September 1, 2010

Stalked by a Hyena in the Serengeti

I started awake to a growling sound.  Low.  Deep.  Close.

I cocked my ears, held my breath and listened again. Nothing. Maybe I’d dreamed it?

Serengeti Sunrise

It was our second night on Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain, where we’d come to witness the annual migration – some two million zebra, gazelle and especially wildebeest that give birth en masse and cross the Mara River in search of better grazing, My husband, Jack, and I were going it old school, our group of eight plus two guides in a Hemingway-style tented camp not far from the river.

Then I heard it again. “Lion,” I thought. My illuminated camp watch said 3:30 a.m.

Another growl, a little louder.  This time a little closer.  Then an angry, snarling, agitated sound.  Louder.  Closer.

“Jack,” I whispered, “Are you awake?”

“Ssssh,” he replied.  How he could sleep with  fangs and claws of some wild animal just a hand’s width away from his pearly white neck was beyond me.

The growl rose in angry crescendo to a snarl. Another creature seemed to reply.

Suddenly the night was filled with a ghastly sound, a shrill, screeching, murderous howl that seemed barely an arm’s length away.

“Not lion–Hyena,” I mouthed silently to myself, as I sat frozen in a half crouch. My palms were sweaty and my mouth dry as I listened to rooting, sniffing sounds impossibly close. From years of camping in bear country in the US, I knew better than to wear anything that smelled remotely enticing. Perhaps the scent he sniffed was my fear.

The canvas tent seemed a hopelessly fragile barrier against this furious wild creature, now only inches from my head.

Stalking spotted hyena

My heart pounded.  I tried to concentrate on our guide’s earlier explanation when we first set up camp that animals perceive a tent as a solid structure and will not try to violate its boundaries. I’d heard enough stories of bears invading camper’s tents not to fall for that one. What makes a hyena–evolved for 26 millions years into a consummate hunting machine–dumber than a black bear?

I tried hard to forget our guide’s exposition, only hours earlier, of the immense strength of the hyena, of its teeth designed to rip and tear its victims, its tendency to hunt in packs, of a ferocity that can drive even a lion off its kill.

I raised my chin ever so slightly to peek nearsightedly out the mesh window of the tent.  It was open, of course, to catch the breeze.

A hulking, dog-sized shadow crouched near the corner of the tent while a second shadow blurred around the corner.  I ducked, my heart pounding faster.  After a moment it was quiet.  Then there was the sound of renewed movement–or was it my imagination run free?

Leaves from the acacia plopped languidly onto the tent–as they had the night before–but now they startled me.  I lay tense, sleepless, listening, hearing only the normal night sounds, now amplified in my mind:  the rustle of the brush, breeze whispering past the canvas.  Soon, Jack’s breathing told me he’d edged back into sleep.  I crouched low on the cot.  Now hot, I kicked the covers off, turned uneasily on my side, rested my head on the pillow and commanded myself to sleep.

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Anne Sigmon

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