I’ve been getting a lot of play on the Wild Eye Blog and social media the last few weeks, and I’d like to think my story has made a few people smile. The truth is my borderline obsessive quest to see and photograph African Wild Dogs has never been about me, but rather about the dogs themselves.
One of the rarest carnivores on the planet and one of the most endangered animals in Africa, they managed to elude me on six trips to the continent.
A safari legend in the making, “The Man Who Never Sees Dogs.”
It’s easy to find humor in this story with all the access we have to social media and stream of wildlife images available to us. While its probably never been easier to see a picture of an African Wild Dog, the fact is that it also may never have been more difficult to actually see one in the wild than it is today. For this reason my story isn’t that unusual. Every day across Africa people go on safari, yet the vast majority will not see this incredible animal.
My passion for the dogs started as a mere curiosity. While on my first true East African safari, a very short visit to Mikumi (Tanzania) I was asked by my guide if there was a particular animal I’d like to see. I figured everyone usually names the Big Five, and I wasn’t going to be like everyone else, so I exclaimed “Wild Dogs!” With a broad smile my guide said “sure sure, we’ll find some dogs.”
Honestly to this day I don’t know if he was just being optimistic or he didn’t know any better, but it turns out dog sightings in Mikumi are extremely rare.
Of course we didn’t see them, but that trip marked a major life changing moment for me. It was on that trip that I decided it was time for conservation to stop being just something I cared about, and to become something I actually did.
For me the best way to protect the things I loved was to share them with the world, and for that to happen I would have to get serious about developing my skills as a photographer.
This pivotal moment would put me on a path to some of the most exotic and remote locations in Africa, and would eventually lead me to Wild Eye and Marlon Du Toit.
After Mikumi there were two common themes of all my safaris, I never saw the dogs, but I also never let that ruin or even dampen the experience.
It turns out the African wilderness is where I belong. I am never happier than when I am where the wild things are. For this reason, I want to share images for this blog that tell the story of Madikwe, and not just Madikwe’s dogs.
Inspired by Douglas Adams book “Last Chance to See,” (seriously, if you haven’t read this book, get a copy) my curiosity gradually began to turn into obsession. After a visit to Ruaha (Tanzania) that also resulted in no sighting, despite the fact that this is one of their last remaining strongholds, I decided I needed a little more guidance.
I sought out someone who could not only help me on this “grail quest” I was on, but also someone who could help me as a photographer. I was feeling a bit stunted in my artistic and technical growth, and this led me to Wild Eye.
A little over a year and a half ago I reached out via email to Marlon Du Toit. I had been following him, admired his work, but was also impressed by his background as a field guide. I was keen to travel with him not only because I thought he could make me a better photographer, but also because his passion for Africa was something I felt connected us.
With Marlon wilderness is in his blood, spend five minutes with him and you’ll know it, and before we even met I knew that would make us brothers.
I booked a private trip with him to Hwange (Zimbabwe), with a bolt on Wild Eye safari to Mana Pools. Again, despite these being two excellent locations for wild dogs, we struck out. Regardless, the trips were amazing and my abilities, under the guidance and mentoring of Marlon, made tremendous improvements.
Not in the least bit deterred, and now with Marlon on my team, we made a plan to visit Madikwe Game Reserve. Marlon’s blog entries and the videos he’s shared document what became the trip of a lifetime for me.
The “best safari I’ve ever been on” is always the last safari I’ve been on, but Madikwe really truly produced the goods for us. It was an incredible week for us that started with that grueling 6 hour effort to find the resident pack. By car and foot we spent most of the first day after them and got agonizingly close. We had tracks, we had audio, and at one point we could even smell them! Alas, no dogs.
For the next few days we continued to track them, but we also made a plan to make sure we enjoyed all that Madikwe had to offer.
Staying at the private Nkurru lodge Marlon, Jono (Buffey), and I experienced the reserve in all of its glory under the guidance of Nkurru’s Grant Marcus. The predator action was off the hook, with lion, cheetah, spotted hyena, brown hyena, African wild cat, and other sightings.
We spent nearly an hour with a fantastic leopard, a five year old female known as “Tsala” who stalked impala and allowed us to enjoy her presence.
The waterholes produced some of the most interesting elephant sightings I’ve experienced, and the young elephants in particular were always engaged in mischief. Even the Madikwe landscape itself, transition zone between Kalahari and bushveld, offered a new and interesting experience for me.
For the first time I spent dedicated time shooting at night, another skill set Wild Eye ‘put in my bag.’
Finally, on the last full day we were there, it happened…
I know this is the moment many of you are waiting for, but it’s hard for me to put into words what it was like when we finally saw the dogs.
If you watch Marlon’s videos you’ll see I am the worst interview possible. When I am in the field I am reflective, thoughtful, and probably don’t seem that expressive. In reality my mind is racing. I don’t talk much because I am so absorbed in the experience.
When those dogs finally crossed the road in front of us, and after they took down the impala and began to feed right in front of me, I got lost in that moment. Of all the sightings we had this is probably the one I did the poorest job of capturing, but that’s okay by me.
I got to sit with one of the rarest animals in the world, a vanishing treasure that desperately needs our help. We are the reason they are disappearing, we have to be the ones to stop it. I sat in their presence and thought about how lucky I was.
After the sighting we stopped to catch our breath. Another car stopped with us, and I enjoyed chatting with the family (Americans like me). As they heard me recount my journey they remarked “Wow, this is our first day and we saw them.” By sharing my experience I helped them realize just how special that moment was, and friends… that is ultimately why I do what I do. The story wouldn’t be complete without that moment.
I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t yet know what my next quest will be, I’m still too busy enjoying this one. I have some speaking engagements lined up soon and if my experience raises even a small amount of money for African Dog Conservation I’ll feel it was all well worth it.
Whatever that next adventure is, I can promise you it will be with Wild Eye and Marlon.
I’m a satisfied customer, a family member, and a client for life.
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About the Author: I’m an American by Nationality but an African at heart. The first time I visited Africa I was told it would be a “once in a lifetime” experience. Since that initial trip I have been back at least once every single year. Every time I cross a destination off my list, I add several more. I’ve only been a serious photographer for a few years, but in photography I’ve found a way to share my passion and raise awareness for critical conservation projects across the continent. I never feel more at home than when there is red soil under my boots and the sounds of the bush fill my ears.
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