Next stop: Rhino Camp
When I arrive, Houghton has already used a blowpipe to shoot a dart full of anesthetic into an emaciated cheetah's rump. A few minutes later he carries the groggy cat inside for examination by vet Mark Jago. I stroke her coarse fur while attaching a tongue clip that monitors the oxygen in her blood. After plucking a bone fragment from between her teeth and filing a claw, Jago injects the cat with antibiotics and prepares to put her back into a cage.
"She's dehydrated," he says. In a few days, after she puts on a little weight, he will send her back to the bush.
About 87% of the cats rescued by Okonjima conservationists have been released back into the wild and can roam the refuge at will. Rescued cats that have suffered permanent injuries live in separate reservations and are fed daily by the guides.
The next morning our safari truck pulls into one of these enclosures, which measure about 60 acres. After a few minutes of silence, we hear rustling from the knee-deep weeds. Dean tosses a chunk of raw meat onto the road. Within seconds 12 lanky cheetahs gather soundlessly behind the truck. Guests snap photos as a cat places her paws on one of the truck's tires and stretches her neck toward the bucket. Although the cats are accustomed to humans, we're forbidden to make any sudden movements.
On the third day we leave the cheetah sanctuary and fly north to our next destination, Desert Rhino Camp. The stubby vegetation gives way to dry riverbeds, solitary mountains, and huge expanses of red rock. It's hard to imagine that any animal - or human - can survive here in the Palmwag reserve. But after we drive from the airstrip to a cluster of khaki tents miles from the nearest village, a camp worker is waiting for us with lemonade and damp washcloths.
The retro-colonial accommodations recall a scene from Out of Africa. A layer of fine red dust covers walnut dressers, directors' chairs, and white linen sheets. I shower from a bucket and wash my face in a porcelain bowl, using water from a Thermos. Each night the 12 guests - mostly retired couples - dine together in one big tent.
Shortly after dawn our truck sets out behind another one driven by local rhino trackers as they scour the bush for hoof-prints and fresh dung. During the half-hour drive we pass two small herds of zebra. Each zebra turns and faces us as we pass. We spot three or four fawnlike springbok drinking from puddles, and dozens of solitary giraffes seeking shade under the sparse trees.
A tracker radios our guide to say he has spotted a mother and baby rhino through his binoculars. When we catch up to the other truck, we park and walk about a mile and a half until we spot two gray blobs on the horizon.
Rhinos are extremely sensitive to noise, so we walk silently in single file, communicating via hand signals. We stop about a half-mile from the animals. The trackers frantically scribble in their black logbooks, every page of which features a black-and-white sketch of a rhino. If the tracker can't find words to describe a rhino's condition, he'll draw it, using bumps on the horns as identifying marks.
The Palmwag Concession Area contains the world's largest free-ranging population of black rhinoceros, according to Save the Rhino Trust, the Namibian outfit that helps run the camp. Staffers know and have named most of the 72 beasts - they call the mama rhino Desiree - and track their health and daily movements over the reserve's one million rugged acres.