Night in the Kalahari

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The land cruiser launched into the air then bounced onto the sandy desert. My rear view mirror showed the paved street pulling away like the end of a rope vanishing behind my whirling trail of dust. Soon only sand and scrub brush could be seen in all directions. After spending several days in South Africa, I left the paved roads and trekked over the sand into southern Botswana’s Kalahari Desert.

The trail was corrugated like a washboard forcing the truck to violently vibrate and veer side to side. As I drove further into the desert, the deep sand was like snow and made the truck more difficult to handle. Without police, speed limits, or people for hundreds of miles, I felt free to drive as fast as I could. But the loose sand would eventually throw me out of control when I dared to push my luck.

This truly untamed part of Africa is endless rust-red sand dunes dotted with solitary trees and scattered grasses. The Kalahari Desert is a part of the largest continuous area of sand in the world. The area covers approximately 2.5 million square kilometers within the countries of Congo, Gabon, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and South

Africa, with some areas of sand reaching over 300 feet deep. Despite the fact that the Kalahari lacks any surface water, it is technically not a desert. It is a semi-arid zone, but none the less it is one of the most treacherous lands to travel. Yet, this rigorous climate has remained in constant balance supporting an overwhelming diversity of life for millions of years. When I reached camp I pitched my two-man pup tent next to a dune and started a fire. While I cooked an ostrich steak over the flames, I watched the moon slowly peek up over the horizon.

Sitting hundreds of miles from modern civilization, I could hear the faint hum of silence. Given that our world is drowning in human created noise, silence is a quality of life countless people lack; many individuals have never experienced a single minute of pure silence, whether the faint hum of a refrigerator or the blast of a car, noise surrounds us. As night approached an odd sound began to resonate from the bushes next to me.

Eee Eee Eee, Eee Eee Eee…

Soon the air was overwhelmed with the sound. I poked my flashlight into one of the bushes and learned that there were Gecko lizards, thousands of them calling from the bushes for a mate.

The gecko’s love song became rather hypnotic as I lay on the ground and watched the stars. The sheer number of stars was overwhelming and the cooling air made them all intensely shimmer and pulsate. As gravity connected me to the lower hemisphere of the earth I felt as if I were peering down from the night sky gazing upon an infinitely huge city. To this day, never have I looked overhead and found stars more magnificent than in the Kalahari sky.

The bright moon illuminated an eerie glow over my surroundings and without the need of a flashlight, I clearly saw a black-backed jackal tiptoe past my tent in search of food. As her sensitive ears detected something under the soil, she leaped straight into the air and upon landing swiftly dug up a mouse which she promptly swallowed whole. Most jackals execute this unusual vertical leap as they locate prey; it is a rather comical habit to watch.

Weighing only about 20 pounds, the jackal resembles a small coyote. These nocturnal animals feed on small rodents, bugs, and occasionally, wild fruit. I learned one morning that jackals are very inquisitive and mischievous after noticing my leather sandals were stolen during the night. The only clues left behind were jackal footprints leading into the desert, accompanied by the tracks of my sandals bouncing across the sand as they were dragged in its mouth. This seemed par for the course at the time since a human thief in Johannesburg two days prior stole my sneakers.

Fortunately, I was barefoot for only three days when a bushman noticed my need for footwear and traded me a pair of sandals for a toothbrush (unused of course), and a knife. The sandals were not exactly stylish, made from the tread of a blown out truck tire they sometimes seemed more uncomfortable than the hot sand, but I suppose they were better than nothing.

After the jackal gulped down the mouse she put her nose to the air and swiftly detected my presence. As she tilted her head and made eye contact with me, I realized I was most likely, the first human she had ever seen. After several seconds of interest, she tiptoed passed me with no appearance of concern and meandered out of sight over the dunes.

I turned my attention to the sky and realized the moon appeared to be shrinking. A half-hour before it was full, and now it was at half phase. It was a lunar eclipse. As the earth’s shadow gradually covered the moon, its last glowing sliver faded to black, and the desert was swallowed in absolute darkness. Seconds later a group of jackals began frantically yelping like dogs in a pound and then a spotted hyena began wailing over and over again.

whoop, whoop, whoop.

Spotted hyenas have over ten different vocalizations that can be linked with specific behaviors. If familiar with these sounds, one can imagine much of their actions without seeing them. For example when a spotted hyena “whines or whinnies” which is a series of loud, high pitched squeals and chattering noises, it is usually begging for food or was just weaned from its mother.

Like a squad of air raid sirens the rest of the pack chimed in like a frenzied gang of looters. Their sounds totally drowned out the tiny jackals and, as they ranted and squabbled, they painted a clear portrait of the fierce competition for survival in the Kalahari. The accelerated speed of the whoops led me to believe the hyenas were challenging a lion over a kill. More than likely, a lion took advantage of the eclipse’s complete darkness and tackled down an antelope.

The Kalahari lion with its characteristic black mane was once thought to be a subspecies of its own, but is now classified as a lion particularly well adapted to a desert-like environment. Its fur is lighter than lions elsewhere and serves as excellent camouflage in the sand. They have also adapted the ability to go weeks without drinking water and survive on a minimal amount of prey. In this vast region, they must fight harder for their food than in any other territory because stalking is more difficult in such a wide-open area.

As I suspected, a lion’s deep roar cut through the night and immediately the hyena whoops were replaced with high cackling laughs. This comedic, yet sinister sound which is associated with the common name “laughing hyena” is typically made by individuals while being chased or attacked.

The lion must have been protecting her kill as the hyenas tried to steal it from her. I specify “her” because after a lion’s typical twenty-hour day of resting, 90% of the time it is the female that hunts. Males simply trail behind the female until after the quarry is killed and then he will run up and claim “the lion’s share”. With two deep bursts from the lion’s lungs she called the rest of her pride.



The chilling sound took my breath away. The rest of the pride must have arrived rather quickly because the hyenas began to whoop again. But now the sound had a slow drawn-out “o-o-o-o” which means the competition for the kill had become too fierce and the hyenas decided to hang back at a safe distance and wait for the lions to finish eating. Occasional fast whooping followed, which expressed their impatience while sitting on the side lines.

The moon then gradually reappeared brightening the desert once again, and I retired to my tent. As I fell asleep, I heard the hyenas bickering over the scraps from the kill, and the sound of lions calling to one another soon faded off into the night.

write by wood

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