This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my time volunteering in Namibia. This piece delves into my experience taking part in one of my absolute favourite activities at the wildlife sanctuary I was volunteering on – taking a caracal for a walk!
I’d like to point out here whilst this experience was completely ethical, not all ‘sanctuaries’ are created equal and if a sanctuary offers hands-on experience with animals one must consider whether the sanctuary has animal welfare at heart. For more information on telling a real sanctuary from a zoo, read my guide here.
The names and descriptions of people in this piece have been changed for privacy.
You can read more personal essays from this trip here.
For more information about the volunteer experience, you can read my guide here.
“The baboons have escaped again!” A frantic female voice called across the sanctuary.
I swivelled my head, turning my attention away from the lapa, where I was heading for breakfast, and instead toward the baboon enclosure. One of the sanctuary’s wildlife handlers was chasing a great baboon around the complex.
I barely supressed a giggle of amusement as I watched the male handler flounder around, occasionally letting out an exasperated sigh of frustration when the primate would twist out of the way, howling in triumph.
Sitting beside one of the many buildings in the area was another baboon, watching with undisguised enjoyment across its face.
It was clear that these were the adult baboons who had escaped. They were massive! Muscles flexed beneath their smooth brown pelts and when they opened their mouths to let out a squeal of enjoyment, they flashed huge white fangs.
But the handler seemed unphased. He must know these baboons well, I decided. He looked utterly worn out but determination was written all over his face as he continued to try to herd the baboons back towards their enclosure.
Eventually, the baboons had had enough of running circles around him and charged back into their enclosure. The handler clinked the gate shut behind them, his shoulders slumping in relief.
“That was quite funny,” Jess muttered beside me.
We grabbed our breakfast before settling ourselves beside the firepit to eat.
When we were allocated our morning tasks, I felt my eyes light up in excitement. Our task for the morning was called ‘caracal walk’ and I felt like I had a good idea of what that would entail.
Caracals are a species of big cat, easily recognisable by their sandy brown pelts and long, tufty-tipped, black ears. They are small in size compared to lions and leopards but can still grow up to 3.5 feet in length.
Our team made our way over to a pick-up truck which had a large cage perched in the back. The four of us volunteers only just squeezed in the double-cab alongside our wildlife coordinator, bunched up together in the cold pick-up.
The door slammed as our wildlife coordinator leapt in and turned the key in the ignition. I sat, breathless in the back, almost unable to contemplate the activity we were about to take part in.
The pick-up bounded along the orange dirt track, leaving the volunteer area far behind. Trees and bushes whizzed past our windows and I heard thorns scraping against the side of the car.
Before long, we slowed down, pulling to a rattling stop beside an enclosure. I could make out two felines within the enclosure, marching with excitement at the sight of our vehicle. Their tawny pelts gleamed in the morning sunlight and they flexed their muscles with each step.
“Let’s get Alex,” our wildlife coordinator spoke as he opened the door to exit the vehicle.
The rest of us followed, watching in anticipation as our wildlife coordinator fetched the large cage from the back of the pick-up and placed it in a small segment of the enclosure which was cut off from the main enclosure by a metal gate. Using a pulley from outside, our wildlife coordinator opened the gate and, in no time at all, Alex the caracal ventured inside.
Once Alex was safely loaded into the crate, he was transported to the back of the pick-up. From the back seat I was able to turn around and watch Alex as our truck made its way down the dirt trail, deeper into the savannah.
The great cat surveyed the passing landscape, ears flickering every so often with intrigue. He was surprisingly calm, his chest rising and falling in slow, rhythmic breaths.
Eventually we pulled up beside a man-made watering hole, the murky shallow water glistening under the morning sunlight. We all descended from the vehicle, lining up to one side of the back of the pick-up, facing Alex.
The tawny feline stood alert, pushing his face against the bars of the crate and pacing excitedly.
“Stand back,” our wildlife coordinator warned, moving to stand on one side of the crate. He grabbed a large metal latch and pulled it to release the door to the cage.
