Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Tanzania: In praise of hyenas

In the beautiful and brutal Ngorongoro Crater, Winston Aldworth finds respect for an underdog.

A hyena in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo / Lucy Piper
A hyena in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo / Lucy Piper

Hyenas get a bad rap. They are - the lazy assumption has it - cowardly. Hyenas cackle in packs as each takes turns attacking a lone, noble creature. They never stand still for a fair fight; instead distracting their opponent as one of their sly cousins dashes in for a petty blow - a thousand of which eventually bring a more noble beast to its knees. The kind of animal that leaves the pub one round before their round is due.

Well, not the hyena I saw in Ngorongoro Crater.

We can't help but bring our anthropomorphic assumptions to the business of animal watching. The rhino is noble, the hyena ghastly. Elephants: good sorts. Crocodiles: bad bastards.

You know when you see a dog straining on the leash - some sort of fighting breed, leashed around the place by a fighting-breed owner - and you think to yourself: "What a bloody grotesque bundle of power and nastiness." Well, a hyena is like half a dozen of those dogs compressed into one. And, when they go to the gym, they spend too much time working on their torso.

A hyena's torso is a knotted mass of menace - a dense punctuation mark to the terminal sentence of their jaws which have evolved as "bone crushers". We saw one up close from our 4x4 as we first entered the Crater, a protected area and a World Heritage Site in northern Tanzania.

Something had nailed that first hyena - it was dying in a ditch, its coat matted in blood and its breath slow and heavy. "Might be other hyenas," our guide told us. "Could be anything." It's a brutal place.

A black rhino in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo / Roman Boed
A black rhino in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Photo / Roman Boed


You go to Ngorongoro Crater to tick off the big five: the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros - those gorgeous heads that still attract hunters to Africa. In the crater, they're mostly safe from hunters. Armed rangers keep poachers out, making this a rare refuge for the critically endangered black rhinoceros. There are 20 in the Crater, the world's largest inactive, intact volcanic caldera.

We ticked off four of the five (the leopard will have to wait), but it was the underrated sixth - the dirty hyena - I liked the best. Not the poor mongrel dying by the side of the road, but one of his cousins we saw later single-handedly attacking a black rhino.

The bigger rhinos are about 4m long and they can clock in at more than 2000kg. They walk across the prairie like meandering panzers, the gun-barrel horn declaring to the world: "Don't mess with me."

But one hyena was up for messing. Even the biggest hyenas are barely 1m long and weigh less than 70kg. But this dogged distant-dog-relative clung to the massive rump of the rhino, chewing and clawing off chunks of meat until a large patch of hide was torn away, blood pouring all over the rhino's backside. David, the psychopathic berserker, had torn strips off Goliath.

We watched, chuckling at his chutzpah. The plucky, demented underdog thrashing away on the flank of a giant rhino.

Soon, our guide stopped chuckling. "We'd better call the rangers."

"What will they do?"

"Oh, they'll shoot the hyena. Can't lose a rhino."

It's a brutal place.

CHECKLIST

Getting there
Etihad flies from Auckland to Dar es Salaam via its hub in Abu Dhabi, with return Economy Class tickets starting from $2134. Business Class is on sale for $6994 until April 19.

Details
Intrepid's 13-day Cycle Tanzania tour starts at $4080. For details on this and its other 16 tours, go to intrepidtravel.com/nz/theme/cycling.

- NZ Herald

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