Ann and Steve Toon head to Madikwe, a hidden gem of a South African reserve that’s celebrating 20 years of successful conservation work, and where they hope to see one of Africa’s most endangered apex predators.
This would not be a good day to buy a lottery ticket. We’ve been hoping to hook up again with one of Africa’s most exciting yet hard-to-see animals but, despite our picking the perfect place for such a rendezvous, our luck’s been pretty lousy so far. For the past few days Africa’s top dogs have given us the run-around. Undeterred, we’re trying again, bumping along on a bright morning, distractedly nibbling on the wild hibiscus flowers we’ve been encouraged to taste by our guide Ralf Niezen, when suddenly the call comes over the radio that the dogs have been picked up again.
Ralf, not a small man, leaps into the driving seat and grabs the wheel. “Let’s go, guys,” he booms. Then it happens: a big, horrible thud. We’ve hit a rock and burst a tyre. We’re deflated too. Just how much bad luck can one have on a trip?
Other people we’ve met have had excellent sightings of the wild dog pack that’s currently active in the area. Another of our guides, Paul Slyer, has repeatedly assured us they’re being seen regularly, at least once every three days. “Don’t panic,” he tells us. But yesterday we spent the afternoon game drive eagerly following the trail, picking up promising fresh tracks heading away from our lodge, only to discover that the cunning carnivores had doubled back and got behind us.
The whole pack had now been spotted milling around the waterhole at the lodge we’d just come from – posing for the newly arrived guests watching in comfort from the deck. By the time we’d retraced our steps they were on the move again, hunting. Even the sight of a huge male leopard on the drive back (one of three excellent such encounters during our stay) couldn’t make up for the fact that the clever canids had, once again, got the better of us.
Ask any African wildlife aficionado and they’ll tell you a wild dog sighting is up there with the best. Wild dogs are among the most endangered species on the planet. Leggy as a long-distance runner, with permanently pricked Mickey Mouse ears and marvellous marbled coats – all swirls of salt, caramel and cocoa – wild dogs are highly social, highly intelligent and highly cooperative creatures. They’re also incredibly elusive – fast-running, forever on the move, blending seamlessly into the bush.
Count yourself lucky if you cross paths with them, even if it’s just a glimpse. There are only three to five thousand left in Africa now and fewer than 500 here in South Africa. Madikwe, a malaria-free Big Five reserve created from former cattle farms in the country’s North West Province – and where we’re currently managing to miss them – is a well-known stronghold. It’s the tenth-largest reserve in South Africa and one of the few places where you can follow closely as these skilful hunters and remarkable athletes fan out through the bush tracking down their prey: our present experience notwithstanding.
Desperate to find out more about these impressive creatures, and the outlook for their future survival, we track down North West Parks Board field ecologist for the reserve Carlien Esterhuizen and ask her why wild dogs are such a drawcard.
“Any encounter with wild dogs is special,” she says. “They are always doing something, always on the move, always interacting. They’re so social, there’s always grooming taking place, there’s always vocalisation and communication. Nine times out of ten, if you do have the means to stay with them on a hunt you’re going to see a kill.”
Special or not, the sad fact is that in a world in which habitat for wildlife is shrinking fast, wild dogs are being starved of the key thing they need as a species to survive: space. So it’s encouraging to be in a reserve where they’re doing really well. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the successful reintroduction of the species to Madikwe.
Except in South Africa’s vast Kruger Park, wild dogs, wherever they occur in South Africa, are managed by conservationists as a single ‘metapopulation’. This essentially allows the experts to keep the gene pool refreshed by moving groups around reserves (Kruger’s big enough for the process to happen naturally, as the dogs can disperse freely across the vast distances there). From an initial pack of six dogs a couple of decades ago, Madikwe’s thriving packs now represent one of this ‘managed’ group’s biggest populations.
“Wild dogs need vast open spaces,” Carlien explains. Which is why long-term plans to create a much larger reserve, a ‘Heritage Park’ linking Madikwe to nearby Pilanesberg (another well-known South African reserve) via a broad wildlife corridor, could prove a much-needed lifeline for Madikwe’s dogs and the reserve’s other inhabitants. Elephants, in particular, which are increasing in number on the reserve, would have extra room to move between game parks.
