The Laikipia plateau is probably our favourite area in Kenya. Some parts can be reached for a normal 2-day weekend, for example Ol Pejeta, but for most places on the Laikipia it is better if you have a long weekend as the drive there is usually 5 hours or longer. The nice thing about the Laikipia is that you are not restricted by the Kenya Wildlife Services rules as the whole area is managed privately. This means you can go for walking safaris, bike and horse rides, rafting and kayaking and the always interesting night drives.
We had been recommended to go to the Laikipa Wilderness Lodge, as we had not seen any wild dogs yet and were pretty keen to try and track them. Here, close to Sosian (where we did our horseback safari last year, see Glamping with horses) two packs of dogs have been fitted with radio collars. This allows the researchers to find the dogs, but conveniently also gives us a chance to find them as Mugambe and Steven (our 2 guides) are excellent trackers.
We arrived just before lunch after a quick visit en-route to Thompson Falls, a dramatic 75m waterfall on the Ewaso Ng’iro river which flows from the Aberdare mountains. The lodge is beautifully located on the slopes of a kopje and has sensational views over the ranch, including the Ewaso Narok River, and even Mt Kenya on a clear day.
Our first game drive was spent trying to locate the wild dogs using the tracker device. In a straight line the radio signal can be heard up to 10km away, but due to the many hills and valleys on the ranch it can still be pretty challenging to locate them. And of course there is always the risk that the dogs cross into a neighbouring ranch. They are able to access most of these ranches, so they can continue to track, but once they cross the river onto the Suyian ranch they can no longer follow. This happened to us on the last morning of our visit, so unfortunately we were not able to say goodbye to ‘our pack’.
The territory of both packs falls within the reaches of the ranch, but the usual pack had left the area and another pack with 15 adults and 6 4-month old pups was what we were trying to find. They had been seen that morning and we were lucky, they hadn’t moved far and we found them without too much effort. They are fantastic to watch and as this pack is pretty well habituated we could get very close to them, watching them wake up from their afternoon snooze and perform their greetings before setting off on a hunt. Unfortunately there were illegal grazers in the area and their cows had wandered close to the pack. The dogs picked a group of 3 cows that had been separated from the rest as their target. The 6 puppies were left with a babysitter and the adults all took off with the alpha male and female after the cows. It was exciting to watch and hear them hunt, but the herders heard their yelps too and came running in to chase the dogs away. Disappointed they retreated back to the puppies and soon after we had to leave them as it was getting dark. What an exciting way to see the wild dogs for the first time!
The wild dogs are a very social animal who live in packs with an alpha female and an alpha male. They decide on what is done and when, and are the only breeding pair (usually) in the pack. All other dogs help raise their puppies and all will regurgitate food for the pups and share the responsibility of looking after them. The pups only suckle for 2 weeks and at around 5 months the pups will start to hunt with the rest of the pack. Packs can be up to 40 or even more dogs, but eventually single-sex groups will split off in search for another splinter group from the opposite sex, forming a new pack. Hunting big animals is done with the entire pack, but they will also kill smaller animals like dikdiks or hares individually if they can.
The next day we went straight back to the dogs and watched them for hours until we met up with Steve & Annabelle, Finn & Rafe (their 2 sons) and Rosie, Charlotte & Digby for brunch by the waterfall. We had met Rosie and Charlotte at Sosian, so it was lovely to see them again. The waterfall had a fantastic pool at the bottom without crocs or hippos so we had a great swim before and after brunch. We did get a visit at the river of some elephants which was exciting!
That night we went for another game drive looking for the dogs. Again they were easy to find as they hadn’t moved far from where we left them that morning. As they were doing their evening greetings we jumped out of the car and laid flat on the ground, the car then drove off leaving us only about 5-10m from the 21 wild dogs including 6 inquisitive pups, armed only with our cameras. What an amazing experience!!! They are inquisitive and do come to investigate us, but they always leave a few meters and not once did we feel threatened or worried – despite the fact that a pack of wild dogs is one of the most effective predators, with a success rate of over 80%. We just watched them do their greetings from our spot on the ground and then they trotted off to start their hunt and we hopped back into the car. We followed and jumped out of the car on a few occasions to see them elegantly trot past us on their patrols. The adults mostly just glance at you as they trot past, but the pups are a bit uncertain of what it is on the ground and need an adult to encourage them past after some inquisitive looks.
We left the dogs after they had decided to turn around and went back the way they came. They had bumped in to the markings of the other pack’s territory and had wisely decided they did not want to venture any further. They added a lot of their own droppings, probably to ensure the other pack would turn around at that point too and not cross into their territory.
In the twilight hours we drove to our campsite on top of a ridge, and by the time we arrived it was already completely dark. We were enjoying a late sundowner when Steve heard a leopard call nearby. “Do you want to have a look for him?”, was the question and 10 seconds later we were back in the car and heading out in the direction of the call. Another minute later we spotted the large male walking through the grass, and we followed him for a few minutes until he disappeared into the bush.
We had a great dinner, made on the coals of our campfire and enjoyed another drink or two before crawling into our swags around the campfire. Boris and Buster, two of their 4 dogs, were our guards and Buster chose Jude’s bed to sleep that night. This meant she woke up every time he heard something and got up to check, one time barking at 4 elephants that were approaching our camp. We heard quite a few hyenas, lions and of course the leopard and saw a white-tailed mongoose run away in the morning, chased by Buster. They take their guarding duties very seriously.
