“I’ve seen zebras crossing the Grumeti; I’ve seen hyenas bring down a baby elephant; I’ve seen a croc take a lion cub. But I’ve never seen the wildest of all the wild creatures, those damned elusive wild dogs.” I nod my head mechanically at the man talking next to me on the four-seated Cessna, but say nothing. We are flying over southern Tanzania and the small plane is making terrifying plunges through the turbulent sky. “They used to live everywhere,” he continues, undeterred by my silence, “all over this land, half a million they say south of the Sahara in packs of up to 100 dogs. Today there are only 6,600 left, and most of those in relict population. This,” he gestures to the vast woodlands below us, “is probably the best wild dog country left in Africa.”
That conversation on my first trip to the Selous Game Reserve, seven years ago, began a friendship that has continued long beyond that cloudy day. The safari had barely begun and I was already in love with places that I had never heard of before meeting Nick: the names Samburu, Machakos, Filtu, Isiolo and Bubye-Bubiana rolled off his tongue and came to sound like just about the coolest places on the planet. I have added to the list since then, telling him of my visits to Chobe, Tsavo, Katavi, Ruaha and Okavango. Between us we have visited almost all the surviving provinces of the African wild dog. By email and skype we have swapped stories of tracking dogs through the continent’s last wildernesses. But for me, sadly, despite many tantalising near misses, I have not yet seen the dogs. It’s become a sort of joke between us: I’m not looking properly; I've seen them but keep mistaking them for hyenas. Then the homespun wisdom comes: ”Nothing found easily is worth looking for,” Nick tells me, “success is in the searching”. This trip back to the Selous Game Reserve is my final pilgrimage. “This is your last chance, Hoole,” he tells me. “This is Wild Dog Mecca. Don’t mess it up.”
Why do wild dogs so catch the imagination? Is it the apparent variety, freedom and excitement of their life? Their constant search for what’s over the mountain, across the river, beyond the trees?
They appear to live everywhere and nowhere. Whole packs appear for a moment in the wilderness, vanish the next day, then reappear again months later. No one is certain where they come from or where they go, for it is impossible to keep up with them in these unroaded landscapes. They can run for hours, their rangy legs propelling them forward on relentless quests for exciting sights, new possibilities, fresh prey. They take over the abandoned dens of warthogs or aardvarks, too lazy, indifferent or impatient to build their own. Why build anyway? The pups will soon be grown, in 12 weeks they’ll be running with the pack, and then the brief stillness is over and the journeying can begin again.
“Why do wild dogs thrive in the Selous?” I had asked Nick seven years ago. “Here, above all places in the world?” “They’ve got 50,000 square kilometres to run around in ,” he had answered immediately. “Not many places on the planet still this wild. But ever here, they’re battling with lions, humans and disease. The sad truth is, Hoole, even here they’re endangered and may not survive.”
The chilling words of my friend echoed in my ears as I booked into Siwandu camp that noon. Yet it was hard to feel sad seeing the splendid suite assigned to me and gazing out at hippos yawning on the distant lake. I lounged on my veranda during the heat of the afternoon and watched all the animals of the savannah wander past my veranda: a dazzle of zebra grazed just a few feet beyond; a fish eagle soared past; a phalanx of giraffes paused, looked in on me, then ambled on. At four, my personal butler arrived to deliver tea, apple cake, and the mouth-watering dinner menu, and to tell me that the next morning my quest to find the wild dogs could resume.
We gathered together at dawn the next day to begin tracking with the great Mzee Mtambo a man born into this wilderness and with 33 years experience of guiding walks within it. If anyone knew the wild lands of the Selous or where to find the elusive Lycaon pictus it was Mtambo.
Bertie Wooster’s rival ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright was a man reputed to move so silently and stealthily that he could crawl through an entire jungle without snapping a single twig: well, here was his living incarnation. Yes, Mtambo answered in his soft voice, walking silently through the bush, he had seen the wild dogs many many times; yes; those were its footprints; yes, the denning season was the best possible time to see them. No, the dogs had not been seen for ten days.
He answered the questions of the other guests with just as much patience and respect, those equally obsessed with birds or insects or plants: Yes, raptors circle the sun to confuse their prey; yes, that plant is used as a sort of local Viagra, yes, dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way. And then he told us about things we had never thought to notice or ask about: why cats were colour blind; pangolins toothless; dik diks monogamous; hippos sun-sensitive and lions didn’t purr. He pointed out the lipstick tree, the bright white dung of hyenas, explained why giraffes didn’t faint when they bent their heads to drink and why crocodiles could go months at a time without food.
He invited us to sniff leaves, rub bark, drink the water from elephant dung. Who knew elephant dung water could cure fever? Who knew it smelled so sweet? He showed us the stories written in the sandy soil of the Selous: the hippopotamus that had lain down to have clandestine sex with a non-dominant male far from the prying eyes of the river; the family of jackals that passed this way through the bush last night; the lioness that had stalked an impala just a few hours earlier. It’s amazing what hooves and paws and claw imprints can tell you. There’s a whole world of stories written on the ground if only you have the key to decipher them. We had only been walking for a couple of hours and already I was lost in the joy of learning again about this extraordinary ecosystem. As we emerged beside a river replete with crocodiles and hippos, a chef and a waiter jumped out and beckoned us towards a breakfast table groaning with freshly brewed coffee, fruits, bacon and eggs, and it began to dawn on me that it might be ever so slightly silly to keep harping on about wild dogs when there was so much more to see. I surrendered to the whole for a moment; to the beauty of a Selous breakfast surrounded by the earth and river and air.
