Nyarushanga Pack-a Diary by Lin Barrie
An African wild dog den in an old warthog burrow, in a termite mound near a huge rocky hill (a ‘kopjie’) on Senuko Ranch in the Save Valley Conservancy.
GPS co-ordinates: 36K0401936-7719474
Seven pups are born….
6th July 2014 at the den
By 4.36 all the adult dogs have left the den.
I count nine, strung out across my path as they depart, led by the Alpha female.
Last night they headed north, night before that headed South….
Last night the Alpha female stayed at the den after the rest of the pack had departed…is tonight her first hunt with the pack since giving birth? Or will she shortly return to check on the pups….?
I have noticed over the last few days that she does not want the pups to suckle too much, turning and pinning them with her open mouth if they follow her too persistently…they are fast becoming solely dependant on meat regurgitated for them by the hunters.
The Alpha female and Foxy, who seems to me to be her mate, the Alpha male, lead the way. He is very attentive to her.
Last to leave the den, a young female checks the pups, leads them to the upper den mouth, and growls at them when she departs and one tries to follow her. She turns and places her open mouth over its neck, upon which it whimpers and retreats back to the den mouth.
She leaves, fast and anxious to catch up with her hunting companions.
The pups play half heartedly for a while…
By 4.50 pm all seven pups have made their way down into the lower den entrance, among the tree roots.
All goes very quiet.
My favourite time…sitting alone, but not lonely, watching, writing, thinking at the wild dog den, knowing those little bodies are snug in their hole waiting for the return of the take-away team! 5.30 pm and I am still writing, engrossed in my thoughts. Something makes me look up. A buffalo bull, silently arrived, stands in the road staring at me indignantly, as if he has always been there and I am the one newly arrived. He is in good condition, fat, but his left horn is worn to a stump and his right horn is broken and ragged.
He picks his way cautiously around me through the knee high golden grass, halting often to assess whether I might pose a threat. At 5.44 pm Scops owls start calling, one close by, answered by another and yet another further and further away.
A Freckled nightjar explores a few bars of sound, and spurfowls make bedtime noises.
5.49 pm – it is now too dark to see, and the buffalo bull has evaporated onto the night. Something large slips and slides down through the rocks of the Kopjie…intriguing.
Still no sign of the Alpha female, so I am fairly certain that she hunts with the pack tonight.
This morning when I watched at the den, they did not seem to have very full bellies or bloody necks. They regurgitated small amounts for the female and pups , but perhaps did not hunt very successfully in the early hours of this morning.
Tonight she must be extra hungry….
25th July, in Harare
I have been in Harare rebuilding the burnt house at 214 Brooke Drive, with the able help of so many good friends, including Matt Munroe, contractor, and my Dad.
Today this is my shopping list:
Cabbages tomatoes onions relish salt sadza nyama coke sweet buns plus Champagne and Marilyn Monroe Cake from Meg’s Treats ….
The first items are for a lunch of sadza ne nyama, which we cook and share together with the lovely building crew at 214…the last items are for my daughter Kelli’s 27th Birthday dinner, which we have early, before heading back to the Lowveld for the sad event of Ray Sparrow’s funeral on 27th July.
Marylin Monroe cake….
Celebrating the ongoing house rebuild and Kelli’s birthday, plus remembering and honouring the life of a dear departed friend, all rolled into a few short days…
Lunch at 214 Brooke Drive:
28th July at the den:
Something does not feel right at the Nyarushanga wild dog den this morning, as I listen to only one pup begging food from an adult who has run a grassy area at the base of the towering Kopjie, the site behind the den where the dogs seem to have relocated. I have been away from this den for too long, lost my sense of continuity…is there only one pup left?…has some dire fate befallen the other six? Are there still nine adults? So many questions…
I arrived here earlier, this late, sunny winter morning to be greeted by silence, the dog den looking deserted and no fresh tracks in the vicinity. If I had been an impatient sort, I would have assumed that the pack had moved on with all the pups, and driven away. But I sat. Used the time to sketch the table top I want to make, to hold a wash basin for the attic bedroom that is being restored at our burnt Harare house. And relished quiet time alone in the bush, my brain drained from a week of Harare house building, Save Valley Conservancy indigenisation concerns, and the sad event of Ray Sparrows’s funeral at Malilangwe yesterday. (Clive spoke in Shangaan to over two hundred appreciative mourners at the funeral, a moving history and tribute to this legendary old man of the Lowveld). All the while as I waited at the silent den, the faint but pungent smell of wild dogs drifting through my window warmed my senses. At last, my reward for patience…a crackle of grass and the sudden arrival of an adult, well behind the deserted den, followed by greetings between dogs I could not see in the deep grass.
Minutes after that, at twenty past eight, another adult trotted over the rocks, head held high , bearing a chunk of fresh meat at least two kilogrammes in weight! Then I saw one pup rush through the grass, and they both disappeared behind the rocks…the pup ecstatic and twittering with excitement. Now as I sit, I catch occasional glimpses of dogs here and there in the rocks. But can not see pups…
The crunch of bone drifts tantalizingly through the air..wish I could see who was doing the crunching!
