6 MAY 2005 – ETOsha, namibia

the lion and the jackal

Yeah, sometimes I do stupid reckless things. This time it was a dark night in the Etosha wildlife park in Namibia. I had just zipped open my tent and I had the somewhat foolish plan to find out where the mighty roar that just woke me up came from. That decision turned out not be among my smartest ideas.

A procession of animals

Arriving at Etosha was a magical experience. After we got out of our truck, quickly unpacked and set up our tents we went for a brief visit of the watering hole that was adjacent to the campsite. At least, we intended it to be a brief visit because we to return soon for dinner. We failed horribly in this mission.

First the Rhinos came, then the Giraffes, then the Elephants, then the Zebra’s, then the Gazelles and finally the Lions. As on group was drinking, the next group would loiter on the horizon, carefully waiting for the other group to finish before coming in. Watching them pass by was like feeling nature’s rhythm up close, feeling its pulse in our own veins.  None of our group felt hunger our thirst, just a kind of silent fascination by this unique spectacle.

Completely mesmerized by this continuous wondrous procession of large animals it took two hours before we managed to pull ourselves away and when we finally got back for dinner, evening had already fallen.

We dined in the dark accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the sparse light given of by our small campfire and a few electrical lights. Almost without sound, large shapes suddenly wandered out of the darkness and into our small circle of light, surprising us. They had brown fur coats dotted with small white spots and some sported small antlers: a herd of deer. They browsed on the grass and looked for small scraps of food around our campsite seemingly unafraid of people.

I had seen deer before of course, but never like this. The deer were either at a large distance or behind an enclosure in a zoo. But to have them just come up to you and walk among honestly felt nothing short of magical. I felt tipsy with wonder and at a loss for words at these unexpected surprises.

Roars in the night

We returned to the watering hole and continued to watch the animal procession at night assisted by a pair of floodlights before returning to our tents inside the camp for some well-earned rest. I fell asleep easily but at was awoken an undetermined number of hours later by a thunderous roar that echoed across the savanna. Apparently Lions can roar between 30-60 seconds and they clock in at an enormous 114 decibels, or about 25 times louder than your typical lawnmower and about equal to a rock concert.

But the most curious part happened just after the roar subsided: the crickets went completely silent as if they whole wilderness held its breath briefly. But then the silence was replaced by a chorus of hyena-like yips: dozens of short high pitched whines coming from all directions and then slowly fading into silence as well. It felt like the public applauding a magnificent opera singer.

The roar had sounded so close by that I wondered if a kill had been made at the watering hole. I was still confused from being woken up by the roar so wasn’t able to accurately judge the direction and distance but I was eager to go out and see, knowing that a sturdy wall and fence separated the whole from our camp and that light would still be on.

After a brief deliberation (I might run into a pride of lions in the dark after all) I put on my shoes and prepared to leave my tent. I zipped open the inner and outer doors and just reached back to grab my flashlight when I heard the eerie sound of something gnawing near the back of my tent, just several feet away. I froze instantly, my heart rate going through the roof. The gnawing was followed by shuffling footsteps, something bumping into the canvas of my tent and then continued chewing sounds.

The zipper conundrum

My sense of time completely disappeared and I had never felt my senses so acutely as they tried to take in every little detail of my surroundings. My whole body was concentrating on making as little noise as possible while noticing as much as possible. I heard more noises, the sound of padded paws stepping stealthily through the grass surrounding my tent, the rustle of a hairy thing touching the canvas, the shallow breath of an animal. At that point a fierce struggle erupted in my mind: one part of my brain told me to zip up my tent and create safety where there was now an open flap where any animal could just stick its head in. The other part of my brain told me not to put an arm (or any appendage for that matter) outside into the possible path of any gnawing jaws. Only the outside of tent had a zipper, so it was impossible to close the tent from the inside.

While I was scared, I honestly didn’t expect a lion to be just outside. What would it do here when it had just made a kill likely at least a hundred meters away? The animals I suspect of prowling around my tent was one of the hyena’s who’s yips I had just heard echoing into the night following the lion’s roar. I knew that Hyena’s are not animals to be toyed with. They are smart and have one of the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom. Any human hand that they would grab would surely be as good as lost. In the end I decided just to remain inside and wait for the sounds to recede. And after some indeterminable time (my instinctual fear made it very hard to track time) the sounds went away and at some point I dared to close my tent. No hands were taken that night.

The morning after I discovered parts of the hard plastic and leather bags that were attached to the tent ripped apart and chewed up. Apparently the target of a pack of brazen jackals that roamed the camp at night searching for edible tidbits. 

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