Photography and story: Nicholas Dyer
In early November 2019, Nick Dyer led an exclusive nine-day photographic safari in Hwange and Mana Pools National Parks in search of the elusive painted wolf.
Limited to six people and staying with African Bush Camps, it was action packed from start to finish. Join the excitement day-by-day as Nick recounts this experience illustrating the story with his photographs.
We head east down the river road, the sun yet to rise. Despite the purr of the diesel engine, there is an incredible feeling of peace at this time of the morning in Mana. Impala graze in abundance, the females heavily pregnant. Baboons canter around each other in the cool morning air, refreshed after a night in the trees. Zebra stare uncertainly at our passing vehicle while big bull elephant drift from albida to albida, stretching to pull down leaves for breakfast with their trunks.
The air is fresh and comfortable giving little indication of the intense heat that will descend in just a few hours. And there is an air of excitement as we are heading to where we are pretty certain we will find the Nyakasanga Pack. Henry says that they have been hanging around the Mana River for days.
Painted wolves don’t usually stay in the same place for more than a day unless denning, but I have noticed in past years that the Nyakasanga often find a safe pool of scarce water late in the season and stay put until the first rains come.
Sure enough, after an hour’s drive we find the Nyakasanga lying near the mouth of the Mana River. Their extended bellies betray the fact that they have already hunted and have now returned to sleep out the heat of the day. They are a pack of 12 – ten adults and two pups.
I quietly position my guests on the bank while the wolves lounge around on the opposite side. Two of Blacktip’s* male yearlings, Yate and Quad, move down to the water’s edge to drink. Suddenly they erupt into a game of frenzied chase, kicking up the water into a morning light. A fantastic performance for our first photo op.
Eventually the pack settles down under the shade of the riverside trees. I suggest we move very quietly to the treeline on their side of the river keeping low and close together. We slowly creep towards them and sit down. We are in a perfect position – not too close to concern the wolves, but close enough to get great shots at eye level.
The pack is still restless…not ready to sleep but happy to relax and digest after the exertion of the hunt. The pups are the most active, still wanting to play, while the adults doze and lazily watch a herd of impala that graze only twenty metres away; dispelling the myth that painted wolves are wanton killers. The pack is replete and does not need to hunt again.
After a while, one of the pups seems to tire of the boring adults, rises and starts to walk towards us. “Let’s stay very quiet, very still and very low.” I tell my guests. As we sit motionless the little pup ambles past us not five metres away, totally unconcerned with our presence. He is followed by the other pup and then one-by-one the pack parades past us like models on a catwalk, each flicking us a casual unconcerned glance as they pass.
Leading from behind is Whisky, the alpha female who joins them under the shade of thick trees. “That’s all folks!” I tell my guests and suggest we leave them to sleep.
“That’s all?” says one of my guests. “That was unbelievable, I mean really insane!” he says laughing while flicking through the screen on the back of his camera.
We return that afternoon. The painted wolves are where we left them, they rarely move far in the day. Our aim is to position ourselves in the river bank itself and wait for them to come down to drink so that we can be at eye level when they play in the water. We don’t want to disturb them by moving about once they are up and playing, so I always try to anticipate their movements and get ourselves into position first.
Sure enough, the pack wakes up and walks along the bank above us, heading to the water. As we fire our cameras with abandon Henry says softly but firmly, “I think we might want to move.”
It seems really irritating as we are in a perfect position, but looking past Henry, I see two elephants strolling down the river towards us. They are heading straight to where the wolves are playing in the water… and we are in-between them. Thank you, Henry!
With rifle readied, Henry leads us up the bank and the elephants pass harmlessly beneath us. Soon they get a whiff of the painted wolves and the late afternoon tranquillity erupts into pandemonium. I don’t know why it is, but elephant and wolves do not get along. I jokingly suggest in my book that maybe it’s because they are on the side of all the vegetarians in the bush.
For ten minutes the painted wolves and the elephant battle around the waterhole. The elephants in a state of high agitation, while the wolves seem to hold an expression of resigned acceptance of this annoyance – almost as if being pursued by a fly. They casually weave around the charging giants and I feel I can almost sense that they think it’s fun. They certainly don’t run away.
It took me three years to get some great shots of an elephant-wolf brawl and my guests have got to see one on their second sighting. That night I went to bed very happy.
*Blacktip was the alpha female of the Nyakasanga who starred in the BBC’s Dynasties and my book. She died earlier in the year.
About Nicholas Dyer
Nick is an award winning wildlife photographer, the co-author of the acclaimed Painted Wolves: A Wild Dog’s Life and Chairman of the Painted Wolf Foundation. His passion is for painted wolves and he has spent the last seven years following the packs in Mana Pools on foot. He now leads Painted Wolf Safaris so people can get to experience and understand these enigmatic and endangered creatures.
Learn more about the Painted Wolf
Join me on my annual ‘Walking with Wild Dogs’ safari with African Bush Camps and enquire below. For the itinerary details, visit African Bush Camps’ website.
Please contact me if you would like to discuss creating a bespoke and unique painted wolf adventure