In the heart of Zululand lies a peaceful haven for responsible travellers and some of Africa’s most endangered cats: serval, caracal and cheetah. We receive a warm welcome at Emdoneni Lodge, not only from the people who dedicate their lives to saving these species, but also from the endearing creatures that stole our hearts.

 Through my closed eyelids, I can see checkered shade from the splayed boughs of overhanging marula trees. Palm fronds rustle and wind chimes tingle in the warm autumn breeze. My hammock sways gently like a baby’s basinet and that quintessential scent of Africa – a musky mix of earth and animal – reaches my nostrils. I hear a snort. Through splayed fingers, dazzling black and white striped hides come into view, walking towards me across the sweeping grass like a mirage. I wonder if the approaching zebra are seeking out the nutrient-dense fruit that has fallen from the kissing trees supporting my hammock. When fermented, marula fruit is well known to inebriate elephants and the massive beasts have been seen falling over each other like disorderly teenagers.

I feel the warm touch of lips on my forehead and turn to find Justin standing downwind. He’s finished shooting Windfall cottage, our home for the night, and it’s time for me to introduce him to Dew and Dawn. Staying in the secluded honeymoon suite, our closest neighbours include Raine, Storm, Leonard, and Love. It sounds like we’re living in a hippie commune. But instead of spending our days debating the evils of industrialisation and eating organic chickpeas and vegan dal, we’re connecting to our emotional chakras in a much nicer way. I push open the gate to the enclosure, making sure that there are no escapees, and sit down cross-legged on the grass in the middle. As soon as I take a seat, I’m encircled by two whirling dervishes of spotted fur. Dew and Dusk are adorable, three-month old cheetah cubs being raised by Emdoneni’s Cheetah Project.

The project was started by current owner Louis’s mother, Ida Nel, who received the first three cheetah (all of which eventually died of old age) in 1994. Shortly afterwards, Ida received an injured serval and the project started snowballing when locals discovered that they could take injured or orphaned wild cats to the farm for rehabilitation and care. The main focus of the project is to release the cats back into the wild where they belong. To this end, the sanctuary only keeps animals that cannot be successfully rehabilitated for raising awareness and educating people through daily tours. The project also carefully manages breeding pairs to bolster populations of these rare, threatened and endangered species. The offspring are released into to their natural environment with the help of the KwaZulu Natal Parks Board Wildlife Services.

To date, the team has successfully reintroduced serval, caracal and African wild cat at Charter’s Creek, the Bushlands area, Mkuze Falls Game Reserve and Phinda Private Game Reserve. During our visit, Emdoneni’s Cheetah Project was preparing for their first cheetah release. Zera, a female originally bought for breeding, was later considered suitable for rehabilitation. She is currently faring exceptionally well in a predator boma in Mossel Bay and is soon to be released at Gondwana Game Reserve, which has one male cheetah. Zera will be collared and tracked and, while the team are sad to be losing her, they’re confident that her release will be a success and overjoyed that she will soon be roaming free.

“Watch the little guy with the naughty face,” I warn Justin, pointing at Dew. “He likes to jump up and nip you on the back of the neck.” I’ve already been shown around by Emma, the attractive and amiable British blonde who manages the project. She kindly has given us free reign to enter some of the enclosures unattended but not before pointing out which characters are friendly and which to avoid. Not only does each species have differing characteristics, but each animal has their own unique personalities. I’ve only met them once before but I can tell the cubs apart already: Dew has a devilish look in his tear-marked eyes and Dusk has a mohawk of light, downy hair on his head. Dew rushes up to me and pushes his head under my arm to demand some love while Dusk, the quieter of the pair, lies down against my legs. As I stroke the coarse fur down his back, he turns his head to lick my hand with a rasping tongue the texture of sandpaper.

Emma enters with food for the energetic youngsters, who need to eat up to three times a day. “That means he really likes you,” says Emma, indicating towards Dusk still licking my hand lovingly. I must have really Zen-ed out in the hammock because the cubs are sweet and gentle with me but are boisterous boys around Justin, treating him like a human jungle gym. They race around the enclosure, tumbling over each other like spinning wheels of fur, play fighting on top of him like he is one of the team. Then, when they need a break, they relax next to me for a thirty-second back-and-neck massage. Getting to play with these special little characters is a treat that neither Justin nor I anticipated, and one of the most memorable parts of our trip through KwaZulu Natal.

