The piercing screams of a distressed elephant are not the ideal interruption to a peaceful sleep.
I awoke to this devilish cacophony and glanced at my watch. It was half past 3 in the morning. Angry trumpeting and the thundering of pachyderm feet through water accompanied the screaming. I calculated blearily that the splashes must have been coming from a flooded section of the road, only a few metres from our house. Suddenly, the screaming ceased. Had I been dreaming?
It began again, with more insistence. Callum sat up next to me, his profile just visible in the cold dark of our room. Through the mesh window I could make out the shadowy lines of trees in an otherwise pitch-black night. Then, there was unmistakeable, frenzied giggling: hyaenas. Their whoops and yells intermingled with the trumpets of the great giants, creating a truly terrifying combination of sounds that turned my blood cold. I am actually very fond of hyaenas: they are misunderstood mammals that are often given a bad press. My nickname at Abu is phiri, which is the Setswana word for ‘hyaena,’ because I am usually found skulking around in the kitchens. However, at night, and in a clan, they are a frightening bunch.
Callum shone his torch through the mesh, but the trees and bushes disguised the fighting beyond. The sound ebbed and flowed, as if battle was interrupted every few seconds. Callum lay down again, torch still in hand.
Suddenly, he sat bolt upright and grabbed my arm.
“Listen!” He held my hand and I froze, trying to interpret his sudden urgency. Then, in amongst the whooping and crashing of branches, came a blood-curdling, guttural screech, a strange mix of wailing and roaring, followed by the sound of crunching bones.
“It’s a leopard! Let’s go.”
I mouthed wordlessly, a stream of attempts to argue against the idea of venturing into an unforgiving night of angry elephants, hyaenas and leopards lost to the darkness. Callum was already at the door. I groped around for shoes and a coat, pulled them over my pyjamas and tried to shake myself out of sleep. The walk through the dark woods to the vehicle was a tense one: we were walking away from the fighting in order to get to the 4×4, but every crackle of leaves and whisper of wind coaxed me out of my sleepy state all the quicker. The lodge was silent, every guest and staff member sound asleep. Callum was ahead of me, and as I walked around to the other side of the car, I tripped unceremoniously over a branch that lay in the way. Hearing the snapping sound, Callum went into guide-mode and whipped around, shouting at the imagined lion or leopard approaching. Giggling nervously, I informed him from where I lay in an ungraceful heap that it was merely my clumsiness, and not a man-eating predator, that had caused the noise.
Finally, we set off, driving back past the managers’ houses towards the battle scene. The radio crackled into life, and Julian’s voice boomed through the still night, demanding to know who was making off with a vehicle at 3:45 AM. We quickly assured him that it was only us, and apologised for the rude awakening…!
We switched off the engine and listened for the tell-tale whoops of the hyenas. They came, but from deep within a thicket. Our progress was thus slowed, as laboriously we made our way in. Flashing our torches all around the vehicle and into the trees above us, I kept expecting an angry, cornered leopard to leap at us from any direction. We were arguing over routes, when two hyaenas emerged from the bushes. We followed them, and discovered the mangled remains of a carcass, and three absolutely stuffed hyaenas, rolling gleefully around their prize and squabbling over the last pieces. I watched in a kind of horrified fascination as one hyena regurgitated a whole piece of bone.
Suddenly, I realised that the largest hyaena was Oprah, a now famous and earless matriarch, whose story you can read here: http://www.we-are-wilderness.com/2011/08/24/the-clash-of-clans/
There was no leopard to be found, and neither Callum nor I uttered the terrible thought that perhaps the hyaenas (whose formidable presence in this concession far outweighs that of other predators) had killed it. There were signs of the frantic elephants everywhere, however, and their now distant trumpetings were indicative of a traumatic event, which had resulted in at least one animal’s death. We could only deduce that the leopard had made a kill, been robbed by the hyenas, and chased off.
We watched the still cackling victors, and returned home. Collapsing into bed at 4:30 AM, I began to think over what had just occurred. Just as we began to fall asleep, the noises began again, even closer to our house. Oprah and her gang had come back to taunt us, and their whooping was so incredibly loud that neither Callum nor I could hear each other speak. Soon, there were only a few inches and a wall of canvas between us and her earless head. The deliriously fat hyaenas rolled about underneath my bed for a little while longer before Callum decided he had had enough and sternly ‘shoo-ed’ them away.