To this day, reading the stats about hyaenas still gives me the chills. Relative to their size, they’re said to have the strongest bite of any animal alive. With the ability to exert almost a ton of pressure, their jaws can bite through giraffe bones as thick as gutter pipes – so they must be able to rip through flesh like wet paper towel. What’s more, with a diet of rotting meat and scant regard for dental hygiene, the hyaena’s mouth practically hums with bacteria.
Back in May 2010 I didn’t really know much about hyaenas; in fact I had never even been to Kruger before. My wife, on the other hand, had been visiting the park since she was a child and so, along with our young son, Johan – who was just 20 months old at the time – we took our first family camping holiday in the park.
My wife and I were both very excited – not just for ourselves but for little Johan too, who had never seen wild animals before. To add to the excitement, we had planned to camp at Balule, a small rest camp just south of Olifants, famous – and popular – for having no electricity and offering a purer bush experience.
That evening, we set up our caravan and tent in the corner of the campsite, alongside the fence. While braaing a little while later, we noticed the sloping shadows of a hyaena patrolling up and down the fence, attracted by the smell of the cooking meat. With no lights in the camp, it was unfortunately too dark to show Johan the hyaena, so we settled down for the night instead. We drifted off to the sounds of the bush outside the caravan, blissfully unaware of the horror awaiting us the following day.
The next morning I was sitting back and enjoying a cup of coffee while watching Johan toddling around near the fence. It was my first morning in Kruger, and what a perfect day it seemed. As I turned around to put my cup on the table, I heard a noise and a loud wail from my son. I shot around and froze on the spot. Just metres in front of me, a hyaena on the other side of the fence had my son’s hand firmly in its jaws – and was tugging on it violently.
Could this really be happening? It felt like I was in a film – suddenly everything had been slowed right down and all sounds evaporated. For those who say there is nothing like a mother’s instinct to protect her offspring, they’ve never been a father watching a hyaena try to bite his son’s hand off. I leapt up and dived over to Johan. In a single motion, I wrapped my left arm around him and, with my right fist, punched the wire mesh so hard I thought my hand would rip right through it. Shocked, the hyaena let go of Johan’s hand, and I pulled him safely away from the fence.
The scene was horrific; there was blood everywhere, the skin on top of his hand had peeled over his fingers like a glove coming off, and I could see that one of the hyaena’s canines had pierced clean through the palm. Every bone in his hand must surely be broken, I thought, as I pulled the skin back and screamed for help. A thousand things rushed through my mind: How did this happen? What must I do? Will my boy be okay? Where can I find a doctor?
At the time, my wife was in the caravan, but hearing the screams she came rushing out to see what was going on. I remember shouting across to her that we must get help as a hyaena had bitten Johan’s hand and thinking to myself how surreal it felt to say those words. She ran to my father-in-law, who was in the camp too and, thankfully, had a medical kit in his caravan. He covered the wound with bandages from the kit and, with no cell phone signal and little idea about what to do next, dashed off to get help from the camp manager. The camp manager was able to use his bush radio to get in touch with Skukuza and relay to them what had happened. They directed us to the nearest hospital in Phalaborwa.
And so began a frantic race through the park. We jumped in the car, and despite clocking speeds well in excess of the strict park limits, it still felt like we were crawling. We weren’t crawling at all of course – quite the opposite – and the entire drive I was terrified that an animal would dash out in front of us and make the whole situation even more of a catastrophe. Whether it was the speed we were driving or whether it was just a quiet day in Kruger, I don’t know, but I don’t recall seeing a single animal the entire 90 kilometre journey.
Meanwhile, I was breaking more rules: I was on the phone while driving, frantically trying to make arrangements to get my son to a local doctor rather than to the only hospital in Phalaborwa, which, I had just found out from the operator there, had long queues of patients waiting to be seen.
Poor Johan, not even two years old, was in agony. My wife was holding his hand upright to hopefully ease the pain a little, but how can you ease pain like that for anyone, let alone a toddler? At one stage he fell asleep – probably exhausted from the shock – but was still crying and whimpering even as he slept. Meanwhile, the blood was starting to seep through the thick bandages, despite my wife’s best efforts to apply pressure to the wound to stem the bleeding.
