Harbeesport Dam, Johannesburg
The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Conservation Centre is an interesting place for what the tour operators bill as a “half day tour”. You have to be up early for the 08h00 tour as it takes at least forty five minutes from Pretoria and an hour from Sandton, Johannesburg to get to the centre. There is a 13h30 tour, which is the option we used. The early morning tour includes the cheetah run where one gets to see a cheetah, the fastest land mammal, moving at over 100 kilometres an hour. It is too hot to do that in the afternoon, a time when the cheetahs naturally and sensibly rest underneath a shady tree.
We left Auckland Park, Johannesburg, at 11h00 and arrived at 12h20. By the time we had paid for our tour, browsed the little stall, purchased snacks (there is no restaurant there, but they do serve tea and coffee as part of the tour cost), used the toilets and we had only a pleasant half hour to chat before the tour began with a lecture as to the history of the centre (started in 1971 by Ann van Dyk on a chicken farm with an attempted rescue which ended badly) it now does research and breeding of cheetahs, African wild dogs and vultures, all highly endangered.
The tour guide, Fran, a volunteer, has a wealth of knowledge and the impression that I got was that she knows much more about the subject, but trims the information to fit the time.
The centre has an education programme operating at rural schools for pupils who would not be able to afford to come through to the centre (a reasonably expensive experience at R220 for the tour itself, R150 for the photograph, plus transport costs, plus tips). Ambassador cheetahs go out and visit and the children can see them and learn about them. As part of these educational trips the cheetah lies, collared and accompanied by his handler. The males are used for this purpose as the females are largely antisocial. However, this programme is also expensive and it is funded, in part, by donations of R150 for the privilege of being allowed to gently stroke the cheetah. It doesn’t matter whether one is alone or a party of up to four, the cost is R150.
I have ecopurism issues with humans stroking wild animals, but the lecture indicates that these particular animals are not going back to the wild for whatever reason and I overcome my ecosnobbish reluctance and enter into the experience, enjoying it immensely. The coat is only slightly rougher than that of my cat at home and the latter gets brushed twice a day. The purring is, however, MUCH louder. I refrain from poking the cheetah in the middle the way I do my cat at home, though, to get him to move his head and look lively. I do remember that he is a wild animal weighing at least 8 or 9 times what my overfed kitty does. And I’ve signed an indemnity form which would probably stand up in a court of law against that kind of stupidity.
The De Wildt Centre had bred over 800 cheetahs by 2009 and many of these were sent to zoos throughout the world, thus saving the zoos from placing orders for cheetahs from the wild which really don’t adapt well to living in captivity and die young. The cheetahs bred in captivity do well in zoos and live long and happy lives. Cheetahs are also reintroduced in various game parks where possible. The research which was done in order for this programme to become viable was ground breaking as up until 1974 no breeding had ever taken place in captivity. The information gained has been generously shared with all those interested in this aspect of scientific conservation.
We move out of the education centre into the garden where we get to see the honey badgers. Honey badgers are carnivores, highly aggressive, and rarely seen during the day as they are nocturnal. The centre hides food in the trees and the honey badgers head out to entertain and educate the visitors. The centre acquired them, the honey badgers – not the visitors, from a rescue programme of someone who had poached them from the wild and attempted to keep them as pets. Farmers with apiaries often shoot the honey badger on sight as they do tremendous damage to the hives, not to get at the honey, but to get at the delicious little bees inside the hive. Woolworths sponsored a research programme into how hives can be mounted so that the honey badgers can’t reach and destroy, because if the farmers can be persuaded to use such hives then there is no more competition between the farmer and the honey badger. The solution is a hive on a single pole 1.2 metres high. There must be no overhanging branches as the honey badgers are agile creatures. Honey taken from farms where the farmers have adopted this method of mounting the hives may display a “badger friendly” sticker. All Woolworths honey is obtained this way. Honey badgers are a rare sighting in the wild, and I found this to be the most interesting part of a very interesting tour.
