Once upon a time there was a very small brown kitten, with enormous white paws, big blue eyes and whiskers like a walrus.
He was found on the bridge above the wetlands of Wakkerstroom, which is a good 2km walk from any human habitat. The ladies that found him were doing some birding on the bridge overlooking the wetlands. Because they lived in the local retirement village, they weren’t allowed to keep any pets, so the kitten was entrusted temporarily to a lady called Jolene who promised to keep him until a home was found. She thought he was adorable, but because she is allergic to cats and also her husband keeps birds, new kittens were out of the question!
Jolene put an advertisement up on Wakkerstroom’s FaceBook page: “Pragtige jong katjie gevind by die vlei se brug. Wie s’n is dit, of wie will die katjie he?”
It was immediately after this was posted that I saw the ad and the picture. I showed it to Geoff. We both agreed he was adorable. It had only been 4 months since our gorgeous black cat Vespa had disappeared in Wakkerstroom and we weren’t sure if we were ready to replace him. Also we were off overseas for 3 weeks in less than a month. We thought about it a little more as we were driving to Wakkerstroom the next day. Along the way we decided – we wanted him! I went back onto the Facebook post and saw Pam’s comment: “I will take the kitten”.
That’s when I knew how much I wanted him! Instead of feeling relieved that he’d found a good home, my heart sank into my shoes. Did Pam really want him or was she just being kind? Please let it be the latter… I phoned our friend Linda who knows most people in Wakkerstroom. She reassured me that she was sure that Pam was just rescuing the cat and she would call her to ask if we could have it. I felt like I was holding my breath until Linda came back to me – “Pam says of course you can have the kitten.”
Geoff and I drove straight to Jolene and Jan’s place. The coffee-coloured kitten was in one of the bedrooms with a litter box, bedding and food. He was tiny, demanding and perpetually hungry. We took him straight to Gin, our vet in Volksrust. She examined him, gave him his shots and advised that he was about 12 weeks old. (Working backwards we picked Valentine’s Day as his birthday 😻) He weighed 1.4kg and tried to double that in the next few days…
He seemed to be starving…he repeatedly jumped on kitchen counters and tried to grab a scrap everywhere he could. We got tired of picking him up off the counter and putting him down gently. Eventually we were sweeping him roughly off the edges but he remained resolute until he’d eventually eaten his fill.
I sent a picture of him to the family. “He looks like a raccoon,” said my Mother.
“He looks like a red panda”, said my brother.
Both were right. 😁 I recalled a childhood story book: “The littlest Raccoon”.
We decided to call him Jango. (Jango is a gypsy name meaning “strong and amazing”.
Django Unchained is a Tarantino movie about a freed slave) Both of these would prove to be prophetic.
Jango was tiny, bossy and shouty. The white markings on his rear legs made him look bandy. He carried his tail right over his back like a baboon. He bravely held his ground in the face of the dogs until Paddington fell deeply and hopelessly in love. He followed Jango like a shadow. He stared at Jango ‘til it was awkward for everyone. He licked him until the cat sported a gel-like hairdo.
The thing that struck us the most was how affectionate he was. Jango would climb onto me and up onto my shoulder – looking into my face. Then he’d spot Geoff across the room and bound over, climbing up his body for a hug and a kiss. A few minutes later he’d rush back to me again. We were in heaven. We’d never had a cat so loving before!
Unfortunately this phase didn’t last long. Back in Joburg we kept him in the house as much as possible, but before long he discovered the herb garden (a great hiding place from the obsessive Paddy) and would spend most of his time there, darting out to see us if we went looking for him. His distinctive miaow was loud, lengthy and persistent.
We missed him like crazy while we were overseas and we were overjoyed to see him safe and already much bigger when we returned. Unfortunately his independent streak was very well-established.
Jango grew up so fast. First he got so long it was ridiculous. How could a cat take up so much room nose to tail? He poured over the edge of a chair. He draped himself with paws, whiskers and tail hanging over the edge of any platform. Then overnight he became so tall that he made older brother Hobie cat look tiny! Delightfully Jango still treated Hobie with respect and we loved how they would play together. Jango’s ferocious appetite was unstoppable. Jimmy would feed him, then I would feed him, then Geoff would give him a snack. Jimmy would advise that it had already been his second or third dinner!
