LA siblings Ted and Susan Johnson join their parents in Kenya where their father, Earl, works at a NASA tracking station, and their mother, Jean, works at a clinic. Ted’s dreams of roughing it on the savannah are squashed when Jean leads him into a house that looks like it belongs in Pasadena, California. Although Jean forbids her children to explore, Ted and Susan sneak out to a nearby watering hole to meet with ten-year old Morogo, a goat herder. Morogo shows the siblings the wildlife of Kenya and they show him how to play video games. One day, Jean comes home to discover Morogo in her home. Ted and Susan plead with their parents to let Morogo be their guide. Reluctantly, the parents give in.
One day, Ted kicks a soccer ball over a barrier and it lands against a sleeping rhino. Morogo sneaks up on the beast, retrieves the ball, and places a small stone on the rhino’s side. He then gives Ted another stone, daring him to do the same. The rhino awakens as Ted nears, sending him scampering up an embankment. A laughing Morogo tells him that a person must approach a rhino downwind or it will smell him. Kipoin, Morogo’s father, is displeased his son is keeping company with Americans, because they are “cattle eaters.” He is even more disgusted to learn they eat fish.
One day, the trio comes across a cheetah cub whose mother has been killed by a poacher. Susan insists they take the cub home and talk their parents into letting them raise it. The cub, Duma, becomes the household pet, playing ball, wrestling, and riding in the family car. Ted trains him to come when he blows a whistle. As the date approaches that Ted and Susan must return to the U. S. to continue school, their father tells them it is time to decide Duma’s fate.
They go to town and meet with Larry, a game warden, who explains that before Duma can be released into the wild, she must be taught to hunt or she will starve. A storekeeper named Mr. Patel offers to buy Duma, but Susan refuses. When they leave the store, Patel explains to a British adventurer named Nigel that he has an uncle in India that races cheetahs against greyhounds, and he could become rich if he could do the same with Duma. Larry tries to train Duma by placing roadkill in a burlap bag and dragging it behind his jeep. Instead of attacking the bag, Duma jumps into the jeep for a ride. Ted, Susan and Morogo continue the training by dragging bags of meat behind their bicycles. Slowly, Duma catches on and they take him out on the plains near a herd of gazelles. As Ted and Susan watch from a hill, they see a cheetah kill a gazelle, and think it is Duma, but Duma is asleep behind them.
Meanwhile, Patel and Nigel hire a Kenyan, Abdullah, to kidnap Duma. Patel explains that cheetahs are sprinters, not distant runners. He plans to make the race just long enough that the cheetah will run out of steam. Unlike all the other gamblers, he will bet on the dogs and make a fortune. The night before Ted and Susan are to leave Africa, Patel breaks into the house, steals Ted’s whistle, and uses it to lure Duma away. The next morning, when Ted cannot find Duma, Susan suggests it is a good sign the cat is exploring without them. After a tearful goodbye with Morogo, the family stops at Patel’s store to get gasoline. Patel sees the tears in Susan’s eyes and asks if she is crying over losing her pet. Ted realizes Patel could not know about Duma’s disappearance and then notices that Abdullah is wearing shoes made from old tires, just like the tracks they found around Duma’s mother’s corpse. Ted tries to convince his parents that Patel kidnapped Duma, but they insist the animal is out “exploring.” At the airport, Earl tells his children he and Jean will join them in America in one month and their grandmother will look after them until then. Ted convinces Susan that Duma is in trouble.
After sending their grandmother a telegram saying they will be delayed, the siblings take a bus back to Patel’s store and discover he is gone, but learn his whereabouts from his cousin. The two sneak into Morogo’s village and beg their friend to guide them. Morogo refuses, fearing his parents’ disapproval, but tells them it is a two-day walk and gives directions. Although Susan argues it is insane to make a two-day trek across the Savannah, Ted reminds her that Duma is in trouble. After a night of sleeping in a tree, Ted awakens to find something watching them from the bushes. As he and Susan hug each other, Morogo leaps out laughing. The trio spend a day crossing rivers, hills and miles of grassland.