I am frustrated at having to leave the dogs on Senuko this morning, heading onwards to Hammond Ranch and then Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge overnight, for various meetings….but I will return tomorrow.
Sadly I will not have time at Chilo to get into the park. The lodge is a fantastic entry point into Gonarezhou National Park, where game drives are now fairly regularly seeing African wild dogs. Dr. Rosemary Groom of the African Wildlife Conservation Fund (AWCF) has monitored at least eight denning packs in Gonarezhou this year…under the auspices of The Gonarezhou Predator Project.
Some of the wild dogs in Gonarezhou have been identified as coming from the Save Valley Conservancy, which just goes to show the importance of having corridors of dispersal between wildlife areas…especially for these highly mobile and nomadic species!
Wow! Gorgeous Sabi stars are blooming at Chilo Gorge Lodge:
29th July at the den:
Back at the den it is late afternoon…
All is silent.
I stare hopefully at the deserted den mound…no pups materialize…
“Clive, perhaps a snake has bitten the pups, except for the one I saw…maybe the adults have moved away…” My words tail off….
This scenario is not unlikely…in these rocky areas large venomous snakes abound, and we have seen wild dog deaths from snakebite before.
After 30 minutes of patient listening and watching, the sun has started a rapid descent through the Mopani trees. We decide to drive slowly around the back of the den, where I last saw activity, and will approach on foot to look for tracks, if still no sign of the dogs.
Relief! As we circle, picking our way slowly through the dense Mopane trees at the base of the Kopjie, there are the telltale satellite ears of an adult lying in the grass, then another, and yet another, peering over a rocky outcrop at us…and suddenly the grass comes alive with one, two then all seven pups, as they head for a termite mound that we have not noticed…is this the new den?
It seems so, as they disappear rapidly ….must be a hole there somewhere. The adults nonchalantly stroll close to us, peering at us and acknowledging our arrival but relaxed. Only a soft growl from the unseen but ever vigilant Alpha female betrays her position in long grass near to the termite mound.
Within minutes of our arrival, the pack has melted away into the cool dusk, hunting for supper while the Alpha female remains, cautiously popping her head above the rim of the termite mound, where we now discover a hole and see the last pup dive down into the depths. They will only come out again when the hunters return and they are called for supper…! We will have to leave before then…
Sitting in the gloom, chatting quietly and watching birds prepare for night, I am deeply content. All is well in the Nyarushangas pack’s world, at least for today….
Lions have called distantly every night since I have been back at Senuko, an ever present threat for pups and adult dogs alike. But for the moment the second den is peaceful, undiscovered and safe.
30th July at the den:
Cloud, born 2012, is the only adult I see at the new den when I arrive late afternoon, at 5 pm.
The pups are at the den entrance, sheepish at my arrival, and rapidly retreating down the hole. One pup, gorgeous white and black blotched front paws, and braver than the rest, stares at me for long moments before melting away to safety.
Cloud paces, staring eastwards…is she alone at the den, yearning for the return of the hunting pack?
No…I hear rustling of grass, see movement of shrubbery on the far side of the mound. This is where I have seen the Alpha female resting yesterday, so perhaps she is lying there again.
Long minutes of silence, peace and solitude lull me. I fall into bitter sweet thoughts…could thus be my last chance to sit alone, on Senuko, at a African wild dog den? Recent developments regarding the indigenisation of Save Valley Conservancy properties could mean that Clive and I might lose our home on Senuko, depending on how National Parks and Ministry of Environment implement new policies. My sincerest hope is, whatever decisions are made for the future of this unique wilderness area, contiguous to the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area and home to so many endangered and threatened species in Zimbabwe, that those decisions will uphold sustainable conservation practices. These wilderness areas are not just our heritage, the community’s heritage, or Zimbabwe’s heritage, they are unique ecosystems which are a world asset. A world in which Space for all species is an ever-shrinking commodity. My reverie is punctuated by muffled baby growls emanating from the hole as siblings tussle down there in the dark.
As deeper dusk descends, a rustle heralds the movement of a dog, and indeed I see the Alpha female appear from her bed on the far side of the mound. She climbs to the apex of the mound, staring westwards for long minutes, then lies down there. A Queen on her hillock.
I write. She sits.
Then, as real darkness rubs up against a sickle moon descending in the west, and just as I decide to leave, she jumps up and approaches the den entrance, softly whining, calling the pups. Four come piling out, white patches shining bright in the dark, but immediately they see the shape of my vehicle, the object of their caution earlier, they heap up in the entrance to their burrow, refusing to follow their mother who unconcernedly strolls away. They are careful, timid little things, a good sign for their future survival in a dangerous world. As I watch, a simple rustle in the grass near the den electrifies them, and they dive back down their bolt hole as one! Gone.
31st July at the den:
7.30 am at the den no pups to be seen…but I spot Junior, a male born in 2009, walking over the distant rocks. Then another tawny dog, hard to see who in the deep grass. So at least some of the pack is here…have they hunted successfully this morning? Can not see their bellies, or if there is blood on their necks…
These Nyarushanga dogs are very casual with my vehicle, not even deigning to lift their heads from resting places in the long grass when I arrive, so it is extremely difficult to spot which dogs actually are present.
