During my youth, I frequently traveled the world, sightseeing in the most exotic places. Few people can boast about having visited far-off and unheard of lands such as Oman, Kosovo and Swaziland. Traveling and exploring different countries became a passion, one that I enjoyed doing to no end. My reasons for getting such unprecedented joy from seeing the deepest parts of the world are my own, but I can only imagine being anywhere aside from home would give me pleasure. I have visited countries that some men have never even heard of, not even in their wildest dreams, but of all the experiences I’ve had and of all the people I’ve met, there is one event that I will never forget.
I was on a guided safari tour in Kenya, in the Hell’s Gate National Park, which received its name from the steep cliffs that opened up like a demon’s jaws. Was I wrong for going there in the first place? Well, no sane person should ever venture to a place called Hell’s Gate. I was with a few other tourists and four native tour guides, only one of whom spoke English and all of whom carried large tranquilizer guns. We were twelve in total, and traveled via a large tour bus that carried ample supplies for surviving in the wilderness, if the need to do so arose.
Unfortunately, it did.
We were in the heart of the park when a storm came, one of the harshest thunderstorms I’d ever experienced. The winds were so strong they battered the bus about like a limp tree branch, knocking it clean on its side at the edge of the cliff, in a small clearing between the tall savanna grass and the rocks. When the storm passed and the clouds parted, it was late in the afternoon, too late to repair the bus and far too late to try and make the trek back on foot. After a heated conversation in Swahili, which was roughly translated to me by one of the other tourists, we learned that no rescue buses were coming for the rest of the night. Therefore, it was the head guide’s expert decision to set up camp and stake out the night until a rescue squad came the next morning.
Everybody contributed in setting up the tents. We arranged them as close together as possible, between the rocks and the overturned bus. By the time this task was completed, many of the other tourists had retired, but I was still jazzed, feeling a rush of excitement that I hadn’t felt in years, not since the last time I experienced a beating from my father. I went to go find the English speaking tour guide, but he was occupied, as were the other three. Three of them were putting up a large chain-link fence, which had been rolled up in the trunk of the bus, and they were positioning it in a semi-circle around the bus and tents, keeping the wildlife out. I’d dismissed it as purely routine, until I saw them open a large trunk, and shortly after I watched as they distributed large guns to each other, military grade, guns that were meant for killing, not tranquilizing.
Soon after that, the sun ceded to the expansive darkness, a darkness so thick that it was difficult to move from one end of the tent to the other. Eating was difficult when one was blinded, and the dampness from the storm rendered the idea of making a fire impossible. The only things that didn’t seem to surrender to the black were the large cliffs called Hell’s Gate. They seemed to glow a dark red, contrasting the darkness and giving slight illumination to the tents. I’d developed chronic insomnia due to traumatic childhood trauma, so the idea of hell casting its red shadow over me didn’t help my slumber. But I was determined to lose myself in dreams, and so I did.
However, my sleep was curtailed by the sound of something snickering in my ear. I awoke drowsily as I turned my head to find the tourist with whom I was sharing the tent fast asleep, the red light from the cliffs cast over his blanket. I closed my eyes to sleep again. Then came the snicker, followed by a surge of maniacal laughter. Like lightning I sat up, the red light snapping off me like gum stuck to a shoe. My heart was racing as I stood, threw on my jacket and exited the tent into the hot, steamy night. Fog had moved in on account of the moisture from the storm, and the light from the cliffs was making it glow red as well. I stood silently, listening, then I heard the deranged laughter.
I moved swiftly, dodging the arms of the devil’s fog as I made my way to the overturned bus. I looked up and saw one of the tour guides sitting atop it, gun grasped in both his hands, staring out at the sea of tall grass and fog. I attempted to speak to him in English, asking him what was making the laughter. He chuckled and spoke in Swahili. I would later translate these words upon my return to civilization. He told me, “Return to your bed. You walk in a place that all men fear.”
Not knowing what he meant, I turned and looked at the chain-link fence, approaching it with extreme caution. I wrapped my fingers into the loops and stared out into the grass, the pitch-black grass. There was nothing at first but complete and utter silence. Then the rustling of the grass followed by the laughter again. I backed away in fear as a hole in the grass parted, giving way to a massive hyena with two red eyes, the same color that the cliffs were excreting. It was charging towards the fence, and I jumped back in shock, but it came to a complete stop before reaching the metal divide. It’s wandering eyes glared at me, then shifted to the tour guide, who was aimed at the beast with his gun, then back at me.
I looked back at the guide atop the bus and motioned, with a fairly obvious hand gesture, to him to put the damn beast down. He ignored me and lowered his weapon. I felt furious at the time. At first, I’d assumed he’d not seen my gesture, but later the English speaking tour guide told me the real reason he didn’t fire. I’d had my suspicions, but when I looked out at the grass again I suddenly knew why the man had lowered his gun. Although I’d only had a rough idea, the words of the English speaking tour guide sill echo in my head today, “If you stir one, the pack will strike.”
And stir it did, regardless of whether or not a gunshot was fired. One by one, Hades hounds swarmed out of the grass and began patrolling the perimeter of our fenced off camp, searching for a way to infiltrate it. But the Alpha, the one I’d first seen, sat there silently, as did I. Eventually, the rest of the tribe settled as well, taking relaxed positions as they seemed to fight amongst each other and laugh at demented stories. To this day I wake with nightmares of the beasts standing there, laughing at me as I stood motionless.
But the Alpha, his laugh was the one that was loudest. It sat there, like a gargoyle, glaring at me with its demonic, red eyes gifted by the devil. Its only movement was a sort of taunting motion when it turned its head sideways so as to intimidate me. When it laughed, it displayed two rows of disgustingly yellow teeth. I stood, mesmerized by its grotesque allure, unable to move away from it or respond, only able to stand silently as it glared into my soul and laughed at the memories of my painstakingly tragic past. Although it had not meat, the Alpha seemed as though it was feeding.
Time passed quicker than I had thought, and as the sun came up the hyenas began retreating into the grass. I turned my head to the East and caught the first rays of sunlight. The Alpha mimicked my motions, then it turned back to me. Our eyes met for a long moment, and I half expected him to charge the fence, causing the pack to return and attack as well. It didn’t. It broke its crouching position and turned back the way it came. I bellowed a final, maniacal laugh and I disappeared into the grass, leaving a part of me missing.
Hours passed, and eventually a bus came to pick us up. I spoke with the English speaking tour guide again, told him of the incident and the sleepless night I’d had. He explained the mounted guide’s actions and the nature of the hyenas. He told me, “They come every night and scavenge for food. The Hell’s Gate is apparently where they go to breed during the season. Because of this, the region was branded taboo by the ancient Africans who used to live here.”
I asked him where they went during the day. He chuckled and says, “Nobody knows. All we know is that they emerge from the grass at dusk, and return to it at dawn.”
Years later I returned to the site with a larger group of people, each armed. We set up a large camp ground, with infinitely more defensive fiber-glass walls. I sat out there all night, gazing at the grass as the red light from Hell’s Gate covered me. Finally, the Alpha, my Alpha, emerged from the grass and sat down, recognizing me, and we spent the entire night laughing at each other’s deranged appearance like devils in a destitute sort of divine comedy.