When A Cheetah Licks Your Head, Try Not To Laugh

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Cheetahs are known for many things: superlative speed, feline gracefulness and remarkable agility. I would also like to add another trait to that list – they have tongues like 80 grit sandpaper, and if they lick you, it’s not polite to laugh.

I never knew about that last one until August of 2014 when I experienced Mukuni Big Five Safari’s Cheetah Walk program near Livingstone, Zambia. After that, there was no way I could forget.

What it is

Zimcon 1189The company’s stated objective is to conserve and breed the threatened cheetah through education and understanding. Both education and understanding are accomplished via the opportunity to interact with these magnificent creatures in a way that very few do. As an animal lover, I was impressed by the kindness and attachment they showed toward the animals under their care, which left me feeling good about the type of treatment they receive. With your consciences now clear, let’s move on to how you too can experience this bucket list item for yourself.

How to Get There

Complimentary hotel pick-up is included in the price (approximately $120 US per person) for those staying in the Livingstone area. If you’re staying in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the camp is only a few kilometers from the Zambian border, but will likely require a 24 hour visa available for purchase onsite. See your friendly neighborhood Zambian customs control officer for current prices.

How it Works

Guests are ushered into an open-air reception center where they can enjoy a cup of coffee and pay their fees while waiting for their safari. This is also where you will be asked to sign a waiver exonerating the company of all responsibility in the event of being eaten, chewed upon, or trampled to death by any of the animals. If you chafe at the thought of relinquishing such rights, bear in mind that even the remote possibility of any of the above happening means that you are in for a special experience. Just sign it and leave the legal mumbo-jumbo for your lawyer.

The Introduction

Before you get to interact with the cheetahs, you will first be escorted to a large, fenced-in clearing where the guides will have them waiting for you. Your guide will then explain a lot of details that you will completely ignore as you admire the cats up close. From the little I can remember, you are advised to only approach them from behind, avoid making sharp noises (like laughing loudly when they lick your head) and for some reason refrain from touching the inside of their ears. I can only imagine how it was that someone figured out that last little tidbit. I’m assuming they’re the reason the rest of us have to sign a waiver.


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Playing with kitties in Zambia

Once the whole introductory spiel is over, you’ll finally get your chance to pet the kitties. As the largest cats that purr, the sounds of the bush will be drowned out by the throaty rumble coming from the cheetahs as they sprawl out under your excited caress. I’d be willing to bet that my wife didn’t take her hands off the cats even once in the entire twenty minute session.

When it was finally my turn to join her, I was thrilled to run my fingers through their soft fur and exposed bellies. I should also mention that this is when the licking began.

Our guide had just finished explaining that as a sign of contentment, if you offer them your forearm they might lick you in return. This resulted in the exfoliation of a lifetime as the cheetah went to town on my right arm. I was both chuckling and wincing at the same time until I noticed that one of the handlers had one-upped me by offering the cheetah his head. Not to be outdone, and consistent with male-competitive stupidity, I too offered the cheetah my head, and soon enjoyed an abrasive tongue-bath along my forehead and scalp. As entertaining as it was, I think I’ll just stick to shampoo.

I will say that as that cheetah tested the limits of my remaining hairline, it was hard not to indulge in the aforementioned laughing as I considered the absurdity of the scene. If it were possible to ask my friends and relatives back home what they thought I was doing at that very moment, I’m pretty sure having my head licked by a cheetah wouldn’t even make the top ten. Signing away my legal rights for the chance to do something crazy, on the other hand, would certainly make an appearance.

The Safari

Zimcon 1246As if the interaction wasn’t already worth the price of admission, the next phase is to ‘walk’ your cheetah on a guided tour through the surrounding bush. While eager to do so, I did have some questions. Foremost, was what do I do if it decides to run? I won’t be able to catch it—it’s scientific. That extra twenty pounds I need to lose has nothing to do with it.

Fortunately, even if the cheetah did make a run for it, these particular cats would return on their own. So instead of worrying about a footrace, we were able to enjoy our bush walk in the company of predators, which was sort of like strolling through a rough neighborhood while escorted by local gang members—as dangerous as it might be, nobody’s going to mess with you.

All Good Things…

Eventually our time with the cheetahs, like all good things, came to an end. It was then that I realized how important it is that we conserve our planet’s natural habitats so that majestic animals such as these will have a secure home for future generations. It was also then that I realized that the next time I saw a cheetah, I probably shouldn’t let it lick my head. Either way, I felt like I walked away with a greater understanding to go along with my bucket list experience.

