The rain woke us up; a waterfall from the broken guttering. At long last ZRR was getting some rain, proper rain, a downpour. We left later, at 7am, to avoid the worst of it; our aim – to count and sex buffalo again. The roads are mud paths, and they’d turned to slosh – the 4x4 slipped and skidded on the tracks, mud flying everywhere, the white truck turning brown.
All the lodges were closed, no driving allowed; trucks and jeeps skidding about would destroy the roads, and someone would end up stuck. This limited our choice of feeding site – the first was empty, no buffalo; the second had buffalo, a herd of 40 strong but they didn’t like us being there – a bold female pushed us away. Head down, staring, she walked at us, pushing us back, reversing up and around the hill in the slippery mud, 4x4 engaged. We tried to get her to back down, and it looked like we might, until 3 more buffalo stood besides her. We couldn’t count them if they didn’t want to be counted. The third and final site was empty, save a 100 or so warthog that scattered when we arrived. We called it a day and returned to camp for coffee.
There was a silver lining to this trip; I had my best black rhino sighting. With so few vehicles around perhaps the usually shy rhino felt emboldened to approach a road. The dehorned beast stopped when he saw us, should he cross? He stepped forwards, then back, “no, maybe further up the road … should I cross here? No, further still …”, his thoughts were obvious. Eventually he crossed a long way ahead of us, then resumed his path towards wherever. I didn’t think something so powerful and dangerous could be so endearing.
In the afternoon there was more rain, the roads were muddy and slippery; with Sylvia and Babs back we tried to do another buffalo count. Our first feeding site was empty. Elsewhere, another feeding site, we found 40 odd buffalo, but we couldn’t count or sex them, they were too far away and sitting too close to each other. We waited, but they wandered away, grunting as they passed over the hill and out of sight.
At 5am (not 5:30am as I’d heard and had to rush), later than planned because of heavy rain and thunder (ZRR is getting some much needed rain, hooray!), we set out to find the dogs and bait them again. This would be bait number 3. We headed back to Rhino River and assumed the dogs would be near the fence line, where we last left them, we met Dane there with a dead impala.
I was scanning, but the receiver didn’t pick up a strong signal – I believed them to be behind us, away from the fence, more to the centre of the reserve – that’s why the signal was week, and I double-checked for back-signal a number of times. Dani disagreed, and we went the opposite direction, staying near the fence. We did pick up what looked like a good direction, but we found nothing, and on the muddy roads there were no signs of fresh wild dog tracks. They weren’t here, but we kept circling. Grumpy from hunger, without breakfast because I rushed, I let Dani do the scanning, we didn’t find them, I don’t think we came close. Probably the most frustrating session I’d had. But I cheered up once I’d had a rusk and some coffee.
Our afternoon session was abandoned when new priorities came in; a truck was arriving with two new cheetah. A male coalition, they’d been seen and darted in another reserve this morning. There’d long been a plan to exchange two cheetah from that reserve with ZRR, to improve genetic diversity. The uncollared cheetah had been spotted that morning and an opportunistic attempt was made to dart and capture them, they were successful.
Dani woke us up from our midday nap, “we’re going, going now, must leave now”. In the truck we hurtled through the mud to the predator boma. Inside we put our dead impala, the one we’d had for the dogs. The truck with the cheetah arrived, two sleeping cheetah lay on the back of the bucky, face masks covering their eyes. They drove straight into the boma and lifted up each cheetah, the vet administered an antidote to their sedative and quickly left them there.
We stayed and waited for the new cheetah to wake up; they were dozy and confused, like waking up after a bad night out. They couldn’t walk straight, they kept falling over, the drugs still disabling parts of them. One tried to run and skidded about in the mud, before making it to the boma edge. When they were both awake they called to each other, a high pitched clicking cat noise, as if cheetah weren’t endearing enough. They both fed on the impala.
We didn’t have a session after that, instead we watched Blood Lions on the volunteer laptop.
At 3:45am there were more thunderstorms, and more rain. I stayed home and rested, the others left at 4:45am – they didn’t find the dogs but did see a black rhino, and double checked on the cheetah in the boma. I was thankful for my sleep.
In the evening we all left in search of the wild dogs again, a fresh impala bait in tow, clear skies all around, a balmy 30C, the warm air on the truck doing little to cool us down; the muddy puddle splashing us in the face – that helped. We began with a little bit of luck; near a fence line we found a sleeping cheetah resting under the shade of an acacia. It wasn’t moving any time soon so we couldn’t ID or sex it. We left swiftly, the dogs had been hard to find recently and we needed to habituate them, it might take a while.
As predicted, our telemetry gave us confusing signals. A vague signal towards the corner of the reserve, but when we arrived – nothing. I climbed up a rhino guard post, receiver in pocket, aerial balanced on my shoulder; getting up high to try and find a signal. The metal hut at the top doesn’t help, but I did get a signal for one of the dogs in the direction we’d been looking. We were all so very confused. Telemetry can be an art form at times, but now we were doubting our equipment, we swapped aerials, cables and receivers but got the same story. Out of desperation we headed up and down the fence line, nothing, no signal in any direction.
Out of nowhere we got a signal, from nothing we started hearing strong beeps, from M1 and F2. Pedal down, wheels throwing wet mud, we rushed towards it, Dani scanning as Megan drove. Left, 9 o’clock, stronger, wait, left again, keep going. I’ve lost it. Back again, reverse, turn in the dirt, take a right, they’re here somewhere, but the signal dies again. We were now very close to a dry riverbed, perhaps the deep bed was blocking their signal – on a hunch we took the little used road to the edge, the skies darkening, a big storm cloud beginning to dominate the skies, we found them.
All five dogs were by the river, they’d been walking in and out, their signal, coming and going and bouncing. The electrics up-ahead were sparking, sounds like they’d driven something into it recently. Their bellies didn’t look full, and there was no blood – they were still hungry. They disappeared again, we guessed their direction and followed their path along the river, cutting in ahead of them, upwind.
It was quickly getting dark and we could hear rumblings of thunder. It felt too late to bait the dogs, but without us really trying the dogs had caught the scent of our dead impala. All five followed the truck, heads held high, sniffing with anticipation, twittering at the prospect of food. We worked quickly – Megan drove on ahead as we prepped the bait, tying the rope through the antelope’s leg bone, Dani and Paweł hopped out and quickly tied the impala to a fever tree, the dogs were on us, they were watching, eager, ears up, interested. Back on the truck, reversing out quickly, the dogs rushed in and immediately began to feed.
From a short distance I listened to the twittering sounds, the dogs were happy, in a frenzy; dark now, their bodies illuminated by the odd flash of lightning, the twittering broken by a clap of thunder. We edged closer, the dogs didn’t mind. Through binoculars I could make out their shapes in the darkness, tugging at the leg, trying to pull the carcass away.
Sitting in the dark with the dogs, listening to the nearby storm, the air windless and humid – it was wonderful. Bats were flying above us, and an occasional crested francolin let out a blood curdling cry. Success tasted sweet, and we headed home through the warm night.
The storm was epic. Every few seconds the clouds dazzled us as bolts of light shot out in all directions. Soon enough it was upon us, lightning above our heads, flashes so bright we couldn’t see in the dark. And then the rain came. An epic storm with epic rain, the raindrops were enormous, at 40km per hour they hit us like hailstones. In seconds we were drenched through, rivers poured from my wet weather coat, my bush pants saturated, I sat in a puddle. Pelted by rain, so thoroughly wet, yet warm, we laughed at the absurdity. “I think it’s raining” I said, water flowing down my face, the drips tasted like soap.