One of the holy grails of the safari world is the African wild dog. Distinctive and elusive, many a seeker has traipsed all over East Africa trying to catch a glimpse. In what could be my last trip to the right side of Africa for awhile (I will change jobs within the Bank in mid February – getting a new geographic beat), I gave it one last Hail Mary pass and went out to Selous National Park. Selous is a big park – like significantly bigger than New Jersey big. And while there are several thousand wild dogs known to live in the park, anyone that has tried to find decent TexMex in Jersey knows, things can be hard to find. And burritos can’t even cover several miles in an afternoon.
But as this might have been the last chance, we gave it a shot. We headed out to the Siwandu resort in Selous – where you sleep in luxury tented splendor watching water buck and impala roam next to the lake from your bed, and can take an outdoor shower while watching elephants cross the river, but must live in constant fear knowing that no smuggled piece of fruit or granola bar is safe from those god damned little tent-zipping monkeys.
The morning of the first day, we went on a boat safari. Cruising around on a metal skiff about the size of a Boston Whaler, we got up close and personal with nesting birds, various species of crocodile (thousands of those toothy bastards too), and the lake’s large hippo population. (A bit too close in one case – we were bumping it back around the lake towards camp when the boat suddenly pitched hard to the starboard side. It was – thus far – the only time in my life where I was able to give an affirmative answer to the otherwise absurdist question, “did we just hit a hippo?”) Eyeing the crocs slipping noiselessly from the shore, I found it oddly comforting that there were no life jackets onboard.
That afternoon we went out in the open safari car in search of dogs. We ended up having a couple really cool lion encounters (including seeing five young males – just in the awkward new-mane state of adolescence – protecting their fresh buffalo kill), but no dogs. Though we stayed out a bit later than we should have looking, facilitating the cool sunset with tree and vultures picture, and a hippo out of the water (thankfully it was not a friend or relation of the one we had thumped that morning, looking to have a Jersey-style discussion on the subject).
I will admit, my lunchtime glass of perfectly chilled South African wine was slightly tense (it was also a sweltering afternoon), but as I searched for my inner zen “if-you-want-a-guarantee-go-to-a-zoo” place, the driver searched out information. By time afternoon tea had come, which was enlivened by a visiting family of elephants, a plan had been set in motion. We mounted up and fishtailed it through the ‘black cotton’ dirt shortcut, stopping only for the occasional bird sighting and crossing impala. The driver knew where he was going. After one wrong turn at a giant kudu, we found what we had sought. A family of 8 wild dogs lounging by a small watering hole (also occupied by red dragon flies and one very nervous looking duck).
The alpha couple was attended by three pups (less than two years), and a couple of older dogs, two of which were badly wounded. (This happens in the wild. That morning we had met a three pawed hyena that was gnawing on the buffalo skull. Apparently she had a reputation for aggression and a few years back a lioness had attempted to teach her a lesson. She is now a doubly aggressive gimp. But I digress…) The pups were funny because every time they approached the water (which was really a glorified puddle – no more than a few inches deep in the center – they would very nervously and gingerly approach – checking for crocodiles at every step. Their life experience has probably taught them that any water source bigger than a Nalgene bottle necessarily contains at least one crocodile. We asked the guides why the pack didn’t leave the hurt ones behind, one clearly had such a badly broken leg she could barely stand, but the guide explained that a pack is a pack. They stay together no matter what. The hurt ones find other roles – lookouts, retreat blockers, pup wranglers… A place for every dog and every dog in his place.
SUCCESS! In victory we departed from the visit with our new socialist canine friends. But, our glory was not yet complete, on the way back to camp, we spooked a leopard hunting in the grass. She was gone like a shot - touching off a brief but exhilarating chase. All in all, and incredible trip. I just hope my first time safari companion doesn’t get it into his head that this is what things are like. People that do safaris for years and don’t get such a hot weekend. Some people just don’t realize how lucky they are!