Today was home time, my 12 weeks away from home were up. Later I would have my bags packed, take the minibus from Mkhuze down to Richards Bay, fly to JoBurg and soon enough be landing back in the UK. But I had one more session; an early one too, leaving at 3:45am to find the dogs.
It didn’t start well; rain and a flat tyre. In the dark we propped up the car, pulled out the spare from underneath and swapped it – an unexpected delay. The rain let–up by the time we left, replaced with a new kind of weather; fog. My last night drive, I shone Paweł’s torch into the darkness, hoping to catch the eyes of an aardvark or a hyena, I found only ground-level cloud and impala.
We hadn’t seen the dogs in a few days, they could have moved anywhere. I tried to get signal from the usual high points – nothing. We gambled and returned to where we’d seen them last. At last, a faint signal – they were near the fence line again. Foot down, we rushed there.
ZRR is looking different now to when I arrived, after 5 days of rain the drought is beginning to be replaced with life; little green plants are sprouting from the brown soil, small green leaves are appearing on the trees, the dust is replaced with mud. It’s a wonderful sight. I hope it can continue. Perhaps when I’m gone there might be day after day of torrential rain.
After a couple of false turns we got sight of the dogs; F2 was up ahead by herself again, resting. The remaining 4 in a group, watching her, taking her lead. She was resting so the dogs played. In front of the truck they wrestled, reared up on two legs and fought each other, playful attacks, running in circles, charging at each other; until the serious business of hunting began again. F2 got up and started moving away, the pack followed, we followed them.
They fanned out over the ground, walking in a row, they jogged along, looking for prey near the fence. We tagged along, the sixth member of the hunt. There were no impala, no antelope, and soon F2 was stopping again to rest, and once more the pack played. They rolled around in the mud, they twittered and screeched, and they did so right besides our car. For over an hour we watched the dogs hunt, rest and play. The most perfect send off to an epic wildlife trip.
I had to love them and leave them; I had my last coffee and rusks besides the cheetah boma – one final check of the electrics, and that was it, save one surprise.
While loading the car with our bags and the two flat tyres that need fixing in town, we unearthed a snake. Beneath the tyre the snake had been sleeping, and now it was pissed. This small, brown snake curled up and looked at us, it unfurled and hissed with anger, we kept our distance. It was a mildly venomous herald snake; we went to get cameras for a better photo, but it disappeared. Rather than stumble into it, we hopped on the vehicle and left the reserve. Herds of impala were sitting, resting in the cold, I waved goodbye.
At the changeover point I found two of my first group, from iMfolozi, Philippine and Feline – we’d been WhatsApping throughout the 8 weeks – spies in all the reserves, we often knew what was happening before our monitors did. Now we were together one last time, so too were our monitors; Philippine had said goodbye to Hayden that morning, here in Mkhuze were PJ and Megan, and then at Phumula lodge we found Kelsey. Perfectly choreographed farewells, what luck.
And now my time with Wildlife Act is over. 4 weeks on North Island, Seychelles, which feels so long ago. 2 weeks in iMfolozi, 2 in Tembe, 2 in Mkhuze and now the last 2 in ZRR. Each reserve and monitor is different, each with a different focus, each relentlessly dedicated to the conservation and protection of endangered species.
It’s been a truly life changing experience; rewarding, exciting, thrilling, tiring, joyful and painful. I made so many friends and laughed so many times. I worked hard, I learnt the smell of death, I discovered the incredibly tough problems conservation deals with every day; poaching, climate change, habitat destruction, lack of space, lack of corridors, genetic diversity and disease. At times they feel insurmountable, but every life saved, every life protected, is a victory.
Wildlife Act, along with the wild dog advisory group, are changing the fortunes of the wild dogs; they work tirelessly to protect them, to manage the gene pool, to find them safe and suitable homes, to convince reserves to house them, to raise awareness of them; they do the hard work to keep their numbers growing. I am so thankful to have been part of that, to have contributed my time and money. May the work continue, and may the dogs thrive.