Alex the caracal, raring to go on his walk
Alex’s orange eyes lit up with excitement and he moved to the front of the cage, black ears flinging back. He bunched his muscles, his rear trembling slightly as he prepared for a majestic leap, paws outstretched until he landed in the sand.
Watching his motions, I couldn’t help but notice similarities with my cats back home. The way he arched his back and rubbed against our wildlife coordinator’s legs, the flickering of his ears and slow blinking of his eyes. He really was just like a large kitty.
We began our stroll, taking off into the bush, leaving the beaten track behind us and following a far smaller forest trail. I found it bemusing and pretty cute how Alex walked alongside us, his tail brushing against his back legs like an obedient dog.
“Now what we need to remember,” our wildlife coordinator began his brief, “is not to bend down. Once Alex sees you as a similar height to him, he will see you as being the same as him, not larger. He would be much more likely to attack.”
It was hard to imagine Alex launching an attack. I glanced down at him, trotting proudly alongside us, ears swivelling like radar dishes at the slightest noise from the thickets.
I watched as he left the path, slinking purposefully to a large tree. He stopped at the bottom, glancing up at the thorn-crested branches above before rearing up and placing his two powerful front paws against the dry, crumbling bark. Silver claws were unsheathed as he began to work his talons into the bark, sending splinters of wood to the hard, orange earth below.
Just then he leapt, working his way up the tree at lightning speed. Higher and higher he went until he stood proudly at a high fork in the thorny tree. From his perch, he gazed at the rest of us who were straining our necks to keep him in view.
He looked so majestic up in the tree, tawny brown pelt contrasting with the brilliant blue sky behind. It was so easy to forget that he wasn’t truly wild. It was clear to see he had a great life here at N/a’an ku sê, being able to run around in the remote savannah. For a cat who could never truly be allowed into the wild, he really did have the next best thing with these walks.
Whilst I didn’t know Alex’s story, it seemed likely, judging by how tame he was, that he was either brought to N/a’an ku sê as an orphan and hand-reared, or was rescued from the life of a pet. Either way, he had clearly spent his early years around humans which explained why he was so amenable.
Any animal that has had too much contact with humans can never be released back into the wild. They come to see humans as a source of food and safety and thus can never be fearful of them. A wild animal needs to be fearful of humans in order to survive.
Alex began to descend the tree, clumsily slithering down from branch to branch until he was within leaping distance from the group. Waggling his haunches, he bunched up his powerful back legs before leaping. Once he was on the ground, he sprinted through the undergrowth, energetically crossing our path before skirting arid bushes and finally coming to a halt.
Walking through the open savannah was a serene experience. Birds chirped in nearby trees and a cool breeze buffeted against my face. All the while, the great sun was slowly beginning to ascend higher into the sky, melting away the last chill from the savannah’s air.
N/a’an ku sê reserve, which encircled the sanctuary itself, was a great expanse of open wilderness. Ultimately it was bordered with fencing, a way of keeping poachers from easily accessing the land and from keeping animals in and out. As a result, the staff had a pretty good idea of what animals called the reserve home. There were no lions or cheetahs but there was a leopard that liked to roam near the volunteer area.
One volunteer had even encountered the leopard whilst walking at night past the tents – where I slept. She had shown me a photo of its gleaming eyes as it stood behind bushes. The encounter had been brief but she seemed elated by it, although she admitted it was rather terrifying at the time.
The leopard was a large male leopard and its tracks were frequently found near the enclosure of one of the sanctuary’s rescued leopards – a female named Duma. Perhaps he was trying to woo her.
“Alex!” one of the volunteers squealed in delight. She had shoulder-length brunette hair and was called Amy. Amy had in fact worked as a vet at the sanctuary before.
My gazed danced over the xeric shrubland until it rested on the yellowish-brown feline, marching proudly with something in his mouth.
“What have you got there?” Amy asked in a high pitched voice, as if she was talking to a domesticated dog. I loved her Australian accent.
I studied the object closely, noting it was brown and circular. Is that poo?! I let out a little hiss of laughter.
