With their low slung hind quarters, powerful front legs, menacing teeth and claws, and a jaw that can snap off a grown man’s arm with one bite, hyenas are one of the meanest, nastiest, most efficient killing machines on earth. Hyenas are emblematic of Africa. And our never-ending quest to find the elusive spotted hyena den became emblematic of my stay in Botswana’s Tuli Wilderness.
Both brown hyena and spotted hyena call the Tuli home. The brown hyena could probably be more appropriately called the shaggy hyena, as it is easily recognizable by its long brown coat. In contrast, the spotted hyena has shorter fur sprinkled with obvious spots. The spotted hyena is a little larger than the brown, and the spotted hyena is also known to be even nastier and more aggressive than its nasty brown cousin.
One afternoon, Andrew asked me if there was anything I had not yet seen that I would like to before leaving in the Tuli.
“Every time we drive up Mohave Highway, I notice ‘The Marsh’ on the map off to the east,” I said. “What is that?”
“Funny you should ask about that,” Andrew replied. “I was planning on driving out near there this afternoon to look for the spotted hyena den again.”
We had already made several attempts to find the spotted hyena den in a large area of rocks about five miles north of camp. Andrew had seen the hyenas near there with the student group from the UK before I arrived in the Tuli, and was determined to find their den so we could see exactly how many pups there were, what gender they were. If we were lucky, we could even get close enough to take some photos of their spot patterns so we could create identification sheets for them. We had had no luck finding them so far, but we would try again—this time from a different angle.
We drove up Mohave Highway, to the flat spot in the road near Horrible Hill that sits above the rocks where Andrew had seen the hyenas, and where we had spent some time walking through the jumble of rocks looking for them. We drove past that area, down the teeth-chattering and kidney-bruising descent of Horrible Hill, and continued north on Mohave Highway for about a mile before we veered off to the right and onto the road to The Marsh.
Before long, we turned to the right again, onto a small spur that was more of a path than a road, even by Tuli standards, and we stopped near the base of the rocks. Our parking spot was sandwiched between magnificent red rock outcrops on one side, and on the other side a plain that sloped gently down to a low spot about a mile or two off in the distance—The Marsh—that looked to be covered half in low grass and half in water. It was the end of the rainy season, and we had recently experienced some significant showers, so seeing some standing water out there was no surprise.
“There’s your marsh,” Andrew said. “We can’t go all the way. It’s still pretty wet out there.”
“Do me a favor,” he said, “grab your binoculars and tell me if that blue you see out there is water, or is it flowers?”
I pulled the high-powered binoculars out of my pack, put them up tight against my eyes, zoomed all the way in, and carefully focused. There was no standing water out there at all.
“You’re right,” I said. “Those are blue flowers. I can make out the individual flowers poking out up above the grass.”
“There may not be much standing water out there,” Andrew said, “but it’s still much too wet for us to get too close. So let’s take a little walk through these rocks and find the hyena den.”
Long past the fear of having my wallet and money and passport stolen out deep in the bundu, I left my backpack sitting on the seat of the open vehicle, taking just my camera with telephoto so that if we were lucky enough to actually find the elusive hyenas this time, I could do my duty and photograph their spot patterns. Ash grabbed her camera, Andrew grabbed his rifle and ten extra bullets, and then we were off. At the last second, I reached back in my pack, grabbed my small video camera, and shoved it in my pocket.
The landscape there was stunning. We scrambled up a ridge which rose above the plain, a flat area of pinkish sand studded here and there with vibrant green mopane trees trimmed down to head-height by the herds of elephants that regularly passed through.
The rocky outcrops were red to dark red, in many places stained almost jet black by the elements, and they were mostly undercut, almost giving the impression of gigantic mushrooms rising up out of the landscape. Underneath these dark mushrooms were clear signs that the majority of them had been repeatedly used as hyena dens over the years and were still being used today. Fresh tracks and claw marks, tufts of fur, and an abundance of bones strewn across the ground told us that we were in the right place.
We walked across the ridge, between the rocks, hopped on top of the rocks for a better view, dropped back down between them, and otherwise canvased the ridge, but saw no hyenas. After some time, Andrew whispered that since we were being shut out up in the outcrops we should drop down onto the plain below and see if we could find a hyena or two out there.
The sun had dipped behind the rocks, and everything was bathed in a soft light, a gentle glow that gave off a false sense of peace and tranquility. We started our descent down the outcrop, being careful to be as quiet as possible. About two thirds of the way down to the plain, Ash thought she saw something. Andrew quickly confirmed. It was a spotted hyena, the mother of the pups we were searching for, and she was lying out on the plain about 100 feet from us, between the mopane trees, her head resting on her front paws, eyeing us intently as we attempted to move stealthily down the rocks.
We stopped there and hunkered down, watching closely as the hyena watched us. After about 15 minutes with no movement by us or the hyena, Andrew whispered that we should drop all the way down onto the plain to get a closer look from another angle. So as quietly as possible, we ascended back to the top of the ridge and traversed it north for several hundred yards and found a new spot to drop down to the plain. During our descent, we passed over many more dens that had obviously been used by hyenas in the recent past, but we saw none of the animals there.
When we finally made it out onto the open plain, we scanned to the south, out to where we had seen the mother hyena just a few minutes earlier, but we could not locate her again. We walked a little closer in what we thought was the right direction, constantly moving from side to side in an attempt to see around the mopane trees which were slung low to the ground and formed great cover for predators. And suddenly, there she was.