I guess that the pups heard my car arriving and hid down their hole.
Dreaming, writing and eating my banana muffin, I am content to wait.
At last Starbum, named so by our granddaughter Jade, when we visited the den weeks ago, because of the white star shapes on his left hindquarters, comes to the den. He calls the pups, who come tumbling out, and then he lies close to me! A beautiful animal. I wish Jade and her sister Rayne were here to admire Starbum and the pups with me. They are at school for the week. Jade, at seven years old, is already a wise, sensitive little soul, with a fascination of for all things living, ranging from her pet guinea pigs, rabbits, frogs and dogs, to all in this, the wilderness, around her. She happily puts up with me sitting for hours watching wild dogs, where other observers would get restless and bored…
The pups mill about for a while, playing, but keep a safe distance from me. When they retire into the hole, the last one in carries a plaything, a chunk of chewed wood…
After 15 min of silence, suddenly all is action,
A collared male, Wolf, comes running to the den and, whining, calls the pups out.
They are whimpering with excitement, tails stiff in the air, as he regurgitates meat for them and they leap into the food.
The Alpha female also rushes in and eats.
The whole pack erupts from the long grass, running and bounding as the pups chase after them.
The action flows through the thick winter grass, and within minutes the pack is dispersed among the rocks at the base of the Kopjie, much to the alarm of the spurfowl family who reside nearby, and who stutter with indignation for the next half hour as I watch dogs moving about the slopes, and pups clambering over rocks….
The alpha male is mobbed by eager pups, and regurgitates for them on the distant rocks. Through my binoculars I see that the collared male, and the Alpha female, have both got pink tinged necks.
So, the Alpha female hunted with the pack this morning…
As the morning sunlight catches the pink ruff of her neck, I see that her muzzle is touched with grey…a wise old girl…..
The Alpha female is a cautious mother, always the first to growl warning at any strange presence or sound. Now she follows the progress of her adventurous pups with her eyes, then climbs the rocks behind them, ever close, ever vigilant.
1st August at the den:
A Black eagle perches on the topmost boulder of the Kopjie overlooking the den, late afternoon. It is mobbed by swifts….
Would a Black eagle pick up a wild dog pup? Clive thinks so.
We drive around the Kopjie towards the dog den and spot three klipspringers poised like ballerinas on a steep boulder, Mother, Father and junior. Lovely to see these delicate little antelope so at home in their rocky world.
‘Watch out for the Black eagle, klippies’…..we have seen a black eagle, the female of the mated pair that nest there every year, pick up a young Klipspringer at Chilojo Cliffs in Gonarezhou National Park.
To a casual passer by all looks deserted as we arrive at the den site, but I know how these dogs keep their heads down in the grass, even when the vehicle comes and goes…so we wait.
The waiting game is suspenseful for me…any day the Alpha female could decide to move the growing pups on to a new den, and I know that the sad afternoon will arrive when no more dogs are to be seen at this site…
Ha! …a welcome growl rolls out of the grass after long minutes…she is aware of us, and the bit of noise we are making…I am pleased to hear her voice. The babies must be down the hole.
The second swarm of bees that I have heard today flies overhead, a humming warning that they are on the move, with the warmer weather.
A last…Starbum arrives at the den, checks the entrance but does not call the pups out…he is full bellied, bloated.
Then he lies down very close to the vehicle. What a gorgeous animal he is. As I admire him, in comes the young unnamed female, born 2013, straight to the den. She peers down the hole, then wanders over and picks up a meaty bone lying nearby..looks like a rib. Bearing it to a grassy patch, she lies down and devours it. We identify her as one of the two adult dogs in the Nyarushanga pack that had remained unnamed in the records of Dr. Rosemary Groom and the Lowveld Wild Dog Project, the other being the young male now called Starbum. So, we shall call her Eve, because, as Clive says, she picked up a rib bone!
This bone would not be lying around if hungry pups were needing it…they must be down the hole deep in full-bellied slumber!
Along comes Lupas, also a youngster from 2013, collared and tawny. He too sports a bloated tummy…the morning’s hunt must have been a good one. morning. Perhaps kudu was on the menu…
Very cautious of us, Lupas growls, approaches the den entrance and peeps down, but soon moves away.
Eve returns to the hole and digs energetically, so that dust and clods of earth come flying out in an excess of housekeeping!
Surely the pups would have been roused by all this activity…still no sign of them. Then we hear the twitter of other adults and baby growls from behind the den mound, at the base of the Kopjie. That is obviously where they are spending the afternoon….
Judging by the amount that has been eaten today, the pack probably will not need to hunt tonight.
By 5.30 the dogs are still heard to be active in the vicinity of the rocks, no hunting for them tonight.
2nd August at den:
On the road to the den I see two Slender mongooses together, black tipped tails held aloft in distinctive question mark shapes, as they flick through the long grass. Normally solitary creatures, I notice these two in particular because in the last few weeks I have seen no less than three pairs out and about..perhaps it is mating season for mongooses.
