Kruger Christmas Bonus Post: Dogs

What was I saying about the unlikelihood of seeing Wild dogs and our mere contentment at seeing some at a distance? On the way out of the park, with the dawn light slanting through the grass, we ran into a whole mess of them. Canine distemper or no, these ones were in rude health and relaxing on the (warm?) road after what I assume was a dark night of slashing teeth and cruel slaughter.

But they’re so damn cute. A foolish part of many of us wishes we could keep the Painted Wolves as pets. But apart from their savagery, they start to give off a powerful stench as they mature. It’s nothing to do with being wild in the bush. Hyenas–with their far worse reputation–do not smell objectionable at all as they mature.

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Of course they’re not really “cruel,” since we presume they have no conscious moral sense. But I’m told it can be frightful to watch them essentially begin eating prey–pulling chunks of flesh from their limbs, and tearing out their bowels–not just before they’re dead, but before they’ve even fallen.

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No doubt they don’t view themselves as cruel, or herbivores as the same kind of creatures as they. To each other they are kind, and highly sensitive to mood. These are dogs, after all, and they live in a strict pack hierarchy under a matriarch, who is the only female who breeds. All the dogs look after her puppies as their own.

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There numbers have never recovered since they encountered the diseases of domestic dogs. If they’re ever to do so, I imagine it will come from some kind of genetic vaccine that can pass the immunity from mother to pup. GMOs to the rescue.

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So that was Kruger. It’s been said that people only remember beginnings and endings with any clarity. If so, we did well. From our close encounter with a leopard to driving slowly through a pack of dozing wild mutts (after negotiating the asshole in with the caravan trailer who had completely blocked the entire road).

But it wasn’t our last dog encounter of the day. We finally got to the homestead of our friend, climbing instructor Jan Bradley. We’ve passed nearby his rural village of Waterval Boven (Waterfall Heights) before on our way to and from the park. We’ve always only spent time with him when he’s in Cape Town, travelling to and from the South African Antarctic Gough and Marion  islands where his climbing skills are put to use in the efforts to eradicate alien life-forms that threaten these unique and fragile ecosystems–breeding colonies of penguins and the great albatrosses whose business is with the sea.

Naturally then, his garden is full of alien plants. “It’s my control group,” he says, wryly. A knee injury on his first full year stint on remote Gough Island has him champing at the bit. Normally his life in the small village is spent hiking and climbing. But he’s almost housebound at the moment. But he still takes canine climber, Simba for walks by throwing him out the car and driving alongside. Simba is a pretty good rock climber, according to Jan, and even tolerates being hoisted through the air in his harness. Simba and Jan are keeping busy adjusting to a new kitten, Simba more so than the dominant cats in the house. He’s easy going and very much took to Aparna.

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In the next few weeks I’ll try to add hyperlinks to these posts. It’s a bit tricky finding sources when you have limited time to write on the road. I’ve done a lot of learning.

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Kruger Christmas 5: Glimpses and Lists

Tomorrow we leave Kruger. It was an odd kind of trip, sightings-wise. We saw just about everything on most people’s wish list. But sometimes from afar or in a brief flash. A cheetah chased a herd of impala across the road. We could just tell what it was from a splash of spotted-tawny between a car and the dense bush. We saw wild dogs after a tedious wait behind a huge queue of undisciplined cars. They were fast asleep under a distant tree.

But given that two whole packs died of canine distemper since last year, we’d just been remarking on how unlikely it was that we’d see any at all. Once the dominant predator of the savannah woodland (the only creature that hunts successfully more often than it fails), they’ve been literally dogged for the last century by this always lethal infection carried to them from domestic canines.

The great thing about Kruger is that it’s a roll of the dice whether you’ll have great sightings or not. That may not sound like a good thing. Why not just go somewhere where the animals are lined up, neat and orderly? But it’s all up to you to add more dice to your pool to maximise your chances: getting up at the crack of dawn, planning routes based on recent sightings, and searching diligently.

We did few of those things, relying mostly on blind luck. We have a fair pool of it, and it paid off an hour ago when we got a good look at a young leopard in yet another unruly cluster of cars and busses.

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The saving grace when sightings are slow and unsatisfying is looking for birds. I’ve never been bothered to keep a list before. I just loved watching and photographing birds. But I have to admit: keeping a list makes it much more engaging. Instead of just moving on from little brown birds, or speckled waders that all very much look alike, I was invested in figuring out what they were. In the process I learned many new things about birds–such as that little brown birds are best identified from (a) the type of environment in which you find them, and (b) by their calls.

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A Thick-Billed Weaver. They make the prettiest nests between two reeds

The list made it just that much more exciting to see a few that I’d always known about for years but had never seen. Birders have their own (sometimes awful) jargon, and they call these ‘lifers.’ I had a few. I was excited to see a Black Heron (which I would have called a Vampire Heron for the way to covers its head with it’s black wings like Bela Lugosi under his cloak to better see prey beneath the water), a Squacco Heron, Wattled Starlings, White Crowned Lapwings, etc.. You get the idea.

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Steppe Eagle

Writing up some of this Kruger experience was also an experiment in blogging while on the road. I think that, when you’re with other people, it can be difficult to take the time to edit photos, write text, and upload those pictures. But the bigger problem is not unique to being on the road. It’s about who I’m writing for and what voice to use.

On Facebook I have a pretty good idea of my audience. Ditto on fora. I’m a fluent, sometimes funny, sometimes fierce writer. But here, with very little feedback, I find myself writing in a reserved, slightly formal manner. I find it way easier to rant about politics or make pointed remarks when I have some idea of what people’s expectations are, even if it’s to upend them. I can only hope I can loosen up with time.

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African Darter

I shall still comment on a couple of Kruger related issues, some of which may jolt me out of my formality with either outrage or bewilderment–like the curious experiences of dining out in Kruger rest-camps. That will be after our drive back across the width of this country to Cape Town, and the alarming reality of 2017.

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Woodland Kingfisher