“Are you carrying some poo there Alex?” Amy teased.
Beside me, another volunteer giggled. “He looks very proud of his piece of poo.”
Her name was Katie. Katie had blonde hair which she wore in a ponytail and, like Amy, was Australian.
Alex carried the piece of dung as if it was a prized catch. His head was hung high and each step was long and majestic.
He paraded his catch for a while, walking alongside us as we ventured deeper into the arid forest. Eventually he dropped the mound of dung and began to roll it around with his front paws.
We stopped walking, our eyes fixed on the entertaining caracal as he pushed it several metres across the sand before charging after it, batting it again and sprinting in pursuit. He was like an excited kitten, darting from one clump of yellowing grass to another after the ball of poo.
“He’s so much like a domestic cat,” Katie remarked. “I wonder what would happen if a caracal came in contact with a domestic cat.”
“A caracal would kill a cat,” Amy responded grimly. “It’s happened before when a kitten got too close to the caracal enclosure.”
Amy was extremely knowledgeable, not just of animals but of N/a’an ku sê itself. She had clearly spent a lot of time on the sanctuary.
“That was a sad day for the sanctuary,” she finished, her voice ending in a sigh.
Alex had got bored of playing with poo and came strolling back to us, his jaws parted slightly and his tongue pulsating back and forth as he panted. He slunk close to Amy, almost brushing his fur against her legs. She reached down and allowed her hand to stroke his back as he made his way forwards, passing close to me.
I also reached my hand down, feeling his coarse fur beneath my fingers. My hand ran down from the back of his head to the base of his tail, feeling his limbs moving smoothly beneath his short coat.
I stretched up again, feeling slightly amazed that I had just stroked a caracal – one of Africa’s big cats. But this was far more humbling than merely touching a caracal. This caracal was wandering around freely, choosing of his own accord to twine himself around us.
I watched as Alex approached our wildlife coordinator who stopped moving as the cat wound himself around his legs. Alex arched his back playfully and our wildlife coordinator picked up a stone. Alex lifted his chin up, eyes fixating on the object before our wildlife coordinator flung it into the distance and the caracal excitedly gave chase, kicking up sand as he ran.
The sun began to climb higher in the sky. I knew our walk must have been approaching its end when Alex abruptly halted, staring hard into a tangle of thorn bushes. We stopped walking, curious to see how the scene would unfold.
Alex crouched down and took slow, calculated steps forward. His paws touched the ground without a sound, as though he were floating over the earth. Not once did he move his head, eyes focused on his quarry.
Could he be about to make a catch? I wondered in excitement. It wouldn’t be the first time it would have happened. Our wildlife coordinator told us that Alex had hunted on a walk before and it would be amazing to witness it.
Alex slunk forward again, halting with one foreleg in the air as if he were unsure whether to stalk closer. Beneath his sandy brown pelt I saw his powerful leg muscles tensing.
For once, our group was silent. All of us watched with hungry eyes, holding our breath.
Alas, no hunt would take place today. Alex straightened up and turned around, making his way back over to us.
We returned Alex to his enclosure. But saying farewell to our new furry friend wasn’t the end of the activity. There was one last surprise in store for us.
Amy’s hazel eyes gleamed in the sunlight. She knew exactly what was coming and judging by the pert smile on her face, it must have been good.
Our wildlife coordinator fetched a great bucket from the pick-up and together we all made our way to a large enclosure which housed two caracals.
The two felines sat by the fencing, working their teeth into the wire and letting out vicious hissing noises. As we approached, they began to pace, opening their jaws and wrinkling their black noses up in snarls. Several times they turned on one another, letting out violent hisses.
“What’s all that about?” Katie asked.
“They’re getting excited for their food,” Amy responded with a note of enthusiasm in her voice.
Their tufty black ears flew back in impatience and one of the caracals began to chew on the border fencing once more, revealing a set of razor-sharp fangs.
Our wildlife coordinator brandished a large slab of meat from his bucket and the caracals fixed him with eager gazes, silenced from hissing for a brief moment.