This morning the Black Eagle is still perched on its vantage point above the den, highlighted by early morning sunlight and orange rocks.
A magnificent sight…yet another of the endangered species that make the Save Valley Conservancy their home.
Misheck, one of the AWCF dog scouts, is at the old den site when I arrive, having just returned from leave. He has moved his camera trap from the old to the new den site. He has seen four or five adults this morning, and has been assuming that the pups are down the hole – I warn him that the adults may have moved the pups from the termite mound up into sheltering rocks, judging by what we observed yesterday.
He goes off on his trusty motorbike and I begin my vigil at the den. All is very quiet…I feel that the pups are not ‘at home’. No hint of baby growls or squeaks from the entrance.
Wonder if the presence of the Black eagle has spurred the adults to move the vulnerable pups from open ground to rocky shelter…protection from aerial attack….
I sit and sketch the termite den, enjoying my solitude….
Day dreaming into my sketch, I happen to glance up at the eagle’s eyrie. It is no longer there.
The sudden eruption of Spurfowl stutters and squirrel chirrups alerts me…are the dogs moving around, out of my sight…?
No, this is more than a dog alert, as two Go Away birds fly over and set up a chorus of ‘G’way!’ I look up as a shadow passes over me, and here is the Black eagle in all it’s full-spanned glory, soaring over the termite mound.
‘Keep hidden, puppies…’
Back to sketching, I while away long minutes, allowing myself to muse on the possible cleverness of the wild dogs in removing their pups into the rocks, away from easy access by the eagle…
Who in the pack hierarchy decides on these pack translocations…only the Alpha female? Or is it more of a communal instinct ?
Certainly yesterday the young dogs, Lupus and Eve, showed great concern at the den, peering down the empty hole, and Eve digging into the hole…were they making sure no pups were left stranded there after the family move?
Shortly a Spurfowl mother begins her plaintive ‘wheeee’, call, hunting for her dislocated babies in long grass, where they must have scattered with the fright of the eagle’s threat…when they locate the sound of her voice, they will fly up and drop in the grass at her feet like small ripe fruits…
After two hours of musing and sketching, the elusive wild dogs are still lying low… The eagle periodically calls and soars above me., creating hiccups and alarm among the squirrels. I realise I am hot, hungry…still in my winter pajama layers from the cold early start this morning, and no breakfast yet…just a mug of freshly brewed local La Lucie coffee on the run!
Where else would I be so lucky as to be able to fall out of bed and visit the Wild dog den still wearing my pajamas and old sheepskin slippers?!
If I had a breakdown, I would be a funny sight traipsing through the bush.
I depart homewards in my pajamas, to begin a long overdue, busy day of clearing out all our cupboards and attic, so much stuff accumulated over years, plus much valuable clothing that incredible friends and well-wishers have given Kelli in Harare after our house fire, in which she lost every thing she possessed!
So much of this does not fit her, and is extra to our needs, and so we will share it with all the staff who work at Senuko. Our gain is their gain.
‘Farewell for today, dog den…..’
Possibly the end of another era in the eventful lives of the Nyarushanga Pack; the beginning of the more nomadic way of life they follow as soon as the pups are robust enough to follow the adults on their daily wanderings.
We will see what the camera trap records over the next few days.
3rd August at the den:
Driving in to the den, I see no Black eagle. With him not around, perhaps the wild dogs are back in the termite mound…
Yes!….I drive slowly up to the area and find two pups staring at me from the entrance…then I see the Alpha female and her mate, Foxy, just ahead of me in the grass. She is intent on rolling in some irresistible smell ahead of me in the grass, and he closely accompanies her, nose touching her rump as she walks away from me.
She walks past the den and all the pups eagerly stream out and follow her. She flops down in the shade but soon leaps up when the babies all rush up to her, hoping to suckle! No chance! She growls at them then continues from grass clump to grass clump, sniffing…has there been a predator near the den during the night? The way she sniffs high on various grass stalks could suggest hyena….I am amused to see the pups copying her sniffs!
It will be interesting to see what nocturnal secrets the well-placed camera trap might show….
They all proceed up to the rocks, and I see her still sniffing at clumps, then she urinates , followed closely by the Alpha male who urinates in the same spot as she has. The pups mill around, exploring and doing puppy stuff, ambushing and tussling with each other. One picks up a limp piece of grass-covered meat, I guess remnants from this morning’s hunt, and runs about teasing the others with it.
Starbum returns, coming close to me to check the den entrance, and as he walks away again I am struck anew by his magnificent white markings. Our wild dogs in the Save Valley Conservancy, and many that I have seen in Gonarezhou, have such high predominance of pure white and black patches in their coats, compared to the more tawny dogs that I have watched in Botswana and seen photos of in East Africa, that I wonder if this is in response to the more wooded, rocky terrain here in the Conservancy, as opposed to the more arid open grasslands of those other places….?
Athough the Alpha male is relatively tawny, this litter of pups have inherited fabulous white markings, their forelegs dappled and spotted as if with thick white cream, fresh milked!
Perhaps the propensity for white colour us a dominant gene…..all to the good…our dogs are very spectacular! Very paintable!
