A cloudy start to the day, it was dry and warm. We took our bearings from the nearby hill and headed East. A large spotted genet narrowly avoided our bumper. Alfie’s pack hadn’t been sighted in weeks, they’d been denning in the wilderness. So when we drove the 1h30 trip across iMfolozi to find them Kelsey wasn’t hopeful. “We have to try though. We need visuals on all the packs”. We expected a quiet morning and at most a triangulation based on perpendicular signals. So when we found a dog sitting peacefully on the roadside, a long way from where we expected, we were all shocked.
“What dog is that?”, Kelsey asked. “What is it doing?”, “Photos, photos”. Another appeared, they paced up and down the road, defecated (this bit’s important) and then crossed into the bush. Kelsey put her foot down, climbed the hill, and turned off onto a little dirt road to umbondwe viewpoint, trying to head them off. “Here they come”. Now there was three, the third had a collar, we ID’d him as Zoom; Alfie’s pack. They continued up and over the hill to where we couldn’t follow. “Where are the others?”. They seemed too casual to be hunting, “it’s like they’ve lost something”. We continued to scan for Zoom and Madlala, the two collared dogs in the pack, and returned to where we first saw them.
We didn’t need to wait long, soon more dogs appeared. Zoom returned, then two more, crossing the road and heading back to their den. Above the thicket line we spied another dog on the hill, sitting still, a guard post. The den must be in the valley. Another 3 dogs appear from nowhere and cross the road; we all scrambled to get photos. Now the signal told us the dogs were resting.
Remember the defecating bit? When a wild dog takes a shit and we can get to it, we bag it up. Researchers are using the faeces to identify the dog’s diets. Cue Philippine and Kelsey using sticks to push shit into a brown bag, “nooo, you’re letting it touch the sides”. Two stinky bags of shit sat in the back of the truck for the rest of the morning. “Did one of you guys step in something?”.
One of the collared cheetahs, CF7, hadn’t been seen in a while, and while waiting for the dogs we found a strong signal. With speed we rushed away from Alfie’s pack and scanned the horizon, our binoculars focused on the hill, searching. “With a signal this good I don’t know why we can’t see her”. We pass a herd of zebra, warthogs munched on the grass, a woolly necked stork stood amongst them. A group of blue waxbills foraged in the dirt.
“There she is”, Kelsey spots her up on the hill, right at the top, a spotted rock that’s hardly moving. Eyes like a hawk. Through my binoculars I could barely pick her out; she sat patiently, no signs of cubs. We use a dead knobthorn tree to remember where we parked, the hooked and gnarly trunk was our signpost. She might move closer, we’ll return later. (She did move, but only into the shade).
The white WildlifeAct truck and the telemetry means tourist’s stop to ask what we’re looking for, and where to find animals. One of them told us about a pride of lions over in Hluhluwe. The tarmac’d road leads us out of iMfolozi, beneath the corridor road, and into the adjacent park, Hluhluwe, where the foliage is more green but less palatable. We pass wildebeest, nyala and elephants.
We try and try to find these lions, this would be the corridor pride. Folks in a truck on the roadside have their binoculars out. Sure enough, in the distance, there’s a male lying down and a female hanging in an acacia tree. I didn’t know lions climbed trees.
A boma is an animal enclosure. We visited the park’s bomas to see the creatures there; orphaned black and white rhino – poachers got their parents, wildebeest and buffalo sold to other parks – caught wild and brought here, white rhino waiting to be moved.
From outside these large wooden pens we get close-up views of the park’s wild animals. The white rhinos don’t like us, and threaten to charge; the buffalo are confused, the wildebeest scared. They all recognise our human form. It’s so odd that they don’t recognise or fear us when we’re on the back of an open top truck. Our form is masked, and the truck becomes a portable hide; every time we get close to a wild animal and it doesn’t freak out and run, or get angry and confront us, I’m surprised. The 4-wheeled motor vehicle is just a confusion to them.