In fact, everything about our stay at Emdoneni up until now has exceeded our expectations, perfectly in line with the lodge’s mission: to make its guests’ stays better than expected. Family owned and operated by Louis and Cecillie Nel, Emdoneni has grown from seven to 44 chalets over the past 21 years. The couple’s warm hospitality, fantastic staff, and attention to detail has not gone unnoticed. In the reception area, alongside stunning photographs of the sanctuary’s animal inhabitants, is a Hotel of the Year Awards plaque bearing the accolade of Best Animal Sanctuary Resort Worldwide for 2015. And it’s not hard to see why. Not only is the lodge a sanctuary that makes every guest feel right at home, it’s also perfectly positioned for those wanting to enjoy the wealth of natural treasures that the area has to offer. Emdoneni is just 12.5km from the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park and 16km from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve, making it the ideal base for travellers.

Justin and I are pleasantly surprised when we’re escorted away from the main lodge and its surrounding chalets to the secluded honeymoon suite. Windfall cottage, which is tucked under the sprawling boughs of an ancient marula tree, has romantic dark wooden floors and moody grey-green distressed walls. The lounge features a Nguni cattle skin rug, deep brown leather couches and an oversized oxblood lampshade. This African-inspired look is continued throughout with natural slate tiles, deep red accents and Zulu artefacts on the walls. But the bedroom has a more feminine side. The wooden bed is draped in soft blue ornamental pillows and is crowned by a floating four-poster frame supporting a billowing mosquito net tied with satin bows. Its beauty is reflected in a full-length antique mirror. In the bathroom, which has a Victorian bath and double basins, freshly picked green leaves decorate white bathmats. When we step into a picturesque private boma featuring an outdoor shower, bench and birdbath under a tangle of trees, Justin and I wish we had more time at the lodge.

Not all of the animals in our hippie commune are as friendly and affectionate and the little fluff-balls of fun, Dew and Dusk. To walk into the sanctuary, we pass an enclosure housing two marauding caracal with long-tufted ears and what resembles expertly applied eyeliner around their feline eyes.

Far more wild child than love child, Carlos and Diego live up to their names, hissing and spitting at us like Latino gangsters as we pass.

These beautiful red-coated caracals have the highest strength-to-weight ratios of all the lesser cats and are just below that of a leopard. What makes them even more fearsome is their powerful jaws are the same size and strength as an American pitbull’s and they also get lockjaw. Even though they are only around knee-height, they’re able to jump three to four metres into the air from a sitting position. With this athletic ability, caracal hunt birds successfully and they’ve been known to take down vultures as well as fully-grown impala, which can be two to three times their own body weight.

Bar One, the oldest of the caracal in the sanctuary, is laid back enough to let me put my camera lens through the wire of his enclosure and capture his image. I notice that he is walking with a limp and point this out to Jonty, the South African guide and animal carer. “He has arthritis from hunting birds,” he explains. When I ask why Diego is a lighter colour than Carlos, Jonty provides a detailed explanation. “Caracal are able to live in a wide range of habitats, from desert to marshy conditions. Diego is a lighter colour which enables him to blend into a more desert-like environment.” Jonty further explains that in arid conditions, the amazingly adaptable cats can go without water for up to two months, getting the hydration they need through food alone. But despite being so hardy, caracal are under threat from farmers who persecute them for attacking their livestock. Under the cover of night, these cats can go on a rampage, killing more for fun than for food and truly living up to their gangster-like reputation.

Dressed in brightly coloured sportswear, a group of Canadian and American volunteers march past us. The group have been working hard all afternoon moving materials to build a new enclosure (each camp has been built to meet conservationist Ian Player’s recommendations and are some of the most spacious in the country) and its now time for them to receive their reward. Emma invites Justin and I into an enclosure housing two fully-grown cheetahs, Storm and Love, along with the group. While Jonty sits with Storm, an impressive young male with amber eyes, the volunteers take it in turns to stroke the purring feline. The first girl who hunkers down next to him is so emotional that tears stream down her cheeks, landing gently in Storm’s spotted fur. Watching her heartfelt reaction, Emma starts to tear up too. When Love approaches me, brushing past my leg like an overgrown domestic cat, I almost feel guilty as I lean down to run my fingers down her back without the same profound emotion.

