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Growling not Laughing

“THE OKAVANGO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE,” a South African told me in New York before I left for a photographic safari in Botswana.  “But beware of the hyenas.  A couple of months ago, a young American boy was dragged out of his tent while he was sleeping and eaten alive.”  Suddenly, all my desire and enthusiasm to camp out in the Kalahari Bush evaporated like a puddle under the African sun.  Hyenas?  Those animals that are always laughing in cartoons, eating people alive?  But I had a non-refundable ticket, and there was no turning back.

My destination was the Okavango Delta, a lush swampland in the middle of the Kalahari Desert where the Okavango River simply ends and seeps into the ground.  This fertile oasis spawns an abundance of plant life, which in turns attracts dozens of species of mammals, several reptiles and hundreds of birds—not that I was concerned with any of them.  There was only one animal that was on my mind:  the hyena.

Dust and sand rose into the air as my plane touched down in Maun, the closest outpost to the Okavango.  It was here that I met my new safari companions—two married couples from the UK—and Harry, owner of local safari tour company Oasis Safaris.  Harry was a husky South Africa-born man in his thirties with a constant demeanor in his eyes that said “You’re on my turf now, kid.”  Known by the locals as “Kalahari Harry,” he had a reputation for being a smart but sometimes eccentric guide that would occasionally run after crocodiles and chase lions for fun.  He had already seen everything there was to see on a safari, from lion cubs wrestling in his camp during dinner to clients running out of their tents naked when discovering an elephant was just overhead.  He had seen it all—until the night the boy cried hyena.

“These forms aren’t meant to scare you or anything,” Harry said in all seriousness the night before we ventured off into the bush.  “But you never know what may happen out here.  That incident with the boy still has me shaken up a bit.”  Not only did Harry know of the hyena attack, he was actually there that night. 

“There was a loud yell at the camp next to us, so I ran over to see what had happened,” he said.  “The hyena came and ate the meat right off the boy’s hand, and then wrapped her jaw around the boy’s neck and decapitated the head clean off.” 

I didn’t know if it was just irony or a cruel joke that he was telling us this story as we were reading over forms that indemnified him from any lawsuits resulting in accidental death and/or dismemberment. 

“I jumped in a truck with the other guide, and we chased the hyena into the bush to get the body,” Harry continued.  “Guns aren’t allowed in the game park, so all I had was my big flashlight.”  He was referring to his big hefty MagLite flashlight—the kind that could double as a police-issue nightstick—with the physical striking force of six heavy D batteries.  “I hit the hyena on the head, and then she let go of the body and ran off.”

I skeptically signed my life away on the dotted line, knowing I had only brought with me a small pocket-sized MagLite with the physical striking force of one small AAA battery.

We ventured off into the Moremi Game Reserve Park, which covers about one third of the entire Okavango Delta.  Hippos frequent the papyrus-lined waterways and as they lazily wade just beneath the surface, while marabou storks soar above to their nests.  Crocodiles clandestinely float by through the lily pads, while trumpets of nearby elephants are heard.  It is a home where the buffalo roam, and the zebras and the antelope play—before getting eaten by lions.

On a typical day in the reserve, Harry took us on game drives around the park’s maze of designated dirt paths in search of photographic trophies.  Early mornings were primetime for lions and other nocturnal predators on the move, while late afternoons were perfect for postcard sunsets glowing an intense orange hue.  Mid-days were spent back at camp for lunch and a three-hour siesta.  During this time, one couple read Harry Potter books, while the other worked on their bird checklists.  I would just sit in my tent with my journal and wonder when I’d encounter the dreaded hyena. 

Camping out in tents—as oppose to staying in a posh lodge—was the only way to experience the Okavango in its raw form, where animals could roam—and hunt—at their leisure.  Not all campsites were the same though.  “This is the campsite where the hyena attack happened.  It was at this spot,” Harry said, pointing to an area by a tree at the Xakanaxa campground.  “The hyena came and entered the boy’s tent and killed him almost instantly, and then dragged the body into the bush, over there,” he said, pointing to the nearby open field where he had retrieved the body.  “Skinny boy, he was.”

