3am and black dark.

Time to get up.

Brief, successful wrestle with the mosquito net liberates me to make my way across camp to the kitchen to replenish the cool box with flasks of hot water, tea, coffee and rusks.

I’m back in Zululand after 3 years – and I couldn’t be happier.

The bush hasn’t woken up yet – or it’s going to bed. Nothing moves but our Land Cruiser, its lights intensifying the depth of the night around us.

On this occasion ‘us’ is me a Brit, one American and one Argentinian, and our expert wildlife monitor.  And we’re looking for wolves.

We are in uMkhuze, a hidden gem of KwaZulu Natal.  No luxury lodges here and no 5* prices, either.

And we’re looking for wolves.

I’m not on holiday or a luxury safari.  Well, not in the generally accepted sense of the word. Though I am 9000 miles and 2 seasons away from home and I do expect to see most of the usual safari suspects.

I am here as a conservation volunteer with Wildlife ACT and we have a job to do. Well, quite a lot of jobs, actually. Not all of them are pretty, either. With this experience, you get to see the ugly side as well as the beauty of the bush.

Every day begins with a monitoring drive. We are tracking animals which have been fitted with radio collars and each animal transmits its own, unique signal.

Wherever there are painted wolves/wild dogs, these are our priority. There may be only 50 breeding pairs in the whole of South Africa, with packs varying in size from 3 – 20 and with only one breeding pair per pack. uMkhuze used to have 2 packs, but one was wiped out by canine distemper and the small pack of 5 we are monitoring has not bred this year. (2017)

As it’s late November, the denning season is over for this year, so this pack needs to be kept as safe as possible.

And we are also trying to find a lone dog, Zoom, who disappeared some time ago and whose collar has stopped working. We are not optimistic*. These animals often leave reserves, dispersing to try and form new packs. Tracking them without a radio collar is next to impossible.

We are all taught how to use telemetry to track the animals we monitor.

There are often animals in the boma (an enclosure) awaiting release or being treated for human caused wounds or illnesses.  These are visited every day to check that they’re OK and, depending upon the policy of the reserve, to be fed. Volunteers are often involved in releases, too.

Camera traps are sited in strategic locations, the memory cards checked and catalogued. (One day I WILL see a leopard that isn’t just a camera trap capture!)

So, why is this my favourite place on planet Earth?

I’ve seen tigers in India. I’ve visited The Taj Mahal and the summit of Everest. I’ve stayed in The Chelsea Hotel and done the sights of New York and Paris and London.

I’ve been on safari in Kruger and Sabi and Ranthambore and Chitwan.

What makes KZN so special?

The night sky.

The sound of hyaenas whooping in the darkness.

The extraordinary dawns and sunsets.

The dodgy wifi.

Shopping in Spar once a week and never quite knowing what will be in stock.

And this helps:

A pretty good start to any day.

This is really Africa. And the real bush. Doing real good for the planet but without shouting about it.

And once you’ve been, it never leaves you.

Once you’ve been, it’s always there, calling you back.

*PS: We found Zoom!