We nicknamed him “Mickey Mouse”, with his big white ‘gloves’ on all four paws. We also nicknamed him “the baboon” or “the littlest racoon”, but “Mickey Mouse” stuck.
Jango loved being outdoors popping in only for mealtimes. (We began to think he might have been better off on Pam’s farm, where she keeps horses and has lots of space for naughty cats to roam.) The affectionate kitten vanished overnight replaced by a calm and indolent cat, who rarely bothered to come into our bedroom, unless to drink out of his own water glass. In the mornings, while Hobie trotted about squeaking for breakfast, Jango lay patiently on a dining room chair waiting to be served. Only once it was dished up would he languidly stretch and stroll over to investigate his bowl, devouring at least three times what Hobie would eat. A strange cat – although he was mostly neutral on the affection front, he was quite happy to be cuddled, stroked and petted.
The first time Jango disappeared for a few days, we were frantic. Jimmy, Geoff and I walked the streets calling. We took the dogs up and down the road hoping they would sniff him out. I didn’t sleep at night, convinced he was shut in someone’s home while they were away, or had been run over and was slowly dying under a bush.
And then he simply appeared again, draped across his favourite dining room chair one morning, hungry for his breakfast. This happened every few months. Eventually we stopped worrying too much. We had no idea where he went, but unsettling as it was, he would always pitch up 2 or 3 days later.
Of course he’d pick his moments… In Jan 2019, he’d spent almost everyday with us in Wakkerstroom over the holidays, free to come and go as he pleased. He vanished 24 hours before we were due to return home. And no, we hadn’t alerted him by beginning to pack up. I was meeting Gill’s flight from Australia at ORT airport and so we had to drive home without him. Fortunately, Kevin phoned a day later to say he’d been sighted. Geoff and I drove all the way down again to fetch our cat.
Unfortunately, the nonchalance we had been forced to develop nearly led to his demise. It was Level 5 lockdown and everyone was staying at home (except for Jango, of course). He’d been gone a couple of days and we hadn’t bothered to walk the streets calling, other than whistling to no avail at mealtimes. It was a Wednesday when Jimmy offered to wash our cars. He spent the morning on Geoff’s car and when he asked me for my keys, I told him not to worry, he could do it the following week. Luckily he insisted. It turned out Jango was locked inside my car. Due to our restricted trips out, we hadn’t used the car since Saturday. And we wouldn’t have used the car again until the following Saturday. 😳
Our Mickey Mouse had had no food or water for four days. He’d peed in a sweater that was in the car. He was so thirsty and hungry, I thought he might burst. I felt paralysed with morbid thoughts and ‘what ifs….’ A narrow escape and definitely one of his nine lives down.
Not too long after that he went missing again. We checked the cars. We walked the streets, calling and whistling. Again it was only after three days that he returned. His fur was badly scraped away in places on his head and he had blood streaks on his face. It looked as though he’d been trapped somewhere and forced his way out through a narrow opening. What were we to do with this cat? Another life down?
We took him to Cape Town on a roadtrip. We took no chances and kept him locked up. Ironically he is such a relaxed passenger, spending time curled up with Hobie or settling in with the dogs in the back, lying cheek to jowl, the full length of their bodies. My parents installed electric fencing for us in Cape Town. The neighbours complained: “this is a safe suburb – that fencing is unsightly! Who exactly are you trying to keep out?” My parents had to explain that they were trying to keep an escape-artist cat inside the property.
Jango’s next escapade was another heart-stopping moment for us. Jimmy was ironing on the patio and Geoff and I were working in our study. Jango came bang-bang-banging up the patio steps. The noise was from the large jar he was wearing tightly over his head.
The fit was so tight that I could barely slip a finger between his neck and the opening of the jar. It was not made from glass, but a very hard and heavy plastic. His breath had started to condense and we had to cut some slots in the bottom so that he could get some fresh air while Geoff worked out what the best plan would be to get it off. Olive oil? Brute force? Geoff resorted to tin-cutters, which did the trick. Incidentally there was nothing inside the jar. So we couldn’t imagine why he would put his head inside. Also we don’t know where he would’ve gotten it from? Once again – the anguish…what if we hadn’t been home…How many lives do you have left Mickey Mouse, my boy?
