Our Armed Safari in Kruger National Park
The night before our scheduled Armed Safari in Kruger National Park, I was so wound up with excitement that I could hardly sleep. Laying awake from 1:30 a.m. on, I didn’t need the alarm that was set to beep us awake at 3:30 a.m., but the dainty chimes wrested Bob from his sleep and then we prepared for the 4:30 a.m. departure from Skukuza Rest Camp. The armed park rangers in charge of leading us safely around the savanna were Rouleni and Opa.
I loved that we left the safety of our compound under the cover of darkness; it ramped up the perception of danger and daring.
Opa and Rouleni lead two armed safari hikes every day between January 1st and the end of December, with the second daily hike occurring at 2 p.m. We opted for the morning armed safari to capitalize on the increased activity level of the big predators during the nighttime hours into dawn.
Even before we cleared the vicinity of the compound, we came upon 2 male lions laying on the shoulder of the road. They had spent the night there to keep cool while having good visibility.
Peeking from beneath the roof of the 4×4 jeep, we watched the shadows recede and the veil of darkness lift from the landscape.
There is nothing as primordial as watching your surroundings slowly take form from the solid darkness that envelops you before growing predawn light slowly teases everything into view.
Amazingly, the light level increased quickly so that by the time we parked at 5 a.m., there was no doubt that our scouts would have a good view of the surroundings on our hike.
Before taking leave of the vehicle, Rouleni and Opa gave a lengthy list of instructions and guidelines to be followed in order to avoid detection by any roaming animals in the area. They explained that the Armed Safari in Kruger National Park was more about the experience of hiking on the savanna, home to many different species of animals, and not so much about spotting the animals this time out. I was sure pleased, then, to have seen a massive White Rhinoceros just down the road from where we left the Jeep.
In single file, with the guides leading, Bob and I struck out across the grasslands. Bob and I keenly scanned our environs for threats knowing full well from our own self-drive safaris that wild animals lurk everywhere. All the while, we kept in mind the strict rules as to how to react if our guides were not the first to spot an animal.
Not sure how it happened, but somehow I insinuated myself between Rouleni and Opa. As we followed random paths through the scrub, I did not soon forget the buff-coloured poisonous tree snake that we saw slithering across the road earlier in the morning. I turned my attention to each low-hanging branch near our line of passage. A rifle wouldn’t be much good against a threat that small.
Along one stretch of brushy savanna, Opa retrieved from the long grass a foot-long, black and white striped quill that had belonged to a Porcupine. He explained that the quill was from a Porcupine’s tail, thus the length. A Porcupine thrashes its tail when threatened, and the clattering of the quills is meant to frighten a predator.
Opa went on to tell us how the tail quills of a Porcupine are a bit more pliable than those found covering the animal’s body. I demonstrated the length of a quill from one of our North American Porcupines, and we compared notes about how the two species flex the stiff quills on their bodies into an upright position to provide bodily protection.
It was forbidden to talk as we walked along on our Armed Safari, but if someone did want to get the attention of another person, they were to clap the side of their leg with an open palm. After so doing, Opa pointed out that the white round deposits along the trail were dried Hyena poop. It is white because it is calcium-rich from the masses of bones that a Hyena consumes. Porcupines eat Hyena poop because the calcium in it helps to strengthen and harden the keratin on the exterior of their quills.
After that explanation, it got me to thinking that there must be Hyenas in the area. I was glad to be between the two armed guides; Bob was pulling up the rear. Whenever Rouleni and Opa were onto something, they communicated in their native tongue. That was our signal to study the surrounding bushes more closely.
Both guides were very intuitive and vigilant so it was no surprise when they signaled the presence of a monstrous White Rhinoceros nearby.
We maintained our downwind position because Rhinoceroses are particularly dangerous. Having very poor eyesight, they will either flee or charge if they sense something close by and are able to pinpoint it by smell. In this case, the bull gave us a wide berth.
Soon thereafter, our group came across a sandy and dry riverbed where evidence indicated that Rhinos had spent the night. The patches of sand had recently been disturbed and to the touch still felt warm.
An area of grass that had been uprooted showed further signs of animal activity nearby.
Opa and Rouleni obviously knew the landscape very well for they soon led us into an open area of green scrub grass not far from the riverbed. It was presently being used as a resting place by three huge Black Rhinoceroses, and Opa redirected our passage again so as to stay downwind.
Observing them from a distance of about 100 feet, we felt no danger; the Rhinos showed no indication of moving.
