Ever seen a painted wolf?
We’ve been driving for about 5 minutes on an early morning game drive when I hear Anne shout, 'Dog!' It can’t be, I think to myself. But she’s right. In a clearing that lies just to the right of us I see an African wild dog, and then another.
They disappear into the distance in a matter of seconds. Anne (Schauffer, the editorial bureau chief of Media Nova) and I look at each other as if we’ve been in a joint dream. Sightings of African wild dog are notoriously rare.
'Do you think we’ll see more?' I ask Sello Manyama, who is our guide for the drive at Jaci’s Lodges in the Madikwe Game Reserve.
'I’m not sure. Let’s drive up to the north and see if they have crossed the river yet,' he answers.
As we drive along the sand road, we spot a tree filled with red-billed hornbills, a crimson-breasted shrike, a grey heron and a red-billed till. The early worm catches the birds here at Madikwe, it seems.
Before long we’ve had a number of other sightings – a herd of Burchell’s zebra, quite a few hartebeest, two female giraffes with two calves and a grey duiker.
There’s some activity over the car radio and Sello turns off the engine. In the distance I can see movement, but it’s not clear what I’m looking at. And then, from under the shadow of a huge acacia tree, comes a trotting wild dog. Followed by 7 more.
They run right past us, so close that I can barely believe my eyes.
'This pack of wild dogs is going on a hunt,' says Sello. 'They have to feed the litter of puppies.'
I watch as the dogs run past us and to the left. It’s clear that they are on a mission.
The early worm catches the birds here at Madikwe, it seems.
'Let’s go see if we can find the pups,' says Sello, and I just about fall out of my seat and into the sand below.
We keep on driving in the cool air, which has become considerably warmer now that the sun has come out. The light is gorgeous as the sun hits the landscape – and for once I’m glad that I woke up so early.
And then, from out of nowhere, we see them – African wild dog pups playing in the bush.
We are in the only vehicle at the sighting, and the pups are having a blast. They’re running and chasing each other through the shrubs, squeaking and biting each other’s necks, and wagging their white-tipped, painted tails.
They are being supervised by 4 adult dogs, which lie watching the bush for any sign of predators.
'Both the male and female dogs take turns keeping watch,' Sello tells us. 'And both the male and female dogs will regurgitate food from the hunt to feed the pups. This way the whole group tends for the youngsters until they are old enough to go on hunts, too”
I count 12 pups, plus 4 adults. Add them to the 8 hunters we saw earlier, and the 2 scouts we saw before that, and that’s 26 wild dogs I’ve seen in a morning.
Anne and I are superbly lucky, or so says Jan van Heteren of Jaci's Lodges when, later, we tell him what we’d seen.
'As a South African, if you go the Kruger National Park every year, and twice every second year, the average sighting of wild dog is once every 17 years,' he tells us later as Anne and I decompress from the most magnificent game drive either of us has ever been on.