Geoff said: “One day this boy will break our hearts.”
Jango turned three in February 2021. We had planned another road trip to Cape Town. We carefully chose pet-friendly accommodation where there were no other families or dogs staying close by. It was the end of May and late Autumn. In the Karoo this means warm, sunny days and nights that are starting to get a little chilly. Our first night was heavenly. We found an eco-lodge in a beautiful conservancy in the upper Karoo midlands, 60 odd km from Middelburg in the Eastern Cape. Helen and Pete, the owners of this 5000 hectare wilderness have done the most amazing job of restoring and preserving this breath-taking area. https://karooridgeconservancy.com
Our exquisite “Mountain Lodge” was about 4km from the main farm house. The nearest neighbours would be about 15 km away. We really were in the middle of nowhere. Sunset was spectacular as we braaied and nervously kept an eye on the cats. Jango had fun prowling around and we were relieved when we found him plonked on the couch in the morning, fast asleep. ‘Ok he’s been out all night, but he knows where his home is’, I thought, still under the impression that I understand “Cat”. A few hours later Geoff reported with amusement that both cats had climbed into the open car and were fast asleep.
By 12 midday, he’d vanished into thin air. A storm was approaching so we hustled out into the surrounding grasslands and began whistling and calling for him. The basin-like surrounds are flanked by a high ridge behind and a small lake in front. But literally there are miles and miles of open expanse dotted with shrubs, rocks, grasses and an occasional bush. There was no sign of him.
And then the storm hit. I hate to be overly dramatic, but it was wild out there. Pelting rain, high winds rattling the roof and a moonless night. Everytime there was a slight abatement, we’d head out with the dogs to call. My heart was becoming more compressed into my throat with every hour. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. We lit a fire as the temperature had fallen. Peter delivered a home-made chicken pie, but I couldn’t eat. I now understand how Mother’s say of their children, that once they are born “their own heart is walking around outside of their body”.
Hours later we went to bed. No sleep, as we listened for any sound that he might have returned. Eventually it was dawn and we could go out searching again. We went further afield in the car, stopping periodically to call. I was frantic. In which direction would he go? Why would he want to be out here in the damp and cold? Could he hear us but is choosing to ignore us? Had he been taken by a jackal or a baboon? Did he slip into a ravine and is now trapped somewhere? Has the rainstorm flooded his hidey hole? Horrible, desperate thoughts as the time ticked on for our departure.
Peter and Helen were so understanding and supportive. They reassured us. “He’ll turn up”. “There’s nothing here that will harm him”. Words that would give me some comfort for a while. Geoff was stoic. “He’s done this so many times before. He’ll turn up.”
We agreed that there was no point continuing to search and that as soon as he pitched up, they’d let us know and we’d immediately drive the 8 hours back from Cape Town.
Except that he never turned up.
The days turned into weeks. Every night I would wake up close to tears, imagining him lost in the Karoo, scared, hungry, confused. As the weeks went passed, I still couldn’t sleep – I’d imagine him dead instead. My dad reassured us. “So long as he has access to water. If a cat doesn’t have water he can’t last more than 3-4 days.”
Google was not my friend:“The average cat can technically survive for one to two weeks without food if they have a water supply. However, without protein, it may be more like three to four days, even if they have enough water. With no water or food, it is unlikely that a cat would survive longer than three days.” 😱 My dad cited studies that showed cats can live without food for 4 – 5 weeks so long as they have water. I felt perpetually sick. This is what grief feels like.
My mom and I prayed. I fought the urge to text Helen, knowing she’d message the second she heard or saw anything. People stopped asking if we had news. Geoff admitted sadly that perhaps he’d been wrong to be so sure he’d turn up…
How would we break the news to Jimmy? We were heading home in a few days. Jango’d been for gone over a month. We decided to head back to the farm in Middelburg. We held out no more hope, but we felt that we needed to have … was it closure? I texted Helen to book for the following week.
