On foot with Roam royalty – cheetah tracking

The morning chill leaves delicate puffs of steam on our breath as the first warm fingers of sunshine stroke the vast khaki-coloured Karoo wilderness. Cosily bundled under blankets on an open game drive vehicle, we set off on our journey of exciting exploration to discover more facets of this stark but diverse landscape. Extraordinarily rich with flora and fauna, the sweeping views across South Africa’s heartland are breath-taking.

We are on a mission today, to find the reserve’s cheetah, introduced here as part of a conservation effort to expand and restore the historic range of these iconic creatures. Roam’s 5000+ hectares of pristine Karoo veld provide the perfect habitat for these animals, which were absent here for some 150 years prior to the release of two male animals in 2018 and a female in 2019.

The cheetah are GPS collared, and regular monitoring means our guide has a reasonable idea of their general location. But even with the help of a telemetry signal homing in on their likely resting spot, their incredible camouflage still renders them virtually invisible in the low scrub. Until the slightest flick of a white-tipped tail gives them away – and they are really close by too!

After a reminder of our earlier safety briefing, we are allowed to exit the vehicle and quietly follow the experienced guide in single file as we slowly approach the animals. It is heady stuff being one-on-one with any wild animal in its own terrain – but so much more so when it is one of the world’s key predator species. A frisson of fearful excitement makes our skin tingle. As it should.

Long, lean, and lithe – in many ways more dog than cat – these sleek felines are perfectly built for purpose and speed. Supremely beautiful too, like supermodels of the bush. The fact that we are able to get within close proximity on foot is truly remarkable, and an enormous privilege. These are not ‘tame’ animals by any means. They’re free roaming and must hunt to kill and survive, a skill they have perfected in this new home range of theirs. But they have become accustomed to humans in their environment, and do not see us a particular threat, nor prey. Up to a point – and this is where a seasoned guide is essential. He or she must be acutely aware of the animal’s cues and be careful that we do not breach the accepted boundary of comfortable distance. Respecting this space ensures that we, and they, remain safe.

In silent admiration, we stand watching as the cheetah lie in apparent relaxation. Their glowing amber eyes, with dark ‘tear’ marks framing a heart-shaped nose, keenly scan our group. Under that darkly freckled golden coat, muscles are ready to spring into action at any sign of threat. They seem to recognise that we pose none, for now, and allow us to simply be enthralled at the sublime experience of being in their presence and on their terms. How absolutely awe-inspiring to enjoy this rare opportunity of an intimate glimpse into the soul of the Karoo.

Time is passing, the day is opening up, and our guide suggests we have reached the limit of the audience kindly granted by these creatures. It is time to retreat, leaving them in undisturbed peace, as we retrace our steps across the stony soil to the vehicle. A short drive to a nearby hill offers a wonderful view of the cheetah through our binoculars, as they rise to slowly make their way across the ridge – stealthy and fluid, moving in and out of the shadows like ghosts. Now you see them, now you don’t. Masters of disguise and subtlety, off to survey their kingdom like the royalty they are in these parts