Face to Face with African Wild dogs

I’m seated somewhat awkwardly in the front passenger seat of an open-topped Land Rover, trying my best to keep still and control my excitement. The pack of wild-dogs that we’d been tracking at breakneck speed, zig-zagging through the bush for the past half-hour were now surrounding us.
One, an inquisitive male, had come right up to the vehicle on my side just a few feet away from me. My heart thumped that bit faster. He slowly turned his head and looked up at me locking his eyes unblinkingly into mine. A momentary, raw, primeval connection, that whilst did not feel threatening, was never the less something I had never encountered so closely with an animal in the wild before.

My Wild-Dog adventure had started just a few days earlier as I left the challenging, yet always stimulating, city of Johannesburg in a small hired car which I had rented on my arrival at Oliver Tambo. As I headed North on the Pretoria Highway, nodding my head rhythmically to Afro-beat music that I had found pre-set on the car radio, I took in the seemingly endless urban sprawl that is steadily consuming the remaining Veld between Jo’burg and Pretoria. The two cities, will no doubt be soon joined at the hip creating one uber metropolis. Hassled by traffic I longed for the left turn that will take me westward toward Mafeking and the Botswana border, to open country and the promise of savanna and bush. Passing signs for the Cradle of Mankind, I reflected that I was not by a long-long shot the first to pass this way. Perhaps some of those who did were my own distant ancestors.

I was on my way to the Madikwe Game Reserve (say it like Ma-deek-we) one of South Africa’s lesser-known reserves, but a rising star among safari aficionados and those looking for something different from the usual Kruger experience. A hidden gem I was told by friends. It is situated in the North West Province, some 90 km north of the small town of Zeerust and abutting the Botswana border. It is less than a four hour drive from Johannesburg, alternatively, a mere hour plane light from Lanceria to Madikwe’s bush strip. It has the added benefit of being in a malaria free zone.

Set in 700 square kilometers of stunning rolling grassland, forests and rocky outcrops, its terrain is more closely related to that of the Trans Frontier Park which borders South Africa, Namibia and the Kalahari - and Madikwe’s fauna and flora reflects this. It is home to elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos - and particularly the endangered African Wild Dog, over large mammals in all, plus over three hundred bird species sixty; impressive statistics indeed. Accommodation in Madikwe is highly regulated and controlled. Most are 5-star, all Africa chic, designer style, each with spectacular vistas over the Reserve - just twenty safari camps in all. On arrival at the Gate I was to register my vehicle and pay the not unreasonable park fees. I was then to be directed to drive a further 10k or so within the Reserve to the Park Headquarters where my car would be looked after in a high-fenced security compound. This all went smoothly enough, even in my VW Polo – and amazingly I saw giraffe, impala, zebra AND a white rhino on the way!

I was to be staying three nights at the Mosetlha Bush Camp & Eco lodge, one of the few truly eco-orientated camps in Southern Africa and ideally located right in the heart of the reserve. Chris Lucas, a man who looks as if he has been in the bush all his life, founded Mosetlha some twenty years ago. Straight-backed, almost military in bearing (complete with officer moustache), he had the vision of promoting conservation tourism in Madikwe whilst benefiting local people through employment opportunities.

As my driver navigated the potholes en-route to the camp, I leaned back and took in the fragrant, rainfall fresh air, my senses sharpened by the smells and sounds that can only be the African bush. On distant horizons, intriguingly shaped hills led the eye to infinity; above a pair of African Snake Eagles circled lazily in the afternoon thermals.

Hidden, by large acacia trees, Mosetlha has nine twin-bedded bandas or houses built on silts, constructed in a circle around a central area consisting of a larger open sided building with ample lounge chairs, a table full of animal and bird guides, all done in a not-over-top Africa safari style. There was the usual dining and open fire-side area all of which is dominated by a large, mature Mosetlha Tree one of Africa’s most impressive flora – and hence the name for the camp.

“Welcome” said Chris, “I want to make your stay here as memorable and pleasant as I can. Our ethos is to tread lightly on this environment, to leave no trace if we were to close or move on, and to be fully in tune with the environment. This means we do things the old fashioned way, by heating the water in large drums we call a donkeys over a wood fire, and showering using a bush-bucket. We’ll run through the procedures with you and tell you how to use the eco-toilets”. It was all surprisingly easy to get used to, and a bit of fun too. It is amazing how little water you need to shower when you only have a perforated bucket full! With no electricity also, lamp dispensing was a major logistical operation done routinely twice a day. As the pink painted Africa sky surrendered in to total blackness these lamps are lit and dispensed throughout the camp, creating a magical twinkle-light scene. This is more like glamping, certainly not roughing it.