So if you expect to be in the area of Victoria Falls, regardless of if you’re staying on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side, do the cheetah walk excursion with Mukuni Big 5 Safaris. It will be the experience of a lifetime and likely make all your friends and followers insanely jealous. And if I’ve stirred feelings of jealousy in you, there’s no need to despair. If you really want to lick my head, I’m sure we can work something out. But first, please sign this waiver…

African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia
African family portrait, Livingstone, Zambia

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Zim or Zam? If you Understand the Question, you Can Appreciate the Answer

World Heritage Victoria Falls
World Heritage Victoria Falls

Zim and Zam of course refer to the two countries (Zimbabwe & Zambia) who share a border at the world-renown Victoria Falls World Heritage Site. The question alludes to which side you should visit in order to see them. The answer, in short, is both.

Full frontal scenery on the Zim side
Full frontal scenery on the Zim side

Why Zim?

The majority of the gorge that fronts the seemingly never-ending series of cataracts and spray is located on the Zimbabwean side of the mighty Zambezi. Trails follow the western curve near the so-called Devil’s Cataract at the westernmost side of the falls where a statue of David Livingstone–the first European to set eyes on the falls–overlooks the chasm from the side. Winding through a forest setting that is ever-green regardless of the season (thanks to the unending spray) the path traces the edge of the ravine with periodic overlook points. There are more lookout points than fences and the rocks can get slippery, so use caution. After more than half a mile of nonstop views, the trail ends in a promontory that is separated from the Zambian side by the churning Batoka Gorge. There’s really no place (aside from a helicopter ride, to be discussed at a later time) that allows for a view of the entire falls, but on the Zim side is where you’ll be able to see the majority of it.

Why Zam?

No filter needed on the Zambia side
No filter needed on the Zambia side

The entrance to the Mosi-Oa-Thunya (the original language name for Vic Falls) National Park is on the eastern side of the falls, almost immediately past the Zambian border post. Besides having their own statue of Livingstone, there are a few trails that take in the scenic Eastern Cataract, that is usually less torrential and thereby less inclined to be obscured by spray as the cataracts further down the line. Particularly amazing is the Knife Edge Island trail, which takes visitors via a slick metal bridge to the eastern side of the Batoka Gorge and a different perspective of the Zimbabwean side. During the dry season, in the early morning, stunning rainbows allow for photo opportunities that will have everyone questioning whether or not your pictures were Photoshopped.


The only way to see it all if from above
The only way to see it all is from above

Why Zim? Helicopter flights (pricey but well worth it) from the Zimbabwe side not only offer views of the falls, but often take in parts of nearby Zambezi National Park, allowing for some aerial animal viewing. Tours of the historical (and scenically placed) Victoria Falls Bridge let visitors walk the catwalk and view the falls from both the Zim and Zam sides without having to buy a separate visa.

Playing with kitties in Zambia
Playing with kitties in Zambia

Why Zam? Excursions to centrally located Livingstone Island offer close-up view of the bulk of the falls and often include a dip in the Devil’s Pool–a calm patch of water right on the lip of the falls where adventurous visitors can soak in the Zambezi and peer down into the churning abyss. Also on the Zambian side is Makuni Big Five Safaris, which offer nature walks alongside elephants, lions and cheetahs–all with loads of animal interaction.

Where to Stay?

Unless you are staying in a posh hotel (like the Royal Livingstone) on the riverfront, my advice is to stay in Zim rather than Zam. Zim is a tourist-centric town, with a wide range of hotels, far more shopping opportunities than across the border, and a safer feel. Livingstone is a bustling city many times the size of Vic Falls, and other than some decent restaurants, doesn’t have the same feel. This is a gritty, ramshackle African semi-urban setting, which better reflects the actual state of affairs, but doesn’t make for the more comfortable vacation or natural connection most come to seek.

So, to sum up my answer to the question Zim or Zam: Stay in Zim. Play in Zam. And see the falls from both sides. And now that you understand the question, I hope that whether you Zim, Zam or both, the answer leads you to this magnificent part of the world.

One of Seven & the Big Six-Oh

Strong wifi is a bit of a rarity here in Zimbabwe. So while I’ve got it I thought I’d provide a brief update on my travels in lieu of the normal, full-fledged posts of witty, brilliant travel insight that I usually write.

Yesterday morning my wife and I visited Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world (I’ve been to three others as well: the Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef, & Harbor of Rio de Janiero). The face of the falls totals about a mile in length, so it is impossible to capture the whole thing in one shot, even if there wasn’t so much mist in the way. Like everything else I’ve experienced in Zimbabwe, this was far better than expected. My advice for seeing the Falls is the same as for seeing the country: just come.

After touring the falls, we took a tour of the Victoria Falls Bridge built some 109 years ago. To do this, we had to enter into Zambia which is now the 60th country I’ve visited so far. Walking the catwalk allowed us some more great views of the falls and the impressive Batoka Gorge which it straddles. Again, pictures just don’t do justice to what the scene is really like. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

So that’s it for now. This morning we’re off to Botswana because I’m ready for number 61.