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