I adjusted the settings on my camera. This time it was going to work. It was going to be a great night, I was sure of it.
The evening before I’d sat in the same heap of gravel near my tent, desperately trying to shoot the stars. It had been an epic failure. EPIC. Bons, my guide at Desert Rhino Camp, sat with me for over an hour while I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong before I gave up. Embarrassed and defeated, I went to bed with a lot of dark and blurry photos.
Round two was underway. That morning, I’d sent an S.O.S to a few professional photographer friends asking for some advice and one came through. Stars, bring it on! However, wanting to hedge my bet, I told Bons I’d go it alone. There was no need for further public humiliation if I tanked again.
I set up 20 feet from the porch, slightly downhill, so that I could place the tent in the lower left hand corner of the image, leaving the rest of the frame to the brilliant night sky overhead. Waiting patiently for my 30-second exposures to work their magic, I reveled in the Milky Way and the serenity of the desert. What a wonderful change from the sensory overload of New York City.
To my left, two lights appeared on the path next to my tent, moving uphill towards the horizon. “Good evening!” I said from my corner of the night.
I assumed it was a couple of staff members taking a walk—perhaps they didn’t speak English. With all the other guests tucked away in their tents, I’m sure they didn’t expect me to be awake or outside. Before I could give it another thought the blinding light of the LCD shattered the dark, signaling the end of the exposure and my interest in the lights.
Twenty minutes later while rearranging the lanterns on the veranda for another shot, I noticed that the lights had returned. This time they were glowing at me from behind my camera.
“Hell…Lo!” I said.
Instantly the beams went out. Seriously? How rude.
“Look…I know you’re there,” I shouted, annoyed.
I grabbed my flashlight, pointed it where the lights had been and to my surprise, stood a very large spotted hyena. My heart slammed in my chest.
When the light hit the hyena’s face it turned, ran a few steps then doubled back trotting straight for me.
Adrenaline surged through my body. Perhaps I should have been scared but I was more shocked than afraid. The reality hit me: The lights weren’t lights, they’d been the hyena’s eyes reflecting off the lanterns on the porch. I’d been shooting for 30 minutes in the dark with a hyena at my back!
The hyena moved forward, its steps light and fast, almost joyful like a retriever returning a beloved ball. Reflexively, I stomped my foot and hissed. Loudly.
Yep, I hissed. I have no idea why, it just came out. The hyena stopped dead in its tracks, its head cocked to one side. I stomped again and its head cocked the other way and sat on its haunches.
We stared at each other, my loaner Canon 1DX between us. I weighed my options. I was worried that if I went inside my tent, a curious hyena might wreak havoc on my equipment. The expensive equipment I would have to buy if I broke it. With all the stones lying about, all the hyena would have to do is knock it over to cause some damage. And while the it didn’t seem inclined to rip my guts out (they tend to attack the soft parts first), I figured walking towards the hyena to retrieve it wasn’t a good idea.
“Bons!” I shouted, hoping the lights in the camp’s main tent meant he was nearby. “Bons!”
“What’s wrong?” he yelled back.
“Um… I’ve got a hyena here….”
I heard his footsteps hit the gravel path. Hard. Moments later we were both eying my visitor.
“Thank you for not running,” he said relieved, putting his arm around my should.
I understood his meaning. Predators like to chase things that run. If you act like prey, they’ll treat you like prey. It’s one of the first things you learn on safari, especially if you’re walking through the bush. If come across a lion, DO. NOT. RUN. Of course that’s completely counter intuitive and I’ve never known whether I’d be able to stop my feet should I find myself in that sticky situation. Truthfully, I still don’t know. They’re both incredibly deadly, though hyena are not known for attacking humans.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” I said, as I watched the hyena disappear into the black.
I was more than fine. I was thrilled. It was an amazing experience.
It knew I was going to be a great night!
Photographed in Namibia…