After Starbum returns to them in the rocks, the pack, with pups, melts away into the rocks of the Kopjie, out of my sight and hearing.
For the next hour I write, ponder and enjoy my solitude. Winter sunshine warms my back as I lean against the open window. After one and a half hours I hear a rustle….two small puppy faces peer at me over the top of the termite mound…then, pretending that they are figments of my imagination, they sneak low down through the long grass to dive into their den. Clever, cautious little things. I hope this caution serves them well in the challenges ahead that they face, growing up with predators such as lions, hyenas, eagles, and yes, people…
A Barred owl calls suddenly, plaintively, behind me.
Go Away birds and Spurfowl sound an alarm in the distance.
Then closer, closer, a Go Away bird right above me shouts..echoed by a network of alert friends…and squirrels start chattering excitedly…..I look for the Black eagle. Can not see it, but then I hear it, calling louder and louder, flying above and out of my sight. I hope those pups who have not returned to the den are safe under rocks….
As I leave the den, my fond farewell glance, looking back through the trees towards the kopjie, reveals three young adults lying together on a flat rock, close huddled and heads on each others’ flanks as they casually dismiss me.
Clive and I visit the den. No sign of life.
But I know better!
We drive away and explore the area, then return at 5pm. After sitting for half an hour, Clive says he thinks they are not here today…
Time ticks by.
Clive jerks upright..a pup appears out of long grass, followed fast by three more, each dashing up to and diving into the den entrance.
Two more arrive, more relaxed in their approach and sitting for a while at the entrance to stare at us before disappearing. Six pups safe in the den….but where is number seven?
They soon re-emerge, one here, two there, scratching madly…there are probably fleas down there, and it is must also be getting a bit crowded, with all those fast growing bodies…
Losing their puppy look, they are miniature adults in their looks now, fully tricoloured with their tan markings having developed. They still have their engaging puppy habit of sitting on their haunches, hind legs sideways and plump bellies bulging. I never see the adults sit that way, who always either stand up or lie fully down.
Thinking about how endearing that plump bulge of puppy belly is, I think of the superb sketch that is used on a Painted Wolf Wines label..so cute..
One of the gorgeous drawn labels for Painted Wolf Wines, love that puppy tummy!:
Jeremy Borg of Painted Wolf Wines might be visiting us later in this year, thinking about another Pedals 4 Paws bicycle ride through our wild dog areas to raise money and awareness for African wild dogs, most exciting.
Still we wonder, where is number seven?
‘Eaten by the Black eagle?’ says Clive.
As we wait for number seven to appear or not appear, we hear the ‘Hooo, hooo’ of a calling dog. Are the pack hunting close by?
Then there is a twittering and commotion in the grass as two young adults arrive, escorting the last pup. Those pups in the den rush out, and subdued greetings are given all round, but no regurgitation of food. My guess is that pup number seven found himself left alone, far from the den, and sent a distress signal – which his older siblings answered, coming fast from their resting places in the rocks to rescue him and show him home…
After half an hour, an adult dog runs towards the pups. We can not see much in the deep dusk, but we do see that a small amount of food is regurgitated for the excited pups. Hardly enough for one, let alone seven, and they run to and fro searching the grass for any tiny morsel they may have missed. They are hungry.
Another older sibling, one of last years pups, rushes in at the babies, head low, threatening them to stay near the den. They seem not to take her disciplinary action very seriously, giving way to her reluctantly and certainly not submissive like they would be towards their mother or father!
Mars, the war-like, red-looking “star”, which of course is a planet, graces my night sky tonight, very near the Moon.
4th August at the den:
I arrive by ten o’clock and see the Alpha female and Foxy standing close together in my track. They stroll away into the rocks, lying down together on a flat top ….the alpha female cleverly lies with her eyes level behind a shelf of rock which hides most of her body but allows her to ‘sleep with one eye open’ on the den entrance! She is distinctive even at this distance, her left ear deeply scalloped from some old injury.
She never fully dozes, periodically lifting her head high to listen, and test the wind….
Late afternoon at the den, I arrive and photogaph a female, Cape, born 2012, who sports a scalloped right ear, a healed wound, plus another young dog standing in the road, who both come up behind my car as I drive past and to the den entrance. I make a mental note: ‘Cape has a damaged right ear, the Alpha female a damaged left ear. Legacies of fast and furious hunts through thorny shrubs?’
The pups are sitting at the den looking at me, then they retire. The two adults come past me and call out the pups, leading them away from the den. All except Tail End Charlie, who, last out of the den hesitates and pops in and out like a hack in the box for ten minutes, torn between following his mates or eyeing my car! Eventually he braves it and creeps away from the den through the long grass, hoping I can not see him! I wonder if he was the one pup who got left behind and started yodeling for help last night….?
I see the little ones exploring the rocks.
A barred owl starts it trilling call.
The two adults decide to head off into the bush, going west. Vague disciplinary action on their part, rushing at the pups with lowered heads, does not do much good…the pups pay lip service, giving way and milling at the den, but as soon as the adults disappear into the deep grass, they egg each other on to venture forth again, each running faster and faster as it sees it’s mates do the same, and the last I see of the adventurous pups is their little white flag tails clambering up and among some distant rocks. They are now so far from the den that if a leopard or lion happens upon them, they will not make it back…..
