Spending 12 hours a day on the back of a truck isn’t good for the back. A jolt jarred some muscles and I needed a break from all the driving. The Toyota truck needed a service, Kelsey and the girls headed to Hluhluwe for the day, while Jannes and I stayed home. We wrote blogs, slept, tagged photos and did admin work.
I was sad to miss the puppies they saw on the road, Alfie’s pack had left them there while out hunting. I wasn’t so sad to have missed the two angry elephants they encountered, both of which were close and threatened to charge.
Today was a little different. At 6am we headed out to scan for cheetahs and to change the camera traps. Scattered throughout the park are cameras mounted on tree stumps, they are motion activated and save photos to an SD card. Every so often volunteers go and swap out the SD cards and batteries. This means leaving the safety of the vehicle.
When walking in the bush you walk in single file, with the leader at the front – if anything happens, it happens to them. If we bumped a lion we’d need to stand our ground, that never happened. Most of the cameras are close to the road, some a couple of metres, others in sight of the truck; one was a short trek, up and over some dirt hills. We were all nervous. Below us the ground was dry, the dirt crusty, we saw termite mounds and warthog holes, a little porcupine burrow too.
Changing the camera is easy; unlock the case, check the number of photos taken, swap out the cards and batteries, reset the time and date, take a test photo, and hey presto – “Trap is clean”. Sometimes things do climb into the casing, nasty things like spiders and scorpions; when I opened one a gecko came scuttling out and almost gave me a heart attack.
One camera trap took us out through dusty bush, our surroundings were orange and desert-like in the drought, a secretarybird strutted by – searching for snakes, a lilac breasted roller darted across, dazzling us with its colours, a bateleur flew high above us.
The trail took us to a management road which runs along the border-fence. The border prompted talk of poachers, poaching prevention techniques, supply chains, the ugliness of rhino horn poaching, corruption, convictions and shootings. It’s all devastating. The fence isn’t strong enough to stop elephants. We pass an old rhino skin, and a banded mongoose skips away from us. Back on public roads, we stop at a riverbed viewpoint and drink coffee, turning conversation away from poaching and onto braai.
When we’re done with the last trap we switch our attention to CF13. Throughout the day we’d been pinging her signal, getting a rough location. We’re close now, the camera is near a scent-marking tree, CF13 is nearby. We peer down into the valley to find her, some impala look nervous and on the opposite side there’s movement – our cheetah is heading toward them, and us. Her belly swollen, she must be pregnant. The impala sprint away, and CF13 disappears into the valley. We try to pinpoint her but she’s moving away from us now. We change positions and get another strong signal, but frustratingly she doesn’t reappear.
It’s a similar story with Bhejie’s pack in the evening. The signal besides their den is hard to interpret, it’s in a valley, their den is beneath rocks (seen in a photo taken from a heli’); it bounces a lot – holding up the antenna and keeping it still, you can hear the changing beeps. Determining when they are leaving is almost impossible. Tonight we learnt this too late.
We rush up and over the hill on okhulho loop and try to follow their signal. Four southern ground hornbills take to the sky as we rattle by, a crowned lapwing disappears when it lands – perfect camouflage. But no dogs, we missed them.
Today it’s my turn to scan, and we’re on the road early looking for Alfie’s pack. The signal takes us across the park, over the river and up towards where we’d spotted them before. Hopefully we might see puppies again. But the short range signal from the telemetry puts them in a place hard to get to; for them they can simply cross the river and carry on, for us it’s a 20 minute drive. Kelsey deliberates about which way to go, and which side of the river to put us. We head back, at speed, back over the bridge, and taking a quick right turn, down towards Nselweni lodge.
It’s a camp and everyone is sleeping, so we hush up and head to a viewpoint that overlooks the river. The signal is strong, but we can’t see them. As we’d do in the truck, we wait it out. A perfect opportunity for early morning birdwatching, as well as coffee and rusks, of course. From the rickety wooden lookout point I spot birds that get me excited; trumpeter hornbills, crowned hornbills, brown-hooded kingfishers, black-collared barbets, fiscals, drongos, geese and mousebirds, and my favourite, an african paradise flycatcher.
In the rainy season the river would fill up more, and in the wet pools you’d see hippo. We don’t know where they disappear to when the river is dry. Buffalo were sleeping there.
Every now and then we scan again, looking for the dogs. Out of nowhere we spot one, coming over the hill, it’s sprinting into the distance – to the water for a drink. There’s another too, it does the same, and they both soon disappear. Shortly we see spooked nyala running from something, and there’s a hyena call, but we catch no further glimpse of the pack.
The morning dog session finished early, but rather than go back we begin to scan for elephant breeding herds. We’d passed some ‘ellies’ on the road, on our way to the dogs. “Shall we scan for elephants?”, Kelsey asked. Claire looked nervous, but I point the antenna, find a direction and we head for BH331.
There are signs of them, trees knocked down, a lingering smell, but at the end of the road – a camp, we see no sign of them. We scan again but give up and head back. But on the same road, somehow elephants have emerged, a few now graze by the roadside. We assume it’s BH332, but when I scan again it’s a different herd, BH178. There are fresh lion tracks too, we scan for prides but find none.
There are three female elephants around us, and a youngster feeding from its mother. A female nearby looks agitated, she’s swinging her trunk, we put down the telemetry and stay quiet – forgetting about the lions, we don’t want the elephant to charge us in this tight space. As a precaution we begin edging forward.
Now the breeding herd appears, out of the silence, led by the largest female elephant - the collared one we’d picked up with our scans. She’s walking fast, practically running, trunk swaying, ears flapping and she’s leading over 50 elephants with young through the forest. Young and old rush by – all in a hurry, not quite a stampede. We watch in awe as they cross right behind us, using the road to move along. Their path bottlenecks and they spread out to get across.
“One is coming, Kelsey, Kelsey, Kelsey, one is coming, behind” – Philippine, alarmed by the beast heading quickly our way, out of the thicket, we pull forward and we’re clear, it can cross, it trumpets at us as it walks on by. For the remainder of our trip, “Kelsey, Kelsey, Kelsey” became a catchphrase for us, it should be Kelsey’s ringtone.
Away from the lions, in the mid-morning sunshine, we stopped by the river viewpoint. Some cars had gathered there, down in the basin we could see some white rhino, a lone elephant bull, a sleeping male lion and in the shade nearby, a collared female. These two must be mating, and they’re probably the ones that left those tracks we’d seen. The lions were too far and too sleepy to keep me interested, instead I watched the white-fronted bee-eaters.
The afternoon session was a little different, we went to find cheetah and lion. Philippine sat upfront because it was cold and cloudy. We split into teams; left and right; points awarded for different animals, certain animals get more, like lions – 10 points, and warthogs – 3 points, a herd of impala – 1 point.
We scanned for HIP636, the youngster and the female, and found them remarkably quickly, sat just away from the road again. Kelsey’s team got a very quick lead that we could never beat, no matter how many impala we found. The lions were sleeping, we left them in search of CF13; we saw many white rhino, warthogs, and even some crested guineafowl, but no cheetah. Philippine reluctantly conceded defeat to Kelsey, they were over 40 points ahead and only a black rhino would catch us up. We stopped to watch the sun go down – a beautiful African sunset against the umbrella acacias.
Back at camp Jannes cooked us his impressive rice and venison stew, and over dinner we listened out for nearby lion calls.