The hot weather didn’t last long, and this morning it was overcast with drizzle. We were prepared with coats, wet weathers and plastic bags for our backpacks. In the misty rain we climbed the beacon and got our morning bearings, hyenas called in the distance; another trip to find WD2. But it was the same story; from the same place we waited, they travelled in the wrong direction and we miss them. WD6 are out of reach too, their triangulation put them in the south, our route still blocked by road works.
It’s a slow morning. While we’re sat beside the road a millipede walks by, in Afrikaans slang it’s a “shongololo”, PJ says. “A shongoloola?”, “No, a shongolla”, “I think it was shongoloolala”, “Deuce bigalow, male shalongolo”, “Would you like some sholongoloa with that”? “What’s that noise? – It’s a shunalinga”. Cue Team Africa’s first in-joke. Slow morning indeed.
While the dogs were a no show, I focused on the birds; a juvenile bateleur, a crested barbet – like a bird that can’t use makeup, a group of speckled mousebirds. The guide book describes a bird call as “puka puka”, and we all do our best to work how that would sound. (see also, a bird that sings “sweet sweet sweet-potato”)
PJ gets a radio; there’s an uncollared cheetah with a kill on the road side. It’s amazing how quickly a slow session can turn into the best yet. We arrive to find a recently killed and otherwise untouched female impala, a female cheetah is resting nearby – recovering from the hunt, she hasn’t started feeding; from her markings we ID her as MCF13 – not seen since July. We sit and watch patiently. Tourist cars begin to arrive, and a truck carrying roadworkers stops to look too – its big engine “swoosh” scaring the cat when it kicks in to leave.
She eventually gets up to eat – first checking all around her; compared to the wild dogs she’s polite and clean. She eats delicately and neatly, starting on the leg, licking and chewing. By now the dogs would be finished, entrails torn everywhere. After the leg, she picks up the impala by the neck and repositions, to begin feeding elsewhere.
Over the radio PJ gets a request; the vet wants to collar the cheetah – we have a spare collar at camp and the reserve has no collared females. We rush back, pick up the vet with his drugs and dart rifle, and the small orange collar, before zipping back to the cheetah. Kelly and I frantically try to turn on the collar as we drive – you rub a magnet on the collar’s chamber, which triggers it on and off, supposedly – eventually the radio begins to beep at the right frequency. It’s on. In the back our vet measures out the drugs and preps the dart, Joris holds the rifle steady.
When we return the cheetah is sleeping. We ask some cars to make space and we edge in towards the cat, driving slowly into the bush. We need to be within 25m for the dart to work. Closer, steady. The vet in the passenger seat, holds the rifle steady, takes aim and fires. Direct hit, the pink dart goes into the cheetah’s leg and she runs away, startled. Start the stopwatch; she should be asleep in 10 minutes.
That was the longest 10 minutes. We’re super excited now, the dart went in, it was a good shot, and we’ll soon be collaring her; everything was going to plan, this was going to be awesome. Or so we thought. The vet goes in search of her, she’s lying down and PJ heads over with the collar and towel, to cover her eyes. But she stands up, she’s not asleep. Come 20 minutes and the cheetah still shows no signs of sleeping, she’s walking around, a pink dart hanging from her rear. Maybe the dart didn’t go off? Sometimes they don’t inject correctly.
Take two. A second dart is prepped, and we begin the process again. This time the cat is edgy, so we drive up extra slowly, the vet standing beside me, resting on the bucky’s wooden platform for the best shot. He takes aim and fires, but misses, the dart drops short – deploying its cargo of drugs into the dirt on impact. The cheetah bolts, disappearing into the thicket. Curses. “She’ll be back”, he says, half-heartedly. Our excitement is gone, replaced with disappointment and frustration.
Hopes dashed, we leave, and the tourists do too – she’s gone.
We had plans for the afternoon session, but before starting anything we returned to the impala carcass to see if our cheetah had returned. The row of cars told us she had. Her belly was swollen with food and she was resting. Tourists quizzed us about the pink dart in her leg. PJ radio’s the vet, he’s on his way, we’re trying again.
Now, the following events were simply infuriating. The vet arrives, and pulls back to prepare the dart and drugs. Meanwhile the clock ticks over to 4:30pm, tourists are lining one side of the road, and on the other there’s space for vehicles to pass. It’s home time now, all the road workers are clocking off, heading back. The first big truck arrives, people fill the back, understandably they stop to watch the cheetah too. But everyone is trying to get home, behind them another truck, then a tractor, and another tractor, and so on. There’s a traffic jam, and the drivers are impatient – they begin to honk their horns, and rev their engines, they begin to shout, some even get down off the truck and walk along the road – meanwhile all the tourists try to point out the cheetah and beckon them to hush up. The cheetah watches, unfazed. More and more people come.