No other adult dogs are evident at the den, so they must all be out hunting under Saturn, which is the bright “star” near the Moon tonight, a distinctive sight, not red like Mars. In the distance roosting baboons sound a half hearted alarm. Perhaps the hunting dogs passed beneath their trees…
After long minutes I hear the telltale rustle of little bodies, and here come the naughty babies bouncing back through the grass, periodically stopping to stare at me in shock, as if they never knew I was there!
I will make sure that they are all in the den before starting my engine to leave, not wanting to startle them too much. Cleverly, they sneak and creep around the back of their termite mound, forsaking their normal approach, and one by one they arrive at the entrance. Still unwilling to go to bed, (too many fleas?!), they potter about the vicinity. Perhaps they also feel the pangs of hunger, and are hoping for the early return of the hunters……..they do spend a lot of time staring off into the direction that the two adults took.
A Rock hyrax sounds an alarm from the next large Kopjie…could be a leopard, or sight of the dogs which has triggered that.
These bad pups are not gathering at the den after all..they make extensive forays outwards. Their exploration of some more rocks creates hysteria in a spurfowl who is trying to go to bed. These intrepid little characters will soon be more than ready to begin learning to follow the adults on hunts, waiting somewhere safe for the final stages of each hunt, but venturing further and further each time.
I wonder if they will still be based at this den in six days time, by the time of the full moon, which is on Sunday 10th August…I love this week leading up to the blowzy brightness of the full moon…each dusk falls bringing a growing silvery light as the moon grows, which is ethereal and very satisfying to me. The night before the full moon is my favourite night, the sun dying with a glowing huge moon already risen, an unearthly light then pervades and it seems an enchanted hour till the sun’s last lights have died away.
I have noticed that the wild dogs hunt later and later each night as this light grows….we have often found them out and about at midnight on the night of a full moon!
Hunting is a matter of sight and sound foremost for them, they are not so reliant on smell.
5th August at the den
Before I Ieave for the dog den, I peer up into the narrow gap of our chimney and loud hissing greets me. Yes! I thought so…last night a slipping and sliding noise heralded the involuntary descent of yet another baby barn owl down the chimney flue, from the ledge inside the chimney where the adults persist in making their nest every year.. Wilson and Anderson help me to reach inside, and maneuver him out, and he loses his bluster when exposed to us, sitting owlishly, pretending that we are not real. Wrapping him in a small blanket, I carry him upstairs and deposit him in the nesting box that I made three years ago, which has served as secondary home for many baby owls after their slide down the chimney. It is open to the front, and here his mother will find him and feed him tonight, tracking his calls.
That done, I admire the herd of three hundred buffalo which have just arrived at our water hole to drink. A magnificent sight. Before I start the car, I let them drink, then once they have moved away I head off.
Round puppy ears give away the babies in the long grass behind the den as I look for them on my arrival.
They are used to the noise of the car now, and do not rush helter skelter for the den entrance.
As so often happens at this cooler time of day, 3.45pm, my arrival spurs the adult dogs to action, that plus possible thoughts of empty stomachs needing to hunt and eat…! Within minutes all is seeming chaos, adults and pups whirling and leaping through the grass. All adults defer to Foxy, heads low and necks stretched, licking avidly at his lips. The lower he holds his head, the lower they hold theirs, till they literally roll on the ground beneath him, twisting their bodies to stay lower than his.
Wolf is particularly engaging with the babies, lying down on his side for them to jump all over him. He is very patient. He moves with a limp today, favoring his right forepaw. I hope it not too serious a wound, can not see swelling or blood.
After this initial flurry of social activity, all is quietness again…the pack collapses among the rocks, and the pups mill around, but Starbum lies close to me and the den, as usual.
By 4.30 Starbum rouses himself, and approaches the tree in which Misheck has placed the camera. He is fascinated or irritated by the sound of its clicks as it responds to the action of the pups in the entrance, I think.
He comes right up to the tree it is mounted on and, eagerly observed by the less adventurous members of his family, rears up in all his spotted glory to bite at the straps holding it! He does this repeatedly, and I wonder what kind of photos it is taking…the inner linings of his pink mouth?! Can not WAIT to see those images!
The young adults are now intent and twittering, heads low, running side by side with outstretched necks as if yoked together. Pups are excited, but holding back as if they know they are not invited to this party….
The alpha female and her mate Foxy stand quietly together, but their imposing presence is tangible as a rock…the pack action eddies around them as she flicks her tail and he stands, chin against her rump.
Within minutes the pack has calmed down, taken stock of the planned hunt by some mysterious communications that I can only begin to imagine, and has melted as one into the Mopani woodland, white tail flags disappearing into the trees.
Cloud is the last adult to remain in the den vicinity, checking the pups, but then moves off slowly, following her pack.
The evening hunt has begun, directed no doubt by the Alpha pair. The pups and I remain behind and the pups remain hidden to me in a nest of long grass.
The Barred owl begins his ode to the coming night.
I sit and breathe. Just breathe.
