The beauty of game drives is the unexpected. Lurking around every corner and behind every bush lies the possibility of a life changing encounter; whether it’s your first outing in the bush or if you’re a seasoned guide, it’s the draw that makes every outing so exciting and rich with potential. The sighting could last for an hour or mere seconds; you just never know.
I teach wildlife photography and conservation for African Impact, a volunteer organisation based in the Greater Kruger area of South Africa, and the above is exactly what I preach to all of my photography volunteers; that no matter how quiet it may seemingly be, it only takes a split second for everything to change… and this is one such occasion. It was a quiet morning, the sky was a dull grey with a thick blanket of cloud blocking out a lot of light – not ideal for photography, but we headed to a local dam to chance a sunrise. We waited patiently but to no avail, the sun was already up but concealed by gloom and rain was beginning to threat. A sigh of tiredness and disappointment carried across the truck… that was, until we saw something emerge out of the bush at our flank. A panicked shout of disbelief and excitement broke out; “Wild dog!”
A lone African Painted Wolf trotted down to the dam’s edge and proceeded to drink; not caring at all about our Land Cruiser’s close proximity. After a quick drink, the wild dog began a quick jaunt back to where it came from, and we of course made haste to follow. It had made an impala kill, not far from where we were, and we positioned the vehicle for the best photographic angle as the rest of the scene played out. The rest of the pack, another sixteen or so, quickly joined and swarmed the fresh kill with the joyous and overwhelming excitement one usually associated with children in a candy store. Every morsel was stripped near clean off the bones within fifteen minutes, leaving nothing but a stark reminder of what once was and an impressive display of their efficiency – nothing went to waste.
The smell and commotion had drawn in others though, as a couple of spotted hyenas began to encircle the area. The dogs, having had their fill, for the most part departed – allowing the hyenas the opportunity to dart in and steal the pitiful remains.
The dogs, not wanting to fight for the merest of morsels, made their short way back to the dam where we were originally and began to drink and frolic in the calm and cool water. Once again, our positioning was masterfully claimed by our guide (Louise Hissey from Africa On Foot) and we had everything playing out in front and above us as they played, swam and drank all around and, because of our position under a dam wall, above us. The hyenas, not wanting to give all the attention to the dogs, came in to quench their own thirst and for another half-hour we had the two predator species co-existing (for the most part, there was the odd fracas) and displaying nothing but energetic and joyful behaviour.
A few of the dogs split off and before long there were the distant howls and cries to those remaining; another kill had been made. Instantly the pack was on the move, and once again we were off to keep up. For the next few minutes there was the adrenaline infused notion that we were, in essence, moving along with the pack as the dogs weaved in front, behind and alongside our vehicle. The hyenas too, had joined in – it had become a three species chase to find out what the commotion was about. They had indeed made another kill, this time in much thicker bush and the remains so spread out it was impossible to focus in one spot. The hyenas and dogs began to grow more weary of each other and before long the pack of wild dogs decided in unity to head off; disappearing into the African bush after nothing but a few effortless trots of immense speed and silence. The hyenas were left to mop up the remains, to act as the clean-up crew, and with their own bone-breaking efficiency, everything was gone in no time at all.
The sighting in total lasted just under an hour, moved no more than a few hundred metres and yet will more than likely remain as one of my all-time favourite and most energetic animal encounters of all time. The spirits of both predators were on full display and the fingers of my on-board photographers never left their camera shutters; resulting in thousands upon thousands of pictures they were eager to get back to analyse. Despite the low light conditions, the constant faint veil of rain and the unpredictability of that morning, they all succeeded in capturing the scene with creativity and high technical skill, but more importantly they appreciated every moment that unfolded in front of them and, due to sombre mood beforehand, realised that this was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime sighting.