Before meeting Kirsty Woodhead, I knew that she had South African roots and was curious to hear her accent. Having moved to Canada at a young age, she has lost her accent and laments this loss. Kirsty regularly visits the country of her birth and displays such pride at her heritage, that I feel a rush of pride myself whenever she talks about the Rainbow Nation. She would definitely consider returning for good, "I would come back to South Africa. All our family is still here and we come back at least once a year. It's always been home."
Studying tourism and environmental studies at Brock University in Canada, South Africa forms the perfect backdrop for her passion and pursuit in life. "I've always been interested in eco-tourism and wildlife, since I was a little kid." She chose Inverdoorn because it covered both areas of interest: "the tourism with the lodge, and the focus on the cheetahs ties into the eco part. I get a first-hand look at a specific part of it."
The experience "has been fantastic" and her favourite part is working with the cheetahs. "I didn't realise how attached I would get to Velvet and Izzie. They make every day." Starting her work with the big cats was challenging, but also the most rewarding. "You have to build a bond with them and get to know them." She loves taking Velvet for walks and petting her, but she is pleasantly surprised at how much she has learnt during her time at the reserve. "I didn't know much about cheetahs and I've learnt a lot about them...how they can surprise you all the time." The stories of the cheetahs were definitely something to write home about, especially "how quickly you get to know them and how they trust you."
Her favourite animal, however, is the elephant. When Leah Brousse, Inverdoorn's main cheetah handler, hears this she pretends to be aghast "You did not just say that!" But Kirsty is genuine and forthright and she substantiates her choice, "You just look at their faces and there's so much expression. They really are gentle giants and I've always been drawn to them."
Kirsty's open nature makes her easy to talk to and I find myself engaging in animated conversation with her as we work together in the cheetah kitchen. She shows a strong passion for her work and it is clear that she finds the experience valuable. "If people are serious about working with wildlife, this is something they must consider," but she sounds a note of caution, "It's not just playing, you must know how to look after the cheetahs and care for them."
I prompt her to tell me about Southeast Asia and Kenya where she spent time working with and helping local communities. She is happy to share, speaking both earnestly and enthusiastically about her experiences. No matter where she is or what she is doing, she is keen to help others and here she has been able to extend a helping hand to wildlife which, she says, "is something we are all responsible for." Not only is she looking at eventually coming home to South Africa but perhaps, one day, even returning to Inverdoorn.