Posted in Africa, Hyenas, Nature

Hyenas Eat Hot Sauce

Photograph by Cheryl Merrill

This is an updated version of a post I did back in 2014:

During my first visit with Sandi and Doug, I heard about the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp when its manager pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon. “Hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and consume enough bone their scat is chalk-white.

They eat almost anything that moves: wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can snack on a zebra’s hoof?

At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down a set of wooden steps and tugged it four hundred feet to the banks of the nearby lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”

“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It was leather, too. Doomed, I thought.

Last night, I remembered the sofa and mentioned it to Sandi, asking her many sofas had been destroyed over the years.

She thought for a moment. “One or two,” she said. “And a couple of chairs.”

Then she told me the story of the hyenas who killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa Campground, thirty miles to the northeast.

A mother and son on an overland camping safari stopped at Xakanaxa with their guide. The mother allowed her son to sleep by himself, against the guide’s wishes. According to some accounts, the boy left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to others, he may have even brought food into his tent to lure the hyenas closer.

Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. Men from nearby campsites helped locate his body, drove away the hyenas, and guarded his remains until daylight.

Last night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a clatter. Something was rearranging everything in the kitchen shelter. Aluminum chairs scooted across the concrete floor. Silverware rained. A large enamel pot crashed. A long, long silence followed.

I replayed what I’d just heard. Yes, that had to be the enamel pot we cook in, stored near the sink.

I reached under my cot, retrieved my glasses, grabbed my flashlight, rose and tiptoed to the rear end of my tent. Lying flat on my belly, I unzipped the mesh, then the canvas, just enough to allow out a beam of light. The sound of the zippers ripped through the darkness.

The light barely made it to the end of the kitchen shelter. Nothing. I flicked it around as best I could. Nothing. No reflected eyes, no movement, nothing. The silence was deafening.

I zipped the tent shut, went back to my cot, and, oddly enough, fell asleep.

We found the pot today on our morning walk. They tried to eat that, too.

Posted in Africa, Hyenas, Lions, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

Sunsets Like This

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill


The sky turns orange and the clouds turn yellow. Sunsets like this one have hung in galleries for centuries. A slight breeze rises – the lungs of the earth inhaling warmth, exhaling coolness. The breeze brings a faintly watery smell, even though the sun still warms the tops of trees. Beneath the trees, in cool green-black shadows, night begins, spreading a transitory stillness that will soon fill with the Invisibles – hyenas, leopards, lions – beginning their nightly rounds.


Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Hyenas, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Out of Africa!

Peek-a-boo with Jabu

So many tales to tell:  (1) the flooded Okavango Delta, water where there was sand last time I visited; (2) walking with elephants under starlight and a half moon (without a flashlight); (3) hyenas in the kitchen; (4) the closest I’ve ever gotten to a snake (!); (5) a leopard for my friend’s birthday present; (5) lions kill a baby hippo; (6) basic tents and luxurious chalets; (7) what not to do if you’re self-driving through the Moremi Game Reserve (hint: DO NOT rely on your GPS); (8) wild dogs, wild dogs and more wild dogs; (9) the rarest giraffes in the world; (10) hippos, hippos and more hippos; (11) a leopard hunts a male impala; (12) an absolutely wonderful stay with Sandi, Doug, Jabu, Morula and Thembi – and many, many more.  Stay tuned!

Posted in Hyenas, Sandi


An excerpt from my book:

I zip shut my tent, first the inner mesh, then the heavy outer canvas flap, fastening the zippers all the way to their ends – a precaution against unwanted visitors such as scorpions, snakes or the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp.  Two days ago, in the late evening, I waited for Doug while the camp’s manager kept me company.  He handed me a cold Tusker and pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon.  “Hyenas drug our leather sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The sofa never had a chance.  A pack of frenzied hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating everything: bones, skull, hair, even hooves – leaving only a smear of blood on the ground.  With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and swallow enough bone their feces turn chalk-white.  They will filch anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, underwear, soap, even bottles of hot sauce.  What’s glass to a creature that can eat a zebra’s hoof?  In the case of the sofa, they ate the leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

“Why the sofa?” I asked the manager.  I imagined the scenario: in the dead of night the hyenas climb a set of wooden steps into the dining lounge, shove aside several tables and chairs, pull the sofa from the lounge down the steps and drag it the length of a football field to deposit it at the lagoon.

“Just the oil from human hands.”  He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement.  It too is leather.  I tried not to think of it as also doomed.

A well-known hyena den is very near the main road to Stanley’s Camp.  Since I had some time before Doug arrived in his 3F, one of the guides drove me over to the den just at dusk.

As we sat quietly, motor off, a lone Spotted Hyena tentatively emerged from the den.  She had the usual hyena slouched profile: massive head and shoulders tapering to small, tucked-in hindquarters – a hybrid creature: half fearsome predator, half coward.  The second largest carnivore in Africa, (after the lion), the Spotted Hyena is larger than her Brown Hyena cousins.  Her family is more aggressive, too – a single adult, weighing at the most 140 pounds, is capable of hunting and killing a bull wildebeest of 600 pounds.  Although hyenas kill ninety-five percent of what they eat, they also loot the kills of leopards, lions and cheetahs at every opportunity.  Lions can’t digest hair and bones, but  hyenas are happy to do that for them.

Grinning her famous false smile, the hyena sat at the entrance of the den and turned her black, empty eyes toward us.

Less than a moment after, black fuzzballs erupted behind her.  As she returned each pup to the den’s entrance, another escaped and then another.  The grinning, panting, anxious nanny seemed to be having a nervous breakdown.  I would have considered the pups cute, except for the hyena’s awful reputation.

Last night, when I mentioned the sofa, Sandi told me that hyenas had killed an eleven-year-old American boy several years ago at the Xakanaxa (Kah-khan-a-kah) Campground, thirty miles northeast of here.  Despite the young age of her son, the mother allowed him to sleep by himself.  Awakened by crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy’s partially eaten body into the bush.   Guides from nearby camps helped locate what was left of the decapitated body, driving away the hyenas and guarding it until daylight.  For two years afterwards, his mother haunted the streets of Maun and the area around Xakanaxa, carrying her son’s ashes, looking for clues as to how he died.  Did he leave his tent unzipped?  Did he have food in his tent?

In the parks and game reserves of Africa, you never, never sleep with your food.  At Doug and Sandi’s kitchen shelter anything even remotely edible is secured in heavy metal lockers or inside a propane-powered refrigerator.  Over at Stanley’s, food is kept behind the heavy doors of a wood-frame kitchen.  Watchmen patrol the camp.

Last night I double-zipped myself into my tent – first the heavy outer canvas flap, then the inner mesh.  Hyenas are opportunistic and would walk right in if my tent were open.  Hyenas hunt in packs and mostly at night, so I was grateful to find an enamel chamber pot on my side of the zipper.

My tent

This morning, I emptied the pot into the “African long-drop” located near my tent.  The “long-drop” is a plastic commode fitted over a hole in the ground that’s about five feet deep.  No walls, no roof, no door – just the surrounding bush, a hole in the ground and me.

Next to the commode a small shovel sticks upright into a pile of ash.  I raise the lid, empty the chamber pot, and shovel in ash and close the lid.  No smell, no flies.  I much prefer African long-drops to American outhouses.

I rinse the pot from the spigot outside my tent, throw the water out into the brush, stash the pot back inside the tent, wash my hands in a basin under the spigot, toss that water, replace the basin, stash the soap back inside my tent, and zip it shut.  No hyena’s gonna scatter my stuff all over Africa.