Sleeping with Hyenas

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Friday, April 20, 2012

After our overnight stop in Harare we were off to our first major location for the trip which is also the one we are most apprehensive about, Mana Pools.

Mana Pools National Park is one of the few places in the world where you are allowed to get out of your car to view the game and the campsites don't have fences. Of course this means there are loads of horror stories mainly involving lions and hyenas, and when you tell people you're going to Mana Pools you are immediately told all these stories. Personally I think that's pretty mean!

One of these stories was about a guy who got up in the middle of the night, hung his solar shower on a tree and had a wash only to then be taken by lions. To be fair, this is a really stupid thing to do but the fact that lions can come through your camp is what is scary. Mana Pools is a popular destination which gave us some comfort but the story from my Grandmother about hyena's munching people's skulls in the night did not! So, regardless of these stories we were on our way.

The bush as you get to Northern Zimbabwe is simply amazing and exactly what you hope to see in Africa. You can see the bush for miles, with mountains, koppies and autumn colour trees across the horizon. Huge Baobab trees are dotted all over the place and it's simply stunning.

On arrival in Mana Pools we setup our camp slightly away from the river to avoid being chomped or crunched by a hippo and tried to line up our tent in a way which would give us a quick escape route to the car if necessary. This layout was designed by Katy in her sleep as she had a nightmare involving escaping from wild lions at night. Once setup we got a fire going and waited for the rest of the group to join us. Just after dark I spotted a shadow walking down the footpath and could tell from its long neck that it was a hyena. Before going to Moholoholo we probably wouldn't have been too bothered, but that hyena wanted to kill people so we decided hyena's probably wouldn't be our friends.

When we looked around with the big torch, it was pretty clear that there were several hyena's around us. About 100 metres away from us were a couple of hyenas over an impala kill chowing down loudly. They have ridiculously strong jaws and can easily crunch through bone and eat everything including fur and bones, and it made for a very unnerving meal for us. In the morning we went over to where we had seen the impala being eaten and all that was left was a drag mark and a blood stain. Horrible things!

Camping properly in the bush like that was an entirely new and quite scary experience for us. We had been assured that if you are in your tent and stay in there you'll be fine, but the fear of the unknown is quite difficult to take. We could hear steps near the tent, a hyena licking a pan clean , hippo's grunting nearby and a baboon roaring. But most unnerving was the hippo's as they sounded so close and it is true that more people are killed by hippo's than any other animals in Africa, they're just so huge. So, we didn't sleep much on our first night as we were listening to the endless audio show outside and watching the shadows brush by the tent.

When we woke up we could hear a swarm of bees outside which was very worrying for Katy but fortunately they passed over quickly and the day time is far less stressful as the animals retreat back into the bush and the hippos go back into the river. This is where the truly unique part of Mana Pools is experienced because while we're sat with a beer overlooking the water, we can see hippo's occasionally coming out of the water with their young, impala grazing in the background and elephants eating the grass and trees. Closer by (i.e. right on top of you) are Vervet monkeys who steal your food, fight with each other and use the cars as a jungle gym, they are the biggest pain ever.......

I am sat writing my blog entry (much to the disgust of my fellow campers) and have just been disrupted by a huge Bull elephant who just appeared out of the trees and walked through the camp next to the fire where we are sat. Breakfast was on the go but he wasn't after that (however, the monkeys took advantage of the situation), he just walked through right past us within a couple of metres of our tent eating from the trees as he went. It's awe inspiring to see him up-close and somewhat exhilarating to be on foot right next to him........

This was the start to a very wild day as later in the morning I went on a game drive with one of our group. I didn't expect to see much as it was the hottest part of the day with not much cloud cover so the animals usually head for some shade but you never know. Initially we didn't see much, a few impala here and there and then found a few areas where there was much more game such as hippo's, waterbuck, zebra and loads of baboons.

We were joking about what we wanted to see next and I said I wouldn't be happy unless we saw a cat. After a couple of hours we decided to head back to the camp and about 1 km away I spotted a big cat dashing into the trees leaving behind a newly killed impala under a tree. "Stop, stop stop,  a... a... big cat, I think it was a leopard!!!"

We reversed so that we were covered a bit by the trees. I was sure that the cat would definitely be close, there's no way it would go to the effort of making a kill only to have it stolen. A couple of scavenger birds flew over and tentatively made their way down to the kill and I was so sure this was what would make the predator come back out. Sure enough, she slowly and tentatively came back out from the trees, we could then see that it was actually a Cheetah and the vultures knowing what's best for them retreated to the tree. 

 Then we were treated to the most incredible wildlife show ever as we sat and watched as the Cheetah ate the hind quarters of her impala kill. Meanwhile the word was spreading that there was fresh meat around and within a few minutes the tree was full with vultures, eagles were circling above, Marabou storks were making their way over and we were closing the windows a bit to avoid becoming part of the scene.

By the time the Cheetah was full there were probably over a hundred vultures and as soon as the Cheetah retreated slightly there was no way she could go back as they swarmed over the carcass, feathers and dust flying into the air. When we came back with the rest of the group just half an hour later there were just a few bones left so they certainly made short work of it.

What an experience, these are so wild and only kill every few days not to mention the fact that this was less than a kilometer from the camp. The group we are traveling with are very experienced with these trips and say that in 30 years they have never seen a Cheetah kill so I feel incredibly lucky, if we were just a couple of minutes earlier we wouldn't have seen anything at all.

To top off the day, we had our fire going while dinner was being cooked and my aunt was making coffee over by one of our tables. She came back to the group and we heard rustling and a crash where she had just come from. We shone a torch over in that direction, lighting up the bright menacing eyes of a huge hyena, he scurried away but returned creeping up to our camp trying to take food from around us. They're such scary scavengers and we were all on our guard for the rest of the evening, quickly darting into our tents when we went to bed.

This place was very well described by the AA road guide... "Mana Pools is relaxing and exhilarating!" No kidding.
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