Reclining on my vast bed after the sort of repast that would have satisfied Lucretius the Epicurean, I couldn’t resist playing over in my mind the Planet Earth aerial footage of wild dogs hunting. It was only broadcast in 2006, yet was the first time that audiences had seen a full hunt captured on film.
How different life was just a few decades ago! I thought to myself. When I was a child, few people had heard of African wild dogs, little was known about them, they had hardly been studied, and the few facts that scientists then reiterated about them have virtually all now been disproved. Now, even without setting foot in their continental homeland you might have seen images of their extraordinarily successful synchronised hunting, of their elaborate greeting rituals. You may have listened to them twitter, whine, howl, alarm bark, and yelp. Watched on high definition their extraordinary pre-hunt rituals. Seen them defer to the young at kills and invite young pups to the choicest parts of the impala. Observed on film that they are affectionate to each other, rarely aggressive, never fight over food, lick each other’s wounds, look after their sick. You may have seen and heard and read all this even before you have had a glimpse of their bushy white-tipped tails.
There are still mysteries, of course, things that aren’t yet understood. In 1962, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger saw a pack of dogs on Mount Kilimanjaro in the thin air of 16,000 feet. What were the dogs doing in the oxygen-deprived environment? Why did they not retreat or get sick? Why did they watch Thesiger and his team sign the visitors’ book on the summit and then vanish over the crater rim, never to be seen again? Why did the wild dogs of the Serengeti disappear in the 1990s? Why do warthogs and wild dogs sometimes share a den? Why did a dog in Botswana form friendships with hyenas and nurse baby jackals? Mysteries flourish around the dogs and there is a lifetime of wondering for those enraptured with Lycaon pictus.
We tracked on foot and by vehicle for three days. There were mornings following spore for miles through the bush, before the prints perplexingly disappeared beside the river. There were afternoons where we picked up nothing: neither scent, nor prints nor droppings. There was a dog-shaped hole in our life, and yet it was still a glorious time, the anticipation of encountering the canines interspersed with sumptuous meals, roaring pre-dinner fires, siestas in palatial tents, and endless thrilling close encounters with the other creatures of the reserve. Zebras ambled past our table during lunch; an elephant barked the tree outside my tent; we shone our torches on the river at night to see hundreds of crocodiles – “a river of still eyes” someone called it.
On the second day, we had a radio call alerting us that there had been a sighting nearby: Haraka, haraka the voice crackled on the radio, and we sped off through the bush, being thrown around by each bump and dip in the road for a mile or so. By the time we arrived, bruised but exhilarated from the chase, the dogs had gone, and we could only curse out ill luck. A mile away, I sighed to myself. I had never, as far as I knew, been that close. Yet my beloved creatures seemed as far away from my life as they had ever been. We saw tantalisingly fresh tracks the next morning – Mbwa Mwitu! Mtambo exclaimed, pointing them out – and we followed them for hundreds of metres until they too vanished into thick thorn bushes and were lost to us.
So as I came to climb into the Land Rover on my final morning, it might have seemed that my seven year odyssey over thousands of miles had come to nothing. Yet as we bumped along the rough tracks to the bush airstrip I was surprised to find that I wasn’t sad. The bush shows you what it chooses to, I thought, quoting again Nick’s homely wisdom, you mustn’t make demands. It had never been a certainly that I should see the dogs and, after all, I had seen a whole living thriving ecosystem, the one in which my beloved wild dogs lived. It was enough, I told myself; I was content.
At the end of the bush airstrip, lost in happy reflections, the Land Rover suddenly stopped “Louise! Look!” And there they were, lolling under a tree, five beautiful painted dogs, hiding from the African sun. ”Look at them! You see their unique patterns? As individual as a fingerprint! Look!” The dogs raised their heads and looked at us; then watched as the little plane coming to collect me swooped out of the sky like a vast bird of prey and set itself down on the rough earth airstrip scattering impalas and giraffes to either side as it landed.
“Hello dogs,” I said quietly. “It’s been quite a journey to see you.” One gave a perfunctory lick to a paw; then allowed her heat-tired eyes to close. The pilot in the distance gave a shout and beckoned us: Come on! Time to Leave!
And so after seven years, and thousands of miles, I saw them for an amazing seven minutes. I took the obligatory blurry photo – that bad shot with the wrong lens from a moving car, already too far away. Looking back, as we hurtling along to the plane, I said goodbye to the dogs and gave thanks to something or someone – to god, the universe, the Selous, the spirit of wild dogs – I didn’t quite know what – for those seven minutes.
Then we bumped along the edge of the runway to the plane that would take me home.
High in the air, I saw the new guests speeding along the airstrip to get their glimpse of the dogs still lying under their tree. Imagine, I thought, on the ground for just two minutes, and already seeing some of the continent’s most endangered creatures! Well, I sighed with contentment, that’s the Selous for you: full of surprises.
I wrote to Nick, of course. And sent him that bad blurry photo which is now my screen saver. I could have downloaded a crisp stock image, some fabulous close up of dogs hunting or barking or playing. But they wouldn’t have been my wild dogs. The dogs that I was connected to: the ones that had looked me in the eye and sniffed me on the breeze. The photo is a memory of a quest realised despite the odds. And evidence, as perhaps it might be in the future, of a vanished species.