/ 16 October 2008

Hands-on safari

The Van der Merwe family share their Namibian home with 400 animals and, occasionally, Angelina Jolie. But the most extraordinary thing about them is the chance they give visitors to work with the resident wildlife.

Driving northeast from Gobabis, a desolate town outside the Kalahari desert, was like journeying to the edge of the world. The stillness of infinite skies and scorched earth was otherworldly. The only signs of life amid the tufts of dried grass, skeletal trees and giant vultures’ nests were scatterings of goats, feral dogs, buzzards and flies.

But at the end of this long, lonely road was an unexpected oasis. Set in the stark, wild beauty of Namibia, the Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary is home to 400 animals and boasts Angelina Jolie as its patron and regular visitor.

Jolie filmed part of Beyond Borders here, and fell in love with the big cats, leaving a £200 000 donation for its wild animal release project. This one-of-a-kind family-run refuge has a working-guest scheme designed to fulfil eco-tourists’ dreams of doing hands-on work with wild animals and attracts volunteers from all over the world.

At the entrance beneath the footbridge, fat, lazy crocodiles basked in a low, open pen as a pair of calico cats played among them. Amazingly, there were also dozens of domestic dogs and about 60 domestic cats that appeared not to have any difficulties with the big cats or other large creatures.

Crossing the lush lawns at the heart of the sanctuary, the first animals to greet us were Rudy, a blesbok calf abandoned by his mother, and another orphan, Klippie, an eight-month-old giraffe. Surveying us with her lovely liquid-black eyes, she was mesmerised by my husband Tiz and followed us into the open-air restaurant. About 50 chattering mongooses ambushed us, one of them climbing into my bag and running off with my stash of banana chips.

Before we got a chance to settle in, we were invited on the evening feeding run, taking carcasses to 18 lions, 30 cheetahs, 35 wild dogs and dozens of leopards and caracals. The predators are fed every day.

The tamer cats get personalised bowls, while legs from sheep, donkeys and horses are thrown out to the untouchables who will eventually be returned to the wild and modest bits and pieces for smaller creatures.

Driving to the various semi-wild enclosures, we sat in the back of a rusty old pick-up with three other volunteers — Nora, a German model, Chris, a London oil executive, and Barbara, a literature professor from Arizona, who is writing a book on Harnas — surrounded by large metal tins filled with body parts. Tiz looked mournfully at the bucket of goats’ heads wedged between his legs.

After this bloody feast, we sat down to a home-made vegan casserole under the thatched canopy of the open-air restaurant, overlooking­ the swimming pool and cheetah enclosure. Watching five cheetahs, silhouetted in the sunset, playing chasing games, I was captivated.

A middle-aged couple sat beside us, here as guests rather than volunteers. She was French, chic and chiselled, and looked as though she had blown in from the slopes of St Moritz. Her American filmmaker husband was eating steak and shouting into his cellphone: “It has all the clichés of hip-hop. The gold Mercedes. Black dwarves. Naked whores …”

On the way back to our lodge, a ragtag assortment of wood-and-stone huts, we picked up a pair of domestic cats, whom we christened Ronald and Nancy.

The lodge is rustic with unpainted walls and stone floors, but small luxuries such as a copper bath and white linen make it comfortable and the views are mesmerising. We sat on our rickety porch in silence with our feline guests, gazing out on to the landscape brilliantly illuminated by a full moon.

After breakfast the next day, the owner, Marieta van der Merwe, introduced us to the 50-odd baboons in their enclosures, which are divided by age groups. Baby baboons, the size of housecats, are funny, naughty and joyful. They’re also skilful thieves with magpie sensibilities.

The moment I stepped inside, Jacob, the baboon without a tail, snatched my diamanté flip-flops, while his mate ran off with a bag of apples meant to be treats. When I put up a fight for my shoes, Jacob bit me, bruising my hand. Marieta has raised hundreds of baboons over the years and easily sweet-talked Jacob into returning my shoes.

All the rescues at Harnas have names and are treated as family by the staff and volunteers, who regularly share their beds with lion cubs or baby baboons swaddled in nappies, or sleep beneath the stars with big cats.

Cheetahs, leopards and baboons, considered a nuisance by farmers, are routinely shot, often leaving orphans behind. “My dream is to return as many animals as we can back into the wild,” said Marieta. “But most of them come here because people have shot their mums or raised them as pets and then dumped them. Some have lost limbs or eyes.”

Harnas, which means sanctuary in Afrikaans, began in 1978 when Marieta and her cattle-farmer husband Nick persuaded a man on a dusty Namibian road to give them an emaciated vervet monkey for a few cents. After years of struggles and small miracles, it has evolved into Southern Africa’s largest wildlife orphanage. Along with a handful of staff and Bushmen, an army of volunteers, mostly young Europeans and Americans, keep the place running.

Over the years, the Van der Merwes gained a reputation for rescuing animals and would get calls from across the country to fetch orphaned or injured creatures. They also took in a pride of lions left homeless after the closure of a South African zoo. “I was so in love with animals, I couldn’t say no,” said Marieta. “We ended up with a lot and were always running out of money.”

Soon the couple began selling off parcels of land on their 100 000-acre cattle farm and allowing the tamer big cats and predators to appear in films and commercials. But when Nick died of Congo fever in 2001 the family — and the animals — faced an uncertain future. Shortly after her husband’s death, Marieta opened the guesthouses to volunteers.

At sundown, we joined Marieta on her afternoon stroll with the adult baboons. Sensing my wariness, she reassured me the adults are calmer. But as soon as they were let out, they scattered across the lawns, up trees, grabbing everything in sight like looters in a riot — paw-paws, pumpkins and grass shoots. “Don’t worry, if they misbehave I have my secret weapon,” she said, whipping out a plastic snake from her pocket.

That evening, five English volunteers wandered off on a nature walk and got lost. After a five-hour search they were found in the desert. “It can be a bit crazy here,” says Schalk, Marieta’s son who grew up on the farm and still lives here with his young family. “Every day something happens. The crocodile often gets out and ends up in the swimming pool.”

The following day, we helped Schalk’s wife Jo at the school that the family runs for the Bushmen community living on the farm. Dusty, ecstatic children, between the ages of three and seven, streamed into the classroom behind the horse stables. They were tiny and fine-boned like gazelles. They adored Tiz and thought he was a movie-star like Brad Pitt who had visited­ some months before.

On our last day, Schalk took us on the famous lion walk, along with Marieta’s cousin Frikke, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking Afrikaner who works as a volunteer coordinator. He had recently suffered a heart attack but had left the hospital early because he missed the animals. The two tame lions, Zion and Trust, were thrilled to see us.

Schalk, a former international rugby star for Namibia, had brought up the two lions in his house along with his two small children.

Later, as the sky turned violet, sparkling with stars, we gave the black lamb, whom Marieta named Britt, her late-night bottle, then put her to bed in the wicker pen in the Van der Merwe’s kitchen, where she curled up with the tiny piglet, now called Tiz, who had become her inseparable companion. After dinner, we swapped stories with some of the other volunteers about the day’s mishaps and dramas, before walking back to our cottage one last time, with a scruffy little white dog called Bubbles, his one-eyed mother Uma and a limping black mongrel Kiera, who had lost one of her forepaws to a hyena. Waiting on the porch, Ronald and Nancy looked unhappy with our new guests. I was unhappy too, to be leaving. Where else in the world can you bottle-feed a giraffe, run with cheetahs or take a lion for a walk? —