On our last night at Ruckomechi, we decided to leave the comfort of our luxury tent and sleep in the Star Bed. What’s a Star Bed? Well, it’s a large wooden platform built into the canopy of an obliging tree about a kilometre from camp, on which are two comfortable beds with plenty of pillows and blankets, two armchairs facing out to the darkness with a red-filtered spotlight, a loo and a basin. The dark shapes of the leaves through which the stars and moon twinkle comprise the roof – although there’s a canvas wall on one side and a sort of large umbrella thing over one of the beds for those who still need that feeling of being ‘inside.’
Engelbert our guide drove us there, stopping for a white-tailed mongoose and genet (as one does) on the way. We climbed the steep stairs up to the platform that was to be our ‘sleeping chamber’ for the next few hours while Engelbert bedded down in a dome tent a little way away – within shouting distance, one assumes. After shining the spotlight around to see if anything was visiting the small stream that meandered along the ground a few metres below us, and brushing our teeth, we simply removed our shoes and climbed into bed. The half-moon smiled down through the leaves, which whispered to us soothingly as we settled down… aaah, now for a good sleep under the African skies…
Not so much.
Because that’s when the hyaenas got going. Not half a kilometre from camp the lions had taken down a zebra, and it seems that the hyaena had now arrived en mass to force the lioness and her cubs off the remains of the kill. Now, in the bush, sans noise pollution, sounds travel with speed and fervour, and seem much louder than usual – so that the giggles, gurgles and moans, gibbering, yowling and general mayhem that these animals made split the silence of the night. It also tends to send a frisson of primal fear slithering down the spine, an ancient leftover from our foraging ancestors.
This continued, at various decibel levels, for a while, and then I heard a lapping sound just beneath us. I scrambled up and grabbed the spotlight. I shone it downwards and there was one of the noise makers who seemed to have left the party and stood looking up at me, eyes glinting in the red glow. Off he loped into the night and I crawled back into bed, disappointed that he hadn’t stuck around – after all, if I couldn’t sleep, I may as well have something to watch.
I lay watching the moon set, with every sound crystal clear. The hyaena party continued; as they all dug in, one assumes, the noise levels would dip and I would doze off. Then there’d be another wild shriek and the whole thing would begin again, my eyes, just closing, would jerk open again.
The grand finale was when another hyaena – clearly just underneath us again – let rip with a wild guffaw – again just as I was nodding off – and I must have lifted clear off the bed by about a foot. “Damn dog,” I thought, my heart pounding.
The canine party finally quietened down somewhat when the deep groan of a male lion sounded, sending the hyaenas skittering and gibbering away into the darkness. He presumably now tried to feed on whatever remained of the zebra.
But it was now the turn of the primates in the next tree to get going. A troop of baboons, in their own Star Bed as it were, now began barking and yammering – and someone slapped a kid who then squealed and had a tantrum. Compared to these, the hippo grunts and their Jabba the Hutt sounds seemed positively genteel and soothing. There was also the occasional “dying battery of Kariba” – a water thick-knee with its soprano sound, while the softer crickets kept tempo in this atonal symphony of the wild.
We presumably slept. I know this because I was woken with the requisite jump and pounding heart by the barking of those idiotic baboons. The moon was gone and the darkness was almost complete, save a faint tinge of blue in the east. It occurred to me that all primates found being high up in the trees the safest spot for the night, and that – whether in trees or wooden houses – as a family, we make for a noisy, disturbing bunch.
As the birds began to call – the turtle dove calling on us to work harder – we put on our shoes, scrambled down the ladder and returned to camp, feeling rather like intrepid explorers returning from the dangerous darkest regions. We also felt very blessed – to have spent the night with some of our fellow creatures yet in comfort and safety, but also to be heading back to that most important element of human civilisation: a cappuccino on the deck of Ruckomechi Camp.
Written by Ilana Stein
Photographed by Dana Allen