While it felt implausible that my trip could possibly get any better, I had two more thrilling days of volunteer work ahead. One of those days included fulfilling one of my other lifelong dreams – seeing cheetahs up close and personal.
Just like our safari, our group was split up into two smaller groups for the last two volunteer work days. My group was given the choice of what we wanted to do first – work at the Crocodile Centre or at the Emdoneni Lodge Cat Rehabilitation Centre. It was a unanimous decision – we wanted to end our volunteer work with a day spent with cats!
First things first, though – we had an exhilarating day with the crocodiles!
The day started out with a tour of the centre. One of my favorite moments was getting to hold a Juvenile Nile Crocodile (below). I will admit that I got a kick out of how well the name rhymed. Plus, for creatures I have a very healthy respect for, they were pretty darn cute.
After our tour, our proper volunteer work began. We were once again mixing cement, this time to fill in a proper wall to support an enclosure for Walkabout. Who is Walkabout, you ask? Well….
Meet Walkabout! He was my favorite crocodile at the centre, and it all came down to his backstory. The Crocodile Centre is meant to be a rehabilitation centre for injured crocodiles before they are once again released into the wild.
Walkabout had been brought to the centre, and once he had healed, they released him back into the wild. The next morning, the centre workers were shocked to discover Walkabout sitting right next to the enclosure he had been in while healing. They took it as a sign he wanted to stay, gave him his name, and thus, work on his permanent enclosure began!
During lunch we came across two of my favorite signs. The first I loved for environmental reasons, but the second was one of the funniest signs I have ever seen. I’m not sure a more perfect wheelchair sign has ever existed.
Before getting back to work, we took a moment to enter the largest enclosure at the centre and snap a few photo ops while one of our VESA leaders – Tarzan-like South African Johan – kept sights on our companions.
As much fun as we had during our crocodile day, I woke up beyond excited for our cat day!
After a 45 minute drive, we arrived at Emdoneni Lodge. We were given a quick look around, but only on the way to the area we would be working. Our proper tour wouldn’t be until late morning, just before lunch.
For our work today, we were once again cementing. This time it was cementing the bottom of a fence down into the ground so Max, a gorgeous caracal, couldn’t escape.
When we started our tour, we began with the servals. I am not over-exaggerating when I say servals are just giant domestic cats. They were adorably playful and didn’t seem to mind the attention.
We stayed in the serval area for quite awhile, tossing balls for them and snapping adorable photo after adorable photo. I’m pretty sure we all wanted to leave with twenty each.
After we bid farewell to our new serval friends, we stopped by an African wildcat enclosure. Unlike the servals, African wildcats are not friendly (even though they’re roughly the same size as domestic cats), so we stayed outside the enclosure.
I would be remiss in not introducing the star of our show – the caracal Max! We were working in the enclosure with him while we were mixing and pouring the cement, and though he kept his distance, he was a constant companion. We were told not to try to pet him, but that if he rubbed against our legs we should consider ourselves lucky.
The highlight of my day came when we entered the cheetah enclosure. These magnificent cats have been my favorite animal for as long as I can remember.
We were given explicit instructions on how to approach beautiful Autumn in order to get a picture with her. We made sure we gave her her space if needed, and that she knew we were in no way trying to harm her or catch her off guard.
In all honesty, I’m amazed I didn’t hyperventilate or bawl with happiness at living a lifelong dream of not only getting a picture with a cheetah but getting to pet one. I don’t want to give the wrong impression – since I know 100% cheetahs are wild animals – but Autumn seemed downright jovial. They were particularly fond of Peter, one of the centre workers they see every day.
Along with rehabilitating injured cats, the centre features the Cheetah Project, one of the goals of which is to breed cheetahs to keep up their numbers in the wild.
I could have spent all day – or week, or month, or year – with the cheetahs.
Knowing that some of the meat fed to the cats was zebra meat was a hard pill to swallow, made all the stranger when we saw wild zebras roaming the grounds.
Still, in a morbid way it was both fascinating and off-putting to see feeding time at the centre. The caracals were adept at showing off the fact that they could jump up to 10 feet to catch prey – or in this case, chunks of meat.
Of course, not all the caracals were as friendly as Max. The girl walking ahead of me got a little too close to this mom’s fence and she hissed at her, which ended up being a perfect photo op for me!
Once all the cats had been fed, we returned to the cheetah enclosure – making darn sure they were sated by their meal first – for more photos and facts. We were even treated to a rare sight – cheetahs climbing trees. If anyone ever tells you cheetahs don’t climb trees, direct them to this post for proof, as I was a firsthand witness to it.
I admit it was hard to leave, and harder even to come to terms with the fact that our volunteer days were coming to an end.
After our 45 minute trek back and another wonderfully cooked meal, we had another special event – the Zulu villagers returned for another performance.
The volunteer work was more rewarding than I had expected it to be. All of my fears and worries aside, like I said I wouldn’t trade it, as selfish as that likely sounds.
It was hard to be too sad, though, as our tourism days were about to start! First up – a costumed hippo river cruise!
Have you ever fulfilled a lifelong dream? (Or better yet, more than one?) Would you consider doing a voluntourism trip?