It was such a beautiful morning. The cool night and the clear skies left a layer of mist over Tembe. It was crisp, dew drops glistened in the morning sun, it felt like a gorgeous winter’s morning.
Before the sun was up we quickly checked the boma. On route we found fresh lion tracks; M90s signal was nearby, this pride of 3 lions were near the dogs in the boma; we’d need to keep an eye on them. No visuals this morning though. At the boma itself, all looked well. We performed our laps, looking for tracks, signs of digging, checking on the dogs. No sign of Elsa, and no signal; it makes sense for her to up and leave if lions are nearby.
This morning we’d focus on lions too, and in the nearby grasslands I stood on the truck scanning for M90, M25, M26 and F70. And Elsa. I get a brief signal for Elsa, and through the murky mist, I think I see her, a fleeting glimpse of a dog.
In these grasses, mist all around, the sun poking through, it’s simply gorgeous. All the dew coated spider webs twinkle. Any animal whatsoever would create the most astounding photograph; but today they’re all hiding. Not even an impala graces us with its presence. It’s a morning of near misses; we find fresh leopard tracks, fresh rhino tracks, fresh lion tracks, fresh scat, porcupine trails, mongoose trails. Stonechats and puffbacks sing in the mist, but all the mammals are out of sight. As a photographer, in this light, I’m frustrated; the most picturesque session in all 8 weeks and the creatures don’t turn up. Joris suggests a coffee break, “we need to find some animals first”, Hayden replies. I get a single sighting in the mist, a male kudu turns to look at us and I grab a photo.
Soon the sun is too high and the mist burns off; we stop at Ponweni hide for refreshments. A burchell’s coucal sings in the distance, a “liquid, bubbling ‘doo-doo-doo-doo’” sound, descending in scale. Hayden’s favourite. When it’s time to leave, after walking back to the truck, we find more fresh lion tracks, this time they’re over our tyre marks, heading back to the hide. When we return a male and female lion are drinking; we must have walked right past them. A slender mongoose runs out in front of us when we leave, and we spot a black-fronted snake eagle.
On our way to camp we swung by the boma. We wanted to get a visual on Elsa, and we needed to check the location of the nearby lions. If they get too close to the boma they could spook the dogs. At the gate the electrics are fine, the lions are nearby but don’t seem to have come closer. Suddenly Hayden curses and leaps out of the truck; there’s dog tracks by the gate.
The tracks come from the boma, they come from the gate and out past the electrics. The dogs have escaped. The gate has been dislodged, pulled back by the dogs, breaking an old lock and creating a gap just big enough to squeeze through. There’s one spot where the electrics have a weakness, it’s by this gate – trucks and people enter and exit here – there’s a small gap. The dogs walked through the gate, walked through the doorway for people – bypassing the electrics, and hopped through the surrounding ground electrics, mostly there to stop elephants getting in.
But inside the boma there were still 3 dogs, the three yearlings were digging by the gate. They hadn’t fathomed they could walk out through the gap. The pack’s alpha male and female – Finn and Poofie, were long gone. “The worst dogs to escape”. They’d hightailed it with Elsa and the puppy sometime during our session.
A moment of utter despair. We’d been so close, so close to getting the last dog, Elsa, into the boma. “It will take weeks to get them back”, Hayden says. Now we were so far, the goal almost unattainable. Within 12 hours the dogs had escaped the reserve too. We never saw the puppy again.
Our evening session was a simple one; we returned to the boma and double checked everything. From the perimeter, truck wheels resting on a bone pit, fish eagles in the trees, we watched the sunset.
Despite events of the day, we’d planned a group meal at Tembe’s tourist lodge. A three course meal. We sat around a campfire with drinks, then shared a meal of carrot soup, chicken with petit pans, and poached pear for dessert. I took Hayden’s recommendation and had a very good milkshake. The sombreness of the day overlooked, for now.
Today I spent most of the day on the truck. The weather had turned from the cold rain on Sunday to a scorching new heatwave. Mercury rising above 30C again. This is also where our sightings dried up; despite our best efforts, and our monitoring, we wouldn’t see another lion. Today we scanned for M90, that pride had left the boma but were in the vicinity, sleeping somewhere no doubt. Ponweni hide was quiet, save a troupe of banded mongoose that ran besides us on our way there.
We weren’t picking up much on the telemetry – we needed bearings. This meant a little excursion out to a tall concrete signal tower. To get to the top, set in the concrete blocks and going way up high, a metal ladder – a couple of rungs bent or twisted. Hayden invited us to join him at the top of the makeshift construction. “Make sure you don’t put both hands on one bar, if it comes out you’ll fall”, that put Lindsey off. Peter and I braved it, Hayden practically ran up. At the top you need to manoeuvre from the ladder, through a protective barrier, and overcome any sense of sudden vertigo. But the views from the top are stunning – sweeping views of unbroken trees in all directions, out to Mozambique in the north, and south, back into KZN. We had coffee here and tried an overripe monkey orange.
On the drive back we stopped for a gorgeous bush-shrike – a rare appearance, this commonly heard bird is rarely seen, living in the thicket, it’s beautiful plumage often missed. For once this bird sat in a perfect spot, but not quite long enough for a photo; it’s one of those shots that exists solely in my mind. There was another stop too; crossing the sandy track was a natal hinge-backed tortoise, “first of the season”.
Today was shopping day; Joris, Lynn and Peter went to Spar with Hayden while Lindsey and I went on session with Leo. I didn’t bring enough water, which was fine for the first 1h30 – we stayed at Mahlasela hide watching the activity around the artificial waterpool. Elephants played in the mud, play fighting most likely, but almost tusking out an eye. Nyala and waterbuck came to drink in the heat, as did a yellow-billed kite and a fish eagle – not to the liking of the egyptian geese.
From the hide the session continued out in the open sun, no shade, and no elephants. We were keen to get back, but we had an errand to run. Overnight an elephant had wreaked havoc on the parks’s water systems, finding a pump, destroying it, and drinking some of the 1,000s of litres that leaked from it. It was being fixed, but Leo and us had to tweak the main system pumps, which were deep in the park, along a management track. I’m glad I brought sun lotion, if not water.
No sooner as we had got back with Leo, Hayden and the group arrived with the shopping, and then we were back out on session, first to the boma, then out to search for the escapees – our satellite data told us they were in the reserve. From the butcher we picked up the stinkiest, greenest, foulest smelling leg of nyala – its stench was overwhelming, it sat in the back with us while we gagged.
At the boma the dogs were all fine, and we stopped in the evening light to photograph the beautiful little bee-eaters sitting on the lines above the dogs.
On the hunt for Elsa and the alpha pair we also scanned for M90, and came across a snake eagle sitting in the road. There too was a big male elephant, it seemed to be enjoying itself too much, making his own pleasure – if you understand. We didn’t find the dogs, we couldn’t get a signal for Elsa’s collar before it turned off for the night.
Under the clear skies and beautiful stars we returned the meat to the mortuary; an elephant was nearby, back at the site of the water pump, presumably trying to break it again to get more water. We were wary of it while we hosed all the blood off the bucky. The session had one last shock; when leaving the mortuary, in our newly cleaned truck, in the dark, we sped out and around the corner, to find ourselves faced suddenly with the rear of an elephant; a quick stop – brakes sending us flying forward, elephant rendering us silent. We were shocked, it was shocked; it went one way, we reversed, turned and went home the long way round.