He threw the meat in the air and the two feline’s watched as it soared high above the fencing in an elegant arch before crashing down in front of them. With a defiant hiss, one of the caracals clamped their jaws on the meat before racing off into the bushes to eat.
The remaining caracal licked its lips, eyes turning back to our wildlife coordinator who was about to throw the second piece. In no time at all, the bright red slice of meat crashed down at the caracal’s paws and the feline began to tear into it with hungry gulps.
“Awh,” Amy sighed. “Not gonna leap for us today?”
What did she mean? I wondered.
“It’s the other three who love to leap for their dinner,” our wildlife coordinator replied with a smile. “Come on. Let’s go see them.”
We followed our wildlife coordinator as he led us round the side of the caracal enclosure. One enclosure ended and another began. This particular enclosure housed three caracals and they were far crabbier than the two we had just left behind.
I heard them before I saw them – a chorus of vicious hissing. The three felines were stood at one side of the enclosure, their ears pinned back against their skulls and their noses wrinkled up as if they had a fowl taste in their mouths.
“We must wait a moment,” our wildlife coordinator announced. “There will be a viewing of this feed by some lodge guests.”
I had heard about N/a’an ku sê’s lodge. As well as hosting volunteers, the reserve had several luxury lodges which guests could stay at. As well as sleeping in gorgeous lodges, the guests also got to take part in some of the reserve’s activities and this must have been one of them.
Like clockwork, a safari vehicle arrived. The sanctuary sure was organised. I took a look at it, noticing some guests sitting atop in immaculate clothing, unlike our dusty rags. I guessed the guests didn’t really get their hands dirty.
“OK,” our wildlife coordinator spoke up, trying to get his voice heard by everyone. “Stand on that side.” He pointed to the left of the enclosure.
The three caracals continued their chorus of hissing, turning every so often to give a swipe to each other.
“Hey!” our wildlife coordinator scolded, as if he were telling off some naughty school children.
The caracals turned to him, intent on their feeding which was about to take place.
Taking a large slab of meat, our wildlife coordinator threw it high into the air. At once, two caracals got distracted by each other and became locked in a vicious tussle. Their claws raked each other’s pelts and behind mouthfuls of each other’s fur they let out muffled growls.
All the while, the third caracal followed the meat with its eyes, stepping back and giving a half-hearted jump to catch the meat just before it touched the ground. Its powerful jaws locked onto the food before it scampered away out of sight.
“Hey! Stop!” our wildlife coordinator scolded the two fighting caracals.
I was surprised at how receptive they were to our wildlife coordinator’s voice and they broke apart, glaring at one another once more before finally silencing themselves.
Our wildlife coordinator threw another piece of meat into the air. I didn’t expect what happened next.
One of the caracals locked onto it with their eyes, racing deeper into the enclosure before crouching down. With a powerful kick of the hind legs, the caracal propelled itself several metres into the air, higher than the enclosure fencing.
My eyes widened and my mouth fell open.
The caracal latched onto the slab in mid-air and performed a summersault, spinning all the way around before landing delicately down on all-fours and racing into the bushes with its prize.
What a jump!
My heart leapt in my throat as our wildlife coordinator threw the final piece of meat. The caracal launched itself even higher than the former, far higher than the fencing and twisted its agile body in the air to catch the meat. Its claws dug into the fleshy piece of meat and the caracal gracefully descended from the air before it charged off to eat its food in peace.
“That was amazing!” Katie buzzed. “I had no idea they could jump so high.”
Nor did I! I had thought I was a big cat expert after many years in my childhood obsessing over them and spending hours on a cat project with Antonia. But I still had so much to learn. I briefly thought back to those years, an excited pre-teen obsessed with wild cats. If only I’d have known just how close I’d get to them in the future. It was surreal to think I was currently living out a dream of mine which I’d harboured for so many years.
“They can jump over 12 foot,” our wildlife coordinator explained. “But they can only jump that far vertically, not horizontally. So they cannot jump over the fencing.”
I was absolutely buzzing after watching the caracal feed. What impressive little cats!