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July 18, 2011 Safari Day 10
Itinerary: Hike to an African wild dog den, lunch and siesta, the frog incident, afternoon drive and encounters with elephant
Animals spotted: African wild dog, African fish-eagle, African hawk-eagle, cape buffalo, brown snake-eagle, red billed hornbill, elephants, community spiders, impala, baboon, hippo, crocodile, waterbuck, ground hornbills, tree frog, kingfisher
Today we will hike to a wild dog den. But first we get our gentle “Good morning” wake up call from the staff and hot water in the washing basins at 6am.
We said goodbye to the family who came with us from Hwange and we were on the road at 7am to drive about 5 minutes to the start of our hike. Owen’s favorite animal in all of Africa is the wild dog and we’ve never seen one, so we were all excited to get going. I will admit that I was a little surprised that the guides would hike a group of people out to a den site. It seems like too much strain on an animal to have humans trekking around their den, but I didn’t protest very loudly. =)
The hike would be 6 miles round trip, so I packed my long lens in a backpack and carried my short lens in front. Andrew is a fast hiker with his long legs, similar to Mark and his hiking speed. I tend to hike slower to try and catch photo opportunities, but I did not want to be left behind with elephants, lions, wild dog, and other animals possibly about. Apparently Owen did not want to be left behind either, so he made sure that while he was hiking slowly, he got in front of Mark and I. Mark and I were quite amused by the silent competition to be right behind Andrew, the guide. Sometimes one of us would be able to jump ahead of Owen during a break stop and other times Owen managed to get himself between us and the guide. We all arrived at the same spot, but it was one of the most amusing hikes I’ve been on.
We didn’t see very much on the way in. The whole hike was through the Mopane woodland which is a very sparse forest with very little shade. The morning was very pleasant with temps possibly in the high 60s to 70s. The late morning warmed up probably to the high 70s enough so that we were warm in our long sleeve khaki shirts.
We stopped several times to look at various animal droppings. We found the white hyena droppings (white because of the amount of bone that gets ingested), the pungent wild dog droppings, and leopard droppings all in the same spot. This interested our guide very much. We saw plenty of elephant droppings. Elephants can only digest about 30% of what they eat. This means that they are always eating in order to feed that huge body, but also that their droppings provide food for the smaller animals. Baboons, birds, termites, and many more animals will dig through the elephant dung for fruits and seeds. It is actually pretty interesting how all the animals depend on each other.
We saw an African hawk eagle flying through the air and learned that they hunt in pairs. This reminded me of the pair of African hawk eagles we saw in Matobo Hills and how Edwin told us that one hawk would circle high to draw attention to itself. A rodent down below would watch warily and when the hawk disappeared the rodent would reappear. Then, the second hawk would seize the opportunity for a snack.
The hike in took us about 1 hour, 45 minutes for the 3 miles. We had a GPS unit with us marking the spot of the den, so before we got too close we left a pile with our backpacks so we could be more sneaky. As we crept towards the den that looked just like a dense area of brush, suddenly we heard a sharp bark and growl. Wild dogs! Slowly, silently, we crept to a spot where we could sit and wait them out. Our goal was to be here before the hunting dogs came back to feed the puppies who were in the den. The pack held about 20 or 25 dogs. Several adults would stay at the den to guard the puppies and the rest of the hunters would go out twice a day at dawn and at dusk to hunt. When the hunters came back, they would regurgitate food for the adults and puppies. We were hoping to see them come home.
The first 5 minutes were the most exciting. We could barely spot wild dog legs deep in the brush. Andrew told us he could definitely see 3 adults and 2 pups. I had to believe him. I did managed to get a glimpse of a dog at one point, but for the most part I just knew the dogs were back there from their growls.
Eventually, we stopped hearing the growls and stopped catching glimpses of the dogs and we sat for about 1.5 hours. I filled the time taking some photos of leaves and flicking ticks off my hiking shoes when I spotted them. Eventually, Andrew left us to sneak around to the other side of the den and noticed that the dogs had moved away from us. We would not be able to get back there and we figured that we had already missed the hunting pack anyway. We didn’t want to force the dogs to move their den due to human presence, so we left them on their own and hiked back out.
It is wonderful to stand up after sitting on the ground still and silent for an hour and a half. I guess I’m getting old. =) The hike back was a little slower since we weren’t trying to rush to the den. We saw many impala latrines and various kinds of animal droppings, but not many animals until we found a herd of buffalo. They were at a water pan up ahead and we decided to sneak up on them. We hunkered behind a termite mound to drop some items and then took off. Andrew told me to follow him and get ready to take some photos. We came out from behind the termite mound and the buffalo saw us and started to stampede away. We ducked low and ran after them, first Andrew, then me with my camera raised, then Mark and Owen. They stopped to look at us and I got several shots.
