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Neighbourhood Watch: The wild bunch

Like most people, I get somewhat philosophical on solo road trips, questioning beliefs and assumptions. For example: Why should we care about nature? An obvious reason is that indigenous animals…

Neighbourhood Watch: The wild bunch

Like most people, I get somewhat philosophical on solo road trips, questioning beliefs and assumptions. For example: Why should we care about nature? An obvious reason is that indigenous animals and plants are a precious resource without them, our tourism industry would collapse, not to mention our ecosystem.

Communing with animals or observing them in the wild also reduces the stress caused by our modern lifestyle and fellow humans. Mark Twain famously said, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.” In my case, it’s wild dogs – I prefer wild animals to domestic ones. And the critically endangered makanyane, aka Lycaon pictus, aka African wild dog, is one of the most enchanting animals found in the place I’m heading to.

Pilanesberg, in South Africa’s North West Province, is a mere 165km from the commercial hub of Sandton, Johannesburg. The park encompasses 570km² of pristine African savannah and bush, where you can see Africa’s Big Five – elephant, rhino (both black and white), buffalo, lion and leopard. Random fact: Did you know the collective noun for a group of rhino is a “crash”? How apt.

Rare species in Pilanesberg include the brown hyena and wild dog. Other favourites include cheetah, giraffe, hippo and crocodile, while birders can spot their feathered friends for days, with 300 recorded species.

The Honorary Officers

My hosts in Pilanesberg are Rose Simpson and Cindy Riederer, two Honorary Officers who belong to the watch I’ve come to spend two days with. I follow behind their 4×4 in the pearl-white Forester 2.0i-S ES. The sky is an alchemy of copper and gold, and breathing in the fresh air I feel my stress evaporating. We arrive at the secluded officer’s camp where I’m assigned a spacious tent furnished with a camping stretcher, duvet and pillows, and a small wardrobe.

So, what exactly does an Honorary Officer (HO) do? The group’s mission is “to provide professional voluntary support to the North West Parks and Tourism Board through the management and education of tourists and the active conservation of biodiversity in the North West parks”, according to its website. These parks are Pilanesberg, Borakalalo, Botsolano, Mafekeng and Kgaswane Mountain Reserve.

All HOs undergo rigorous training before the North West Parks and Tourism Board officially appoints them, even though they will receive no salary or stipend.

After a braai at the camp where the weekend’s duties and potential problems are discussed, I go nest in my tent, enjoying the perfect stillness of the night.

Going on patrol

The next morning I go out on dawn patrol with HO Piet Grové. Some of the officers are already returning from pre-dawn patrols, still as enthusiastic about the animals they’ve seen as the tourists are.

Like the other HOs, Piet reports to his wife, team leader Monica, this weekend. Piet is at the Forester’s helm and his chosen path takes us to Lenong, the highest lookout point in the park.

The only other people at the hide are a (human) mother and young daughter, scanning the surface below trying to spot cheetah through their field glasses. Piet’s eagle eyes find what they’re looking for and he directs their gaze while casually sharing facts about this specific cheetah mom and her cubs.

We return to the camp for breakfast, and when team leader Ed Lemke arrives an hour or so later we set off, again with the HO in the captain’s seat. Ed has been an Honorary Officer since 2000, and it’s hard to see where Pilanesberg ends and Ed begins. He reminds me of the Phantom, the comic-strip superhero created by Lee Falk, who is a crime-fighter and protector of nature.

Ed shows me the tracks that badger, hyena, jackal, slender mongoose and African wildcat made in the dusty roads since closing time last night.

An elephant detour tests the Forester

We head to the south of the park, only to find ourselves facing a road block: A large bull elephant in musth. This is a periodic condition in elephant bulls caused by ultra high testosterone levels and is characterised by aggressive behaviour. Biologists haven’t figured it all out, but it’s believed to cause an elephant-sized headache for the sufferer and serious problems for anyone or anything venturing too close to it. The tell-tale sign is a secretion of an oily, tar-like substance from the temporal ducts on either side of the bull’s head.

Wisely, Ed decides to take a detour, choosing a rocky path not accessible to the public. It’s a surprise test for the Forester, which passes it with flying colours. “Nice to drive a smooth vehicle for a change,” says Ed.

The road ejects us near the lush and utterly peaceful Kwa Maritane Lodge, where we stop off for a refreshing beverage.

Trouble with the neighbours

In the early evening, Rose, Cindy and I are dispatched to close and secure the Bakubung entrance gate, since visitors aren’t allowed in the park at night. We push the gate shut and fasten a fat lock and chain around it.

With the last rays of the sun piercing the red dust, and sensing the bustle of the nocturnals getting ready for their shift, I enjoy the laid-back drive to camp. Rose and Cindy are in the Forester’s front quarters while I’m delivering my best dad jokes from the back seat. Then Rose slows to a halt.

Up ahead, some of our wild neighbours seem to be throwing a street party. They appear to be moving to music only they can hear, while making small, quick, rhythmic movements with their ears and trunks – a silent disco in the park. This is one party the police won’t be breaking up, I quickly realise. But who would want to? The group of ellies, made up of four cows and two calves, are in a playful mood ­– but there’s mischief afoot.

Having fun with humans

As we wait for them to get bored with the bit of tar road they’re occupying so we can return to camp, they seem to knowingly tease us. Two of the cows pretend to walk off the road and into the bush, but as soon as we think they’re heading to the next venue, they make a 180-degree turn, swiftly as ice skaters, only to return to the dancefloor for another jive.

This must have happened a dozen times, but eventually they get bored with the prank and mosey on into the foliage. We wait a few minutes to make sure the coast is clear and drive to the camp in the dark while I wonder what elephant disco music sounds like.

How you can help

There are many ways to help the Honorary Officer Association and the reserve. Get in touch via ho.org.za or e-mail Rose Simpson on fundraising@ho.org.za. Also visit the Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust.

Accommodation and useful websites

To book accommodation at Pilanesberg, visit pilanesbergnationalpark.org or safarinow.com.

For info about the park go to tourismnorthwest.co.za/pilanesberg-national-park

Click here for entrance fees and gate times. Most lodges bordering the park take their guests on game drives in open vehicles. It’s safe and highly recommended!

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