“A lot of scientific research is being done to establish what the biodiversity is between the reserves before such a corridor can be fenced off,” Carlien adds. “But when we do open the space between reserves we’ll have a much more hands-off approach, allowing nature to take its course. There’ll be many more animals and more genetic variability.
“It’s going to take a while for this vision to be realised, of course. A lot of communities are involved, and there are mines in the land between,” she explains.
Droplets of sweat are now rolling down Ralf’s broad forehead as he finishes changing the wheel, in record time. We’re soon rattling past startled impala and bemused giraffe to get to the spot where the last wild dog sighting was reported. But before we get close enough to see anything we hear them – well one of them at least. Ahead in the road are two, the nearest with its head down, almost scraping the red dust. Rather oddly, it appears to be singing. The high-pitched, bell-like cry, not unlike a bird call, echoes through the low scrub. It’s a contact call made repeatedly as these two strays struggle to locate the rest of their pack. Carlien had told us about wild dog vocalisations, but we’ve never heard them call like this before.
The unusual soundtrack to our longed-for sighting is fascinating, but two wild dogs don’t make a pack. We were greedily hoping for the thrill of a chase – experiencing the whole group on the move. Is there still time? Ralf remains optimistic as we pause for brunch on the hot drive home to admire three stately giraffe and a resting lioness weighing up a group of zebra.
Madikwe is different from many South African reserves outside the country’s national park network: it’s a joint venture between state, the private sector and local communities. The reserve itself is state-run, but most of the tourist lodges are private concerns. This wouldn’t be important but for the fact this affords visitors a great choice of accommodation, from upwards of 30 lodges.
But what we found especially refreshing, and fairly unique for a set-up like this, is the fact that there’s also a well-run, affordable bushcamp, Mosetlha, in the heart of the reserve, where you’ll enjoy the same guided game drive experience and wildlife-watching opportunities that you would staying at the more luxurious lodges. There’s even hot water available round-the-clock – it’s just that you have to draw it from the donkey boiler yourself. Popular with budget-conscious South Africans, this is a great option for die-hard nature lovers and a good way for first-timers to get a secure taste of camping wild in the bush.
The recently built sunken hide at The Bush House was an unexpected bonus too, particularly for photo fiends like ourselves, since you can enjoy seeing big game up close and from a low angle. Photographing a small breeding herd of elephants as they marched past within inches of our faces, anointing us and our lenses with dust scented by their pungent dung, was among the highlights of our visit.
It’s our final morning drive. We’ve been doing a casual spot of birding with Ralf and Kim, a rookie guide. It’s only her second day on the reserve and she’s keen to impress by showing off her bird knowledge (378 species have been recorded here). Ralf ribs her about her identification skills for a while, but then spots a tortoise in the road and clambers down to tell us all about it. Just like yesterday, when we’re right in the middle of things the call comes through that the wild dog pack has been spotted nearby, reunited with the two others we saw, and definitely on the prowl. “Hold thumbs!” Ralf shouts as he turns the vehicle around. That’s South African for ‘Keep your fingers crossed’, but we’re holding our breath… and hurriedly getting our cameras primed.
When we arrive there are 14 wild dogs on the track ahead, milling around, all legs, muzzle and swirly-coloured coats, excitedly pattering one way and then another, darting off into the bush in different directions, disappearing for a while and then re-emerging. It’s clear they’re trying to flush out any nearby prey. Ralf is grinning with a ‘told-you-so’ glint in his eye. A couple of other vehicles are on standby for the sighting, so we have plenty of eyes keeping track of where they go.
The dogs don’t seem the least bit interested in us and move comfortably about the game vehicles, approaching quite close at times. We catch their sweaty scent on the breeze; it’s not that pleasant. Although all sightings are carefully shared with tourists from other lodges, so that everyone gets a turn at ‘pole position’, there’s the chance for us to continue following the hunt when others move off. The dogs run fast through the scrub and we have fun predicting where they’ll pop out next. There’s a small group of impala to our left. We’re hoping the dogs will emerge right by them. They don’t.
