With the start of our trip to Mana Pools being so successful, particularly with the African wild dogs, the pressure was off and the whole group could just enjoy themselves. There is nothing better for me as a leader than knowing your group are happy after their first couple of days on safari.
When I asked everyone what they wanted to focus on for the next few days, half the group said they would like to try their luck with the southern carmine bee-eater colony, while the other half wanted to keep following the dogs. I kept with the wild dog group to keep numbers nicely balanced and we had a brilliant time with the dogs.
It took a little time to find the dogs this morning as they had moved some distance overnight. Nick Murray (our guide and the BBC’s Dynasties series guide) and I used our combined tracking skills to eventually find the dogs much further to the east. The pack had come across a small herd of zebra and decided that this was a good lesson for the pups. Zebra are not typical prey for these painted wolves, they focus their efforts on impala, but that is all part of the learning curve for young dogs.
We watched them play with the zebra for 10 minutes or so before they went off at high speed after a herd of impala. Even in the vehicle we couldn’t keep up, such was their speed. When we eventually caught up with them, they had found a warthog and were desperately trying to catch it. However, every time they got close the warthog, which was a very healthy large male, he backed himself into a drainage culvert.
Eventually the pack gave up and just went about the daily routine of getting ready for their siesta. This is a great time to photograph the dogs as the sun is often still low in the sky, meaning you get some lovely rich light. At the same time, a large bull elephant appeared and started to browse the high branches of a fruiting sausage tree. We were truly blessed with some excellent photography. We also came across a small pride of lion just a hundred yards or so from where we had a breakfast stop on the banks of the Zambezi.
After a little while, all the dogs eventually crossed a drying pool and ended up resting in a shady dry gully, where the sandy soil was still moist with small pools of water. We found the dogs in the same spot in the afternoon before they suddenly got up, crossed one of the small pools and sprinted across the open plain towards the higher ground of the park.
Above the floodplain the vegetation is radically different and we lost the dogs in the thick undergrowth. It was only the noise of the dogs on a kill that meant we were able to locate them in a dense thicket. The photography opportunities here were limited, but the proximity to the pack and their kill was incredible.
It all got rather exciting as the light started to fade. As we were watching the pack finish off the last scraps of the impala carcass, a small herd of elephants arrived on the scene. Within moments the elephants had the scent of the wild dogs and charged – the only issue was that we were between the two and we had to make a very speedy retreat and move back towards the vehicles. Our guides were absolutely excellent, keeping the group out of harms way without any hesitation or panic. Clear, calm and incisive commands kept us all safe with some heightened adrenaline levels.
If you ask me where I feel most at home, there is only one answer and that’s ‘Africa’. So, why Africa I hear you ask? Well, quite simply, it is home to some of the world’s finest wildlife, wonderful people and stunning landscapes.
Well recently I went to Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, while leading for Wildlife Worldwide, and I can honestly say that my life has changed forever. That is the second time I have said that after a trip to Africa in the last year and I stick by it. Mana Pools has become synonymous with the African wild dog (or painted wolf) as per the BBC’s fantastic Dynasties series. In fact, I spent 8 days in the park following the star of the show Blacktip and her pack.
It is possible to go on walking safaris in Mana Pools, which is just like many other parks (particularly in Zambia), but here the wildlife can be very approachable and the wild dogs are especially habituated to people on foot. On top of that there are few elephants that are particularly special and allow a wonderfully close approach.
Anyway, I won’t rattle on too much more. Here are the highlights from the first couple of days …
The first encounter with the dogs was definitely one of the most frantic. Just as I approached the dogs with my group, the whole pack got up and started to try their luck hunting a herd of impala. All hell broke loose and we somehow ended up right in the middle of it. At one point we were surrounded by around 10 dogs as they tried to panic the impala into a mistake.
The next morning we found the dogs in almost the same spot as where we left them, and they allowed even closer approaches. When you struggle to fit your subject in the frame it is always a good day ...
After a fantastic morning in Mana Pools the evening proved to be even better. We found the pack fairly close to where we left them, they were enjoying an afternoon siesta. Not long after we arrived, the dogs started to wake and start their bond renewal routine. African wild dogs are one of the world's most social species and the level of their communication skills are far beyond our understanding. We watched the whole pack greet one another and play in wondrous orange light.
Mana Pools is one of those places that gets under your skin and I hope that this overview of my time there inspires you to go for yourself. Join me in 2019 and discover the next chapter of Tait's & Blacktip's Dynasty - Mana Pools: Wild Dogs & Elephants Photography.