Today we found our luck again, well, when it came to wildlife. At 4:30am the morning began unexpectedly warm, which was a good start. We focused on WD6 who were now in the north, we struggled with the failing telemetry – the signal kept coming and going, but we endeavoured, and to our fortune we found Esweni sleeping in the road. Madikwe 3 was sleeping to our right, and Madikwe 2 was pacing up and down, like he wanted to hunt or eat or something. Some very lucky tourists also stumbled on this sighting, the dogs came right up to their car. I saw my first grey-headed bush shrike, amongst a group of cape glossies.
Cole went south on the bike again; he found the dogs, he found the elephants, he found the dogs toying with the elephants, the elephants trumpeting, he found the lions, he found them while he was up a tree getting signal, they ran past chasing a nyala – not the best timing. Everything is that much more risky on a bike, and the dogs weren’t as comfortable with it. Still no signal for Zile, which was becoming a worry. We’d need to try again tonight.
Our camera traps didn’t yield any pictures, we stopped up for coffee and enjoyed the sunshine, keeping an eye out for any passing odd-toed ungulates. At some point we must have driven over a thorny acacia, a spine had been lodged in the tyre and on the tar road home the hissing indicated a flat; Team Africa tyre change. Like a well-oiled formula 1 team, we watched PJ do all the hard work.
Cole and PJ needed to test and fix some radio electronics, in the meanwhile Team Africa headed to a hide to do a game count. We needed to sex and age all the mammals that visited over a 3 hour period. The time flew by. With cashews and carrot snacks, binoculars, cameras, guide books and a data sheet, we sat it out in the wooden hut, looking out for creatures great and small.
On arrival we encountered a troupe of chacma baboons, 14 we counted (3AF, 3AM, 6SF, 2J), with difficulty – they didn’t stop moving. Some were drinking, some were in trees, some were fighting. In the water, a rare visitor, a rhino. It stayed for almost two hours, sleeping – the oxpeckers feasted on its ticks, the turtles tried to climb it like a rock. The silence around the hide often interrupted with the bubbling gurgles of a prolonged rhino fart.
We thought the baboons were hard, then the impala arrived, they were 51 strong. We had 18 nyala, 3 plains zebra, 3 vervet monkeys and their turquoise underwear and 7 wildebeest, plus a single slender mongoose. The trees too were filled with birds, in the blooming boer tree there were 8 species at once; orioles, starlings, sunbirds, scimitars, weavers and doves.
For two days now we’d had no signal for alpha female Thandezile. We needed to find her, we memorised her markings from the ID kit – orange shoulder pads, speckles of white on her front legs. From the hide we went straight out on our evening session. Our first obstacle, a half finished bridge.
Team Africa has the tools; with spades, pick-axe and panga machete we made a riverbed crossing besides the bridge. Shovelling dirt to smooth out the base, using machetes to remove shrubs, a pick-axe to break up the solid bank; we turned the steep river edges into a smooth route, passable in a 4x4. Once again, we opened up the south and we headed onwards with speed.
Zile’s collar gave us nothing, and we struggled to pick up Fezo’s. Nothing from the road, nothing from the dam, we crossed the road and followed a management track, heading to Cole’s last visual, hoping to find a beep. The track took us deep into a forest of fever trees, elephants had been here, and trunks and branches littered the route; a whole tree blocked our path, it was dry and light enough for us to lift and move out the way. The track hits a dead end, we turn back, still no signal.
It was incredibly good fortune that we then stumbled on the pack. Here they were, all of a sudden. Adults and puppies crossing the road. Snap, snap, snap; frantic photo taking as the dogs run across. “Did anyone see Zile?”, I check my photos, “Found her”, a collared dog with orange shoulder pads, a positive ID – she looked healthy, her collar must have died. An extraordinary relief, the tension lifted, success. Zile, 8 years old, she’s legendary.