It was feeding time for the two orphaned black rhino. They have been reared by humans and aren’t fearful. They’re fed a diet of milk and hay, and don’t mind us watching them closely. They talk to each other, making high pitched squeaks, a bewitching and endearing noise; beasts this big shouldn’t make such delicate and delightful sounds. It makes you want to cry, like a soppy Disney movie.
The centenary centre is just around the corner. The road there was filled with playful giraffe and elephant. We had our first close encounter with elephants, 4 bulls, nervously close, they walked our way. We’d heard horror stories about elephants trampling people and cars, one charged Claire’s car on a previous trip, tusking the girl next to her – a terrifying experience. “We should go now”, Jannes said. But Kelsey kept her distance, and the elephants showed no signs of agitation, they crossed behind us without incident. At the centre we ate cheeseburgers and chips.
At 4:15pm Kelsey took us out to where we saw Bheji’s pack moving den. There we waited, checking occasionally to see if they were active. A rhino path intersected the road we were on, “That’s a well used rhino path, some of these paths are 100s of years old”.
After an hour the signal starts to move, the sky above us is red and Kelsey puts her foot down. We hold on tight, she pulls away, Claire finds the signal, “2 o’clock – 3 o’clock”, Kelsey drives faster. We veer off the road, taking a sharp right onto a bumpy management track, through the trees, ducking to avoid branches, skidding to a halt at the valley edge.
Down on the riverbed we spot the dogs, they’re confronting a herd of buffalo. They don’t hunt buffalo, this is play – they love to toy with them; dogs will zip between them, too agile for the buffalo, nipping at their heels. We watch one buffalo charging, but it does so in vain, one dog doesn’t even rise from its rest. The dogs eventually leave, and continue on their nightly hunt, moving out of sight.
Kelsey gambles and we rush around to the guard post on the opposite side of the river. No sign of the dogs, the chase has ended. But the buffalo are here, moving in the herd, a young’un in the middle. Now stars begin to dot the sky and a distant nightjar sings, the buffalo shuffle by. “There’s nothing better than this, hey?”
This morning it’s cold. A mist fills the valley and the air is wet, the cold cuts through my coat, we shiver in our slumber. After seeing Alfie’s pack we wanted to check-in on them again, they’d been seen with puppies on the road. We drove across the park to find them, but when we neared the signal wasn’t there. We go higher but it seems like the pack has returned to the wilderness.
At Mpila we have an early coffee and buy reserves. A vervet monkey hears us eating and gets too close, we fend it off and it scrams. “Those things will claw your face. You’ve got to show it who’s boss”.
Today is International Vulture Awareness day, to mark this all the WildlifeAct reserves were putting out carcasses and doing vulture counts. At iMfolozi there’s some game that died in transport, they’ve been put out. We arrive to find a graveyard of bones and 3 untouched carcasses, the shrivelled skin of a buffalo sits behind them. Nothing is eating them, no lions, no vultures, the meat must be bad. This isn’t a good start. The stench of rotting animal fills the air, it’s foul and we cover our noses. Keeping our distance, we sit at the roadside and watch for vultures.
Over Hluhluwe are 30 vultures spiralling in the thermals, but none head this way. We just need one to catch sight of our carcass. We wait, Feline does her sudoku, Jannes reads his book, we wait for over an hour. Finally a single white-backed vulture heads down, shortly followed by another. 10 arrive on the scene, but they don’t stay long and they don’t eat – the meat is bad. We scan for tags on their wings, or GPS packs on their backs, but we see none.
Our evening session is quiet too. We headed for Brodie’s pack and used the telemetry to locate them – they were resting just away from the road, but out of sight. We head up and down the road, scanning, but their occasional moving signals always stop, and they return to rest. No hunting tonight.
On the drive home the crescent moon smiled at us, it sat neatly above Jupiter.