 As Storm and Love seem so happy to be receiving attention (and even seeking it out) my mind goes back to the last big cat sanctuary Justin and I visited. Panthera Africa in the Cape is labelled a ‘true’ sanctuary in that it does not partake in breeding, selling or touching. The cats that it houses – mainly lion, a black leopard and two seriously impressive Bengal tigers – are unable to be rehabilitated back into the wild and simply live out their days in peace. It may be that the species are fundamentally different, but when I witness the intense emotion experienced by the volunteers stroking Storm, I can only draw my own conclusions: these loving cheetah are stellar ambassadors for their endangered species and I have no doubt that this interaction will in some way contribute towards their survival. “They will walk away at any time if they don’t want to be stroked,” explains Emma. “Also, we watch their body language and we can tell if they’re getting irritated. Unlike humans, animals are much easier to read.”

The earliest record of human interaction with the animals dates back to the Sumerians in 3,000 BC. In Egyptian mythology, it is believed that cheetah would race the Pharaoh’s spirit into the afterlife, evident by cheetah symbols and paintings discovered in ancient tombs.

Marco Polo noted that cheetah were kept as pets in the orient, far beyond their native range, while Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, and Akbar the Great of India are documented as having kept the animals as hunting companions.

Cheetah, which are essentially a hybrid between a cat and a dog, are one of Africa’s most endangered cats with only around 10,000 left in the world. An estimated one-tenth of this number live in captivity as the animals fare less well in the wild for a number of reasons: loss of habitat, human persecution, and the threat of apex predators. Lion, leopard and hyena view cheetah as competition and kill the far more delicate cats. In the wild, cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%.

As the light softens in the sky and the breeze stills, Justin and I relax with a glass of red wine while sitting around our outdoor fireplace. Impala, nyala and zebra crop the grass peacefully next to the cottage, while Dew and Dusk are taken into the nursery for their nightly feed. We’re also ravenous so we make our way to the main lodge for dinner. The large double-volume building has been made more intimate by split-levels, a thatched-roof bar, and comfortable seating areas. A French group chatter in sing-song tones in the stylish indoor/outdoor lounge while the indoor fire is left crackling away unappreciated except for a curled-up cat. Barely opening an eye, the nonchalant tabby stretches his hind legs appreciatively as I run my hand down his curved spine. Interestingly enough, it’s domestic cats that are causing the demise of the African wild cats housed by the sanctuary.

As soon as I entered their enclosure this afternoon, Rambo came bowling over to me, winding himself around my legs like a slalom skier. While he looks almost identical to your average domestic cat, Emma was able to point out the differentiating factors: a ginger necklace of fur, black striped stockings and black slippered feet. I could visibly see the difference in Khaya, the older cat in the enclosure, who has a broader head and a bigger jaw for crunching bones. With the demise in their habitat, the African wild cat encounters more and more domestic cats and interbreeding has genetically altered their bloodline. The project has been highly successful in coupling purebred wild cats in the sanctuary and releasing them as a family unit into their natural habitat.

Dinner is an impressive affair. Instead of the usual set menu, we’re treated to tables laden with flickering candles and a full buffet feast. In addition to platters of starters, salads, vegetables, tender roast lamb and crispy roast chicken, there’s also a choice of samosas, sambals and curries. Centuries ago, Indians bought their local cuisine to the shores of Natal when they were shipped in to work on sugarcane plantations. Justin, who has the appetite of a horse, eats everything. I opt for the delicious Indian-influenced cuisine and save some space for desert. Outside, the pale silver moon does little to light our path to our romantic cottage but Justin has remembered the torch. As we’re strolling back arm-in-arm, the torch beam catches a scruff of fur flashing past us in the dark, closely followed by a man in wellington boots hot-footing after it. It turns out that one of the serval, Noah, has escaped again by climbing a tree and performing some acrobatics to flip over the fence.

