Hello, Sweet Hyena.

Last year in March, I got to go on safari. The vacation began in Cape Town, which is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful cities I've ever visited. The city sits nestled between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean. In March, the weather was seventy-six and sunny pretty much everyday that I was there. Views of the ocean and the cascading beachfront houses were unreal. Although I no longer have access to the photos from that trip, I'm savoring the memories as I write this.

Safari was scheduled with Jock Safari Lodge at Kruger National Park. From Cape Town, I took a plane to Johannesburg, and from there I flew to the tiny and serene Skukuza Airport. My group and I were greeted by Jock's safari guides, who arrived in huge open jeeps to transport us to the lodge. An hour or so later, we arrived at a small oasis of shaded cabins, interwoven with dirt and stone paths.

The safari itinerary was equal parts rigorous and lavish. Promptly at five o’clock each morning, a wake up call came from my guide. I then stumbled out of bed, wrestling with the mosquito netting, to put on my uniform of shorts and a tank top. Although mornings were chilly, afternoons promised brutal heat. After a quick breakfast tea, everyone loaded up into jeeps, and we were off by 5:15am. The morning rides lasted about four hours; afterwards, it was back to the lodge for an elaborate lunch. There was an opportunity at midday to go on a bushwalk, but mostly we escaped the heat by lounging in the pool. At four o'clock in the afternoon, we set out again for evening rides. It was dark by the time we returned to the lodge. After showering off the dust, everyone gathered for cocktails and a delicious three course dinner.

The safari guides were skilled drivers. They navigated through bumpy and sandy terrains at what felt like eighty miles per hour. Our guide had the uncanny ability to spot animals in nearly total darkness, handling a flashlight with one hand and minding the steering wheel with the other. One evening, our guide stopped the car suddenly outside the gate of the lodge. “There,” he said, pointing at what appeared to be a normal leaf. His audience was silent, uncomprehending. “There,” he said again, “a chameleon.”

It was on another evening drive that we were greeted by a hyena. We had been searching endlessly for an elusive leopard. Leopards, I had learned on this trip, were one of the Big Five. At pre-dinner drinks one night, a safari guide explained to me the history behind the terminology. The Big Five stemmed from colonial days, when hunting safari animals was accepted and prevalent. Hunters sought out five types of animals in particular: leopard, lion, elephant, rhinoceros, and water buffalo. These animals were considered lethal—rather than go down easily, they charged when fired upon. This is precisely why they were the most prized: killing one of the Big Five signified a certain amount of risk involved and therefore, supposed bravery. I felt deeply disturbed as I processed this: animals that possessed the strongest will to live, were also the most wanted dead.

Hyenas are not one of the Big Five, but seeing one in real life was nevertheless astonishing to me. It happened as everyone in my vehicle was staring into the pitch-black terrain to catch a glimpse of a leopard. A large hyena approached our vehicle and sniffed at us curiously. "What are we looking at?" she seemed to say. As our vehicle slowly crept forward in pursuit of a leopard sighting, the hyena trotted beside us, her spots illuminated by the jeep’s headlight. If she were a leopard or lion, I thought, we would all be freaking out.

We encountered hyenas several more times on safari. Once was during the day. We saw two together, a younger and an older hyena, rolling around in some mud. I learned that hyenas live in matriarchal clans, and are primarily hunters. They also scavenge for food but—as it turns out—not nearly to the extent to which The Lion King portrays. Upon further research, I learned that hyenas waste little of their food. They eat everything, even what other animals leave behind as waste, such as skin and bones. I liked that about hyenas. They don’t waste food. They’re powerful. They live in a female-dominated society. These creatures were completely fascinating in their own right, and I no longer cared if we didn’t get to see all of the Big Five.

When I returned to Cape Town from Kruger National Park for a few days before returning to New York, I couldn’t stop thinking about safari. On the last night, I slept outside on a lounge chair by the pool of the Airbnb house. Before falling asleep, I stared at the stars, as if seeing the same stars that all the animals in Africa could see, somehow brought me closer.

After I came home, I was inspired by Portland artist Kate Bingaman-Burt to illustrate a zine called Hyenas Being Sweet. Although I abandoned the zine in its nascent stages, the name Sweet Hyena stuck around when I conceived of my jewelry line. I think of Sweet Hyena as a talisman for my safari experience. It's a reminder of the the thing that I most wanted to take with me: the understanding that we are all animals, and as such, we each have unique and remarkable traits. There is beauty and wonder in all creatures, and each living thing is equally deserving of some reverence.

It feels natural to give a portion of Sweet Hyena's proceeds to African Wildlife Foundation. They are highly rated by Charity Watch, and their vision, I think, is a good one: The African Wildlife Foundation, together with the people of Africa, works to ensure the wildlife and wild lands of Africa will endure forever.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published