The next day, Kipoin goes to the tracking station to tell Earl his children have run off with Morogo. After calling the grandmother, Earl realizes Ted may have been right about Patel. The fathers go to the store and force Patel’s cousin to reveal his whereabouts. After calling the police, they learn that Morogo’s mother, Lani, visited Jean and both women have gone after Patel themselves.
Across the Great Rift, the children find Abdullah’s camp protected by a high fence and trip wires. They wait for nightfall before sneaking in. Along with a stack of fliers advertising Duma’s race against the greyhounds, they find cheetah skins drying on the walls. Hearing Duma’s whimpers, they enter a barn and find her locked in a cage. Susan and Ted go into a cabin looking for something to break the lock and are jumped by Abdullah. Nigel and Patel arrive and the three men argue over what to do with them. Abdullah wants to kill them, but Nigel suggests they lock them in the cage until after the race. When the men drive away with Duma, Morogo comes out of hiding. Susan, who was watching the poachers, gives him the combination to unlock the cage.
They walk to a road, where they are picked up by a policeman, but they escape at a gas station and hide in a truck full of sheep headed for the city of Nairobi. When the parents get to the police station and are told the children ran off, Earl sees a flier for the race and realizes they are heading for Nairobi. The children reach the racetrack in time to hear the cheetah-greyhound race being announced. Patel crows to Nigel that he has bet a fortune that Duma will lose. Duma takes an early lead in the race, but as the race progresses, the greyhounds catch up and pass the cat. Ted grabs a policeman’s whistle and blows. Hearing the whistle, Duma gets a second wind and wins by five lengths, causing Patel and Nigel to pay off all bets. The parents arrive just as Duma attacks Abdullah, and Earl pulls the cheetah off him. As both sets of parents berate their children for being irresponsible, the poacher is arrested.
Later, the family releases Duma into the wild in “Cheetah Valley.” As Susan removes Duma’s collar, a male cheetah appears and Duma runs toward him. Susan quotes a Kenyan adage, “Though they are separated, their spirits still share the same earth and sky."
- Keith Coogan as Ted Johnson
- Lucy Deakins as Susan Johnson
- Collin Mothupi as Morogo
- Joe Herrington as Duma
- Timothy Landfield as Earl Johnson
- Breon Gorman as Jean Johnson
- Mhlangabezi Ka Vundla as Kipoin
- Lydia Kigada as Lani
- Kuldeep Bhakoo as Mr. Patel
- Paul Onsongo as Abdullah
- Anthony Baird as Nigel
- Rory McGuinness as Larry
- Rod Jacobsen as David
- David Adido as Mwangi
- Konga Mbandu as Police Captain
- Martin Okello as Friendly Policeman
- Allaudin Qureshi as Patel's Cousin
- William Tsuma as Cabbie
- Waigwa Wachira as Racetrack Policeman
- Jim Ward as Announcer
- Jan MacCoy as Stewardess
- Evalyne Kamau as Nyambura
- Jane Gelardi as Announcer's Girlfriend
- 'J.J.' Joseph Otieno Adamson, David Otieno, Wally Amalemba, Tony Evans Kalanzi, Kelly Harry Ngetsa as Band at the Blue Duka
- Thomas Akare, Denis Doughty, Siddik Ebrahim, Lee Harvin as Bettors
- Aloysius Lazarus, Njoroge Ngoima, Frank Turner as Greyhound Owners
- Lynn Kresel as Lady at Airport
- Richard Clarke as Announcer (voice)
- Michael Rogers as Racetrack Policeman (voice)
- David James Sharp, Stephanie Byer, John Fedinatz, Arthur French, Grace Garland, Jane House, Conan McCarty, Zeph Mitchell as Background Voices