Bleary-eyed and half asleep, it takes me a few seconds to realise where I am.
The darkness around me is chilling. There are hooves, like those of horses, trotting along outside the tent. But there are no horses out there.
In the near distance, there’s an evil, unfamiliar kind of giggle, almost like a snicker, and then a “whooping” howl.
My body tenses and I feel my hairs stand on end.
I’m somewhere in the middle of Tanzania’s vast Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, on a camping safari.
The park’s seemingly never-ending stretch of savanna plains is an incredible sight in the daytime, but at night – when it’s completely dark and you haven’t a clue what could be lurking around – the vastness can be terrifying.
I whisper to my partner, who’s been snoring softly next to me, oblivious to it all: “Hey, do you hear that giggling?”
He grunts before rolling over and opening one eye.
“They’re hyenas,” he whispers after a while. “They’ve probably got some kill.”
I feel slightly sick.
“Don’t move,” I tell him, thinking any movement would surely attract one of the nocturnal carnivores to dig up the tent and tear into us as well.
It was only earlier that we came across a family of hyenas feasting on a buffalo carcass, the front of their fur coats smeared with blood and their bellies bulging.
Now, in the darkness, my imagination goes wild with the idea of being so close to the merciless creatures without any protective barrier around us.
The giggling continues, on and off, for a few hours. I drift in and out of consciousness, my body frozen in fear and drenched in sweat.
I find my half-asleep mind wandering to the 1898 story about the Tsavo lions that killed and devoured dozens of workers on a British railway bridge assignment in neighbouring Kenya. The incident was the basis of the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness. These things don’t happen any more, our guide Nico had told me earlier, because the big cats no longer have a taste for human flesh.
With this in mind, I close my eyes. But it’s a restless few hours of sleep before daylight eventually breaks.
In the morning, my mind and body ache with tiredness but I’m excited. Today we’re continuing our hunt for the `big five’ – buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard and lion. The latter three, especially the rhino, because of illegal poaching, are the hardest to find.
We pack our bags into our safari truck – a sturdy khaki-coloured Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop-up top.
The dirt tracks are rough and bumpy, and the dust is relentless, but before we know it, Nico’s on the radio exchanging a few words in Swahili and we’re racing through the Serengeti, dust curling in a storm behind us.
We arrive at a spot that’s packed with a dozen safari trucks carrying tourists snapping away on phones and cameras at a pair of lions mating.
The R-rated session lasts no longer than a few minutes but I feel like I’ve just been on an episode of the Discovery Channel. It’s real, wild and terribly cool.
The male flops onto the ground in exhaustion. During mating periods he will mate with the females in his pride around every 15 minutes all day, Nico says.
A few metres away we spot some cubs feasting on an ostrich. There are clumps of battered feathers scattered around, a signal of a fight that had taken place earlier.
We spend an hour observing and taking photos, before hitting the road again.
Wildebeest, gazelles, buffalos, zebras, impalas and giraffes are common sightings over the next few hours, but it’s only when we’re about to call it a day that we spot the second highlight – a leopard in a tree and its kill, a small zebra with its backside torn apart, hanging lifelessly on the branch above.
It’s a gruesome picture but we soak up the rare moment, our cameras going into overdrive.
The spotted cat rests its head on the branch, its belly full and its mind sleepy.
It’s a harsh reality out here in the Serengeti, I think, but, unlike any zoo in Australia, nothing is man-made or fabricated. Out here, it’s nature at its very best – and at its very worst.
As the scorching sun begins to creep below the horizon, we head to our campsite, located on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Nico tells us to leave our snacks and toiletries in the truck, and take only our sleeping bags with us into the tent.
“Tonight,” he says, “we’ve got to watch out for bush pigs.”
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Most tours to the Serengeti depart from either Nairobi, Kenya or Arusha, Tanzania. Emirates flies from Australia to Nairobi, Kenya and to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. To book, call Emirates on 1300 303 777 or visit emirates广西桑拿,广西桑拿网,. Local African airlines, such as Precision Air, fly onwards from Dar Es Salaam to Arusha.
STAYING THERE: G Adventures offer a range of short Serengeti camping safaris, as well as longer tours across Africa that include a camping safari in the Serengeti. Tours start from $1899 per person twin-share (conditions apply). A good choice is G Adventures’ Nairobi to Zanzibar Adventure. For 2014 departures, visit gadventures广西桑拿, or call 1300 796 618.
PLAYING THERE: For more on what to do while visiting the Serengeti and Tanzania visit tanzaniaparks广西桑拿,/serengeti.html and serengeti南宁夜生活,.
* The writer travelled at her own expense.