We’re still on the trail of Brodie’s pack again this morning. We get a quick signal from the hill at camp and return to their den site. Today looks more positive, there’s some activity, a moving signal, it’s moving, they’re leaving – “10 o’clock”, we follow the road. “There, up on the hill”, two dogs are waiting, but they aren’t hunting. “Where’s the rest?”. They disappear into the bush, in no big hurry. Another passes idly by, it’s Brodie herself, we try to see her teats, looking for signs of puppies.
We found wild dogs, which was more than yesterday, but it looks like we’ve missed the hunt – our collared dog stayed at the den. We turned our attention to cheetah; CF13 is nearby but resting somewhere we can’t see. We decide to have coffee at the Mpafa hide before trying again. A yellow-breasted apalis sits at the entrance.
Inside the hide we learn the story. Down near the water there are signs of a battle, a red liver glows in the morning sun, some entrails sit at the base of a tree, and there’s blood in the water. The dogs did hunt, they made a kill, and they did it all in sight of this hide, and we missed it. Kelsey looks gutted, if you’ll pardon the inappropriate pun. We drink our coffee.
“Dog”, Feline shouts as I choke on my hot drink. On the ridge to the left a dog has appeared, shortly followed by four more. 5 of them, all from Brodie’s pack – Brodie and collared Munundi included, they all head down to the battle scene. They sniff at the body parts, picking and chewing, then head into the undergrowth, there’s a carcass there. It’s a male nyala, they pull it out and feed. Painted dogs eat quickly, and they eat until they’re full. Then they return to the pack and regurgitate food for the pups. Some feed frantically while others rest, play or watch guard.
Many come down to the water to drink, lying oddly on their front, chins in the water, ears flat back, quickly lapping up what they can. They pick up the organs and chew on them, two grab each side of the stomach, pulling it apart and spilling the green digested grass on the floor; one rolls around in it. Adorable.
A buffalo approaches and drinks from the water, there are terrapins too, and a Hamerkop is trying to swallow a chunk of fish. A little ringed plover skirts about besides a drinking dog.
Other cars are beginning to arrive at the hide now, a WhatsApp message has told a group what’s to be seen. We watch the pack for an hour, a breathtaking and privileged sighting, we were all mesmerised by the charismatic behaviour of these animals. We leave when the dogs leave, just as a queue of jeeps and SUVs turn up.
We speed off in search of cheetah CF13, but never find her. Ironically a car tells us, “You drove straight past a cheetah and a lion”. Now it seems the cheetah is headed into the wilderness after the male lion sent it fleeing. On the way home we stop to photograph impala, they were being pestered by oxpeckers.
Sunday afternoon is for writing up data sheets and doing chores. We washed down the truck before its service, and filled in all the spreadsheets for our week’s sightings. At 4pm we’d finished, so headed out to find the wilderness cheetah. We stayed until dark, we scanned, and searched, but we saw nothing. Philippine had stayed at the house and I thought, “she’s missed nothing”.
Of course then we stumbled on three black rhino. A male, a female and a calf. Until now I’d wondered if I could tell the difference, the pictures show only subtle differences. It was immediately obvious, they behaved differently; the white rhino would be wary of us, but would walk away slowly, calmly, not really even noticing us; the black rhino definitely noticed us, they ran, turned and watched us from afar. It huffed; black rhinos are more likely to charge us, but they’re also inquisitive, they often come closer to inspect the vehicle and see what we are – then they charge or run away.
We stayed silent, we dared not move, we wanted them to come closer, not only to get a better look, but to also get a good look at the notches on their ears, a branding that can be used to ID them. They didn’t come closer, instead they ran away, into the darkness. Only 2,000 still exist in the wild.
At camp we made a fire from dry tree branches and Kelsey cooked us up a braai; grilled chicken, sausage, venison burgers, curried butternut squash, potatoes and a chick-pea chakalaka and baked bean sauce. A scrumptious feast cooked over hot coals.