Written by: Flo Montgomery
I have visited Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania nearly every year since I joined Adventure Camps, and on my visits I always hope to see the elusive African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus), which are commonly known as wild dogs. They are now one of the most endangered species on the planet, with only around 6,000 remaining – most of which are in Southern Africa.
I will always remember I trip I took in 2005 – I flew from Dar es Salaam to Mtemere airstrip in Selous where the smiling pilot pointed out the vehicle that would take us to Selous Impala Camp. We soon rolled up to the spacious camp with its eight green tents on platforms that were hidden in the lush bush, from which we could see the sparkling Rufiji River.
I love the décor of this camp – it has a distinctly Out of Africa style, with an emphasis on sturdy canvas tents furnished with kikoys, polished wood, brass, and comfortable sofas and tables spread out in the attractive lodge area. With its open verandas, it’s the perfect place to dine under the stars with the mighty river just a few metres away.
After a friendly welcome, I was ready to go. I climbed into the open sided 4×4 with my guide, Vincent Horry, and a driver. We started out in a northerly direction, heading for Lake Siwandu. The sky to the east was thunderous and black, and a lot of green shoots and leaves were starting to appear so we knew the rain was on the way. Suddenly we caught sight of a dog-like creature in the roadside vegetation, but it turned out to be a hyena. There were several of them with young cubs that were pestering their mother for milk.
We drove on further as evening drew closer and the sky darkened. All at once I turned my head and there they were – the distinctive black and fawn patterned heads with large rounded ears – two wild dog scouts sitting on a mound.
We knew that there would be more of them around as wild dogs live and hunt as a pack, and sure enough we counted 10 wild dogs in total, peacefully resting and waiting for the cool of evening when it would be time to hunt. In spite of the lack of rain and the dryness of the bush, they seemed to be in really good condition; their pelts thick and shiny. Some of the group had beautiful colouring – bright tan, pitch black, fawn and splashes of white.
A few of the younger ones were restless and hungry. We watched them for a long time and every so often some of them would jump up, start chivying the others, touching noses and generally meeting and greeting. Then they would all sit down again and appear to go to sleep.
We decided to leave them in peace and went to watch the sunset at the nearby lake before returning in time for a candlelit dinner at camp. “Watch out for elephants,” said the manager, as a Maasai guided me to my tent, carrying a strong torch in one hand and a spear in the other.
The crickets buzzed all night, the volume growing and falling in a gentle cadence. One African belief is that the crickets’ hum is the stars calling to their hunting dogs. I imagined our wild dog pack streaking through the dark bush, calling to each other as they hunted their fleeing prey. In the morning I woke to the birds’ morning chorus, and then to the sound of a tea tray being put down on the veranda table. A hippo was snorting and wallowing in the river below, and a flock of open-billed storks were combing the waters for fish and other edibles. I started towards the lodge for breakfast, but drew back to wait as a herd of six elephants – including two babies – majestically ambled past on their way to the river.
After breakfast, I said goodbye to Selous Impala and headed for the airstrip to wait for the plane to Ruaha. This duly came and we flew off over the Rufiji, a network of sandbanks and watercourses, soon to be swollen to a brown torrent when the rains came. The flight took about two hours and we landed at the main airstrip at Msembe, the Ruaha National Park headquarters. Malcolm Ryen, the Chief Ecologist of Essential Destinations, who owns Mdonya Old River Camp, was there to meet me.
We drove to the camp, which is in the south-west of the park opposite its own dry sandriver – a corridor for game. While I was in the camp I saw elephants, giraffes, buffalos, zebras, impalas, kudus, hyenas, jackals, baboons and lots of other wildlife wander through, in perfect viewing distance from the tents.
Next morning we took off on a game drive – Malcolm had heard that wild dogs had been seen not far away. I could not believe my luck when I saw my second pack in two days, in two different reserves!
This group was larger than the one in Selous – about 29 were counted altogether, resting in the shade of a tree in the Mwagusi sand riverbed. It was magical. We watched them for hours and I felt I got to know them quite well. It was very hot and they lay panting, a mass of speckled furry bodies, half in and half out of a pool of water.
Every so often they would nuzzle each other, uttering occasional ‘yips’. A giraffe came to drink nearby but kept an extremely wary eye on them. One youngster got up and attempted to hunt it, but received no support from its brothers and sisters, so withdrew into the shade again and went to sleep.
The game viewing area in Ruaha is large and very spread out, with many different types of terrain, from riverine, to forest, to escarpment scrub, to thick bush, to open plains. Over 529 species of birds call the park home and one often sees the shy greater kudu, and sometimes even sable and roan antelope. Ruaha National Park is part of a much larger ecosystem, which includes two further protected areas – the Rungwa and Kizigo Game Reserves. This wonderful and little-known protected area is a haven for many unusual and rare animals, including the African hunting dog.
I stayed two nights at Mdonya and was sad to leave – the only way I could bring myself to say goodbye was by telling myself that I would be back there often. Little did I know that I would see the painted dogs again in 2009 and 2012. But that is another story!
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