I enjoy going to the National Park after work and on weekends, but I hadn’t seen many of the big ticket items recently. There are two packs of wild dogs in the Park and at least one in the Game Protected Area near my home. These are very special and endangered animals, only an estimated 8,000 are left in Africa. They might look a bit bedraggled sometimes, but they are superb team hunters and efficient killers. A pack can devour an impala in ten minutes, leaving just skin and bones. I am lucky to have seen them in the Kruger National Park twice, as well as in South Luangwa.
But Su, my sister-in-law, is their greatest fan. Even after a superb game drive, if she hasn’t seen the dogs, she is a little bit disappointed. She uses dog designs for her arts and crafts work and is able to recognise them by their individual markings. Yesterday morning, she told me that a small group dogs had been sighted in the northern part of the Park, chasing antelope. We decided to search for them in the afternoon.
We drove past Mfuwe Lodge, turned right along Norman Carr Drive, past the Luangwa Wafwa (an ox-bow lake) to a lagoon called Chipela Chandombo. The sun was dropping on our left as we drove at 10kph across rutted tracks, peering under bushes on either side where the dogs might be sleeping off lunch. We were also looking for a glimpse of the tell-tale white tail-tip, which stands out against the bush landscape.
Chipela looked beautiful in the honeyed afternoon sunlight. Elephants had come out of the forest to drink on the far shore. Francolins (birds resembling grouse) were scurrying about, not used to seeing vehicles so far off the main track. The minor tracks branched like an algorithm, and first Su, then I chose which one to follow, but it seemed we were both out luck was out and we turned around.
I noticed two vultures circling to west, a possible sign of a kill. I drove back to the main track, then headed northwest on the route to Lion Camp. We crawled along, scrutinising the nearby bush for signs of carnivores and stopping from time to time to scan the horizon with binoculars.
Su saw him first, about ten metres off the track to the west. I cut the engine and we stopped to survey the scene. There were two more dogs, partially hidden lying in the grass. There was a dog-leg in the track (I am not making this up) so I drove on a few metres to get a better viewing angle where the dogs were not silhouetted against the sun. Another dog arrived, bigger, with less distinct markings, and a radio collar around his neck. Su has an aversion to taking photographs of dogs which have obviously been in contact with humans. She wants to see them au naturel, and the collars make them seem less wild.
Two smaller dogs arrived and set to greeting the rest of the pack, sniffing and rubbing against their siblings. After about 10 minutes, the big dog I took to be the leader walked past our vehicle and looked up the road at a group of puku about 150 metres to the north. He was looking from side to side, even checking the sky, snout raised to take in the scent of what might turn out to be dinner. Or perhaps it was my underarm deodorant.
Quick as a flash, the pack got down to business. Two dogs trotted briskly along the track to the north, another two went on a flanking expedition in the long grass to the west. The big dog and a pretty smaller dog followed.
Up until that moment, we had been alone with the dogs. It had only been about twenty minutes, but it felt really special. We could have spent hours just watching them sleep off lunch, but we were privileged to get to see them limbering up, getting ready for action. One safari vehicle turned up and we drove forward to get a better view of the hunt. Then another safari vehicle arrived on the scene. And a tractor came from the opposite direction, returning from one of the bush camps (in construction).
It was getting too busy. The dogs had fanned out into the long grass and we were too far away to make out their hunting game plan. The low sun was shining directly into our eyes. It was 17:15 and the Park shuts to private vehicles at 18:00, so we turned round and headed back to the gate. We met half a dozen safari trucks wanting to get in on the action, coming in the opposite direction. I passed on the intel and hopefully the guides will return the favour in future.
Su had telephoned her favourite guide, David, to gloat about having spotted the dogs first. He was in the fourth vehicle and thanked us. Perhaps he will regale us with stories of a frenzied chase and kill, which happened an hour after we left the action.
Just before we reached the gate, my cell phone rang. Emergency at XXX Camp. (I am on call 24/7 here, I don’t just spend my time swanning around looking at wonderful wild animals.) With the sun setting and the sky ablaze, we drove at the speed limit on the main gravel road, keeping a keen look out for elephants. They get angry when you disrespect them. Sometimes they are concealed in the bushes at the side of the road and you only hear a loud indignant trumpet after you have driven past.
I dealt with the emergency and we drove back more sedately, seeing a honey badger and a large porcupine cross the road in front of our headlights. We stopped, but by the time we had sorted out our camera gear to take a photograph, each time they had vanished. Night jars that had been resting on the track flew up in front of us, the white underside of their wings flashing. A herd of impala seemed nonplussed as we drove up to them, only dispersing when the buck had hurried them off the road before leaping into the bush himself. There were several families of hippo, grazing at the side of the road, looking like huge boulders in peripheral light of my main beams. Closer to home we saw a genet, a small cat. But no elephant shrews.
I dropped Su off at her place at 19:20, an extremely happy lady. I felt satisfied and relaxed as I drove back home. It had been a great day. But just 50 metres from Kapani, I was on full alert as a large hippo wandered across the track. I can only drive at walking pace on this piece of road because it is so rutted and broken up, so I was able to stop and allow the beast to pass. Unlike at least two doctors before me, I have not hit a hippo yet. I made some supper and went to bed at 21:00, exhausted.