Now we had the pleasure of watching the pack again. The dogs returned, they came out onto the road and we watched them in silence. Puppies and adults mingling around us. A sound came from the bushes, a rustling, we looked up, the dogs looked up; from the thicket a warthog sprinted, eyes wide open, running for its life, chased by a single dog. It flies past three dogs before they realise what’s happening, soon the pack is giving chase, the puppies react and run too, but don’t go far. Alpha male and female, Zile and Dumela, hang back, chilled, they scent mark and rest. The yearlings meander back, no luck with the hog, it got away. Now they all disappear, back into the thicket.
The night’s closing in and we’re all smiling, another incredible dog sighting. There’s a little of the evening left, we could find the lions or the elephants. We take GPS points and record the pack sightings, the scent marking, the hunt and the prey.
A little further on we find them again. These dogs have spoiled us. The adults are on a kill, a male impala, and they’re feeding frantically. One pulls up the head, the horns poking out, another runs off with a tasty leg; they come and go from the carcass, the puppies nearby, we could hear their twitters. They play, fight and run. The lions we would no longer search for began to vocalise a long way away; the dog reactions are astounding, they instantly stop everything and run, before calming and returning to finish.
Two of the dogs come right up to the bucky, they stand behind us, staring into the back, watching us, inspecting us. For one moment we fear they might jump on, they’re that close and that interested. We stay silent, breathing minimally, hearts racing, an intense moment shared with these wild animals.
The dogs leave one last time and its time to go, we drive all the way north in the dark, Cole using his new red lamp to search for nocturnal animals – he found a genet near to camp. A long day over, all dogs accounted for, a good day monitoring.
It was a cloudy 4:30am start, there was no rain, and it was surprisingly warm. Today we were searching for WD6 and the cheetah coalition, MCM18 and MCM18, who hadn’t been spotted for almost a week now. First stop; inflating all the tyres – it seems our adventure south may have created a few slow punctures. This mundane job was not without incident – an elephant was nearby; fresh dung steamed on the road and a tree was moving unnaturally. At the workshop we discovered the bull’s work, he had ripped open water pipes and now we had a small flood, water gushing everywhere.
With maintenance on route, we left on the hunt for our cheetah. WD6 were in the same direction. Two birds, one stone. We drove west, out into the hills, to find them. I hate this road, it looks fine, but drive it too fast and volunteers are flung left and right, shoulders bruised, heads bashed, like riding a bull. We found it hard to pinpoint the dogs or the cats, the hills bounce the signal. PJ attempted to find them from a viewpoint, he found only a unicorn. Further down the hill he did the same, walking into the bush for a quick survey, looking for the cheetah – we hear growls, he inadvertently bumps the dogs, and we have our visual. No luck on the cheetah though.
Today we had all the volunteer duties; writing social media posts, washing the truck, replacing the gas, digging up an old cheetah skull – if we could find it. Out of gas, we planned a braai near the pan, one last hurrah before the evening session. The wind and rain put an end to that; instead we all played toepen around the kitchen table.
Tonight the clouds turned heavy, storms threatened on the horizon. A message from Somkhanda, “Do you have storms too?”, Feline asked. In the distance, hills were masked with a curtain of rain. This’ll be fun. Lightning strikes in the distance. I’m on the roof, holding up the antenna, triangulating the cheetah. We get them at our 9 o’clock, but we have no visual, we triangulate and wait, the rain starts. From the back of the truck, a song, “gotta catch ’em all”, “our courage will pull us through”. Brendan’s got mad skills, a perfect rendition of the pokemon theme. No sightings tonight.
Joris cooked us his tasty chicken, Kelly prepped us a stir fry and over one last dinner we celebrated our two weeks. My group was all leaving, their time with Wildlife Act over, only I would stay, for just 2 more weeks. We reminisced, what an amazing time we’d had here, simply perfect – the perfect team; having the time of our lives. Then we drank beer and played “30 seconds”.