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Chasing Dogs: Lycaon pictus.

February 3, 2010

Painted Dog.  Cape Hunting Dog.  Spotted Dog.  Painted Wolf.  African Wild Dog.  Resembling a dog, but, not a dog at all—it is one of the most feared and loathed, and endangered animals in Africa.  And, it is one of my favorites.


The decapitated, kitted-out  Toyota HiLux torpedoes through a solid wall of Zimbabwean thicket at 40 miles an hour.  Physically resembling something out of a Mad Max movie, the truck ricochets forward looking deceivingly out of control.  I sit at the front of the flatbed, smack in the middle of a modified rise–the perfect target for blood thirsty Acacia thorns and steroidal Golden Orb Spiders.  I’ve already lost my bandana to a thorn bush, and have unsuccessfully dodged about 143 spiders the size of my hands, that are now crawling over every part of the truck around me.  All I can think of is my 6 foot 2 brother who’d be screaming like a girl if he were sitting in my place.

The truck careens to the left, I fly to the right, and duck as a fat Mopane branch threatens to take my head off.  A camera clutched in the left hand, a camera between my legs, and my right hand clutching the towel on the back of the driver’s seat-i’m being held in by nothing more than a hand and my toe that is wedged in between the seat cushion. It’s just about 5:30 am.  The sun seems to have pressed snooze, and I see nothing but teasing rays of it, glistening off sticky webs and branches headed directly for my face.

In front of us, galloping with certain graceful power and stamina, 17 African Wild Dogs take off at full speed, with a mission:  find breakfast.  And the two people in the Mad Max truck?  Determined to be present when they take it down.

Yes. I’ve come here for a week, to do this for fun.

Every morning since Sunday, I’m up at 3:30 am, in Mad Max at 3:45, and driving an hour to the West where we left the dogs the night before.  They could be anywhere within, or outside of this 50,000 hectare property.  We fly through what’s left of the night on the convulsive red dirt road, passing animals otherwise seen in zoos around the world.  A crested porcupine gives us the blow off as the spotlight brightens him for viewing.  A genet bounds up a tree trunk, a leopard, who’s eyes sparkle as they cross the path of the beam, is startled by the bright-eyed torpedo coming towards him.  Night Jars fly left and right, a croc watches as again, we disturb his post at the mouth of the river.  In the distant treeline, impala huddle together; hundreds of tiny reflected eyes staring out of the blackness.  We stop for none, as the dogs soon will begin to move.

This obsession of mine started by accident almost a year and a half ago.  I needed shots of Lycaon pictus for a story I was editing for NG Kids magazine.  The ususal stock agencies were void of anything that would work as a cover shot.  As a last resort, I checked out Flickr, and randomly found some shots from a wildlife film maker.  I shot him an email to see if he might have what i’m looking for.  He responded immediately.

“I need a cover shot,”  Was my demand.  “I need a wild dog puppy, looking at the camera, and smiling.”

He responded:  “I’m in the middle of filming a dog movie.  I’m trying to habituate a wild pack-spending day and night with it in the bush.  They’ve just moved den to a new, crap location.  They barely let me close enough to film. You’re joking about the smiling right?”

I wasn’t joking.  Several emails later, and with a desire to meet my challenge of  “get me the perfect cover shot,” he called me in the office, from Zimbabwe.  Little did he know that his invitation to “come out here and see his dogs” would turn into more than just one trip, a friendship,  and my own personal obsession to capture these incredible creatures beautifully, with the camera.

The Bio Tracker finally beeps.  We are close.  Faster louder beeps mean close and running.  Slow loud beeps=sleeping, general putzing around, or staring at moving water.   Once again, we slam through the thickest of vegetation, and there they are in the undergrowth, their big ears turned in our directions, as if to say, “You morons.  You left us here last night.  What did you think, we’d be gone?”

As we switch off the truck, and pull the spider collection from our brows, the pack starts it’s squealing fit of a morning greeting.  Everyone,  adults and teenagers alike, bound around in an organized chaos,  licking and sniffing, peeing, pooping, jumping and cavorting, as if they’d not just spent the night together in a pile.  Everyone says good morning.  Everyone says hello.  And then, without fanfare, their playful leaps turn to calculated determination; their play turns serious.  The leader moves into a trot, and a single file line of painted fur moves into a unified front.  Every day in the bush is different, every spider and animal count a little less or a little more.  But, every day in the life of an African Wild Dog begins the same way-a welcome greeting, and a plan.

Golden Orb Spider. Erik, this one's for you.

And, so here I am.  In Zimbabwe.  In Orb Spider city. Spending mornings and afternoons, seven hours at a time, sitting in a truck, creating bruises, chasing African Wild dogs.  Sometimes they impress us, sometimes they outwit us, and, sometimes they lay around bellies fat with a kill we didn’t even get to see.  An entire pack melts into the bush in a blink, while we, desperately trying to keep up, can barely make it around the first tree.  Most of the time, we are “just” too late;  pathetic competition for keeping up, leaving us with the after kill scene:  a football team huddle of white tails high in the air, ripping apart an impala at lightspeed.

But we keep trying.  There’s always tomorrows drive, which will be the same, and yet so different, as life is here in the bush.  And, that drive starts for me in three and a half hours.

Sleep well.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Meegan permalink
    February 3, 2010 23:46

    Thanks for helping me come along for the ride a little more – love the writing and, as always, the photos!

  2. Marc Moritsch permalink
    February 4, 2010 03:12

    Thank you Karine. You make it seem so easy… beautiful images!

    Marc

  3. February 4, 2010 04:46

    Lovely story and excellent images! Makes the 03:45 wake up call worth it. Thanks for a great read.

  4. Erik Aigner permalink
    February 4, 2010 06:53

    Aaaahhh, Yes I still hate spiders!! Aaaaahhhh!

  5. Dana Garrity permalink
    February 4, 2010 12:40

    Awesome job creating a nice visual and taking your readers along for a ride. Most people would find this very…amazing. I find it…you.

  6. Cindy Miller Hopkins permalink
    February 4, 2010 14:20

    What a great writer you are! I guess I should not be so surprised at your never ending talent … and I always thought you were JUST a world class photographer! VERY well done my friend.

    • February 4, 2010 21:19

      Cindy….

      You are too kind!! I am JUST a humble photographer who gets a lucky shot from time to time 🙂 ! You should see what i throw out!

  7. Danielle Koschil permalink
    February 6, 2010 14:24

    I am loving your photos this trip! Is this the new camera? Of course, your talent is also improving. You can leave off the spiders, though. Eek! Keep up the great work.

  8. February 11, 2010 06:02

    This article rocks Karine.

    To your throw aways comment; isn’t that 75% of the job. I remember hearing that the difference between a pro and an amateur is the size of the garbage can with the pro having the larger can.

  9. June 9, 2011 23:38

    I was daydreaming of my time in Kenya studying camel spiders and went to Africam and clicked a link to your site. I can’t get on a plane today, but your pictures brought me to my favorite places and faces in the bush. Thank you! You’re an inspiration to me as I try to live my dream as well. I’ll be bookmarking your site.

    • June 12, 2011 21:22

      Thank you Kristie! It’s always a pleasure when someone stumbles across my blog and I can bring them back to Africa. Thanks for reading!

      Cheers-
      Karine

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