She was still in the same spot, but as we had moved off to the left about 60 degrees from where we were first watching her, she had obviously been completely aware of our movements and had been tracking us the entire time; in fact, by the time we had noticed her, she was already facing us again. Only this time, we were even closer to her than we had been before; she was now just about 60 feet in front of us.
We squatted down again to watch her. Frozen like a statue, she never broke her stare or moved in any other way.
The light was fading fast, and I wondered how much longer we would be able to safely stay this close to a spotted hyena—and how safe it would have been even in broad light. Andrew was an experienced professional, with a gun; any time a little bit of concern or doubt started to creep into my mind, I would always look towards him for reassurance; after all, he was the master, and I was the student, and I could and should watch him and learn from him. He could teach me many things, and not just the obvious things such as how to correctly identify an animal from the tracks it left behind in the sand; but more subtle things, like how to move in the bush, to not let my fear overcome me, and when I should be concerned.
In one of my brief moments of apprehension that day, we were squatted low to the ground, in a staring contest with a savage predator laying just a stone’s throw in front of us, when a terrifying thought struck me:
This was a set up!
This was a mother spotted hyena, with known pups, and she was part of a pack. She was not just a stupid animal; she was a vicious predator with a million years of instinct encoded in her DNA. How many others were out there, watching, waiting, and planning their attack, and where were they? They were probably circling around the back of us right now, ready to lunge in for the kill; the last thing we would hear is them laughing that famously evil hyena laugh as they almost instantly disemboweled us and broke our bodies down into tiny unidentifiable bits, harvesting enough meat off us three humans for a major hyena feast.
As I glanced over to Andrew for comfort once again, I noticed that he wasn’t looking in the direction of the hyena any longer. And neither was Ash.
“Do you see that?” Andrew asked.
“Yes,” Ash replied.
They were both looking about 45 degrees to the right of the hyena, at the exact same spot on the ridge where we had descended just a few minutes ago.
“Matt, do you see it?” Andrew asked.
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s one of the pups,” Ash said.
“No, there are two of them,” Andrew replied.
“I only see one,” Ash responded. “Right there next to that bush.”
“Oh,” Andrew replied, “I’m looking at two more up in the rocks.”
Finally, there were the three pups we had spent so much time looking for. After all of our searching, we had unwittingly almost stepped on them. Now, with the mother watching us closely, two of them were hiding fearfully in the rocks near their den, while the third had a curious eye on us, separated from these interesting humans by only a few low mopane trees and about 30 feet of reddish dirt. Our quiet evening stroll through the rocky outcrops down by The Marsh had just taken on a whole new level of intensity.
“Matt,” Andrew whispered, “when the pup turns to the side, make sure to get a good shot or two of the spot pattern so we can identify it later.”
Andrew only had to tell me once. I was on it. As the pup moved hesitantly towards us, I zoomed in with my telephoto to the maximum. The pup moved two steps forward, one step back; it moved from side to side; at times it appeared nervous, and then it would stretch, yawn, and lie down. In the rapidly fading light, I knew that it was going to be difficult to get a shot that wasn’t blurry and would be useful for identification, so I quickly fired off as many photos as I could.
When the pup got within about 10 feet of us and showed no sign of backing down, my level of anxiety started to increase once again. So I turned on my video camera. At least if this did turn out to be an ambush, people could watch the video later on YouTube and laugh along with the hyenas at our stupidity. Hell, maybe we’d even posthumously win the 2013 Darwin Award for our antics.
“We need to get the hell out of here before it gets too dark,” Andrew said suddenly. “And we need to stay as low as possible so as not to threaten them.”
As we turned around and started to squat-walk away from the scene, the hyena pup’s body language showed an increased level of curiosity. Rather than walk or run away from us as we began to move, the pup started to follow us closely as we made our escape. Each of us took turns looking nervously backwards at the predator trailing us, and our eyes darted around us 360 degrees looking for others that might be coming in to join the hunt. I flopped the video camera loosely back over my shoulder, gathering what I thought might be the last bit of evidence for the inevitable inquiry into the untimely death of the three people who were out for a nice evening stroll and got a little bit too close to the spotted hyena family.
As we walked back towards the vehicle and got a sufficient distance away from the hyena clan, we could once again walk upright and talk above a whisper.
“How was that, Matt?” Andrew asked.
“That was awesome!” I exclaimed.
“I can’t believe that just happened!” Ash said.
“That is definitely the closest I have ever been to a spotted hyena on foot!” Andrew said.
It was only then that I noticed that Andrew and Ash were both completely amped up about what we had just witnessed.
“Maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone about this…” Andrew said.
The next day, three new volunteers arrived to help out with the Botswana Conservation and Research Project. That evening, as we sat around the table by candlelight after dinner, trying to get to know each other, I found that my new colleagues, like me, had spent substantial amounts of time in Africa—but not nearly as much as Andrew and Ash, who were born and had spent their entire lives and seen so much there.
“You’ve seen a lot of things out here,” one of the new arrivals said to Ash. “What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?”
“It had to be that spotted hyena pup last night…”
This story was first published in Back to the Bundu (May 2013). It was reprinted in Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: Hiking Stories (June 2013), Dirt Like Blood (June 2013), and Like a Bushman (June 2013).