This week I take you back to the end of my guide training in South Africa, June 2017.
The night’s chill had set in as I sat by the dying embers of our fire. My colleagues and our mentors were all fast asleep under the glittering constellations of Africa. The early evening sounds of lions roaring, hippos feeding and nightjars calling had fallen silent, only the faint breeze whispered in my ears. Nights in the African wilderness are not for the feint-hearted. The inky blackness masks dangers that one would not believe unless seen. Animals that often fear us during the day become beasts of the night, prowling with sharpened senses whilst ours fail us. At night, we become the hunted.
This was our tenth night camping in the Greater Kruger and our second without tents. The previous days had been filled walking for hours on end, tracking dangerous game to log encounters for our walking qualification. The flames danced and flirted with my sleepy eyes as I tried to stay alert. I checked my watch: 03:30 am. I was half-way through my hour shift, soon it would be back to the warmth of my sleeping bag before another day of walking and tracking. I flicked my spotlight on and scanned the surrounding area to make sure nothing had snuck up on my unsuspecting colleagues. All clear.
My focus went back to the fire. Time dragged on. I could hear the seconds ticking by slowly and methodically. The flames licked the palms of my outstretched hands, giving them some respite from the bitter night air. Suddenly, the soft sound of grass being compressed underfoot caught my attention, my head whipped round towards the sound as I heard a second crunch of straw-like grass that is so common during the lowveld winters. I grabbed the spotlight from my coat pocket and flicked it on, two eyes reflected back at me. Sniffing the head of one of my mentors was a lone hyena. I jumped up and shouted. Spooked by the sudden noise, the hyena dashed backwards. My adrenaline surged and my senses became heightened as my spotlight traced the loping figure. It turned back towards me and another pair of eyes joined it. Giving a giggle and a whoop both hyenas came forwards menacingly towards me.
I shouted again to deter them. They paused, looking inquisitively before turning on their heels and giggling as they dissolved into the blackness of the night, not to be seen or heard from again.
No-one had stirred, no-one had heard the commotion, so when everyone woke at first light and I recounted my story, their looks of disbelief were apparent to see. Their doubt however was soon diminished when I pointed to the spoor of the hyena’s front pad, a mere half a metre away from my mentor’s sleeping bag.
The next evening everyone was on full alert, a hyena may not be known as the most ferocious animals towards humans, but their curious nature coupled with their opportunistic instincts have resulted in a number of injuries to careless campers. Although they receive a bad reputation, they are one of Africa’s most incredible and thrilling animals and long may they continue to thrive. I will cherish that encounter for the rest of my life.
Thank you for looking.