The drive starts. I wouldn’t call it a game drive. It is an educational drive through the farm. The land is severely affected by invader plants, but the guide points out the various indigenous trees on the way. There are vervet monkeys to be seen, and doubtless, at night, little bushbabies. There are some birds, but in the afternoon they weren’t plentiful. I watch the butterflies, at least five or six species. We pass the African wildcat which are not under threat because of numbers, but because they interbreed with domestic feral cats. We see caracal and they fascinate as they jump up against the fence to attack the pieces of meat placed there (carefully, using a stick). They are beautiful, exotic and lithe.
The vultures sadden me. They have been poisoned mostly and suffer nerve damage which prevents them from flying properly and being able to feed themselves. When they lay eggs the resultant chicks are raised with the vultures who are so disabled that they cannot fly at all, in an area where there is a vulture restaurant to feed wild vultures. The new chicks fly a little every day and eventually join the visiting flocks of wild vultures. One more to the wildlife population.
Brown hyenas are next. I have never seen them before, either in the wild or in captivity, so it was quite an experience. We move on up to the African wild dogs. Again, I have never been fortunate enough to see them in wild. Africa’s second most endangered carnivore (the first is the Ethopian wolf, a canine animal up north which is highly localised in the Bale Mountains) they once roamed the plains of Africa. They need huge territories and I feel sad again that they should be held in captivity, but the reintroduction programme is so successful that the De Wildt Centre is always actively looking for suitable places to send a new pack.
We move on through the cheetahs again, and down past the area where impala, nyala, monkeys and ostriches are fed to draw them into one place. We head on down IAMS Lane, and we are told that if it wasn’t for the sponsorship of Iams the centre would have been obliged to close down. Next time you feed your little puddytat Iams you can be assured that there is a link between him and the gorgeous cheetahs at De Wildt.
The centre has another trump card to play in the conservation of caracals and cheetahs – Anatolian dogs from Turkey. Placed with flocks of sheep when they are only six weeks old, they live with the sheep and will defend them against any predators, including cheetahs, with their own lives if necessary. As the cheetahs and caracals cannot get into to worry the sheep the farmers have less need to shoot or poison the cheetahs and caracals and are more open to allowing them to survive.
The drive is over. I am more knowledgeable than when I started out and I enjoyed myself in the process. This is conservation and education but it is also an ecotourism destination worth a visit just for the sheer joy of interacting with creatures from the wild even if one does have the opportunity to occasionally visit real game parks.
De Wildt Cheetah Project
Tel: +27 12 504 1921
Cell: +27 83 675 5668
The centre is just outside the town of Brits, on the far side of the Hartbeespoort dam. It is well signposted.
GPS co-ordinates: 25°40′39.07”S, 27°55′32.01”E
I visited this area so long ago, that I do not remember much detail. You will need to check the website or a VT entry from another VT member. I just remember it was one of the nicest days I have ever had.
Well when making a trip to the Hartbeespoort Dam you must definitely make a stop at the Lasedi Cultural Village to get a glimps of the Various Tribes and different cultures.
The Lesedi Cultural Village offers an insight to the traditional way of life of the Ndebele, Sotho, Zulu, Pedi and Xhosa peoples. Various dances are being performed, African food is served and accommodation in traditional huts equipped with bathrooms.
It cost R190 pp or R285 pp if you going to stay for lunch and there is 2 shows which starts at 11h00 and 14h30.
Be sure to checkout my Travelogue to see more about my trip there.
The Haartebeesfontein Dam is about a hour`s drive from JNB and I must say its worth it.
This is my personal getaway on a Sunday. There is a whole lot to do there but what I like the most is the relaxing atmosphere. You have the Dam with the huge Magalies Mountains and everyhting is so calm and peaceful , it beats the city life.
Another thing that I like is that the drive from JNB going to the dam via Lanseria airport is quiet nice giving that real African look.
This is a must for families traveling to JNB.
Well , if you a golf lover there is the world famous Peakan Wood golf coarse on the dam.
There is also a cable car section that takes you ontop of the Magalies Mountain giving you a breath taking view of the Dam.
There is a Snake Park for the whole family with a variety of animals. While you there you can go on a Ferry boat ride on the Dam.
Opposite the Snake park is all your restaurants and sovenior shops. Further up the road is the dam wall where you allowed to stop and walk on the dam wall. The view is absolutely beautiful here.