Instead we pick them up again in a small clearing. The pack is scattered. Three or four individuals are standing to attention keeping a watch on what’s going on; they look ready for the off. A couple more are sprawled on the ground, no doubt conserving energy for a possible chase. The rest stretch out and yawn, limbering up under the shade of the trees. It feels a bit like we’re surrounded, but this is a brilliant chance to observe them.
Suddenly, without warning, they’re tearing off again and we’re back to playing catch-up. It’s a huge adrenalin rush tracking the pack through the bush. We keep losing them in the thickets and then finding them again. It definitely feels like the hunt is on this time. The pack is hungry. These tireless dogs mean business. We can sense there’s going to be a kill.
But we don’t see it. The action, when it happens, takes place deep in the bush, impossible for us to reach. We can clearly hear the cries of the dogs, successful again, as they are in 80 per cent of their hunts here. In the end we’re secretly relieved we’ve been spared the final chapter of this action-packed drama. For us it is mission accomplished. We’ve got what we, and others, come to Madikwe for. Just like those two lost pack members, we’ve successfully re-established contact with one of our favourite African animals; falling in love all over again with this most thrilling and precious predator.
Did you know?
• The wild dog’s average litter size of 10 is the largest of any dog; exceptional litters of up to 19 have been recorded
• The alpha female is the only member of a wild dog pack to raise pups, although subordinate adults will help with childcare
• Wild dogs once numbered more than 500,000 across Africa, with packs of up to 100 not uncommon
• The hunting success rate of African wild dogs is as high as 80 per cent, more than twice that of lions and the highest of any large predator in Africa
• The wild dog is the only dog to have just four toes on the front paws; it lacks the ‘dewclaw’ – a raised fifth digit found in other species
Madikwe is a spring chicken compared to many game reserves. It has only been in existence since early 1991, when Operation Phoenix, one of the largest game translocations in the world, saw the reintroduction of some 8200 animals from 28 different species into the reserve. Setting up the game reserve – a pioneering joint venture between the state, the private sector and local communities – was seen as the most appropriate and sustainable use for the land. Back in the early 1940s the local Marico district was deemed one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. The idea of turning overgrazed cattle farms into one huge, malaria-free game reserve came about not simply to conserve Africa’s wildlife and restore the natural order but also to attract tourists from across the globe and help create a better environment for the people of the area.
• Why visit? Compared to the very well-known Kruger National Park, Madikwe is still a bit of a hidden gem. It is only a three-and-a-half hour drive from Johannesburg, and offers the Big Five plus cheetah, 378 bird species, 66 mammal species and excellent wild dog viewing. The other big plus is that Madikwe is malaria-free.
• Best time to visit Game viewing is good all year round. Summer (December to February) is great for birds and seeing animals with their young, but it’s the hottest season. If you want to enjoy the reserve when it’s still attractive and green but not so hot, April is a good bet, although the vegetation is still quite dense. The rainy season runs from October to April. Winter (June to September) is the best time for game viewing and photography. The reserve is very dry then, with lots of photogenic dust to enhance your pictures.
• Accommodation There are more than 30 tourist lodgings on the reserve, ranging from 5-star luxury establishments such as Tau Game Lodge to a more rustic-style eco-bush camp. There are also a number of community-run lodges.
Ann and Steve Toon stayed at:
• Jaci’s Tree Lodge – a family-friendly 4-star lodge with suites on stilts in riverine forest
• Madikwe Hills – a traditional 5-star luxury lodge with glass panelled suites
• Etali – a welcoming and family-friendly contemporary 5-star luxury lodge
• Mosetlha Bush Camp and Eco Lodge – an affordable, family-run option with an authentic bush-camping experience in wooden cabins
• The Bush House – mid-range accommodation on the edge of the park with a relaxed guest house feel and a sunken wildlife-watching hide.
• More information:
First published in Travel Africa edition 68, Autumn 2014