From the crest of a Kalahari dune we watch as three cheetahs circle a grazing steenbok. To them it probably looks a bit like a Wimpy breakfast.
The cheetahs move on to another dune … and another. We follow in the Land Cruiser but keep our distance, far enough away not to ruin the cheetahs’ chances of breakfast or the prey’s chance of survival. This is something that’s non-negotiable for cheetah researchers Gus Mills and his wife Margie, who are in charge of our small expedition; they’re passionate about not interfering with nature.
Before long a small herd of gemsbok presents a second opportunity. Hang on, surely a cheetah hasn’t a hope in hell of taking down one of these large, fiercely horned antelope? Maybe not a lone cheetah but according to Gus, here in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park gemsbok calves actually make up 20% of kills made by male coalitions like this one.
But it’s really not the cheetahs’ day: again the prey catches sight of them, ruining their chances of a surprise attack. Failed attempt number two.
Unlike the cheetahs, we’re having one of the most exciting days of our lives. Yes, it’s 35 degrees in the shade and we’re melting. No, there isn’t really much real action from the stars of the show, but just following cheetahs along these iconic red dunes with cheetah boffins Gus and Margie is a treat.
They have a special ritual and it goes much like this. Gus sets off in the driver’s seat till he gets to a likely point at the foot of a dune. Then he hauls out his tracking antenna and waggles it out of the window with one hand, listening in the headphones for any signal while gunning up the dune and steering with the other hand.
Once at the crest of a dune he gets out and waggles the antenna some more, this way and that, in search of a signal from one of the cheetahs that the husband-and-wife team has collared for their research project. From the top of a dune he has a better chance of picking up a signal – sometimes from as far as 18km away.
On the third dune this morning he picked up a few bleeps from a cheetah they have called Darwin, who is in a coalition (that’s cheetah-speak for a boys-only gang) with two brothers called Huxley and Wallace. A spot of dune hopping later we found them sleeping under a tree.
At this point it is Margie’s turn to drive and Gus goes into the back seat where he can stick his head out of the enormous sunroof. This gives him a better vantage point for following the cheetah by sight, for observing their behaviour and keeping records of their activities. It also provides a good perch for photos (though he has been known to forget the camera up there on the roof before taking off cross-country – with expensive consequences).
The cheetahs haven’t been considerate this morning; they’re moving the ‘wrong’ way over the dunes if we’re looking for an easy drive. Driving straight up a dune from the steeper side isn’t child’s play, especially not when the sand is soft and full of holes, not to mention thorn bushes.
But Margie is unfazed. She’s been doing this since the 1970s when the couple was here studying brown and spotted hyenas. And she’s a dab hand at it. All those eager macho men playing about on 4x4 trails could learn a lot from her.
Unlike them, though, she accomplishes it all without fanfare, no flexing of muscles or unneccesary spinning of tyres, certainly no bragging. There’s lots of noise as she guns the engine to get speed, a whiff reminiscent of an airport runway with the stink of jet fuel. Then she takes her foot off the accelerator just as we get to the crest of the dune, and we look to see where ‘the boys’ are…
(See the next post for more about the cheetahs, including some interesting facts about gender bias in their lunch menus, and their differences from cheetahs in the Serengeti…)
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