you park so close when staking out prey and it’s only because the reserve’s animals have been used to the presence of humans since they were cubs that views like this are possible.
Once her prey finally succumbed, Elektra lay panting, obviously exhausted but soon after clamped her jaws around the Warthog carcass, the priority being to drag it to a less conspicuous location. Apart from avoiding scavengers such as jackals, large male leopards may try to drive off Elektra for any easy meal.
Cheetah Tracking / Sundowner Trip
Okonjima’s Cheetahs are much easier to track than the Leopards and Felix our guide, now accompanied by Paulus, took a long, circuitous route to reach them rather than driving there directly, The track was very rocky in places which added to the excitement and made the outbound leg more enjoyable. We didn’t see as much wildlife as our 2015 Cheetah trip but we did spot a solitary Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra and various species of smaller birds flitting among the trees.
Our truck was left parked in the dried-up river bed and a short walk took us to two Cheetahs which, like their counterparts at Africat earlier in the day, were totally chilled, only raising their heads occasionally in between short naps. As previously mentioned, the guides always carry pickaxe handles when out on foot, mainly for show, as none of these animals have ever threatened anyone before. No one would ever think of approaching a Leopard in a similar fashion though.
The spot this pair had chosen to relax in was right against Okonjima’s mesh boundary fence which wasn’t ideal for photos. They looked even less interested than the Cheetahs in the compounds at Africat earlier but judging by this sly wink, they probably get up and start charging about as soon as the tourists leave!
Once everyone was back on board, Felix drove further up the riverbed for a few hundred metres to exit onto an alternative, less bumpy trail for the return leg, however, despite numerous attempts to climb out, the vehicle was unable to maintain traction in the soft sand and sank to axle depth.
Broken branches and twigs littered both sides of the riverbed so the obvious thing to do was collect some and place them in front of the vehicle at intervals along the intended path.
The amused guests, now standing on the bank, watched as the two guides dug the wheels free, let some air out of the tyres and made further unsuccessful attempts to power through the sand. Both Felix and Paulus were very friendly and maintained a great sense of humour throughout.
Following a polite suggestion, a rough line of branches and twigs was laid. With everyone pushing we were back on solid ground and on our way within minutes.
We reached the sundowner spot and had drinks in hand just moments before the sun, by now a vivid orange ball, sank below the mountain ridge on the skyline.
The last stage was done in total darkness and with one of guests scanning the forest with a power torch as we travelled, the journey back seemed like a shortened version of the Night Drive excursion, the only outing offered by Okonjima that my wife and I didn’t opt for. So, thirteen hours after setting out on the first of the day's trips we returned to camp for dinner with lots of photographs, unforgettable memories, and very sore throats from eating so much dust!