Interview: Princess Michael of Kent

Fiona Hicks

Princess Michael of Kent chats to us about a little-known period of her adolescence—and how it continues to influence her life

Today she lives in the cloistered environs of Kensington Palace, but few know that as a teenager, Princess Michael of Kent spent many formative months on a working farm in Mozambique. This period of her life, and her extraordinary experience of raising an orphaned cheetah cub, are the topic of Her Royal Highness’ latest book, A Cheetah’s Tale.

“I didn’t have a lot of experience at that age,” she explains. “All I really knew was school and what I’d read in books. I was young and new and found everything quite strange, being in Africa. It was a fantasy land: the vistas and colours were so different to what I knew—and the shrieking monkeys.”

"Africa was a fantasy land: the vistas and colours were so different to what I knew"

The Princess, who has also authored three history books and historical novels, found reliving the period emotional. “My previous six books took me five years each to research and write,” she explains. “This book flowed out of my memory and it made me cry remembering the end and how I felt at the time.”

NEIL SPENCE/Alamy Stock Photo

The end she speaks of is the moment she had to say goodbye to her beloved cheetah, Tess (more on that later), but the period was also special because it was then that she got to know her father, Baron Günther Hubertus von Reibnitz. “I didn’t know him at all,” she reveals. “I was born in 1945, and he went to Mozambique in the late Forties.” The Princess remained with her mother and brother, moving from Bohemia to Australia for a period. Her mother had put off sending her to visit her father in Africa, for fear that she wouldn’t want to come back (“Once I came to know something of the magic of that continent…I understood how right my mother had been,” she writes in the book). She finally visited for a long stay after finishing school.

“I have a vague, hazy memory of my father from my early childhood—as someone who was genial and benign and generous—but my connection to him was through paper. There were a lot of photographs and letters passed between us, so I knew him in that sense, though you can project whatever image you like in your letters. But I didn’t feel the absence of him. I had a stepfather, a brother and a wonderful uncle.”

"I woke to a loud bang, and jerked upright to see my father... with his rifle. Below the trailer I then saw the body of a lioness"

Nevertheless, the process of getting to know him when she was a teenager was, she says, “Fascinating. He was a hands-on farmer, but in the evenings we would play cards, or he’d reminisce about his early youth. He was a lot older and he’d had a rather interesting life. He was a raconteur; I loved sitting and listening, enthralled, to pre-First World War stories.”

The reality of life on the Mozambique farm was certainly far from the luxury and protection she’s known as a Royal. She was appointed a “guardian” to keep the snakes away from her, and at one point she even narrowly missed being eaten by a lion.

“It was my first safari and I was alone with my father. Somehow my tent had been forgotten at the farm, and a bed had been rigged up in the trailer and covered by a mosquito net. I was content and settled down gazing at the stars but had difficulty sleeping due to the constant coughing coming from the direction of my father’s tent.

“I woke to a loud bang, and jerked upright to see my father on one knee with his rifle aiming in my direction. Below the trailer I then saw the body of a lioness, an old lady who had left her footprints on the high tyre of my trailer. I should have been an easy meal. It was the lioness who had ‘coughed’ all night wandering around me.”

 

The Princess's cub

With Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia

Of all the animals, though, the one that left the greatest impression was Vitesse, her cheetah cub, known by the nickname Tess. The Princess and her father rescued the tiny cub on discovering that her mother had been killed. Her Royal Highness, then Marie-Christine von Reibnitz, was immediately devoted to the cub, spending her nights waking up to feed her and her days playing with her—interspersed only by reading her stepmother’s Encyclopaedia Britannica to learn all she could about the species.

“I was very confident, surprisingly. I had no idea that this tiny little thing was unlikely to survive, and that it was a miracle that it did. Only afterwards was I told how everybody was sure it would die and they would have to deal with my heartbroken self.”

But survive she did, remaining utterly loyal to her human mother. “People who saw me at the time would say, ‘Oh gosh, aren’t you afraid of her? Look at those teeth!’ But it didn’t occur to me at all to be afraid of her. If you know an animal, you know how they’re going to react. When she grew into a strong, capable hunter, she still obeyed and remained her loving self. And she was so funny!”

The animal-loving Princess poses with a king cheetah, born within a litter of four orphaned cubs

Their bond, however, was always overshadowed by the knowledge that they would have to be separated. “My father repeated and repeated that animals go back into the wild. His word was law and I would never have dared disobey—and also, I knew he was right. I wasn’t going to spend the next 12 years or so with a cheetah on his farm in Mozambique! No, no, no. At 18 I was looking forward to balls and dancing and travelling.” The moment that Tess was released back into the wild was “brutal” but, in a funny way, it set the Princess up for the challenges of motherhood that would come 17 years later.

“I put off thinking of the moment and when it really happened, I couldn’t stay there any longer. Even when I was sent away to other parts of Africa to get a feeling of how it was, I lived what I was doing, and didn’t hanker after anything else.

“I’ve always done that in my life so as not to be unhappy. I shut away something that I don’t want to think about because it’s not convenient at that time—otherwise you spend your life being sad about the children going to school, for example. No mother likes her babies going to school for the first time because you miss them. It’s a terrible thing for a mother to have to send her child to boarding school, I think. But there it was, that’s the way it is—so you shut it out and think of the next time they’re coming home.”

 

Leaving Mozambique behind

Bottle-feeding a tiny orphaned cub, just as she fed baby Tess long ago

Despite her happy time there, the Princess has not returned to Mozambique for many years. “I don’t really want to go,” she admits. “The civil war was a dreadful time there. The farm was on the main road between what was Rhodesia and the coast, and so that’s where a lot of the action was, because the road had to be kept clear for export to the sea. I’m glad I wasn’t there for that—you don’t want to be in the middle of a war zone. I just want to keep my memories as they were; I don’t want to go back to the place where I’ve been very happy if I know it’s changed a great deal.”

"The goal of saving animals in the wild depends on man. We must try to save as many as we can"

What hasn’t changed, however, is her devotion to cheetahs. “It was the current plight of the cheetah that persuaded me to write the story of my experience, and draw attention to the dilemma of this glorious animal,” she explains. This dilemma is twofold: first, that the natural habitat of cheetahs is gradually being destroyed by man and second, that more and more of these creatures are now kept as pets. “I have seen these in domestic situations in the Middle East, their claws removed and often their canine teeth. A cheetah is a wild animal and should be allowed to live well in the wild.”

It’s this sentiment that propelled her to say goodbye to Tess, and that drives her in her wildlife conservation work today. “My husband and I are the heads of 117 charities, including the animal ones, and that keeps us occupied. The goal of saving animals in the wild depends on man and although I’m not entirely confident of success, I believe we must try to save as many of the world’s species as we can.”

One animal who did survive was Tess. The Princess was reunited with her just once after her release—and she had two of her own cubs in tow. “To see ‘my little family’ looking strong and healthy,” the Princess writes in A Cheetah’s Tale, “overwhelmed me with a sense of happiness that I will keep close to me forever.”

A Cheetah’s Tale by Princess Michael of Kent (£20, Bradt) is available now.