We were in the Okavango Delta of Botswana for a nine-night 4×4 camping safari that would take us through four campsites till we reached the border of Zambia. Our campsite was secluded, with the nearest safari neighbors over a kilometer away. The camp did not have a fence or electric barriers – just trees, bushes, and through the clearings, the vast sky of Africa.
As we drove into the camp, after a safari drive from the town of Maun in Botswana, we saw a herd of impala settling for the night, about 30 meters away from our tents. Intermingled with the impala was a congress of baboons. Apparently, the members of congress wasted no time coming into camp to steal whatever they could.
HANGING OUT WITH HYENAS
I walked 10 meters to the open-air tent in Botswana. Then I scanned the small square space for scorpions, spiders, and other things that crawl in the night. I didn’t zip the tent yet – I wanted to see what was out there. The bugs began swarming to my little light, so I reluctantly switched it off.
It was almost pitch black except for the dim glow cast by the electric lantern and the stars glittering through the canopy of tree branches. The bugs quickly disappeared. It was quiet – except for the constant scurrying, buzzing, flapping, clicking, chirping, and snorting of the African night.
The sharply ascending whoop was followed by another three-second “wooooo-huup!” It was a hyena and it sounded closer than it did half an hour ago. The whoops began before sunset and were quickly getting louder, which meant that the hyena was approaching our area. It whooped again.
There was another loud whoop but this time from another direction – clearly a different hyena. As exciting as it was, I began to feel a bit vulnerable, so ready or not, I went back to my tent. I came on this safari in Botswana to photograph wild animals, not to get mangled by one.
A TWO-STAR CAMPING SAFARI IN BOTSWANA
We were two-star safari camping in Botswana. This meant that we had decent-sized tents with space for our bags, and narrow but comfortable cots with mattresses and pillows. We had two open-air bushy-bushy tents and one open shower tent. Water for showers was rationed carefully and we were limited to one drip shower of about 5 or 6 liters a day per person. Additionally, we also had an open-sided dining tent which was the camp’s social center.
Consequently this meant that we didn’t have to worry about setting up or breaking camp. Aside from Frank our guide, we had a hardworking two-man crew (our happy camp manager and our excellent camp chef ). They saw to it that the camp was always ready when we arrived from our daily safari drives. We did not have air-conditioning, electric fans, a generator, or guns – which were not allowed in Botswana.
AFRICAN SAFARI BY DAY & BY NIGHT
“An African safari by day is video and by night is stereo,” said Frank. “Never go out of your tent at night, unless you really have to and never if you hear or see animals,” he emphasized. “Just listen quietly from your tent and enjoy the wild African nightlife in surround stereo. That’s a night safari.”
Back in the relative safety of my tent, I was having a hard time sleeping. The audio safari was picking up intensity so the urge to leave the tent to see wildlife or to sit under the African sky was strong. I tried peering through the mesh of the tent, but everything was fuzzy. And so I reluctantly lay back and listened to the night.
“We are safe in our tents,” said Frank. “African predators are not curious about solid shapes like tents or vehicles, and as long as you don’t stand out, they will not be curious about you. They are not interested in the smell of humans.”
“Animals will come into the camp but as long as you are not moving or standing, or sticking out like a sore thumb, they will not be attracted to you,” said Frank.“The animals will not care about you if you are still and quiet. They were not taught to hunt humans by their mothers.”
HEART-STOPPING CLOSE CALLS
I could hear more hyena whoops, scurrying, grunts, snorts, night calls, flapping, and now, occasional shrieks and barks at a distinctly higher intensity. I peeked through the mesh and saw one of the camp members looking out of his tent, scanning the area with his powerful flashlight.
The team was obviously alert and it wasn’t till the next morning – after all hell had broken loose – that they told us their concerns about the hyenas. They suspected the hyenas we heard at sunset were approaching our camping area.
The flashlight seemed to calm things down and the night chatter toned down. I tried to sleep but I was too jetlagged, restless, and by now, excited.
EXCITEMENT IN EVERY HOUR
12:52 AM. I needed to go badly so I unzipped the tent, scanning the tree line with my puny flashlight. After I zipped up, stepped back into the tent, and lay down. Within minutes, the hoof steps were back and within meters from our tent. Then I began hearing crackling leaves, snuffling, and bleating. And so I peered through the mesh, but all I could see were shadows.
12:58 AM. It sounded like something big was slithering on the ground near my tent. Holy whooping hyena! That one was just a few meters away and the whoops were urgent and close. The bush was alive with animal scurrying and cries, and our camp was awake. Then I looked through the mesh and vaguely saw the crew scanning the camp grounds with their flashlights.
1:01 AM. The bush was in chaos. The herd of impala was restless and alarmed, the monkeys shrieking, and baboons barking. Suddenly, something large was beside my tent, literally a few feet away from me.
Then I looked outside the mesh and saw two large dog-like shapes running across the camp. But one of them paused close to the camp fire, silhouetted by the glowing embers, before moving to the camp perimeter. As a result, there were more whoops, barks, and growls as the noises rose to pandemonium.
1:17 AM. After over 15 minutes, the bush settled down and the fading whoops of the hyena receded. I was totally excited and amped with adrenaline. After a few exhilarated moments, 20-20 hindsight suddenly hit like a hammer. Three to four minutes ago, I was standing peacefully outside my tent doing my thing and star-gazing.
BREAK OF DAWN
4:24 AM. I woke up to the racket of frogs and crickets. When I looked out of my tent I saw the sky lightening. Then I heard the distant whoop of a hyena and the barking grunt of what I took to be a lion. Bird calls were slowly filling the air. It would be sunrise soon, my first sunrise in the bush, in wild Botswana, and I didn’t want to miss it.
5:23 AM. The wildlife action continued. I heard shouts from the dining tent. Someone was chasing a member of congress from the dining tent after another successful thievery, this time carrying away our morning serving of bananas.
And so it was hard not to eagerly jump out of my cot before dawn every day. We were in the heart of Africa. In the middle of nowhere, wildlife surrounded us, and every morning began with a clear sense of impending adventure. Pure, wild nature – there was nothing more deserving of reverence, and nothing more exhilarating.
Read more about safaris in Africa in Travelife Magazine. Photographs taken by Dondi Joseph.