Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Cheetah's rock, Zanzibar

We were able to get a hold of Eco & Culture late the night before to cancel our visit to Jozani Forest.  This allowed us to sleep in a bit (as much as we could with the heat) and then spend a morning and early afternoon relaxing by the pool.  If you know me, you know this meant about 20 minutes floating in the pool before getting stir crazy so I walked up to the dive center and grabbed a mask, snorkel and boots and headed off into the Indian Ocean for some snorkeling.  

The resort is on one of the last undeveloped coastlines of Zanzibar so instead of a sandy beach there was an amazing plateau of coral reef just off the shore that was great to snorkel in!  I saw beautiful cowrie shells, cushion stars, starfish lots of spiny urchins I avoided stepping on and a ton of colorful fish everywhere.  It was no Great Barrier Reef but there was plenty of life and Mnemba Atoll just opposite us about a mile out was well known for it’s spectacular diving so I assume I must have seen similar things this close anyway.

At 1:30pm we were picked up by the same driver for Eco & Culture Tours.  With a big smile he told us he had found a much better road to get to our resort and he was right.  Instead of over an hour on a 4x4 road we had about 5 minutes of rough road before it turned into a smoothly grated, wide dirt road with lots of traffic which brought us quickly back to pavement.  This was the route I had tried my best to urge him towards on our first drive but he didn’t understand.  He apologized again for the mistake but we weren’t upset about it at all.  It was us who made the big mistake of choosing a resort in the middle of nowhere that took so long to get to…

When we arrived at Cheetah’s Rock we were warmly greeted by Jenny (owner and caretaker of the wildlife) and were given fresh coconuts to drink in the shade while we waited for all the guests to arrive.  They have a strict limit on number of guests and are only open Sun, Tues, Thurs to allow her to train the animals all day on the off days.  We had to frantically re-schedule our visit with her the night before we flew to Africa and were lucky to get in!  After a brief discussion of safety concerns and an introduction to the facility and her background as an animal trainer, we were off to visit Chaka the zebra who was in a large round fenced enclosure.

At first we were on benches with a fence between us as she described how she spent so much time training all these animals to be comfortable with people around them.  None are de-clawed and none have ever been given drugs or tranquilizers.  They were all rescued in some fashion from their owners, zoos, injuries, etc but they were still very much “wild” animals that needed a lot of training.  I can’t remember how Chaka came to the facilities but he was very well trained!

We were all allowed into the enclosure with Chaka who was taken off rope and allowed to prance around with us.  We got to feed him treats as positive reinforcement for his good behavior and he also picked up fake rose to put back in the hand of the women on the tour and played a bit of soccer with us guys.  There was a man in a wheelchair on our tour which was actually a first for all these animals so Jenny was a little extra cautious but every animals, despite some extra curiosity with his wheels was very well behaved with him, including Chaka.  

After Chaka we went into a cage with two rescued bush babies from the island named Mortimer and Maurice  They were extremely cute with big eyes which gave them a “surprised” look as they jumped from shoulder to shoulder amongst us as we fed them spaghetti noodles.  I think these were a favorite for Eric.  At one point Jenny had them in her arms and went around asking us to smell their fur which smelled a bit sweet as we jammed our noses into them, only to be told that the smell was urine that they rub on each other…!  Whatever, they were soft and cute and we could wash our hands later!

From there we moved into a pen that held a rescued black faced vervet monkey named Manfred.  He was super cute but a little bit more skittish than the bush babies, sticking to the branches in the enclosure instead of our shoulders.  He was a newcomer and if I remember right there was another there but someone had come at night and stolen it or it escaped.  She explained to us that these monkeys in Thailand often had their teeth painfully ground down to the stub and painfully de-clawed by “beach boys” who would use them as tools of entertainment for tourists.  She urged us all if we ever visit to not give these people the time of day and definitely not any money.  Jenny was a wealth of worldly knowledge of the mistreatment of animals, from the “beach boys” in and horrible tiger temples in Thailand, to the current hunting of black bears in the US Northeast.  

Jenny said there was a huge problem on the Island with people harming animals or stealing them.  Recently, over a disagreement one man poisoned the drinking water of another mans mules killing them all and the locals were known to regularly mistreat animals and even break into her facility.  For that reason they insisted on changing the animals water supply each morning as a precaution and she had hired military personnel to guard the facilities.  The locals had tried many times over social media to cast her in a bad light and she was definitely not welcome… but she was enduring and will continue championing her cause for animal rights.  Honestly, I’ve never met a woman so passionate and willing to give up so much of her life and free time to helping animals.  It was truly inspirational.   

