With Brendan in tow, we embarked on another epic session down south; leaving under mixed skies at 3:30am, from the beacon we headed to the ramps we’d built, onwards along the management track, off-road through the bush, around the pan, to the border road, into Phinda, and back in besides the hunting lodge. No serval this morning. We were searching for WD2, I sat up front.
The elephants have satellite collars, every night the breeding herds clock in their location. We knew they were down south, we found fresh dung, freshly ripped down trees, branches blocking our roads. We didn’t fancy bumping them in a tight space; with caution we followed our signal down a narrow side road.
It wasn’t long before our first dog sighting, a male nyala leaped across the road, a single dog chasing it. The dogs are here, they’re all in this area. Along the road, more elephant signs. We reached a dead end, we scanned again and turned back. “Oh, I see puppies”, PJ says.
Easy as that, the ball of 14 fluffy puppies was in the road, an adult supervising while the others were out hunting. We count them and follow them. They hadn’t seen vehicles much, each time the engine turned on or off they’d all jump with fear, then settle down again; PJ did it a couple of times and they soon ignored us. Now we could drive a little closer, we needed to sex them if we could, but that was impossible.
We stayed with the puppies for almost an hour; the most incredible sighting. We marvelled as they rolled around playing, bundled up into a ball to sleep, ran and fought over sticks and elephant dung, sniffed the air for scent, and stood on their hind legs to wrestle each other. They’d often break into small little groups and walk up and down the road, some would come close with confidence then run away scared. A little runt stared at us inquisitively.
All of a sudden some commotion. The puppies were twittering with joy, leaping all over each other; the adults were back, they were bringing food. The adult dogs gorge themselves on their prey, return to the pups and disgorge for them; mother Zile was back and the pups go crazy, their cute little faces all covered in nyala blood, pulling apart the meat, feeding in a frenzy, as all wild dogs do. The adults run in, the pups swarm them, Gompie dives in, his floppy ear bouncing, touching noses with an overly excited pup, like a playful proud uncle. The feeding continues for a while, puppies quieten down, then another adult brings more grub and the cycle repeats.
They all stop to bask in the sunshine for a bit, white puppy tails wagging, then disappear into the thicket, their twittering noises still audible. Circling kites and a tawny eagle tell us where the kill is.
We head back; successfully avoiding elephants, scanning for lions, and stopping at a volunteer house in Phinda for coffee, rusks and fabulous views.
This afternoon session was our last chance to go south, workers would begin tearing up our bridge tomorrow, we needed to remove our makeshift ramps. One more time we crossed the river, under sunshine and clear skies, looking for the three dogs in WD6. Brendan scanned, “Dogs” someone shouts – always my favourite part of any session; and we quickly had visuals of Esweni and the two Madikwe males. They kept coming and going, running large circles around us, in the evening sun we waited and watched before they eventually disappeared to hunt.
At the bridge we shovelled away all signs of our ramp; ready to go home Joris spots a running herd of impala; we’d stumbled on the dogs again, it’s good to know where each pack is resting the night, we followed them for as long as we could, until they disappeared through thorny shrubs and the day was over.
When staying at Mkhuze, ZRR or Somkhanda, there‘s an option to spend two nights in St Lucia, a sort of break from all the wildlife monitoring. There you can do whale watching, a hippo tour, horse riding on the beach – and you can eat at restaurants. After 5 weeks straight, no breaks, I needed a rest; my old iMfolozi group were going to St Lucia too, it’d be a reunion, a reunion with pizza, sushi, beer and wine. This was my last session before my weekend. If my old group weren’t going, I’d have probably taken the break when at ZRR instead.
Today’s focus was cheetah and lions. From the tar road we tried to locate MCM17 and MCM18. Kelly’s scanning, she’s standing on the wooden board fixed to the roof of the bucky. “Is that impala?”, Joris spots something on the hill. “No, that’s the lions, Kelly, sit down”, PJ says. And as easy as that, the pride of lions walk our way, and cross in front of us – MLF5 with 3 younger sub adults. No sign of MLF4, probably still denning. Another sighting in the dark, too dark for good photos.
Now we head for the cheetah, we take a right and drive up a hill, and here they are, MCM17 and MCM18 basking in the morning sunshine. A striped kingfisher sits nearby.
By 6:30am we’d found all our targets; what next? We scanned and triangulated the dogs, did some camera trap work and tried to find the lions again, still finishing the session a little early.