Soon the dart is ready, and the truck is told to leave. A convoy of machinery swiftly follows. The vet drives into position. But the frustration doesn’t end. Just as the road clears a tourist pulls up alongside us – “what are you looking at?” she asks, “A cheetah”. She looks in the tree. Then she drives around and parks herself alongside the vet, blocking the road. Not all the workers have left yet, and now a tractor arrives, blocked by the 4x4 it tries to squeeze by; its trailer collides with the truck, they reverse, then collide with a tree. PJ has his head in his hands. What a mess. Cheetah still calm, enjoying the show perhaps.
Eventually the road is clear, the vets are ready. But the tourist is taking pictures with a flash, the white light unnerves the cat. Undeterred the vet continues, he lines up a shot and fires, a direct hit, another great shot. The tourist is shocked, she wasn’t expecting that. The cheetah runs, and we wait again. Surely it must work this time. The heavens open, the rain pours, it arrives like mist, and the visibility drops. Thanks weather.
After 10 minutes PJ, some field rangers and the vet head out on foot to find her, collar and towel in hand again. We scan for the lions again, they’re nearer now, great – that would be bad. We sit in silence, there’s a radio call, it’s PJ. “I have a visual of a very mobile cat”. Curses. Now our cheetah was running around with two darts in her rear, poor thing. Our fear was that she would fall asleep somewhere out of sight, near the lions. It would be disastrous. Later we learn that the drug used was bad, it wouldn’t have worked; we could sleep soundly knowing the cheetah wasn’t at risk.
Not done yet, we set out in the closing darkness to pursue the dogs, heading along the tar road, following the signal. PJ stops suddenly; we look on the floor, expecting a rabbit, or a running impala. In front is an elephant, a male bull, it’s heading our way. We stop and wait, but it keeps walking. He’s not charging, his ears aren’t flat-back, but he’s definitely interested in us.
This bull has priors, PJ has encountered him before. PJ previously reversed and pulled off the road to let the elephant pass, but it followed and kept coming towards him, which left him in a difficult spot. This time around PJ stood his ground.
The elephant got closer, on the back we were all nervous. It gets right up close, it’s trunk almost on the bumper. PJ begins to rev the engine, he bashes on the door, and shouts “woah boy”. The elephant comes around the side to our left, squeezing between us and a tree, its awkward, the elephant doesn’t have anywhere to go. PJ repositions, reversing, turning, staying face to face with the elephant, we’re not backing down, he’s not backing down. PJ revs again, bashes his door, keeps shouting “woah boy”. Our adrenaline is pumping, hearts pounding, Joris shifts to his right, this could turn bad. I’ve never been so afraid. One more rev. The elephant rises up, but he turns and runs, he’s gone, running into the darkness. We breathe a sigh of relief.
What a day.
Ever heard of a red roman? What about a solifuge? Or a camel spider? They go by several names. Anyway, one of these giant ugly creatures was running around our room this morning. Mildly terrifying.
We had clear skies and a crisp wind for our early start. Signals from the beacon told us that WD2 had returned south, we’d missed our opportunity to see them – we had a new imperative to go south; we made a plan. WD6 were south too, which made it a quiet morning in the north; we focused on camera traps that were setup at cheetah scent marking trees, swapping out batteries and SD cards.
Brendan wasn’t with us yet, so the spare seat on the truck was given to “Brandon the scorpion”, a poor dead scorpion we found beside a camera trap. We fashioned him a seat belt from the strands of thread fraying from the seats, and he came with us wherever we went. Our luck changed.
Road works were shifting, the bridge south wasn’t completed yet, but work had begun on a second bridge – blocking access to a management track we needed, one which would have taken us the very long way south. All routes were blocked, the concrete platform was being prepped for work starting Monday – it had been scraped down and was impassable. Work wouldn’t begin for 4 days. The signal for WD6 was just beyond this first bridge. Cue “Team Africa’s” first bridge building exercise.
We heaved great rocks onto the concrete, a foundation for our ramp. Smaller rocks were padded around the edges to firm them up, then dirt piled on top to create a stable ramp for the bucky. It worked, the Toyota could safely pass, only slightly bashing its tailgate on the way through. The road south was open!
From the south we scanned for the first time, the dogs were nearby. We scanned for Ezweni and Madikwe 2, 2 o’clock, take the short road towards the shooting range. Here they were, all three dogs in WD6 pack, walking along the road towards us. Typically they walked right by us, down the road and over the bridge we’d just built. Thank you dogs. In the distance an elephant pushed over a tree with a loud crack, we followed the dogs.
They crossed through the hills and we took the high road, trying to stay ahead of them. We lost visual, but kept following the beeps and bars on our receiver. Then to our right, the pack, running at top speed, chasing impala. My first sighting of the dogs going flat out, a sight to behold, breaking the speed limit on our dirt track. They disappeared again, before dashing out in front of us, across the road, the impala still evading capture. Like a scene from an action movie. The impala got away and we found the dogs resting on the roadside.
Dark now, we left them be and called it a night. Bats (not butterflies) flitted above us, occasionally a little too close.