“Nikki we haven’t seen a sign of him”, she replied, lest I was still hoping against hope.
That was the Thursday. On the Sunday afternoon I received this text: “You will not believe it… our daughter Rachel has just seen Jango! He came walking down our driveway, back arched and tail fluffed while our dogs barked at him. We tried to call him but he raced away.”
Oh my goodness. The joy! The relief. Then the next text later at night: “Jango just jumped into our room, then went back out again”. Helen and Pete kindly locked up their dogs and left food for him. The days crawled. There were no more sightings. We comforted ourselves with the fact that he now knew where to find food. I was scared to look at the temperatures for Middelburg, but when I did, it was lows of -2 degrees C. Winter was setting in.
We arrived at the farm again the first week of June.
It was 5 weeks since we had been there. The leaves had turned and the wind was icy. By 4pm the sun was already threatening to set behind the hills. We immediately began our search in the area he’d last been seen by some of the farm workers. Déja vú as we walked and called and whistled to no avail. How could he not be around?
Astounded we eventually had to give up the search because of the dark. Had he already moved on beyond the farm? Maybe we’d taken too long to arrive after he’d first been sighted? Perhaps we’d lured him too far away with our calling?
We’d never dreamt that he wouldn’t be cuddled up with us that first night. I felt a real panic that we might not find him. So close and now so far.
A sleepless night and we were up at the crepuscular hour hoping that he’d be hunting. Again a fruitless search and my lips ached from whistling in the cold dry air. My throat was hoarse from calling. I felt sick to my stomach. We were going to have to leave the next morning and my heart was heavy
I was walking towards Geoff to suggest taking a break. As I approached with the dogs, Geoff said “I heard him cry”. My brain could hardly register this. I walked towards the area. Geoff saw Jango run towards him, only for him to suddenly turn and dash off into the bushes. I caught a glimpse of his brown fur as he disappeared. We refocused our search and called and walked this particular area. My spirits were lifted because at least we were certain about his location and also he was most definitely alive! But why was he not coming to us? Had he turned feral after five weeks in the wild? Were his dogs scaring him for some reason? What if he refused to come to us?
We decided to head back to the cottage and have breakfast. I suggested that we return with camping chairs, a flask of coffee and some rusks and literally set up camp in the area. Hopefully our presence would calm him. If not, Pete had obtained a cat trap for us to set up in the evening as a last resort. As we were setting up our chairs, we could actually hear Jango crying wistfully. But he still didn’t emerge. I poured some coffee and we sat in our chairs. Geoff went to move the car in case it was in the way of the farm workers. I decided to make the sound of biscuits tinkling into Jango’s stainless steel dish. The mewling got immediately louder. I called to him and crying persistently he showed himself and came right up to me and started eating. He was covered in ticks – on his face and all over his body. I grabbed him firmly not wanting to risk losing him again. Geoff arrived and grabbed him and put him in the car. We could feel his entire skeleton.
As I was packing up our “campsite”, a black pig appeared from the same bush Jango came from, moseyed on over to me, took the rusk out of my hand and began schnaffling through our supplies. I was a bit perturbed by his big tusks, but he seemed friendly enough. (Helen explained later that we’d met Rudi – and Rudi’s best friend used to be a cat ). Maybe he befriended Jango?
We popped into introduce Helen to Jango. She was just as relieved as we were. Then we got him back to the lodge and fed him what seemed to be continuously for hours. He was starving. We pulled off ticks and kept finding more. Eventually he fell asleep. My heart broke when he cried out in his sleep, something I’d never heard him do before. The temperature reached -6 degrees C that night.
How do I feel? So relieved, so happy, so very lucky, so grateful to Helen and Pete for helping us and for sharing our anguish. Geoff has been struggling more now than ever before. It’s the imagining what he has been going through to survive that is so heartbreaking. What did he eat? What could he have eaten? Clearly enough to survive.
Our Jango is home safely. The vet has given him a clean bill of health (kidneys and liver are fine). He is staying within earshot of the kitchen and 2 weeks later is still really hungry most of the time.
I think that’s definitely another life down, Mickey Mouse…