My efforts on the phone to find a doctor were paying off. I had managed to get in touch with a friend in Tzaneen who in turn had arranged for a friend of his to meet us at Phalaborwa Gate and lead us to a doctor in the town.
Forty minutes after setting out, the top of a radio tower and the apex of a thatched roof finally came into view. We had made it to the gate. As we approached, I flashed my car’s lights and the guards at the gate lifted the boom and waved us through without a question asked.
The town of Phalaborwa lies just a few hundred metres from the park gates, so it wasn’t long before we were at the doctor’s rooms. They had been expecting us, as my friend had called ahead and briefed them on exactly what had happened. Just as well too, as they almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to make sense of what I was saying, such was my desperation to have my son seen to.
The doctor himself was busy with another patient when we arrived, but as soon as we burst through the doors, he ushered the patient out and let us in.
My wife waited outside, sobbing; she couldn’t face seeing her little boy’s shredded hand as the bandage was removed. The doctor immediately administered a local anaesthetic to ease the pain while I held Johan tight, talking to him and trying to calm him down as the doctor tended to the wounds. He was given a very strong antibiotic, and the doctor told us to come back for a checkup every day.
As our own shock wore off, we realised how much worse things could have been. The hyaena would almost certainly have severed Johan’s hand, or even his whole arm, had I not been able to get there so quickly. But what if it had clamped down with its jaws, rather than let go, when I had punched the fence?
That night, back in the caravan, Johan slept fitfully. I don’t know if he was having nightmares or whether the pain was so bad, but he didn’t sleep well. And neither did we.
The next day we moved to Letaba rest camp to be closer to the doctor, as the camp lies just an hour and a half from Phalaborwa. Johan was in a lot of pain and he wasn’t himself; whereas before he loved tottering around, now he just wanted to be carried. His hand had become very swollen, and his arm was red and warm to touch. Back at the doctor’s we were advised not to take any chances and to go back home and get him to hospital to get intravenous antibiotics, as there was clearly infection in the wound. The lustre of our holiday had long since faded anyway.
The next day we packed up, made our way home to Pretoria and went directly to our paediatrician, who revealed that Johan’s hand was severely infected. The doctor phoned a specialist who was in theatre at that stage, but instructed us to wait for him just outside the operating room. As we got there, the specialist emerged in his scrubs, took one look at the hand and hurried Johan into theatre to clean the wound. Afterwards, we were relieved to hear that there were no broken bones, and miraculously the hyaena’s canines had missed the most vulnerable part on the inside of his hand.
Johan spent the next three days in hospital, going into theatre every day to have his wound cleaned. After that, we were in and out of hospital for another six weeks or so, with a series of rabies injections administered, before the infection finally cleared up. Due to a new method of cell renewal used by the surgeons, the wound healed miraculously.
My son can still use his fingers, but despite much occupational therapy he can no longer properly make a fist, as the nerves were rotted by the infection. Today, though, he is a bouncy young boy with an extraordinary story to tell anyone who asks about the large scar on his hand. In fact, this has become his ‘pick-up line’ to make new friends. Most kids don’t believe him, of course, and come running to my wife and I to ask us whether it is true. When we tell them that he really was bitten by a hyaena they are most impressed. I imagine that line will be used more than a few times to impress the girls when he is a bit older.
Johan now also has a younger brother, over whom he is most protective. When we visited Kruger again in 2012 – our first trip back since the incident – Johan showed no signs of any psychological scars of the incident. Rather, he seemed to want to pass on his knowledge, and it was so sweet to overhear him warning his little brother to stay away from the fence – “because the hyaenas will bite you!”
This article was originally published in 101 Kruger Tales – a collection of 101 jaw-dropping stories as compiled by Jeff Gordon and first published by Leadwood Publishing and distributed by Struik Nature, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The author of this particular tale, Johan Armstrong, lives in Pretoria where he is an airworthiness inspector at the Civil Aviation Authority. Together with his wife, Riki, and their two boys, they love outdoor life and camping. Despite little Johan’s brush with the hyaena, he harbours no fear of dogs or other animals, and greatly enjoyed his second trip to Kruger.