Today is the day it rained. For us this wasn’t great, but the park really needed it. All of KwaZulu-Natal is experiencing a drought, so the showers we had today were essential. It was cold too, frankly the weather was miserable.
At 4:30am we were prepared, on top of the usual layers were wet weathers, and we used blankets to buffet the worst of it. I pulled my hood and hat down over my head, and pulled up my headscarf to cover mouth and nose, like a bandit. We rolled out in the drizzle, and the drizzle became a downpour. On the open back in the dark it was cold and tough – although Philippine was weirdly chirpy, and resorted to dance to keep us happy.
This was Christina’s first time monitoring; she was in charge, and Kelsey was helping from the passenger seat. Christina’s enthusiasm kept us going, even on the viewpoint from mpila, where the winds howled. We got signal and set off in search of Alfie’s pack.
The signal wasn’t at the den so we stayed away from Nselweni, and continued over the river. Up on umbondwe we scanned again and tried to see them, then again, further up from tshevu and then nyalazi. There were baboons on the road, unfazed by our truck.
In the distance Kelsey found the dogs. One, then two, running. No sign of a hunt, they were spread out, looking for prey. We took some blurry shots, enough to ID them. They disappeared again, and the signal suggested they were returning home; we settled for coffee at umbondwe, and watched for them on the riverbed, though they never showed up.
By now the rain had let up, and when we switched focus to Christina’s favourites, cheetah, we were all a little more perky. We scanned for CF7 and followed her trail down a bumpy hardly-used management track. The telemetry pointed to a tree amidst the thicket; there were lapet-faced vultures and a tawny eagle waiting their turn; there must’ve been a cheetah kill, but we don’t have x-ray vision.
Our last morning task was to change some cheetah camera traps and set up an experiment for Christina. Using some plant pots and the poo we picked up from the wild dogs, we hung the poo alongside a cheetah scent marking tree; we changed the camera traps and the experiment was primed; how would the cheetah respond to wild dogs? Maybe the next group will find out. We were glad to have the cling-wrapped poo out of the vehicle.
That wet weather session was our last with Kelsey; she stayed behind to pack and study, while Cole came in her place. Cole is like the monitor of monitors, he travels around and helps wherever help is needed. Tonight he was coming with us to look for lion and cheetah.
We set out in search of CF7, but her signal took us to a dead-end. It wasn’t raining, but in the distance an ominous black storm cloud could be seen heading our way. We expected the worst and hoped to return to camp sooner rather than later. But Cole persisted, and we were thankful, we focused on lions in the fading light.
Across the hill, where our antenna pointed, was a gathering of cars. They’d broken park rules and gone off road to get a better view of lions. Christina was outraged, but they left before we arrived. Sticking to the road we could see a sleeping pride on the bank. They numbered 9, a big alpha male, some females, and some sub-adults. They were still sleeping when the storm arrived and the drizzle began.
But the rain had an effect; it seems these are cats that don’t like water – they were on their feet and heading our way. The night turned dark beneath the cloud, and through binos we could make out the pride slowing near the road. On the other side – a herd of buffalo, they hadn’t noticed the carnivores. 3 lionesses parked themselves by a shrub, while a sub adult male and female approached cautiously, stalking the buffalo. We watched with anticipation – would we see a lion hunt?
For 20 minutes we watched, switching from binoculars to red-lamps. A lion made a false move, the buffalo saw them, there was some commotion, a buffalo call and the herd were off, moving north and away from us. The lions didn’t chase, but they did continue the stalk, follow slowly in that direction; we stalked the stalking lions.
They walked in single file on the roadside. Water dripped from their fur. These were powerful lions, looking for a meal and they were right beside our vehicle, in the dark. We could see only where the lamp shone; being so close to an active pride in the dark is scary; it felt very different to a close sighting of the sleeping big cats. They were on a mission.
Or so we thought. Without notice they stopped, the alpha male sat down and made a call, the pride all sat down; time to sleep again. The rain stopped too. We headed home, both elated and slightly disappointed. Some friendly vets were visiting camp when we returned, but most of us were too tired to chat, it’d been a long day.
Our last full day in iMfolozi, we said goodbye to Kelsey and set out with Cole and Christina in search of Brodie’s pack. It started as normal, we arrived at the den site, the dogs were there somewhere and we waited. Eventually the signal was moving, but then we lost it, the signal disappeared. Cole questioned the telemetry – which is on its last legs. We drove up and down the road, scanning, stopping, scanning again. A signal near the hide perhaps, but there were no dogs at the hide. From the hide we got another reading – the signal pointed to a valley. There they must’ve been hunting – some impala were running scared. There too we waited. And waited. The dogs had left their den, gone the long way around the hill – avoiding crossing a road where we’d see them, and avoiding the hide, and headed down into some impenetrable drainage area to hunt.
3 hours after we arrived at the den, a sighting; I saw a single dog cross the road behind us. Perhaps the rest would follow? It was Brodie that crossed, she was heading back to the den – presumably to feed her pups. But the pack didn’t follow, and the collared dog stayed down in the valley. We waited again, and waited some more. The signal moved, and then disappeared. They were leaving the same way they’d arrived, taking the long route around the hill and avoiding the roads; they did stop at the hide for a drink, but we weren’t there to see it. Some tourists showed us their photos. After 5 hours we’d seen one dog and we were happy to have our coffee break.
We didn’t stop, some lions that hadn’t been seen in a while were reportedly on a hillside, having returned from the wilderness. These were easy to find, 8 small yellow bodies lying on a distant hill; some yawned, some shook their tails, mostly they slept. We strained with cameras and binos to see branding marks to ID them without much luck.
Our evening session had the same priority; no dogs tonight – we needed to find out who these cats were. There were 3 males to ID, and several females. We parked in the same place and waited for them to move. Meanwhile Philippine made up games to play; “What would you rather be?”; and we crafted Jannes’s words into poetry – it was a long evening. A helicopter flew by, waving with its rotors, a highlight. The sunset was gorgeous, and the views across the park were spectacular; I wish I could have taken more landscape photos, but that would involve getting down off the vehicle.
We were ready to go when the lions stood up. They came down off the hill and right to us. They walked in single file and we used the red lamp to illuminate them. One by one they crossed the road in front of us. Females first, then males; including one terribly ill lion, a sobering sight – this once powerful creature was now reduced to skin and bone – every major bone could be seen, skin hung from him, so close to death. He had tuberculosis, probably picked up from buffalo in the park.
Our last meal used up whatever was left; fish fingers, sweet potato and fries – well, we tried to make fries. We par-boiled, then we oven cooked, and when that failed we fried, still they didn’t crisp-up. Bloody canola oil. Potato done 3 ways.
I got up at 5am and packed, before heading down to the rock one last time. With Christina and Jannes I watched the sunrise. Below us the dawn chorus began. We had eggs and bacon, tidied our rooms, changed bedding, and soon it was time to go. We scanned for dogs on the way out, none of them showed up, but they all had strong short range signals, an electronic wave goodbye.
My group was now going separate ways; Claire to the Seychelles; Philippine and Feline to Mkhuze, Jannes to Zululand Rhino Reserve, and me to Tembe Elephant Park. I was incredibly sad to leave them, such a fantastic group, with a brilliant monitor, Kelsey. So funny, clever and interesting. And so many moments where we cried with laughter (the ice cream, the helicopter, the elephant video, the dog poo). 2 weeks I’ll treasure.
I’ll leave you with this:
iMfolozi, by Jannes
The stones are round
The trees are upside down
The clouds are really fast