Five years ago, the Wild Horizons family was extended by the arrival of a very special member. Since Sylvester the cheetah joined their ranks, the employees and clients of Wild Horizons have fallen in love with this domineering and lovable creature. Having tragically lost his mother and four siblings after the fatal attack of a male lion, Sylvester was in desperate need of a home, which the crew of elephant camp have aptly provided. Sylvester spends his days exploring the vast surrounding national park, and I have been fortunate enough to accompany him on his mornings walk.
The crisp morning air stings our cheeks as we navigate our way down the rocky terrain to where our guide awaits us. The rising multitude of birds create a cacophony of sound around us, as we eagerly await the arrival of Sylvester. The brush and crackle of dry leaves draws my attention to the left, where a sleek and graceful cheetah approaches. Sylvester the cheetah is five years old, but has already reached full growing capacity. The sheer strength of this magnificent creature is evident by the curves and bulge of taught muscle, laying just beneath the surface of his smooth speckled coat.
The sun has begun its ascent, and illuminates this beautiful African morning, making the mist of the mighty Victoria Falls iridescent in the distance. Followed by his carer Farai, Sylvester has been lost from view, exploring away from the beaten path that we follow. However, we are not alone. Our chatter and stumbles have alerted the attention of five buffalo, or “dagga boys”. Though we move swiftly out of their territory, our presence has caused some alarm and anger and they trot towards us menacingly. Fortunately, on every walk our guide carries with him a fully loaded 458 rifle in order to ward off any danger, and a few taps of the trunk of this with a small stone wards the buffalo off. As they continue to graze, we scuttle along. About fifteen minutes later, Sylvester joins us. It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly he glides over the rocks and potholes that have the rest of us clutching onto one another and hobbling along gracelessly. We have finally reached the focal point of our walk, the edge of the Zambezi gorge.
The steep drop of 111 meters makes the hairs on the pack of my neck stand up, and my legs tingle as I peer down at the raging Zambezi River. We are standing directly above rapid number 9, the most deadly rapid, referred to by local rafters as The Suicide Run. As we stand awestruck by this magnificent view, Sylvester decides that it is far more enjoyable to coat himself in sand and lay posing on the ground for pictures. He is a worthy distraction, and soon we all gather around to appreciate this beautiful cheetah. Gingerly I approach and run my fingers through his rough coat. In the back of my mind is the countless stories I have been told about this dangerous predator but the sight and feel of him is too captivating to warrant any fear. Sylvester then leaps to his feet and begins to stride back to camp as we all hurry along in his wake.
It may be because we have gained confidence, or it may be the fact that we are so riveted by this majestic creature that we disregard any fear, but one by one we all take turns walking alongside Sylvester, our fingers trailing just above his back. We stop under the shade of a huge Baobab tree, where we get our cameras ready for another photo shoot. Sylvester welcomes our attention as he position himself under the tree luxuriously. His gaze wanders to the camera bag and with a swift swipe of the claw, he has I well within his grasp. Despite our concern for the well being of this new play toy, guides and clients alike cannot help but let bursts of laughter escape at the sight of this enormous cheetah’s delight. After a slight struggle we have the bag in our possession once again and can continue the walk.
By this stage our breath is short and our legs are burning. Naturally, Sylvester is bounding along effortlessly beside us, darting forward and then doubling back as he pleases. The camp is in full view, and he is ready for his breakfast. Reluctantly, we bid him farewell, and as we watch him stride off, I am amazed at how in one short hour, this young wild cat has found a permanent place in the hearts of five fully grown adults.