My safari that first evening and the following day, was memorable; herds of elephants and giraffes, lions, including a pride with cubs, a menacing loner male so close you could smell its distinctive oder Saw a leopard - and, on the return to camp a rare sighting of an Aardwolf, scurrying its way quickly across the dirt road before disappearing into the bush. It was my first ever sighting this rarely seen hyena like animal.

The second morning was to be the promised search for Wild Dogs. I rose before 5am blindly fighting my way out from under the mosquito net to find a torch and head off to the adjacent high wire protected bush toilet. As I left my room the air was cool and damp against my skin. I shivered. After a quick coffee and light breakfast I climbed into the Land Rover joining four fellow adventurers, all very friendly and highly enthusiastic Germans keen for us to depart on time. As we set off, a slither of soft pink and orange hue was to be seen in the Eastern sky, within minutes it would develop into a mottled pink glow. Ah! the African sunrise I thought , what a dreamy setting for this morning’s adventure. I was full of exhilaration and anticipation.

Jonny our guide had told us that a pack of Wild Dogs had been see in the South of the park, yesterday. “We’ll head that way, and stop for anything interesting on the way”, he said. Quickly into our journey we found two Lions, one an amorous male, the other a pretending not be interested lioness that halted our progress. We waited for the moment which when it came, was over in three or four seconds. No romance there then. We waited for a repeat performance, but after twenty minutes decided to move on.

A further half-hour southward, a passing safari vehicle confirmed a sighting of the pack, and not that far away. “They move fast” said Jonny, “and cover ground quickly, but they make a unique yelping noises… if I can pick up their tracks and sounds we’ll be on to them”. We drove on dust tracks for nearly an hour when we got wind of them. Instruction from Jonny was to hold on tight and keep arms well tucked in so not to get bloodied from needle sharp acacia thorns. Then suddenly we were off! I have to say this was being on safari with a difference. No sedate wanderings around well-defined tracks here, we were zigzagging off track at speed across clearings, only marginally slowing down when encountering bushes, ditches or ridges. It was exhilarating stuff. “There !” Jonny pointed, I could see nothing, but then suddenly there they were – about twenty of them . We stopped and turned the engine off. I stared in amazement at how relaxed they were with us. They played, chased, rolled, stretched, sat, moved about, ran, frolicked, fought playfully, cavorted, copulated, all the time communicating with each other with wonderfully tuneful yelps and cries.

Their oversized Corgi like ears, soft eyes and rather rounder faces than many domestic dogs, give them a slightly benign look. Their teeth however, give ample evidence that this is a significant predator designed to tear, rip and grab at its chosen prey – their long legs suggesting its an animal born to run and chase. The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) - also known as the Painted Dog, Cape Hunting Dog, Painted Wolf, is a canid native to sub-Sahara Africa – it is however, virtually extinct in most parts of Africa now – its only tangible strongholds being in Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa. It is considered a flagship species, its success being an indication of a healthy eco-system, but destruction of its habitat, human discrimination and the spread of diseases such as rabies have decimated its numbers. African Wild Dogs need large territories, ideally the size of European cities for just one pack. As the natural Africa wilderness disappears, so are the wild-dogs. They are specialised pack hunters usually attracted to medium sized antelope. They have distinctive colouring, a non-symmetrical brindled mixing of brown, fawns, blacks and white, although, the more Northern varieties are mostly black and white.

After an hour or so they all upped at the call of some of the leader dogs and they were off again. It was a lifetime experience to have had such close encounters with them; amazingly, one that I was to enjoy again the very next day – but I was not to know that then. Next morning, after that other Wild Dog experience, and still on a “high”, I packed and headed off back to Jo'burg, this time on the route via Sun City. This promised a quick call in to Pilanesburg Game Reserve on the way – always a favourite. Once in the Reserve however, I soon encountered convoys of safari vehicles and private cars – it was early afternoon on a weekend, definitely not the time be there. I turned about and headed for the Park Gate. Perhaps not surprising, after all my head was still in the wonderful remote wilderness that is Madikwe; away from noise and pollution, and tourism pressures - and there amongst its Wild Dogs.

The low-down

I travelled to South Africa on British Airways, taking advantage of their fly-drive offer with Avis's BA’s car rental partner. I booked directly with Madikwe Reserve reservations.

Article copyright © Chris Kirby 2019