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Night in the Kalahari

The cruiser launched into the air and then bounced onto the sandy desert. My rearview mirror showed the paved road receding like the end of a rope lost behind my swirling trail of dust. Soon only sand and brush could be seen in all directions. After spending several days in South Africa, I left the paved roads and walked over the sand in the Kalahari Desert of southern Botswana.

The trail was grooved like a sink causing the truck to violently vibrate and twist from side to side. As I drove further into the desert, the deep sand was like snow and made the truck harder to handle. With no 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 send 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 part of the largest continuous sand area in the world. The region covers about 2.5 million square kilometers in the countries of Congo, Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and the South

Africa, with some areas of sand reaching a depth of over 300 feet. Although the Kalahari lacks surface water, it is technically not a desert. It’s a semi-arid zone, but it’s still one of the most treacherous countries to travel through. However, this harsh climate has remained in stable equilibrium supporting an overwhelming diversity of life for millions of years. When I got to camp, I pitched my two-person tent next to a sand dune and built a fire. While cooking an ostrich steak over the flames, I watched the moon slowly peek over the horizon.

Sitting hundreds of miles away from modern civilization, I could hear the faint hum of silence. As our world is drowning in man-made noise, silence is a quality of life that countless people lack. Many people have never experienced a minute of pure silence, whether it’s the faint hum of a refrigerator or the explosion of a car, noise surrounds us. As night approached a strange sound began to echo from the bushes beside me.

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

Soon the air was filled with sound. I poked my flashlight at one of the bushes and learned that there were Gecko lizards, thousands of them calling from the bushes to mate.

The love song of the gecko became rather hypnotic as I lay on the ground and gazed at the stars. The sheer number of stars was overwhelming and the cold air made them all shimmer and pulsate brightly. As gravity bound me to the lower hemisphere of the earth I felt like I was looking down into the night sky at an infinitely vast city. To this day, I have never looked up and found stars more magnificent than the Kalahari sky.

The bright moon cast an eerie glow over my surroundings, and without the need for 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 jumped straight into the air and upon landing quickly dug up a mouse which she promptly swallowed whole. Most jackals perform this unusual vertical jump as they locate prey. it’s a rather comical habit to watch.

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

Fortunately, I was only barefoot for three days when a teacher noticed my need for shoes and traded me a pair of sandals for a toothbrush (unused of course) and a knife. The sandals weren’t exactly stylish, made from the tread of a flat truck tire, sometimes they looked more uncomfortable than the hot sand, but I guess it was better than nothing.

After the jackal devoured the mouse, she put her nose in the air and quickly detected my presence. As she tilted her head and made eye contact with me, I realized that I was probably the first person she had ever seen. After several seconds of interest, he tiptoed past me without showing concern and maneuvered out of sight over the dunes.

I turned my attention to the sky and realized that the moon seemed to be shrinking. Half an hour ago it was full and now it was half way through. It was a lunar eclipse. As the earth’s shadow gradually covered the moon, its last glowing streak faded and the desert was engulfed in total darkness. Seconds later a group of jackals began to howl frantically like dogs in a pound, and then a spotted hyena began to cry again and again.

oops, oops, oops.

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

Like a group of air raid sirens, the rest of the pack struck like a frenzied marauding gang. Their sounds completely drowned out the tiny jackals, and as they screamed and fought, they painted a vivid portrait of the fierce competition for survival in the Kalahari. The accelerated speed of the attacks led me to believe that the hyenas were provoking a lion to make the kill. More than likely, a lion took advantage of the total darkness of the eclipse and fought an antelope.

The Kalahari lion with its distinctive black mane was once thought to be its own subspecies, but is now classified as a lion especially 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 area, they have to fight harder for their food than in any other area because the pursuit is more difficult in such an open area.

As I suspected, the deep roar of a lion interrupted the night and immediately the hyena’s roars were replaced by high-pitched laughter. This comical yet sinister sound associated with the common name “laughing coot” is usually 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 rest, 90% of the time it is the female who is hunting. The males simply follow the female until the quarry is killed and then she will run off and claim the “lion’s share”. With two deep blasts from the lion’s lungs she summoned the rest of her pride.

AAAAHHHHOOOO!

AAAAHHHHOOOO!

The chilling sound took my breath away. The rest of the pride must have arrived rather quickly because the hyenas started screaming again. But now the sound had a slow drawn out “oooo” meaning that the competition for the kill had become too fierce and the hyenas decided to stay at a safe distance and wait for the lions to finish eating. Occasional quick boos ensued, expressing their impatience as they sat on the sidelines.

The moon then gradually reappeared illuminating the desert once more, and I retired to my tent. As I fell asleep, I heard hyenas fighting over the remains of the kill, and the sound of lions calling to each other soon faded into the night.

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