After a morning of not seeing very much, it felt good to chase after some buffalo. While we were walking back to the car we saw a fish eagle overhead throwing its head back to call out. Mark was able to see the head throwing through his binoculars, but I couldn’t find the eagle with my camera. We learned that all the low trees in the area are stunted because the elephant come through nibbling as they walk. So the trees can’t grow to much more than bushes.
Back at Vundu, we had delicious stuffed pizza for lunch and then went back to our room for siesta time. I figured I’d download some photos to the computer while we had some free time and reached into a drawer to pull out the computer. As I reached my hand in, I felt something cold and wet adhere to my wrist and I yanked my arm out of the drawer, gave a little shriek and flung a poor little tree frog to the ground. He quickly hopped back onto the drawer. Now that I could see what had been plastered to my hand just seconds ago, I felt much calmer. In fact the tree frog was really pretty cute. He was much cuter hanging onto the wicker drawers than on my arm. =)
At 3 we heard the drums call us back to the main lodge for tea and then we were off on our afternoon safari drive. We spotted several birds on the drive including a brown snake eagle and red billed hornbills. The red billed hornbills seem to be everywhere in Mana Pools. We found a few elephants scraping a wild mango tree while two younger elephants picked up the bits left behind.
We stopped the car to follow a small herd of elephant to a water hyacinth pond. On the way we found a cone of spider webs hanging from a tree branch and learned that a group of community spiders live and hunt together and form this large web as a group. Interesting. We followed the elephants down to a drink in the pan. They sure picked a gorgeous spot to quench their thirst. Here, with a few baboon in the foreground foraging in front, the elephants came down to the water in front of a couple hippo, near a crocodile, and impala and waterbuck rounded out the scene in back.
Back on the road we spotted a group of ground hornbills. These guys are as large as a turkey and will eat anything. They are almost always spotted in groups of odd numbers. Once you see one, start counting, and you will probably end up with 7 or 9. If you count 8, keep looking and there will be one more. These hornbill only lay their first egg at 9 years of age! They only lay the one egg and raise the baby. It takes another 5 years before the ground hornbill is able to lay another egg. Crazy!
One thing I love about Mana Pools and our guide, Andrew, is the ability to spot something on the road, stop and get out and walk. In Hwange we were always stuck in the vehicle. Plus Andrew shares our interest in watching wildlife and waiting to see if anything happens. We spotted two bull elephants from the car and walked towards them. We kept several trees between us and them and were able to get pretty close, maybe within 40 yards or so with just 2 trees between us and them. The old bulls are usually pretty easy to approach as they don’t seem to care. Females with young are nearly impossible to approach. We watched the bulls slowly eating off the trees. One bull walked up and into a dead tree and reached thrown it to get leaves from the greener tree behind it. These guys are very mighty.
We didn’t have any luck finding wild dogs hunting at dusk, but we did find more elephant. We found a bush with an elephant tail sticking out of it and then saw that there were about 5 elephants feeding on this bush. We laughed and joked, “how many elephants can a bush hide?” since you could only see the back ends of several.
Our car on the road was fairly close to this bush with elephant and young, but they didn’t seem to care about us. The amazing thing about being in a land rover is that animals consider land rovers as part of the landscape and don’t seem to know that humans are inside. They will allow land rovers to get quite close or will even walk up to the cars. Anyway, as we started to drive away, one female elephant all of a sudden decided we were a threat and started to charge the vehicle. I wasn’t too concerned since we could just drive away, but all of a sudden we stopped and I heard very loud clapping. Then the elephant stopped and went back to her bush. I turned and we were all flabbergasted that Andrew’s loud clapping had stopped the elephant’s charge. Apparently he knows what he’s doing. So loud clapping stops bunnies from getting in trouble and elephants from charging. Good to know…
We drove back to camp and found a colorful sunset over the water. We had dinner on the deck with a candle-lit chandelier hanging over the table. The house wine tonight was a joke of the evening as the quote on the bottle mentioned that the “amazing wind transports you to a magical place.” Mark, the guide we met on the river that second day was staying at the lodge to guide a family coming in tomorrow. We found out that my Mark and the guide Mark had the same sense of punny humor. All night there was great conversation and we certainly felt right at home.
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