We then moved on to a much larger enclosure filled with various animals.  There were two ring-tailed lemurs, one named “Pineapple”,  a couple peacocks, two dik dik’s, and even a turtle looking for handouts.  This was actually one of the highlights for me as I really liked the lemurs.  Jenny and her staff handed out fresh fruit to all of us and we were able to feed all the animals who happily jumped on our shoulders looking for food (well, not the turtle).  One of the lemurs apparently was taught not to jump or couldn’t because it stayed on the ground the whole time.  All of the animals were super comfortable with us but it’s probably good they get days off in between because if they were fed this much daily by tourists they would be grossly overweight!

Next was a visit to Gizmo, Jenny’s full grown rare striped hyena she had rescued from being put down.  He seemed very friendly and curious about us and when Jenny asked for a volunteer to feed it my hand was of course the first to go up.  She gave me a raw egg to hold through the fence in my fingers and gizmo came over and tenderly took it from me.  There was also a brand new baby hyena she had just received in a cage next to gizmo.  She was keeping them separated for now to safely introduce them to each other then was planning on joining them in an enclosure.  

Throughout the entire day we had been walking nearby Aslan’s very big fenced in enclosure.  He is a full grown male white lion about a year and half old.  Although we were walking by him and he was super curious in the wheelchair we were instructed to not pay attention to him until we met him later in the day.   Last year guests were allowed in his pen with him as he was a cub and was pretty harmless but now only Jenny could go in as he was full grown and could easily kill someone.  We were all given big chunks of raw steak and were instructed to tell him to “go down”, lower himself to the ground, before feeding him the meat through the fence.  I know there was a fence between us but hand feeding a full grown lion through a fence with my bare fingers and those huge teeth was still pretty amazing.  

Our final stop of the day was the closing champagne toast with Tyson the Cheetah for which the facility was named after.  We all gathered together in a grass field by his enclosure and popped 4-5 bottles of champagne.  Jenny released him from his enclosure and he trotted over to us where she had put some meat in a bowl in the center of our seated circle.  He happily chewed down and then went over with her to sit on a cushioned bench.  He had gotten some bone or meat stuck in his teeth from his meal so he was doing a lot of licking his lips and teeth grinding while trying to get the food free… which made it even more interesting.

Each of us were ushered over to the bench to sit next him, champagne in hand, and pet his head, while he purred in happiness.  When I say pur, I mean it sounded like a beefy motor from this large cat.  Even though he had all his teeth and all his claws we felt totally find hanging out with this well-trained feline.  Jenny was cautious with the man in the wheelchair but everything went fine.  Jenny then brought him around for each of us to pet a bit more and answered all our questions about the facilities and her future plans.  Her passion and devotion to these animals, to all animals, is amazing.  Eric fell in love and I found a new role model in life.  

She picked Zanzibar for it’s climate but has had an awful time with locals who don’t want her there and with the authorities who can’t seem to stop the abuse of animals on the island or mainland Tanzania.  She seemed to be up against so many struggles.  I asked what can be done to help and she was even hesitant about a social media campaign as the last one she tried out was so skewed by the locals that it made her and work look like animal abuse.  But.. hopefully the fact that she has easily become #1 on TripAdvisor for the Island will help her.  I’m sure there are going to be month long waits very soon to visit this place as it is so special!

The only negative experience we had was our ride arrangement home.  Jenny had of course told the hired driver that we needed to go to Sunshine Resort but having been through that mistake before we corrected and said it was Sunshine Paradise Resort further north on the island.  This resulted in a call from the driver to his boss and his refusal to drive until he was paid more money.  Jenny was very professional and said she would take care of the difference later but he refused to drive or listen to her…. and argument ensued with her husband trying to help (sorry Eric) and finally the driver left with us saying “she is crazy” and her saying he’d never be hired again.  Awkward… Yes it was further but we made it clear to the driver we could make up the difference as it really wasn’t that much.. he was just a douchebag about it and we ended up almost missing dinner because of the stalling he did before driving us.

It was a wild drive home with him blasting hip-hop videos of half naked women over his front screen of his van (pricey looking van) and swerving around locals in the dark.  This seemed really odd in a Muslim dominated island.  By the look of the vehicle I don’t think the company was struggling for money and their professionalism was terrible.  We could tell Jenny was embarrassed by the incident but it wasn’t her fault.  Just a miscommunication in directions that could have quickly been resolved if the driver hadn’t thrown a fit.  It was definitely a nerve wracking ride home and really surreal.

We had just crawled into bed after an expensive traditional muslim dinner at the resort restaurant when the fans in our room suddenly spun down to about 25% of their full speed!  We were devastated.  After lying in sweat for a few minutes I put on some shorts and walked around  until I found a guard asking what was going on telling him our fans had stopped.  After some communication he left and returned with the resort “fix it guy” who walked in, clicked the dial on our fans and basically said, “It’s Africa” and walked out chuckling, thus continuing the island attitude about not caring about much at all.  I had read in a guidebook about poor Tanzanian work ethic and this interaction pretty much summed it up.  Big exceptions being our climbing guides and Shange from Duma of course.  Suffice to say, none of us slept well this ni

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