18 Aug 175 Leopard Street | Episode 4
I’m sure you are all dying to hear about (me almost dying from) a close encounter with an animal! I have had a couple of those living in the Kruger Park, especially when I was living on-site at the Rhino Post Safari Lodge staff village.
When you live in the bush and you are in this environment day and night, it is inevitable that you are going to get up close and personal with some of the “locals”. I call them “scary hairy” experiences and here things don’t just go “bump in the night”. It will bump you and then eat you too! It is common for us bush dwellers to become a bit blasé and every now and again it’s good to catch a wakeup call. Just enough to make you realise exactly where you are on the food chain, which in the Kruger Park, is most definitely not at the top!
I started my career at Rhino Post and it was my very first job as a guide and living in the bush. It was a dream come true, I had landed my 'bum in the butter' as they say, to get a position as a rookie guide at such an established lodge and inside the Kruger National Park! Back then there weren’t many female guides in the park, I had to prove myself to the guys and show them that I was capable of doing exactly what they could do. I was 'tough as nails' changing tyres, carrying heavy cooler boxes, driving through river beds and walking guests to the room at night. Being the new guide meant that you draw the short straw for any 'unwanted tasks' like checking-in late arrivals, early departures and late escorts from Kruger Gate. To be honest with you there were never any unwanted tasks for me, I was living my dream and would happily do anything, as it was an opportunity for me to be driving around the park or just be out there in nature. On one such occasion, some of our guests had booked a hot air balloon trip over the Blyde river canyon area, which meant that they had to be at Kruger Gate for collection by 04h30 am. We are situated approximately 1 hour away from Kruger Gate, so we had to depart the lodge at 03h30 am and the guest wake-up call was at 03h00.
Let me paint the scene…02h30 am, it’s dark and the generator is off, you’re all alone in the middle of the wild and it feels like you are being watched. The hairs on the back of your neck are standing up and you keep looking over your shoulder. You hear some bushes rustling and your steps get wider and faster and this is just walking from my room to my vehicle… You jump into your vehicle so quickly, then repeat the steps about 50 meters ahead to open the staff village gate, jump back into the vehicle, drive out of the village and get out again to close the gate. That feeling you get “when someone walks over your grave” you can multiply that by ten! I always felt like there was a leopard lying in the bushes nearby, watching my every move.
As I am driving towards the lodge, spotlight out and checking for potential scary hairy’s, I see 2 hyenas on the pathway walking towards the lodge…. Here we go I thought, here we go… The pathway leads to the spot where I was about to park the vehicle. As I arrive I am met by the 2 hyenas, sniffing around the garbage cage. I now have to plan my next move carefully. Luckily they are on the passenger side and about 5 meters away from the vehicle. Trying to quietly open the door was not an option, this door is just about as noisy as the Jaws of Life cutting open a vehicle at an accident scene.
All attention on me, I keep eye contact with them, puff out my chest, speak loudly and show no intimidation at all. Then around the corner, another 2 hyenas lurk out from the dark. At his point, I could tell that their behaviour towards me had changed and they started coming closer as if they wanted to form a circle around me. The building next to me was the staff canteen and I knew it would be locked, I walked backwards towards the staff canteen wall and grabbed a mop!
The hyenas started making noises, just like they do when they are hunting and trying to disorientate their prey! Oh dear Lord help me now, I had suddenly become their prey! Between the cackling and what sounded like The Joker’s laughing, this was my very own guiding textbook flight or fight moment. I banged the mop against one of the support beams repeatedly accompanied by screaming “Voetsek” as loudly as I could (Voetsek is essentially a strong Afrikaans term for go away!). I managed to startle them, and this was my moment. I never turned my back on them, I started doing the crab against the wall and shimmied my way to the Kitchen. I MADE IT!! I was safe, for like a second… Because now I still had to walk to the guest room for the wake-up call, back to the kitchen and wait 15 minutes then back to escort the guests to the vehicle (the amount of emoji’s I could use in this last paragraph!).
Honestly, at that stage of my life, it was the most terrifying experience. Just the walk from the kitchen to the start of the walkway at room 5 was the most gut-wrenching, brass balls moment I had ever had. There is no wall to have my back up against, no escape to safety (once you pass the dining room) just me and my smelly mop. You’d be surprised how comforting a smelly mop can be! And once you commit you have to proceed and not by cowardly inching forward, you have to puff out your chest and walk with confidence. I made it to the room and back to the kitchen safely. The hyenas had luckily decided that the human version of a feisty honey badger (with a mop) and growling Voetsek at them was just not worth the “injury” to pursue me. I also decided that moving the vehicle from the back of the staff canteen to the guest parking lot was not that necessary and that I could explain to the bosses why I took the guests via the back of house instead. As we arrived at the vehicle only 2 of the Hyenas were left lurking around. I survived, my nerves were shot, but Miss Rangerette made it!
I remember returning to the lodge from my transfer to the discussion between the guides of how the hyenas went crazy in the early hours of the morning hunting around the lodge. I was asked whether I heard them. Did I hear them? Ummmm OF COURSE I DID! They were hunting ME!
Over the past years, the hyenas have now become like having naughty dogs (chewing furniture and fittings) and we have learnt to co-exist with one another. I am not afraid of bumping into hyenas anymore, just as long as I am not all alone in the stillness of the night (with only a smelly mop).