Harry’s assistant Cisco added his recollection.  “I was alone in my tent, and then there was a loud scream for about ten seconds,” he told me as he was preparing dinner.  “And then silence.  I had never been so scared in my life.”

And we were going to stay here?!

I was told that normally, hyenas are cowardly and aren’t aggressive at all—which made the news about the attack all the more shocking.  No longer were hyenas giggling cartoon characters in my mind; they were now those menacing four-legged demons from Ghostbusters.

“You are safe in a tent as long as the zipper is shut,” Harry said, “because hyenas lack the opposable thumbs to open them.”  Supposedly, the boy’s death could have been prevented if he had just zipped his tent closed.  The boy left his tent zipper open waiting to take a picture of a hyena—only to fall asleep in the lap of vulnerability.

A zipper?  A zipper is supposed to keep your privates from being exposed when wearing trousers, not to keep wild animals from eating you.  Was I supposed to believe that a tiny zipper and a big flashlight were decent enough protection against being ravaged by a hyena?  Yeah, right.

That night I could hardly sleep.  Every sound frightened me.  The boy was eaten alive?  At this very campsite?  A mere zipper is the only thing coming between me and a gruesome demise?  What about other animals besides hyenas?  Don’t they all hunt for food at night? 

All my paranoia actually tired me out and put me to sleep. 

But suddenly, I woke up abruptly in a sweat.  My heart began to race.  There was a growling in the darkness.  I immediately looked over to my tent zipper, and it was still closed.  The menacing sound of heavy breathing continued, and it didn’t sound too far away.  What would the boy have done if he was awake during sounds like these?  Was this it?  Was this the end?  I knew I should have bought a bigger flashlight! 

The noise persisted through the night, but I noticed it never moved around.   After analysis, I realized it was just a fellow camper snoring loudly in another tent. 

No hyenas came that night.

OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, I was still hyena-less.  Night after night I’d wait for the cackling animals to come, but it was the same old thing:  nothing.  The first night:  nothing.  The fourth:  nothing.  Eighth: nothing but the sounds of snoring.  The boy cried hyena and every night when I checked, it was a hoax.  Perhaps hyenas were just a myth, like dragons in medieval folklore.

I became less and less anxious of the creatures as the days progressed, and by the last few nights of the trip, my fear of hyenas had transmuted into my obsession.  I had already shot all the animals of the indigenous animal kingdom with my camera, and had yet to take a photo of the elusive hyena.  Where was it?  What could I do to earn this last photographic prize?  I started to realize the mentality of the little boy.

On our final night in the wild, just when I was giving up on a hyena sighting, menacing eyes glowed in the distance, as if on cue.  My heart began to race faster than before.  An evil whooping cackle filled the air and resonated in my head. 

“Hyenas,” Harry said in a foreboding quiet-before-the-storm tone. “Here they come.”

Hyena by night

We quickly scurried to our tents and shut the zippers closed.  Suddenly, through the questionable protective barrier of nylon mesh, I saw two big shadows cast on the side of Harry’s truck by the illumination of the campfire.  They grew larger and larger as they got closer, like a Hollywood film cliché.  And then they appeared: two big hyenas, curiously snooping at our campfire. 

But they didn’t look menacing at all.  Aside from the fact that they were just ugly, they behaved like two mild-mannered domesticated pets—not that I was going to go over and give them a bath or anything.  They stood still, mesmerized and hypnotized by the campfire, watching the flames dance above the glowing embers.  As they stood there, I realized that the animals were just the big, goofy-looking laughing dogs from animated television, materialized in the real world.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  I admired the creatures from afar, shooting them through the mesh with rounds of my Kodak ammunition.  After about fifteen minutes of uneventful loitering, the pair went off to the next campsite, laughing all the way.  No one had been eaten, and I had my trophy.  Hyenas existed after all.

I never saw a hyena again after that night, but perhaps next time, I won’t get so anxious about them.  Perhaps even, I’d laugh along with them—as long as my tent is zipped closed.

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