The jeep stops and Dylan hops out. “Drink time,” he announces. He plops a wooden table on the dusty road a few meters from about a hundred wild animals.
I jump out and start frantically grabbing shots of the zebras with my iPhone using the telephoto lens. The distance is fixed, but the focus is not. It requires a lot of fiddling to get a sharp image and the zebras are not cooperating. They are slowly moving further away as the rest of the safari group collects around the snacks of dried, jerky-like meat called biltong.
The enthusiastic Aussies coax me into trying a random spicy chunk o’ something. It takes me about 5 minutes to chew through it. It is… gamey
The sun starts to set over the plain, and I go in search for a lonely tree. Most photographers will have a very clear idea of certain bucket list shots they want to take in their life. For me, one of those is Alessandra Ambrosio in a hot pink bikini on a deserted beach in the Caribbean and another is a silhouetted gnarly tree in front of an epic sunset. Since Alessandra never returns my calls, I opt for the lonely tree.
I spot an epic tree and rush towards it, but Dylan calls out, “I wouldn’t get too far from the jeep. We don’t know what are hiding in those bushes.” He seems serious and starts listing off various poisonous snakes, so I start scouting for another lonely tree closer to the jeep. I find a smaller one which I shall dub “the mini lonely tree”. Not my bucket list shot, but a nice shot. I guess a nice safe shot is better than a great one involving a tangle with a puffheader snake.
As we pack up to leave, the jeep’s intercom sounds. Bzzzrrrt. Dylan starts frantically returning call signs of animals with another guide using the Bantu language, Tswana, instead of English. The guides use this communication barrier to keep tourists guessing what animals they will see on the drive. Over the past few days I’ve tried to learn several Tswana words so I could decode this guide banter, but I don’t recognize any words this time.
Dylan explains that another jeep ahead of us has seen a rare sighting of makanyane, the endangered wild dog of South Africa. There are only two packs on the 750K hectare Madikwe reserve after one pack was eaten by lions, so it’s rare to see them. Dylan excitedly speeds across the plains to the sighting location.
As we turn a sharp corner, we see pack of makanyane gliding along the dusty red trail in front of us. They are shaggy, boney creatures that look like a cross between a dog and a hyaena. Ears perked high and a determined gait, these dogs take no notice of us apart from a few yips of acknowledgement from the alpha male.
They are fast and focused. Sundown is hunting time, and as both predators and prey, surviving the long night ahead will require a united pack. Their pace increases and they begin to move towards the edge of the road, forming a tightly synced unit. Ten seconds later the pack darts into the bush, vanishing into the vast reserve. It could be weeks or months before they are seen again and their survival is known.
That’s the cycle of life out here: Brutal, beautiful, and bewildering. Something we can only witness as humans, but perhaps never fully understand.