When I was asked by the owner of Volunteer Southern Africa if I was available to try out a couple of new VSA Volunteer programs of course I hopped, skipped and jumped at the chance. The second program I tried out involved spending 5 days at The Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt, a cheetah centre founded by Ann Van Dyk, famous cheetah conservationist.

The Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre in South Africa was established in 1971 as a cheetah conservation project. The centre has continued to perform an important role in the preservation and protection of cheetahs and has bred over eight hundred cheetah cubs – all with the purpose of preserving the cheetah population, a handful of which have actually been successfully reintroduced into wild national parks in South Africa.

Upon arrival at the centre we were given a little introduction in the main dining area and then shown to our specific volunteer accommodation. This accommodation was super cute and came complete with its own (freezing cold) pool as well as a fire pit and little outdoor seating area.

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Volunteer pool

During my time at the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre us volunteers would do a combination of fun activites and also typical maintenance and food preparation for the animals and the centres. The tasks included things such as measuring out the right amount of food for each cheetah, throwing slabs of meat into the African wild dog enclosures and the more wild cheetahs, raking leaves/cleaning out cheetah enclosures and laying out lucerne hay for the various free roaming animals. This latter activity was made a bit more entertaining when the staff made it into a contest. We were split into two teams, and it was a race to open the bags of lucerne and spread them out evenly in two troughs. The team who does it the fastest is the winner! It’s not as easy as it sounds, as it is quite tricky opening the bags as they are sewn together, and the only way to open them is to pull the end threads just right. Tricky!

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Some of the more fun activities we could do were things like quadbiking through the property – something which I was not the best at. I only realised this after riding straight into a tree. But hey, it’s difficult when the ground is ridculously uneven with huge ridges and mounds everywhere! That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…

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We also went on a couple of game drives around the property spotting all of the free roaming wildlife that were found there. We came across the jazziest ostrich you will ever meet, ooo yes he was sassy as hell, just look at that coral beakstick he’s rocking:

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South African sunset at the end of our game drive

On the property there is a huge lake which houses the resident hippo. One of the guides does this sort of “chicken” game with her, he’ll walk up to the lake and she will charge up out of the water at him – never actually going all the way up to him. It was awesome to watch! We also drove into the African wild dog enclosure to see them up close. The fact that you can drive through these enclosures says it all – they are HUGE, I wouldn’t even call them “enclosures” really as they are just so big.

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We spared no expense! Entrance to the Wild Dog enclosure.

It was amazing watching the pack of dogs running alongside the game vehicle and watching their pack mentality as they tried to “herd” us (according to the guides!)

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Another enclosure we drove through was one that contained a few of the cheetahs, including a “King Cheetah”. The King Cheetah is basically a standard African cheetah but with a rare fur pattern mutation, which gives their fur beautiful patterns quite different to your average cheetah.

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Beautiful fur patterns on the King Cheetah

Obviously being at a cheetah centre, we got to see and interact with a lot of cheetahs! There were only a handful of “ambassador” cheetahs that volunteers were actually allowed to interact with. The centre does not offer cheetah interactions with members of the public so as to ensure the welfare of the animals always comes first, so as volunteers we were extremely lucky to be able to interact with these guys. The Ambassador cheetahs were raised with human contact and are very domesticated. They are also sometimes taken to schools etc for educational talks in regards to conservation to raise awareness with the South African population. Interacting with these cheetahs was so wonderful, they purr just like domestic cats when you scratch their ears and have lovely rough tongues when they lick your hands!

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Me chilling with Forest and Thor, two of the ambassador cheetahs

We were also given the opportunity to feed each of the ambassadors, they do this thing where if you are holding their food bowl and you say “look away” they will turn their heads away so you can put the bowl on the floor. It was so clever. We also got the chance to play some ball with them! Running around with a ball on a rope and playing tug of war with giant kitties!

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When you put aside the ambassador cheetahs who are used to human contact, and you look around at the rest of the cheetahs in the centre you can see the difference in behaviour. All of the cubs bred at the centre are left without human contact to be raised solely by their cheetah parents. These cheetahs which have been left alone without human contact are very different to the ambassadors, they hiss and bare their teeth at you as you walk past, and they are very aggressive over their food in regards to other cheetahs – exactly how they would be in the wild. It’s very funny to see the vast differences in behaviour! Just goes to show you definitely couldn’t go up to a cheetah in the wild and have a cuddle!

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Some of the more “wild” cheetahs referred to as “The Wildlings” by the staff, after Game of Thrones!

One of my favourite things we did at the cheetah centre were the cheetah runs. We would take the ambassador cheetahs into a specially built area where there was a lure, which is basically a fluffy thing attached to a wire that whizzes round in a circuit so the cheetahs can chase it. I am telling you, watching cheetahs running – not even at their full potential – was a thrill to say the least! Of course they are famous for being the fastest land mammal on the planet. They can accelerate from 0 – 64mph in 3 seconds, which is faster than the majority of sports cars. Pretty insane right. We basically got whiplash trying to turn our heads in time to see them whiz past!

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If you are ever in the area of De Wildt, I would highly recommend dropping in to the Ann Van Dyk centre and see for yourself all of the wonderful work they do for cheetah conservation and preservation!

Below are a couple of videos created by YouTuber Jon Watson, which documented our experience at the centre so you can see first hand all of the activities I mentioned above and just how much fun it was!

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