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 awake to our final day, and once again we head towards the Mana River, cockily confident that we will find the painted wolves in their usual place. It has been abnormal to find them so easily. Typically, my early mornings would be focussed on looking for spore in the road or a herd of wary impala focused on an unseen threat; each a tell-tale sign that the wolves are in the vicinity.
But one thing I have learnt is that painted wolves love dispelling complacency and when we arrive they are nowhere to be seen. We head south along the Cheruwe River to see if we can pick up their spore. Henry is a legend tracker and if anyone can find them, he can. In 2016, when he was guiding the BBC, he told me he could pick up the wolves by smell and even tell which pack it was.
We find tracks after a short while, but it is clear that they have headed into the thick jesse where it is impossible to follow. Henry says that they were also made last night. We push on to see if they came back onto the floodplain, visiting all their usual marking posts which they regularly frequent to defecate and define their territory.
One of my favourite games with Henry is to try and read the wolves’ minds and predict what they have done and where they might be. It is very rewarding when we are right. We debate the possibilities and head to different areas but this time, each one draws a blank. After several hours of detective work, we admit defeat. They will be settling in for the day now, probably in the thick bush and to search further would be fruitless.
Although in our search we did not find the painted wolves, we did come across a pride of dozy lion and a herd of eland, including a large male fashioning some red-billed oxpeckers and a Donald Trump style wig.
We decide to take our guests for a walk in the blue forest, a large area of albida trees which traps a beautiful glow of blue light below its canopy, making a stunning backdrop for photography. It is a very peaceful, almost spiritual and a perfect place to spend our last morning in Mana, before confronting the oppressive onslaught of the outside world.
Although this trip has been incredibly rewarding in terms of sightings, it has also been emotionally hard. Zimbabwe is experiencing its most severe drought in two decades. The rainy season all but failed and now there is very little left for the herbivores to eat. The elephants are particularly hard hit and the park is littered with a carnage of corpses where they have collapsed, too weak to keep up with the herd. It is very distressing to see.
Of those animals that continue to survive, we can sense their stress. All of Mana’s four pools are completely dry and the competition for food to graze on is intense. Witnessing all of this brings a feeling of guilt. We long for the relief of the rain but also know that once it comes, all the animals will scatter far and wide. It is only the life-giving flow of the Zambezi that keeps them here which has made this trip so incredible.
But we also know that we are not in control of when the rain comes. That is in the lap of the gods. But our sensitivity to the suffering makes us wish that the gods would be a little more kind and get on with it.
That afternoon we set off on our last game drive. We head back towards the Mana River in the vague hope that the painted wolves have returned to their usual place. Lying by the pool peacefully, in the shade of the bank, rests the pack. I romantically think they have returned just to say goodbye to us.
I can only count eleven wolves; nine adults and the two puppies. I count and recount and ask my guests to count in the tangled mass of camouflaged bodies. There is definitely one missing.
A familiar hollow ache begins to grow deep in my stomach. A mixture of panic, horror, desolation and fear; edged with a little clawing hope. “Not again.” I think. Too many times have I discovered a wolf missing, killed by lion, hyena or a deadly snare and I never get used to it.
Only a few months ago Whisky lost three of her five pups to a hyena and feeling the pack’s loss reduced me to tears. The onslaught on these harmless creatures is relentless and, with so few left in the world, each and every one counts.
Out of nowhere runs Vincent, the missing, presumed dead wolf. He charges past us towards the rest of the pack, picking up a dead dove on the way. His return, and the dead bird, launches a game of touch rugby and the fun and games begin. Sometimes it doesn’t help to catastrophise, I tell myself.
As the light begins to disappear, two hyena believe they can saunter down for an evening drink in the wolves’ private pool. The pack has other ideas and the dove is forgotten and a ferocious battle ensues.
The wolves charge the hyenas and two wolves pin one of the hyenas to the ground, nipping its body with their sharp teeth. The screams from the hyena are haunting and rip at my soul. But I remember the three little pups and guiltily egg the wolves on. Although they are capable, painted wolves will rarely kill a hyena despite the attrition they receive. I never understand why. It seems they are incapable of revenge.
Back at Nyamatusi Camp we enjoy our last supper together, sharing the precious nectar from bottles of Painted Wolf Wines around a BBQ on an open fire.
There are no stars tonight as it is cloudy and lighting flares over the Zambian Escarpment. We reminisce about our incredible experiences on this trip. From the first lion kill, the birth of the baby elephant and our abundant time with the painted wolves. We also reflect on the distress we have witnessed caused by the drought. We really have experienced nature at its harshest.
As we begin to think about retiring to bed a ferocious wind picks up, scattering cushions and chairs while blinding us all with dust. The heavens bring our safari to a close.
We stagger sightless through the sand storm to get to our game viewer so that Henry can drive us back to our tents. Then I feel it. A solitary splash on my cheek. Then another and another until we are being pelted with heavy drops of rain.
It turns torrential, settling the dust and within a few minutes we are totally drenched. Laughing like children, none of us mind; the gods have smiled on us this trip. And at last they are doing the same for the animals.
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.
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