This was our first really early start, waking at 4am for a 4:30am departure, a bark scorpion welcomed us on the decking. We’d be getting up this early everyday for two weeks. At 4am it’s still night, and when the skies are clear you can see Orion and the magellanic clouds. Gone are the sweltering hot winds and 30C temperatures, replaced with a cold stark breeze that cuts right through you; t-shirts and shorts replaced with thick coats, hats, gloves and jeans; sometimes blankets too.
We started where we left off, and headed for the only male cheetah in the park, CM19 (more males will be arriving soon to improve genetic diversity). Following the signal we drove along a management road, closed to the public, the red light out again, scanning the hills for cat eyes. A genet gave us false hope. Then we saw him, sitting in the open grass, awake, he stared straight at us and his eyes glowed.
In the dark he got up and meandered towards us, cautiously investigating us. We stayed deathly quiet, and avoided any movement – the cheetah seemed agitated, but he soon calmed. He settled 10m from us and watched us, before returning to the impenetrable bush.
After our disappointment at not seeing the pack and pups last night we set out to find them again. An early signal told us they weren’t at the den. Did they leave early on a hunt?
There’s something about the thrill of the chase that Kelsey loves; when she’s searching for wild dogs she drives “like a savage”, in her own words. Potholes and branches left in her wake, she speeds along the dirt roads as we frantically try to pinpoint the dog signals. Fire and feather, where are you? The cold morning air cuts through me, I’ll bring a coat tomorrow. We stop, take a reading, and we’re off again, reversing at speed, turning round, and zipping down another road. The roads are a maze, but Kelsey knows where to go. On the back seats we’re thrown about, our arms bruised from bashing the black metal bars, bums off seats as we hit a ridge, hold on tight.
“Dogs”, Kelsey suddenly shouts, “photos, photos”. To our right, coming out of the bush, a pack of dogs. They weren’t on a hunt, the dogs were with puppies, 13 puppies. Bhejie’s pack was moving den, and we’d found them in the act. Adult females moved ahead, checking the route for danger, others backed up the rear, while some checked the pups and pushed them along. Some puppies stopped to look or play, before being ushered on. Within seconds they were gone again, their fluffy white tails dancing as they jogged to their new home. What luck.
We snapped photos of as many as we could; we’d need the shots to ID each of the dogs; who’s there, who’s missing. A dog that’s missing may be injured, sick or dead. Or just elsewhere.
“How lucky are we, hey?”, Kelsey says, “If we’d left the Cheetah any later we’d have missed them”. We wait a while to see if they re-emerge, but their signal tells us they’re resting. On a hill besides the boundary fence we stop for coffee and rusks, a group of vervet monkeys flee in the distance. On the drive to camp a grey duiker leaps in front of us, closely followed by a sprinting dog giving chase.
In the midday sun we rest. While we eat bacon sandwiches a herd of elephants passes by in the valley below and buffalo sleep on the riverbed.
At 3pm we clamber back onto the open top truck and drive off again, this time scanning for cheetah CF13 and Alfie’s pack of dogs. In the same direction there’s a tourist report of lions and cubs. The cheetah signals don’t give us much to track, a faint long range signal perhaps, a ping from the wilderness where no car can go. We focus on the lions.
Between points 7 and 8 on the park map there’s a low bridge that crosses the river. There’s a small pool of standing water where birds feed and terrapins sit. Looking downstream we found the lions. A pride of 4 adult females, lying in the dry mud, their tails occasionally wafting away flies. Amongst them their cubs played. We tried to count them, 7 maybe? 8? Another one runs out from the long grass, 9? A tenth pops up its head from behind mum. An elephant monitor drives by, “I’ve never seen so many lion cubs”, he says.
10 cubs were playing. About one month old, they were a joy to watch. Through binoculars we saw them leap about, play fighting, one stalked conscientiously towards its sleeping mother, and pounced on her; she jumps with a fright, a successful attempt. Others ran around frantically, pawing each other while sitting on their rear legs; wherever we looked there was a cub doing something cute.
Behind us three rogue buffalo were sleeping. We hoped the lions might see them, we hoped for a hunt. But they were upwind, and the lions seemed content to continue their slumber. Each time one might rise and walk, or show signs of activity, she’d flop back down again and close her eyes. By nightfall our eyes were heavy too.
Each day we rotate seats in the truck, another person records data, another is unlucky enough to sit in the middle, a third takes the telemetry. Today was my turn to find the signals. Perhaps this is why it was a quiet one. We tried to find Brodie’s pack; nothing. We tried to find the female cheetahs; nothing. We drove to another hill and scanned again, nothing. Then another hill, and so on. On the roadside we found a nesting lapet-faced vulture.
At Mpafa hide we escape the vehicle to the shady confines of a wooden hide. Outside the scene looked landscaped, like some sort of zoo, but entirely natural. A beautiful tower of rocks formed a wall to the left, a small water pool beneath it, a gentle grassy slope leading down to it from the right. A perfect place to stop and watch.
With our instant coffee and UHT milk, into which we dipped rusks, we watched a white rhino grazing. A large grey-backed kite swooped in, circled, and rested on a tree alongside us; a magnificent bird. Outside I fed the tame mocking cliff chats by hand. At 10am we ate ice cream at Mpila camp, and at the volunteer camp we had french toast, and then we slept, the early mornings were catching up with us.
As per usual, we set out again in search of dogs, tonight we wanted to see Bheji’s pack, the dogs we’d spotted moving dens. Their signals were resting by their new den, in the evening light we waited for them to do something. A red helicopter flew overhead and circled around the den, section ranger Jed was onboard with researcher Christina; they messaged Kelsey, the dogs could be seen outside their den – sleeping.
From the truck Kelsey kept us entertained, “let’s play ID the poo”, and she hurled a mound of dry baby rhino poo at us, Philippine ducked and I caught it, the shit shattered. She told us about a Zulu tradition, where sticks are taken from black rhino poo, sticks tainted with “black magic” (she says in a zulu accent), and placed secretly in people’s homes in an attempt to break up a relationship.
The dogs never moved, so we did.
A stroke of good fortune led us to pick up a very close signal for HIP636, we left the dogs and drove towards them. The signal was strong, they were nearby. A slender mongoose ran across the road as we kept our eyes peeled for yellow bodies in the grass. In the bare branches a southern yellow-billed hornbill sat besides us, Claire scanned again, pinpointing their location at a crossroads, we turned left.
I saw them first, two females, “1 o’clock” I shouted to Kelsey, we stopped abruptly and immediately we were silent. These two lions were right besides us, we didn’t want to scare them off. The young one was spooked, she upped from her bed and hid behind the trees. We could see a moving head eyeing us between the branches. The old female, the collared one, was nonchalant, she didn’t move and she paid no attention. An incredible sight, to be so close to these powerful and majestic wild animals.
This pride’s story was a sad one, they’d once left the park and attacked livestock. One was shot and killed by the community, another died from poisoned meat, others later got tuberculosis and died; there used to be a pride with cubs, now there were two; a mother and daughter, presumably. The younger lion’s nervousness around people and vehicles justified.
Tonight we cooked spaghetti bolognese and Philippine serenaded us with her rendition of “Silent night” in German. I don’t know why.