I relish the scent of Wild dog, (some would not!), the faint rustles from the puppies’ resting place, the cool of the evening, and drongos and spurfowl greeting the evening.
Rock hyraxes yell alarms from distant rock outcrops, perhaps marking the passage of the hunting pack.
As I drive homewards at dusk, past the Senuko workshops, I come across a young rock hyrax (Dassie) trotting down the main dirt road, heading south and far from the shelter of a large Kopjie behind me! There are no other kopjies in the direction he is heading! This is an unusual sight, since rocks are the hyrax’s castle. When when I tell Clive, he says, ‘young male dassies leave their rocky birthplaces to search for females and establish new families. Spotting distant rock outcrops on the horizon, they make haste for these, at great risk. The Shangaans believe that sometimes the dassies mistake clouds billowing on the horizon for rock outcrops, and they set out for a Kopjie that is only a mirage…..’
Now I remember noticing the erupting cloud of smoke from a sugar cane field fire, on the horizon last night as I drove. I thought then how like a mountain it looked…did that little Dassie think the same!?
6th August at the den
When I park at the den at 4 pm all is seemingly deserted, and for a whole hour I sit alone, writing, sketching and wondering if the day has at last dawned when the pack takes the pups with them to a new, less permanent den site and they begin their career of learning to hunt. Ever hopeful, and hearing squirrels sounding an alarm from the nearby Mopani trees, I wonder if the pups are lying out there somewhere in the shade. Strange that the squirrels would be so stressed by the dogs though, who pose no real threat to them…
After a prolonged burst of squirrel curses, joined now by the anxious clucks of spurfowls, I look more closely around me. And see the cause of the alarm…the Black eagle is perched high on a Mopani tree close behind me. What an impressive sight, so near, so large, so black and white.
Perhaps the wild dogs are lying low because of this bird.
As I write, and look up again, it is soundlessly gone as if it never was. But now that I know it is there, my ear picks up the subtle chirrups of distant squirrels as it circles the far side of the Kopjie, and then, because I am watching for it, I am treated to the broad coal black span of its wings and pure white back as it flies silently past me, hugging the Kopjie and seeming to search the rocks, turning its head this way and that.
Of wild dogs…still no sight nor sound.
I hear a motor. It cuts. Eventually Misheck walks up behind me, having been arguing with his motorbike; faulty or dirty spark plugs, he thinks. He collects the camera trap, which is hanging rather precariously by its straps after Starbum’s attack last night! Heading northwards within the Conservancy, he will visit Humani ranch to retrieve a camera trap at a den there, and will proceed to Chishakwe Ranch, headquarters of the African Wildlife Conservation Fund. There, Dr Rosemary Groom and her able assistant Jess Watermeyer, will collate the data from the various camera traps that they monitor.
By 5.33 I make plans to leave, but think I hear the gruff warning growl of a dog somewhere in the distant Mopani…hope the pups are safe tonight, wherever they sleep….
The buffalo are still ensconced in the Mopani trees around our waterhole when I arrive home. Clive hopes they stay the night, and flatten the deep grass around our house. It is that dangerous time of year when smoke palls constantly blot the horizon. Smoke not just from distant sugar cane fires, but also from veld fires roaring in from the east. Our Senuko team has begun back burning fire breaks along our eastern boundaries, but the flatter the grass around our houses, the better….
When I awake in darkness at 2am, no power, the buffalo are munching and lowing near our bedroom. If they stay around, lions will soon follow…
Getting up let the Jack Russell’s out and to heat water on the gas for tea, I hear the distant rasp of a leopard, probably coming to our waterhole to drink, watch out Jack Russell’s! The reassuring thumping and scratching of the baby owl in his box upstairs indicates that he is demolishing mouse remains.
One day he will be a handsome chap…
7th August at the den
This evening, as I sit, waiting and writing, the den has a desolate air; the only sign of life has been a quartet of zebras at the base of the Kopjie and baboons meandering through the Mopani trees looking for a suitable roost for the night…
I really feel that the last two days have been the turning point, that the Nyarushanga pack has resumed the nomadic existence that they are so well suited for. For these far-ranging creatures, who love movement and distance, to be ‘on the move’ again after being tied for months to one place, must bring such a sense of rightness. The pups, about ten weeks old and strong as they now are, must also feel the intense joy of accompanying their elders into the wide world. Happy as I am for them, yet I am sad. Lonely.
8th August at Senuko:
Today we begin to clear fire breaks around our house, first ripping the roads to clear vegetation. At the end of a dry winter, the shoulder height golden grass looks beautiful, but it is deadly when a grass fire rushes through…
I photograph the tractor, ripping the earth. I shiver in anticipation of the flames to follow, even though the sun shines.
Fire has been such a force in our own lives;
Welcome when we huddle round the campfire on cold winter nights,
Welcome when we cook our food on Mopani fires in Harare and Senuko, having yet another power cut,
Welcome when we need to repair elephant-damaged water pipes in the field …
Unwelcome when it is burning the very fabric of our lives, tearing down the roof of our Harare house and destroying possessions, (not thankfully, lives),
Unwelcome when we had to fight the six metre high wall of flames which fronted a wild bush fire on our boundary years ago,
Unwelcome when a ball of fire roared through the tops of the Mopani woodland, jumped a waterhole and engulfed the living area of Senuko Lodge, burning it to the ground,
Unwelcome when it destroys all the grass and leaf cover that should feed the grazers and browsers until the next rains come.
