Africa Geographic Travel

Fear of the Dark on the ‘Dark Continent’

Fear of the unknown is probably the only phobia that affects every single person on the planet. 

What has enabled human beings to rise to an unsurpassed intellectual plane is the capacity of the brain.  The gift of imagination has granted us the ability to invent ground-breaking technology and to surpass nearly every hurdle that mankind has faced.  However, this talent has a flip-side.  The power of imagination is so potent that it is capable of destroying lives and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks.  These terrifying thoughts generally need a catalyst, and the most commonly responsible is the dark.

leopard at night, leopard in darkness, night drive

© Ben Coley

From an early age, fear of the dark plagues young children and sleepless nights spent  wondering what monsters await under the bed are common place.  Noises that are ignored during the daylight hours are transformed by darkness into the ominous footsteps of the objects of our own fears.  The human world is so dictated by its ability to see and analyze what is seen, that when that ability is removed, the true power of the brain is unleashed.  And such monumental creative power is hard to control.  Let’s not forget that fear of the dark has its roots in our ancestors’ primitive lifestyle. They were perceived as prey by all manner of fearsome beasts that roamed through the shadows of night.  The discovery of fire was hugely influential in primitive engineering circles but perhaps, more than anything, it gifted man the ability to overcome darkness and keep perceived and very real dangers at bay.

The bush is home to some of the most feared predators in the world today.  The lion, leopard and hyena all ply their trade under the cloak of darkness.  Viewed during the day, the cats especially are often construed as large kittens and many a guest has wanted to rub the belly of a sleeping lion in daylight hours.  However, once darkness begins to envelop the land, these nocturnal nemeses come to life and undergo a transformation as extreme as that of a caterpillar to a butterfly.  The inky shroud that drapes itself across the landscape transforms these slumbering felines into efficient killing machines.  Blackness is their ally.  Their behaviour changes, their demeanor changes, our perception of them changes.

leopard in darkness, night drive, night safari

© Ben Coley

When we view cats at night, that primal fear is once again resurrected by the cimmerian shade overwhelming us and these magnificent creatures come into their own.  The comfort and warmth offered by the sun deserts us and the infinite power of the imagination is released.  The darkness seems to invade every pore in our skin and systematically undo all our common sense.  It is the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that the absence of light brings.  The knowledge that their eyes are able to penetrate the gloom with consummate ease, that these predators must kill to survive, that we ourselves could become prey, lends itself to a very different experience.

When a 200kg male lion stalks past the open land rover only a few metres away, the inhabitants hold their breath as one.  Men, women and children alike shift slightly in their seats to put distance between themselves and the superior specimen.  When it makes eye contact with you, the feeling of insignificance is hard to shake.  Being evaluated by a killing machine whose eyes seem to look right through your skin and into your very soul, is a profound experience.  Your conscience struggles to balance the feelings of wonder and respect with that of ancient fear and the primordial instinct to survive.

lion with prey, killing machine, lion with food

A natural killer. © Ben Coley

The ability to slink through the shadows without a sound yet seeing everything has enabled these great predators to thrive.  The psychological advantage that they possess over their quarry is as old as life itself.  Darkness always has and always will carry with it the stigma of danger.  Throughout history  darkness has been  seen as a bad omen.  The lack of depth perception, the inability to evaluate a situation in relation to its surroundings and the feeling of cold isolation all play a part in amplifying the power of darkness.  Surviving a day in the bush is a far different prospect to that of surviving a night.  The playing field flips and all of the senses and skills that enable us to flourish under the comforting companionship of the sun are removed and those that relish the darkness come to the fore.

Just because the majority of organisms on Earth need the sun to prosper does not mean that those who crave the sanctuary of darkness should be seen as evil.  Everything in nature has its balance.  Without some species being able to flourish in darkness, a perfectly good ecological niche would be wasted and the balance would be upset.  One cannot exist without the other.  To paraphrase the great Chinese philosopher Laozi, nothing exists in isolation.  For life to exist there must be balance.  Man has woman, heat has cold, good has bad and light has darkness.

Ben Coley

‘Living the dream’ is a much over-utilised cliché, but finding myself immersed in the African bush after being born and raised in England, it's a phrase that eloquently sums up the life-changing events I have experienced. I always had an affinity for African wildlife and, as a child, spent countless hours reading literature, watching documentaries and daydreaming about living in this magical terrain. When the chance came along unexpectedly, I jumped at it and within a couple of months found myself deep in the bush, studying to be a field guide. I have never looked back. I have been in the industry for more than six years and currently ply my trade at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve alongside my wife and soul mate who is also a guide here. The photographic opportunities are endless and, as a keen amateur photographer and writer, I am in my element. I am incredibly proud of my achievements and currently hold FGASA 3, trails guide and SKS birding qualifications, but I still wake up each morning with a sense of excitement about what the bush holds for me to learn. No two days or sightings are ever the same and it is this emotional rollercoaster that drives me to pursue and share my passion on a daily basis. These blogs and others can be found on

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