Wild Dogs Make Magical Madikwe ‘Big Six’ Reserve

Elephants are plentiful in South Africa's fourth largest reserve
Elephants are plentiful in South Africa’s fourth largest reserve

‘Ah-oooooooooooooooo. Ah-ooooooooooooo.’  A mournful,  low wail pierces the air.   We’ve never heard this sound before and if we didn’t know exactly who was uttering this haunting,  heartfelt song we might have ventured it was a bird rather than a mammal.   But,  just there,  right in front of our game-viewing vehicle,  to the delight and excitement of everyone on board,  is an African wild dog,  head bowed low,  scraping the red earth.

Running wild - Africa's painted hunting dog is a special sighting
Running wild – Africa’s painted hunting dog is a special sighting

‘Ah-oooooooooooo. Ah-ooooooooooooo.’   Like an ‘X-factor’ hopeful this pack member is ‘crooning’ for all he’s worth.   He’s somehow got separated from the rest of of his pack and is contact-calling plaintively to get back in touch – a bit like sending an urgent SMS or desperate text message when you quickly need to relocate family members or a bunch of friends in a crowd…

Getting this close to such a rare and beautiful animal – just check out those marbled coats and rangy,  marathon runner legs – is always a special treat,  but it’s even better when you get to discover another little piece of the jig-saw about their fascinating social and co-operative behaviour.

Looking for the wild dog pack we almost trip over a resting lioness
Looking for the wild dog pack we almost trip over a resting lioness

On our next morning drive,  we get to catch up with the reunited group of 14 dogs ( just one of the packs on the reserve) and follow them hunting – bumping along in the wake of the pack as they fan out through the bush at top speed flushing out their prey.   We’re certainly feeling the Madikwe magic…

It’s about 20 years since the first six wild dogs were introduced to Madikwe game reserve, in South Africa’s North West province.  Now here we are a couple of decades later closely following this holy grail species which is  doing remarkably well on the reserve.  Such conservation success stories are rare and certainly something to be celebrated.

One of three good leopard encounters in as many days
One of three good leopard encounters in as many days

When we ran into the wild dogs on our visit last month we’d already notched up excellent sightings of the Big Five just half-way through a five-night stay.   Three leopard sightings on successive afternoon drives,  many photogenic elephant encounters and an alert lion or two along the way had more than kept our cameras clicking,  but were we going to see the critters that make visits to this malaria-free reserve that extra-bit special?  We were getting more than a little anxious we might not be as lucky as most and that catching up with one of our favourite animals on the planet might prove impossible on this occasion.

Classic elephant bull sighting rounds off a successful Madikwe stay
Classic elephant bull rounds off a successful Madikwe stay

Guides confirmed the dogs had been giving everyone the runaround in recent days,  but assured us that it definitely wasn’t time to panic. How right they were. This was our very first visit to Madikwe,  South Africa’s fourth largest game reserve – but something tells us we’ll be back… Ah-ooooooooooo!

Magnificent ‘Mountain’ Lions on Dawn Patrol

AMPL350 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
Magnificent ‘mountain’ male lion on patrol

Most people have probably heard of Kruger Park in South Africa – it’s vast, diverse and most definitely on the tourist map. But there are 19 more reserves in this sunny country’s excellent network of national parks – some big, others relatively small,  some well known, others not so – and we’ve been visiting lots of them over the years we’ve been photographing southern Africa’s wildlife.

It’s been fascinating to see the changes in different parks from visit to visit – whether it’s extra roads and trails opening up greater areas to visitors or new and improved tourist facilities and accommodation.

Best of all is when, following the South African national parks’ policy of gradually reintroducing species originally found in an area covered by one of its reserves, you pitch up and there’s suddenly another species to photograph.  And if that new, reintroduced species just happens to be a predator – then there’s probably going to be a whole new exciting dynamic to that reserve – for the visitor and the eco-system alike.

AMPL348 Lions in Mountain Zebra National Park
These two fine specimens were introduced in April 2013

This was certainly the case when we turned up at a small reserve in the Eastern Cape, called Mountain Zebra National Park, a couple of weeks ago. As it’s name suggests this national park’s raison d’etre, until fairly recently, has been about conserving rare plains game including Cape Mountain Zebra and Black Wildebeest.

We enjoy going there because it’s scenically beautiful and very tranquil – as well it might be with no big predators to speak of. This and the fact that many of the animals are found atop a high plateau so it feels as though you’re ascending into The Lost Kingdom when you’re on a game drive.

Photographically-speaking it’s always seemed a quiet sort of place; for relaxing a bit and perhaps picking up one or two handy bits and pieces. Despite always meaning to we’ve never yet really afforded the place the time it deserves to make the most of the ever-changing mountain light and the potential for framing picturesque animal-in-the-landscape shots.

AMPL359 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
Keeping an alert eye over his territory

Which is why when we turned up for a brief two night stopover on our latest African adventure, convinced we could give our cameras a bit of a rest, we got a huge and quite hairy surprise. We’d completely forgotten the reserve now has a trio of lions (two big males and a female). The new residents moved in just under a year ago restoring lions to the area for the first time in some 130 years.

When we first heard about the lion reintroduction we thought it would probably prove impossible on a short visit to get decent pictures of them, even in such a small park, so it was a bit of a shock, in more ways than one, to find ourselves out on the plateau one Sunday morning at sunrise, with no other vehicles around, being stalked by two huge young male bruisers with luxuriant, dew-dampened manes and the sort of big cat swagger you perfect when there are no other males around to smack you down.

Once, and it took it a while, they became convinced we weren’t going to make an early breakfast for them and they ceased to show an interest in our vehicle, we had a very nice morning of photography with them. Restless and alert, and still pumped after yesterday’s zebra kill which another visitor had told us about, these young guns were delightful subjects we just hadn’t bargained for.

AMPL361 Lion in Mountain Zebra National Park
How will these big guys impact on the reserve in future?

It was really interesting to see how they’d taken a convincing command of their new territory already. We didn’t even mind that we had good light only for a brief window of our time with them, just enough to get a quick rim-lit shot of one male’s fur-lined profile against the dawn, nor that they didn’t both pose together ‘just so’ as we were hoping.

These magnificent ‘mountain’ lions now join the cheetah and brown hyena reintroduced to Mountain Zebra National Park in 2007 and 2008 respectively. On future visits it will be really interesting to see how all the animals there, both newly introduced predators and prey, are going to get along together now that the King of Beasts is back in residence in these mountains…