The next morning, Justin is up at sunrise to photograph the serval and finds Noah proudly sitting outside his enclosure. There is something in the specie’s upright seated position that reminds me of an ornamental cat my grandmother used to have in her pantry. And there’s something about their cute faces, with their bat ears and bulbous noses, that reminds me of a painted clown. Either way, the cats do not instil a lot of fear in me. I walk up to Noah to see if I can usher him back into his enclosure and I’m greeted with a good morning hiss. Clearly someone woke up on the wrong side of the fence this morning. Inside, Sheila proves to be much more amenable, brushing against my legs so enthusiastically that her body reaches just over tipping point. But she’s difficult to photograph, never staying still for a second. It’s this characteristic that makes serval almost impossible to count and monitor. Researchers found that they were recording the same animal in a wide territory several times a day. As a result, very little is known about these hyperactive cats.

Jonty is also up at the crack of dawn and lures Noah towards his enclosure with a paper trail of chicken pieces. “Escaping and being lured back with food has become a game to him,” says Jonty, as the spotted feline acts disinterested in the food and then nonchalantly moves forward to eat it. I notice some interesting black and white markings on the back of his broad ears. “They’re false eyes,” explains Jonty, finally closing the gate to secure Noah inside. “Serval like to climb trees to hunt, making them prime target for big birds of prey. These have been seen swooping down towards serval and pulling out at the last minute because they think the cats are looking directly at them.” Sheila saunters towards us like she is strutting her stuff on a catwalk. “They place one foot in front of the other to make it easier to walk along tree branches.”

Sheila is far more active then Noah, who is clearly grumpy after his all-nighter, and climbs up into a tree so that we can witness her skills. When she returns to earth, she cocks her head at the ground, pouncing on nothing in particular. “Like caracal, serval have very good hearing and can pick up vibrations from rodents underground,” says Jonty. “They also hunt snakes and have developed an anti-venom in case they get bitten.” Despite being effective hunters, the well-adapted cats are under threat from loss of habitat and human persecution. Serval are the only cats to have both spots and stripes down their backs, making their soft coats very attractive to both African cultures and the European fur trade. Sadly, it takes 15 of these creatures, listed as Threatened or Protected (TOPs) due to their rarity, to make just one coat.

Before we leave, Justin and I are given some one-on-one time with two young adult cheetah, Moya (wind) and Juba (fast). Moya, the more dominant of the brothers, flops down against my legs and purrs loudly while I stroke his back. While they’re not blissing out, these sports cars of the animal world can go from zero to 112km per hour (70 miles per hour) in just 3.2 seconds. Their long tails, which weigh the same as their spines, act as a rear spoiler and rudder. This enables the cats to turn at 90 degrees without tipping over, making them accurate and effective hunters. After visiting and writing an article for Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), one of the cheetah breeding projects that exchanges cats with Emdoneni to prevent interbreeding, I’ve learnt a lot about the cats. But I’m impressed that Emma and Jonty are able to enlighten me further. What I didn’t know is that cheetah’s bones are hollow, giving them a lighter chassis to reach the spellbinding speeds that make them the fastest of all the land mammals. Or that after reaching top speed, cheetah need 20 to 30 minutes for their heart rate to recover before they can start eating their catch. During this time, the dainty cats often lose their prey to apex predators.

What I find most fascinating is that cheetah cubs are born black with a white stripe down their backs to mimic the honey badger. These ferocious weasel-like creatures are exceptionally hardy, having the ability to almost completely rotate in their skins, enabling them to fight back even when pinned to the ground. For this reason, predators tend to leave them alone. I also discover that each cheetah has between 2,000 and 3,000 spots, making their coats as unique as a fingerprint. But the greatest lesson of all is not from information that Emma or Jonty have imparted, but rather what these endearing creatures have clearly demonstrated to us through their actions. Each animal has its own individual personality – amiable or irritable – that has managed to make us smile, laugh, back off, or continue loving them right back.

In the mid-15th century, the term ‘windfall’ was coined in reference to fruit blown off the tree by wind, making it easily accessible. Today, the term is used more to describe an unexpected gain, bonanza, or hitting the jackpot. Our stay at Emdoneni has not only been far better than anticipated, it’s been an experience that has touched us both quite unexpectedly and one that will stay with us for a long time to come.