The Wee Hours

17 03 2009


“Do car headlights usually growl?”                           (Masai Mara, Kenya)


When people head on their first safari, pangolins and honey badgers rarely top their ‘Wish List’, but once in the bush, it’s funny how priorities change.


Any major game park should provide sightings of giraffe, elephant, hippo and probably lion. Cheetah and rhino are more elusive, and leopard are downright tricky, but it’s possible to see the Big Five on your first safari…plus a lot more if you’re lucky. And once you’ve seen the classics, your thrill of the hunt expands to cubs, kills…and the rare and unusual. Like honey badgers and pangolins: creatures you had probably never heard of until you actually fell asleep to the sound of yapping jackals and braying zebras.


There are many creatures in Africa that are hard to find either because they’re rare – like wild dogs – or nocturnal – like servals and brown hyenas.


Despite their silly laughs, hyenas are actually amongst Africa’s most efficient predators. They are capable of bringing down prey considerably larger than themselves and can hold their own against lions. Fortunately, they rarely attack able-bodied or mobile humans – which is hard to remember if ever you’ve had to chase them away from your campfire wielding nothing more than sticks, stones and false bravado…or heard them circling your tent at night while snuffling and cackling…or been followed to the long-drop by their glowing eyes…. or seen them grinding bones into powder with their powerful jaws…or…  But I digress.


Spotted hyena are common, but brown hyena are rarely glimpsed. Although just as capable as their cousins, brown hyena are smaller and shaggier – as if they were having a bad hair day due to an excess of styling mousse and a strong wind…and have rather dapper striped legs. Because hardly anyone ever sees them and perhaps due to their notoriety as nature’s fashion faux pas, I really wanted to. Forget elephants and lions…I craved the peculiar.


Early morning and late afternoon game drives had yielded nothing. Yes, we saw an enormous black-maned lion devouring the remains of a zebra, a huge herd of elephant with spectacular tusks, two giraffes banging necks and a pair of cheetahs on a hunt…but who hasn’t?! We thought we had success during a night drive when something moved beyond the scope of our powerful lamp. We carefully tracked it only to discover a jackal with disappointingly good fashion sense.


Back at camp, we climbed into our sleeping bags and listened to the whoops and laughs of hyena – hyena that I just knew were brown and laughing at me.


That night I learned that ‘wee hours’ are so named because they are when nature calls. I reluctantly zipped my fleece, stepped from my tent and headed for the bushes. After sweeping my torch like a light sabre I was satisfied that I was alone and got down to business. Sat on my haunches, I periodically scanned the surrounding darkness with my penlight. All was good, until I detected movement to my right. The flashlight was turned on and directed to the noise. And there, at long last, was my brown hyena.


His hair was a magnificent mop of disarrayed elegance. His eyes glowed in the beam of light. He was perfect, except that in the darkness I couldn’t make out his striped stockings. The only other disappointment was that I didn’t have my camera…and my trousers were around my ankles. It was then I realised I was a not particularly able-bodied or mobile human. In other words, I was hyena num-nums. I waved my miniature flashlight vigorously, but it had no effect. With the torch held in my mouth and nature’s call suddenly gone, I hurriedly re-dressed and dashed for my tent.


Safely back inside I decided that in future I would instead long to see safe things like butterflies, baby bunnies and hamsters.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan









One response

17 03 2009
Steve Weileman

I just wanted to mention that I love living vigorously through your post and look forward to reading them, like some people look forward to their daily crossword puzzle.

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