I have a fascination with fire.
The stories told and the shapes presented in the flickering flames of a campfire or the roaring flames of a raging bushfire, enthrall me.
My more abstract paintings have always reflected fire, the terror and beauty of it;
A tall Mopani stump, all that is left of a once vibrant tree, burning at night like a vicious totem,
The black hieroglyphs of charred plants that float on the wind, created by the flames,
The monumental base of a rock that has been licked by fires uncountable over many hundreds of years,
The burnt silver butterflies lying in a sea of darkness that are Mopani leaves on charred grass.
As I now drive to the den, I think about how vulnerable young pups are to a bush fire. Birds nests, tortoises, giant land snails, all those who can not easily get away from the licking flames.
At the den, the haunting refrain of grey hornbills echoes through the Mopani. The termite mound seems empty of life. On my way in I have seen a group of young male impalas, accompanying a troop of baboons who climb the tall cathedral Mopani – I think they are searching for Mopani leaves infested with a certain scale insect which exudes a sweet sap. Yes! I confirm that as I stop and check some fallen leaves- there are the brown scale insects, clinging to the surface….
The dung of many buffalo lies over my tracks from last night.
I sit at the den. And wait. Clive this morning has said, ‘they have moved den’ – he wonders why I am even going to check, but now my patience is rewarded as I sit, and sit…..a growl emanates from the distant grass, and I see the white flash of a tail. They are out there somewhere, just no longer at the den mound….
Suddenly, I hear the distant interaction of the pack, returning from a hunt and being greeted ecstatically by the begging pups!
I drive towards the very large Kopjie behind the original den Kopjie, following the sound. In deep Mopani woodland I have to halt, too thick to drive through.
I can hear the sounds of feeding as the adults regurgitate meat for the pups. They are hidden to me in the Mopani, but the sound is a delight to me…all is well with the Nyarushangas…
9th August near the den:
Arriving late, 8.40 am…the dogs may have returned from hunting and fed the pups already, in which case we will not hear them.
We wait, I write…….
Last night I heard the baby owl energetically greeting his mother as she arrived with a rat. This morning Wilson discovered a freshly de-capitated rat outside my studio, beneath the spot where the adult owl often sits. She must have accidentally dropped this second rat after feeding her baby the first one! We put it in the box with the baby. He can snack on it at his leisure! An interesting rat, it has a short stumpy tail. Must look it up in the Reay and Smithers Mammals book.
Many elephants arrived at our empty waterhole last night. A cow herd with calves, they milled and shuffled sadly around the muddy remains, carefully checking our inlet pipe for any hint of fresh water. It was a terrible, helpless feeling watching them unable to drink after obviously having walked so far in anticipation of cool water. The pump at the Mkwasine river broke and was being fixed yesterday…no water available to fill the tanks and the waterhole. This sobering reality makes us realise yet again how fully we rely on piped water in this semi arid area. Our pipeline is so old, dating from the cattle era, that it is vulnerable, and because it is shallow, it is constantly being ripped up by the thirsty elephants.
As I write, I hear the Black eagle calling, with a squirrel fast to yell the alarm! Can not see it.
Clive and I decide that the den is truly deserted. We walk up to the entrance, no recent tracks.
The Black eagle graces us by soaring low over our heads. He could tell us where the dogs were…!
Wending our way homewards we use an old fence line track and immediately get a slashed tyre from a short metal pole hidden in long grass. Bang goes one of the two good tyres we had left on the vehicle. We gloomily change it for a worn, old tyre, wondering how we are going to afford getting a new set for all the long distance travel we have to do in the next months.
As they say in Zimbabwe, we will have to ‘make a plan!’
10th August, our Jack Russell’s Dzidzi and Shonge catch a rat behind our fridge, same kind as mummy owl is feeding her baby..looking it up, we find that it is a Pouched rat. Mostly solitary and living in burrows.
Still no water in the pipeline; zebras stamp on the hard ground and thirsty giraffe pace accusingly on the fringes of the Mopani trees that surround our waterhole.
At dusk, we ascend Sunset Rock, light a small fire and watch the full moon rise, complete with rabbit. Sharing the beauty, the peace, with family and neighbours.
15th August at Senuko:
At last water is running to our waterhole, and many happy warthogs and kudu are arriving to drink.
A baboon troop, accompanied by many impala, are regular visitors, and entertain me endlessly with their antics.
Misheck returned to the vicinity of the dog den recently, and discovered the small body of one of the Nyarushanga pups. On hearing about it, my worry was that disease such as rabies had killed it, putting the rest of the pack in danger as well….
Taking it back to Rosemary, they decided it was likely to have died from some trauma such as being hit by a vehicle. So very sad, but at least not a contagious disease…..
Misheck has since spotted the nine adult dogs and six pups on Humani Ranch.