Sitting in a makeshift classroom our guide is smiling almost sympathetically at our optimism. The question has just been asked about the possibility of seeing African Wild Dogs during our time in the Thanda and Intibane game reserves South Africa. "Yes they are here, but you won't see them" he laughed and deep down I knew he was correct in saying how minimal our chances were of seeing one of the most endangered carnivores on the planet. In fact I had barely allowed the thought of seeing them to cross my mind at all on the eleven-hour plane journey from Heathrow, nor on the following eight hour bus journey from Johannesburg to camp.
A week of our stay had passed and as expected we had not seen any Wild Dogs. Not that this concerned us too much if at all, every day in our beautiful surroundings was a privilege. The novelty of walking round camp and startling Warthogs, Wilderbeest and Impala never wore off while cheeky Vervet Monkeys watched on from the trees, only venturing down to risk a raid on the store room should it be left unguarded. The huge abundance of wildlife viewed on game drives including a glimpse of the critically endangered Black Rhino was staggering and it felt like things could not get any better. They could.
The start of week two signalled the start of our surveying duties. After having had a week to settle into camp we were assured the hard work would really start now. As our vehicle set off at the crack of dawn it hit us just how icy cold early mornings in South Africa could be, our breath being taken away as the wind whipped through our vehicle. The journey to the first survey site continued and as the sun started to rise I bent down to take my camera out my bag and then it happened, the excited talking from the group, the usually cool guides as well meant only one thing. Something special had just come into view.
I quickly grabbed the camera and looked up. I probably had one of the biggest grins my face has ever produced because right in front of us crossing the road was an African Wild Dog and not just one either. This was the full pack. Their strikingly beautiful colours were the first and most obvious feature that grabbed the attention of the group. A mix of yellows, brown and white it was easy to see why they are otherwise known as the painted dog. Their overall size was not huge, approximately just over a meter in height, and seeing them up close demonstrated their slender, agile bodies perfectly adapted for long distance chases in all their fine detail.
Their curiosity towards the group in this strange contraption was fascinating to watch. Far from being intimidated, they kept the their distance and observed us allowing us precious extra time to make the most of this incredible experience. Witnessing them at such close quarters also allowed us to observe group behaviour as they trotted away regularly checking to make sure each member of the pack was present. Keeping a strong bond is essential for a pack hunting animal and it was obvious this was clearly an efficient but also highly intelligent pack of animals in front of us.
Eventually they caught the scent of an unwary Impala on the wind .Maybe they felt we had seen enough of their world and they melted back into cover. That experience remains one of the most incredible sights I have been privileged enough to see and I will be always be grateful for those few minutes spent in the company of these truly remarkable animals.
Take it easy