Suddenly, mounting the crest of the grassy knoll were two Spotted Hyenas. Of the three Hyena species, Spotted Hyenas are the largest and the most carnivorous. Contrary to popular belief, they do not scavenge like the Striped or Brown Hyenas.
Highly successful predators that they are, the Hyenas began badgering the Black Rhinoceroses, which immediately rose to the challenge and thus discouraged any further nuisance from the two. Spotted Hyenas have been known to take down a Rhino in Kruger National Park, but this small hunting party of two did not appear to be up to the challenge.
Spotted Hyenas show no preference for particular prey and can quite handily kill a wildebeest, zebra, kudu, cape buffalo or impala, all of which are found in Kruger, but even young elephants and hippopotamuses have succumbed to an attack by these skilled predators. Next on the radar of these two particular Hyenas were the well-fed humans on the opposite side of the clearing. That would be us!
Warily, they made their way straight towards our group. The Hyenas were not afraid for their ears remained erect rather than being folded flat.
Periodically, the Spotted Hyenas stopped to simply observe us, listen, and to smell the air, behaviour consistent with tracking live prey.
It was when the two Spotted Hyenas split up that I became a little unnerved because I was only able to keep one of them in my sights at a time when looking through the camera’s viewfinder.
Thank goodness for three other sets of eyes to keep track of the threat although Bob was preoccupied filming the encounter.
Neither Opa nor Rouleni showed any concern whatsoever for the proximity of the Hyenas to ourselves and explained that the Hyenas were only curious this time and were exhibiting no aggression. Now if suddenly the Hyenas had raised their heads, lifted their hindquarters and brought their manes into erect positions, then we would have known that an attack was imminent.
As it was, our guides even took advantage of such a close encounter to snap a few photos of the Hyenas while Bob and I were busily snapping and filming.
Closer and closer the Hyenas came, and the nearer they got to me, the better I was able to judge their size.
These are not small animals, and it is actually the females of the species that are the largest. The length of a Spotted Hyena’s body, head to tail, ranges between 95-165 centimetres ( 37-65 in); the maximum shoulder height is between 70-90 centimetres (27-35 in).
I was beginning to feel intimidated, but Rouleni reminded us to show no fear.
Turning our attentions to the movements of the Spotted Hyenas gave us a great chance to notice the finer details of their appearance. The colour of the fur is greyish-brown with a yellow tint and is covered with an irregular arrangement of dark brown spots. The short, near-white manes almost glowed in the late-morning light.
Bob and I were struck by the similarity of the Spotted Hyenas to dogs, but then we were told that they are more closely related to cats.
Our encounter with the Spotted Hyenas was exhilarating. At the closest point, the Hyenas were about 3 metres (10 ft) from where we stood transfixed. As they nosed around the periphery of our loose group, we certainly came to appreciate and respect their odd physique. With forelegs that are longer than the hind legs, it gives the Hyenas a hunched appearance, but there was no mistaking the power represented by the long, thick, muscular neck and wide, flat head containing massive jaws.
A Hyena’s powerful jaws can exert enormous force on bones sufficient to crack open even the largest of those in a carcass and to grind up every morsel of an animal’s skeleton. To start with, though, a Spotted Hyena will grasp small prey in its mouth and shake it to death whereas large animals are eaten alive.
We were rather glad that this foraging group of Spotted Hyenas only numbered two. Clans of Hyenas can number up to 80 animals, but it is common for small groups to “commute” outside of a clan’s territory in search of food. Although one Hyena can successfully tackle a large mammal on its own, a hunting party usually numbers between 2-5 individuals.
After spending about 30 minutes in close proximity to the Rhinos and Hyenas, the two Spotted Hyenas sauntered off and the Rhinos, too, got on the move. We gave them a wide berth as we neared our rest spot midway on the hike.
Rouleni and Opa provided us with light snacks and drinks while we shared our excitement and enthusiasm for their expert tracking that provided us with such a great wildlife adventure.
Even as we munched on crackers and fruit, Opa expressed substantial surprise at the fact that the Spotted Hyenas had doubled back and were watching us as we paused for our break. Over the course of 15-20 minutes, we hikers chatted yet remained alert until finally the Hyenas lost interest in our pursuits.
The return portion of our Armed Safari was straightforward, and while making progress, we spotted one more Rhinoceros. By the time we got back to the Jeep, it was closing in on noon. We felt that the hours had been very well spent. The whole outing, from beginning to end, had been rewarding and left us with a tale to tell.