My first African Christmas

'I began to realise that Tess was calling me': a group of cheetah cubs (Getty)

At the age of 17, the future Princess Michael of Kent visited her father’s farm in Mozambique. There she found herself caring for a baby cheetah whose mother had been shot because it was marauding local villagers. 

My first African Christmas was unforgettable. It was incredibly hot and humid. Attending church was a test of devotion – no windows opened and the heat and smell of perspiration from the packed benches made concentrating on the service difficult. But the singing was angelic and the energetic dancing down the aisles was visually glorious, presenting a most unusual sight to a convent-reared girl. The local Catholic mission had a good following and the children, all dressed in white with radiant smiles, were a joy.

My stepmother Rosemarie and I took turns decorating the Christmas tree with lametta, a sort of thin silver fettuccine which we hung, one strand at a time, to create a glittering skirt on each branch, waving gently from the open balcony windows.

We sighed with pleasure when it was finished and then I added the candles – wax ones, naturally. This was a mistake. On Christmas Eve, I had rather a surprise. In the heat the candles had softened, bent over, and were now facing the floor. Rosemarie burst out laughing. “Oh dear – we usually put them up at the last minute to light, sing some carols and then blow them out,” she told me.

It wasn’t only the candles that were affected by the Christmas humidity. My leather shoes, bags and belts all acquired mildew, as did anything leather inside the house. Still, we would sit on the verandah after dinner, enjoying the breeze coming up the valley from the coast. Our cheetah cub Tess was far too small to take part in the festivities, but I left the door to my rooms open for her to join us if she wanted, and sometimes she did.

On New Year’s Eve I joined in another tradition. We decorated the back frames of our chairs by winding a twist of pretty leaves round them. Then, just before midnight, we stood on the seats of our chairs, waiting. When we heard the stroke of midnight from the wireless (attached to a battery removed from the Land Rover), we jumped down and into the New Year. I am not sure if this was one of Rosemarie’s inventions, but I loved it.

Tess was about five weeks old and it was at this time that I first heard a new sound from her, a sort of chirping. I learned that cheetahs often appear to imitate bird calls. To attract them so they could kill them? No one could tell me for sure, but I began to realise that Tess was calling me.

Cheetahs are mysterious creatures. My father had told me that they were the most primitive form of cat, having evolved some five and a half million years ago. But where? A recent genome study concluded that they originated in North America and spread to Asia and Africa around 100,000 years ago. The other popular view is that the cheetah emerged in Africa as early as the Miocene era (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), as did the sabre-toothed cat. Later, a giant cheetah roamed in Europe, India and China; then a smaller form evolved. Today it is the world’s fastest mammal, reaching speeds of 110 kilometres an hour – but only over a short distance.

As a child I had been astonished to see miniature paintings of 16th-century Indian Mughals hunting with a cheetah sitting beside them on the back of the saddle. I received strange looks from my teacher and the other girls when I fantasised about doing the same. Now I was learning first-hand what these alluring animals were really like.

Another strange thing was that, whenever I left Tess alone in my room, I would return to find her sitting upright, legs side by side in front of her, exactly where I had left her. This, I discovered, is what cubs do in the wild: they stay exactly where their mother has left them for their safety in case of predators, and wait patiently for her return.

Once Tess grew out of her shoe box, she seemed content to sleep on a rug I placed beside my bed, with the blanket from her box on top so that the smell was familiar. No matter how much I longed to have her lying on my bed, I knew I couldn’t: she had to be kept as independent as possible. I knew in my heart that my father had spoken wisely when he told me that she would have to be released into the wild one day, obliged to fend for herself. No, I could not allow her to become a dependent pet. I too would leave, but I pushed that thought as far away as possible.

Anything could happen, I thought, with the optimism typical of the young. Those weeks were among the happiest of my life.

This is an extract from A Cheetah’s Tale, just published by Bradt.