Family Travel: Hyenas at Midnight – Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Family Travel: Hyenas at midnight
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

“Hyenas have incredibly strong jaws. An old Maasai man got drunk one time, wandered into the national park, and fell asleep in the grass. A hyena came by and bit off his arm, crushing right through the bone. That is why the hyena poop you see is white, because they eat bones of other animals. They are scavengers.”

I look around the old Bedford safari truck. Toby and my three children, Clare, Bridget, and Michael, are listening very intently. William is a knowledgeable guide for our travels through the national wildlife parks of Tanzania, but in this case, he may have stepped over the line a bit. We are heading back to camp for dinner as dusk arrives. Looking to stretch every penny, we are on the budget safari, which means we are staying in tents at the public campsites in the game reserves. The kids play soccer with Richard while John prepares our dinner and I look on.

“What’s that sound?” Michael asks.
Richard responds, “Oh, that is just hyenas.” It sounds like they are about 50 yards away.

After dinner, Bridget sits in my lap. “Daddy, are the hyenas going to eat us?” I figured that was coming.
“No, Bridget, we are very safe. We wouldn’t put you in a dangerous situation.”
“I’m scared.”
“That’s okay. Remember that William has been doing safaris for 20 years and he has been just fine.”
“Yes, Bridget” William chimes in, “the mosquito netting on your tent protects you. The hyenas are afraid of it.” Bridget looks skeptical. “A couple of years ago, I woke up at night and looked out my mosquito net and a hyena was looking right back at me. I smiled, she smiled, and then walked off.”
Thanks William. I’m sure that calmed her fears. Needless to say, Bridget and Michael are very worried. Toby and I try our best to reassure them: “You’re safe.”

Campsite at Night
Campsite at Night – Toby holds Bridget and Michael while Clare stands.
Bedtime. It is a moonless night and pitch black outside. I take the kids to brush their teeth and go potty. In each public campground there is one bathroom with a guy’s side and a girl’s side, each with a sink and a single toilet. It is about 50 yards away from our tents. We pass by some trees and brush along the way.
“Daddy. Look in the bushes.”
“It’s okay, Bridget.” I quickly shine my flashlight along the bushes.
“No, Daddy, you have to go slowly to be sure you don’t see any eyes. William says you don’t have to be afraid unless you see their eyes.”
More points for William. I slowly pan my flashlight through the bush. No eyes. We get the bathroom thing done and head for bed. A quick goodnight to Toby and the girls in their tent then I crash with Michael in my tent. Thankfully, the kids fall asleep pretty quickly after a long day.

Two a.m. rolls around and all that water I drank at dinner kicks in. Time for a bathroom run. All the stories about hyenas instantly come to mind. I am a bit nervous as I look for the flashlight in the tent. Should I just go in the bushes next to the tent and save the walk? I step outside the tent and flash the light into the bushes. I see eyes gleaming back. Okay. Change in plans. I’m going to explode, so there is no alternative but to go somewhere; I opt for the bathroom instead. As I walk over there I very carefully shine the flashlight into every nook and cranny of the bush next to the bathroom. No eyes, thank God.

I make it to there without jaws clamping on my arm and tearing it off. Phew! I am halfway done peeing when I hear rustling in the bushes outside. The noise grows louder. My heart beats faster. Somehow I have to get back to the tent. The noise grows louder still, as if someone is felling a tree about 30 feet away from me. Then it occurs to me…more noise is actually a good thing here�it must be an elephant, although with no moon, I can’t make him out and decide not to annoy him or her with my flashlight beam. My adrenaline is high, but no danger from the elephant.

I slowly make my way back to the tent, cautiously scanning the territory around me and glancing backward now and then. As I approach, there is a hyena standing right in front of my tent door. Now what? Thoughts of valiantly saving my family from the gruesome jaws of death battle with thoughts of running like hell for a tree. The gods of heroism (or stupidity) call my name and I decide to take the hyena head on. Recalling from my childhood a National Geographic special about the skittishness of hyenas, I summon all my strength and whip out my trusty pencil flashlight. With one eye carefully scanning for the location of the nearest tree, I flash a tiny beam of light back and forth at his eyes. Its magical powers have the desired effect and the hyena quickly scurries away. I jump in the tent next to Michael who is peacefully sleeping the night away, ignorant of my courageous efforts to save his life. Thank goodness for that 1-millimeter thick nylon mesh, I think, as I zip up the tent.

Mental note to self: drink less fluid before bed.

This is an excerpt from “A Brilliant Teacher” available from

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