It was nearly 2am in Tanzania’s infamous Serengeti National Park, and there we were, tucked into our cots underneath mosquito netting, with nothing between us and the wildlife except for a canvas tent.
I had been sitting awake for the past half hour, listening to the tell-tale whooping sound of spotted hyenas getting closer-and-closer to our camp. It was both terrifying and mesmerizing. I couldn’t help but wonder what they were doing and where they were heading.
We had arrived at camp late that evening, as we had come directly from safari at Lake Manyara National Park. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to get acclimated and settled before we had to head to our tents to sleep.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a refreshing glass of fruit juice and a wonderful dinner, then shown where we would be spending the night. The tents were nothing like the traditional camping tents that we are used to in North America.
They are thick canvas tents with lighting cables run throughout the tent. The lights are powered by a battery that is charged by solar panel. There is a sink and a shower, but the plumbing is gravity-based. If you want to take a shower, you have to let the camp operators know and they poor a large bucket of water into the feeder tank situated on top of your tent.
As soon as we dropped off our things and briefly toured our quarters for that night, we were invited back to the main tent to sit by the fire and enjoy the rest of our evening. The camp operators were extremely friendly, as were the other patrons we spoke to. We were kindred spirits sharing an amazing adventure in one of this world’s last wild places. There was much to talk about.
As the fire grew smaller and people slowly started retiring to their tents for the night, I just sat back in my chair and stared out into the darkness of the Serengeti, wondering what kinds of adventures we would have the next day. I felt so alive.
As our group was led back to our tents, we were reminded again by the Maasai man who was in charge of security at the camp that we were not to, under any circumstances, leave our tents on our own at night. If we needed something, we were to shout for assistance. In the case of an emergency, each tent was equipped with a whistle.
I thought of this as I lay there awake, listening to the sound of hyenas approaching. They were so close I imagined them right outside our tent. Should I shout for assistance? Should I use the whistle they gave us? Trying to remain calm, I decided instead to just remain quiet. Surely the camp operators must hear them if I can, and if the hyenas were too close or we were in any real danger, I am sure they would do something.
Eventually the calls of the hyenas grew more distant as they seemingly passed by our camp on the way to pursue other business. I continued to lay there awake for another half-hour or so, contemplating what I had just experienced and wondering to myself if I had ever experienced such a rush of adrenaline on a trip. It was a surreal experience.
The next morning, the breakfast table was alive with discussion about our visitors the previous night. I asked our tour guide if he had experienced anything like that before, and he mentioned that he had.
He informed us that the whooping calls we heard the hyenas make the night before are their way of communicating with each other, and his guess was that they were heading towards food somewhere on the plains below us. Hyenas are known to frequent the campgrounds in search of food, but since they passed thru so quickly they must have been on their way someplace else.
We decided as a group that we would explore in the direction the hyenas headed after we finished our breakfast and packed up. It was raining that morning, and our day on safari in the Ndutu plains of the Serengeti would be a wet one.
We would get stuck in the mud in the Serengeti a few times that day, but not before we discovered what we believe was the meal the hyenas were after. It wasn’t long after heading out that morning that we discovered a pride of lions feeding on a fresh wildebeest kill. They must have made the kill during the night.
Lions and hyenas directly compete for the same food, and it is likely the hyenas we heard were on their way to investigate this kill. If hyenas have enough numbers and there aren’t any large, adult male lions present, then hyenas have been known to chase lions off of their kills. They must not have had the numbers they needed that night as the lions were still enjoying their breakfast when we arrived and there was no sign of the hyenas we heard.
As we all sat there watching the lions feeding, I couldn’t help but think to myself that our experience on safari in the Serengeti couldn’t have been a more amazing adventure.