After a cup of tea in the morning we packed up and started our walk with Steve (our host) and the 2 dogs. Steven (one of the guides – it’s a bit confusing) drove the car and would pick us up later at a designated spot. We would never make it.
We walked along the edge of the escarpment until we heard a hyena call and decided to check it out. We saw him run past us about 100m away and we followed its tracks from where it had come from. Another 4 hyenas trotted past us in the next half hour, and we thought we might have a good chance of locating the kill, which was surely in the vicinty. We came to a viewpoint overlooking a valley and we gazed down on the beautiful plains below, spotting giraffe and warthogs – but no sign of a kill. We then checked the other side of the escarpment from another lookout, this was the valley we were supposed to walk into and we saw an eland, again lots of giraffes but worryingly also lots of elephants and some buffalo. No sign of a kill here either.
We continued our walk and were about to head down the spur that would lead us to the valley beneath as Steve noticed the fresh buffalo tracks and stopped us with a hand signal. He checked the tracks and quickly decided to turn us around and head the other way, explaining quietly what he had seen. We had just started walking away as the buffalo made its appearance. Instead of turning around and running away from us, it charged. We were on a narrow spur with only one way up and we were in its way. Steve shot once and it was still coming at us (we discovered later he had narrowly missed the brain and instead hit its horn). His second shot felled the huge male and it crashed into the ground, but it was not dead and was trying to get up again. From a distance of about 20m he fired his third shot, trying to kill it, but as the big bull was thrashing his head around in the tall grass that one missed. Walking closer as he was by now certain it wasn’t able to get up he fired his fourth shot directly through the brain, killing it instantly and ending its suffering. It had lasted less than a minute and the adrenaline was already pumping when the second buffalo appeared from the same bush.
Luckily this one decided to avoid us instead of charging and with a huge sigh of relief we saw him trot off up onto the ridge. As we were about to continue our walk we noticed Boris was missing. The big dog that had guarded us against all sorts of animals at night had run off and we eventually found him, looking a bit sheepish, back at the campsite. It had been scared of the rifle shots! Steve had radioed Steven who picked us up and drove us back to camp so we could have breakfast.
We were a bit shocked by the whole incident, and certainly grateful that we were with such an experienced guide – Steve had grown-up in the bush in Zimbabwe. No doubt the unfortunate old bull would provide dinner for the local lions and hyena – nothing goes to waste in the wild. Steve explained that he doesn’t like shooting animals, but buffalo are very dangerous and he has had many friends injured or even killed in attacks – so he doesn’t take chances with them.
After breakfast it was off for a kayaking trip on the Ewaso Ng’iro. We used 2 inflatable kayaks – no crocs on the river – and drove to the drop-in point. It was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon! We paddled, floated past little villages with kids swimming in the river, gave a lift to 3 adventurous kids and enjoyed the little rapids that popped up now and again. Of course we swam some of the sections, taking it in turn to steer the boats. Steve was sharing a boat with Mugambe and we were in the other one, with Steven driving the car around to the pick up point – the confluence of the Ewaso Narok and the Ewaso Ng’iro (meaning river of brown water in the local language).
Back at camp we had time for a cuppa before we got ready for our evening game drive – tracking the dogs again. This time we had to go to the highest point of the area as we hadn’t seen them that morning so we needed to find out in which direction to start the search. We hiked to the top of a big granite slab of rock and Steven picked up the weak signal. We stopped a few times on the way to listen to the tracker and then spotted them across a little valley, as well as some hyenas in the area. The rest of the night was spent trying to follow the dogs, work out what was happening and seeing them bring in some bones, some from fresh kills (a dikdik) and others from an old kill. We suspect it was a baby giraffe as we spotted a giraffe that wouldn’t leave the area despite numerous hyenas and a pack of wild dogs there. We watched the dogs until well after dark before driving back to camp for a late dinner.
On the way back we spotted a female leopard and as she wasn’t too shy we managed to follow her for a while before we left her in peace to hunt. We then had to try to find our way back to a road, not easy in the dark in thick bush…
Dinner was on a rock above the camp where they had lit a fire, spectacular. It was our last dinner there and we enjoyed the fire, Steve’s company and his wealth of knowledge.
The next morning we went out once again to track the dogs. We thought it would be easy to find them as we knew where we had left them the night before, but unfortunately the dogs had different plans.We eventually picked up their signal along the Ewaso Narok and Steve saw one in the distance. At one point we heard a lot of thrashing in water and yelping, but we couldn’t find any sign of the dogs. After a while we had to give up. The dogs seemed to have crossed the river and we could not follow, so we went on a search for some birds and other wild life. On the way back for brunch we drove past the ranch’s cattle dip where they were herding all the cows from the ranch through the strong-smelling dip. We watched for a while as we hadn’t seen this before. Its a big job and has to be done every couple of weeks, otherwise the cows can get tick-borne illnesses.
We again spent a final few hours chatting with Steve and enjoying the view from another hidden location at the lodge overlooking the river, before we had to pack up for our drive home. Another (long) weekend had flown past and we had experienced yet another bit of paradise in this beautiful country. About 10km from camp the heavens opened, hopefully it moved to the Laikipia Wilderness area too as they need the rains. The poor giant leopard tortoise on the other hand needed our help getting through an electric fence as the animal was too big to get underneath the wire and was stuck, probably getting zapped every few seconds. A few minutes later though a happy tortoise was on its merry way and we were just a bit muddier than before and also on our way again…