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








Safari A-Z: N is for Night Game Drive

29 09 2008

Things that go bump in the night.                        (Etosha, Namibia)

There is a quiet and intermittent ticking coming from the cooling engine. Everyone sits silently in the open-backed vehicle, mouths open, listening intently for any noise from the surrounding bush. Hands swat at mosquitoes while eyes strain for the slightest movement as they slowly grow accustomed to the engulfing darkness. From the right, there is a low rolling rumble, a deep breath and a heavy rustle. The guide gestures with his hand.  We can see nothing. He turns on a hand-held spotlight, and there, no more than 30 metres away, a herd of elephant drifts almost silently past us.


It’s not possible to do night game drives everywhere in Africa. Many parks restrict movement after dark in an attempt to curtail the activities of poachers. But where they are available, they are amongst the greatest and most unique wildlife experiences.


During early morning or late afternoon, it is rare to have a disappointing game drive in any park in east or southern Africa. Even the drive from a park gate to a lodge or campsite usually rewards with giraffe, antelope, zebra or elephant. Night game drives are different, however, and it is not unusual to return from several hours of searching having seen almost nothing. While it is much more difficult to find the Big Five than during the day, there’s a much greater likelihood of finding some of the lesser-known nocturnal species that the vast majority of visitors will never see. Things like honey badgers, anteaters, porcupine or certain wildcats. But any encounter at all at night takes on a magical quality that makes it truly unforgettable.


Close to the equator, darkness comes in the early evening and the intense heat of the day quickly evaporates leaving a biting chill. The best night game drives take place in open-backed or open-sided vehicles with nothing providing separation or protection from the mysteries of the night. The driver and guide scan the bush with a powerful hand-held spotlight, hoping to catch a hint of movement or the reflection of a pair of eyes. Sometimes, the vehicle is just stopped, the engine turned off, and you just sit in the bush and take in all the sounds.


Sitting amid a pride of lions and listening to them grinding into the bones of a kill is a daunting experience that sends rippling chills down one’s spine even in broad daylight. But at night, when you can only see the lions that are in the spotlight yet can hear them all around you and know there is nothing to stop them from leaping into the open vehicle except habit, that terror is taken to primeval levels.


But not all is dark at night. African hares bound through the long grass ahead of the headlights, their comically-long ears and enormous feet evoking smiles. Heads dart towards movement in hopes of a leopard, only to find a small nightjar flitting through the bushes, while the notoriously-shy shaggy brown hyena watches warily before loping off into the darkness like Bigfoot on all-fours.


Taking photographs on night game drives is very difficult, but then that is what daylight is for! Night game drives provide you with a unique opportunity to not so much see the wildlife you’ve travelled so far for, but to sense them, feel them and hear them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan