Photography Volunteering (South Africa): The Hyena Encounter

As I sat back in the safari jeep that was taking me from a sunset shoot back to camp, I found myself reflecting on a recent post I published about the fine line between feeling free and lost.

Today I felt free.

Kellie Netherwood-9662

I was surrounded by a South African landscape that stretched beyond the limitations of my eyesight.  I was driving through the natural habitat of birds and animals, whose behaviour and interactions stretched beyond the limitations of my imagination.  And I was sharing the experience with a small group of new friends, who shared my love of travel, photography and Africa.

I was approaching the end of my first week at Thanda Game Reserve where I am volunteering on a Photography Project.  The memory card in my camera already held a number of incredible wildlife sightings.  The memory card in my head already held a number of memorable moments, emotions and experiences.  And I still had three more weeks ahead of me.

As the night sky extinguished the last light of the day, I zipped up my jacket and smiled to myself as I soaked up the moment I was in.

Then the jeep slowed down.

I saw the eyes first, a pair of fluorescent green circles that seemed to be looking straight at me.  As I returned the stare, the darkness surrounding the eyes morphed into the shape of an animal: a hyena.  Within minutes two eyes became six: three hyena.  And we were in their way.

Photography credit: Claudia Van Zanten

(Photography Credit: Claudia van Zanten )


I didn’t feel free anymore – I felt trapped.

There was only one road.  The hyena were blocking our path and we were blocking theirs – we were at an impasse.

The African bush is a complex arena, where one animal’s prey is another’s predator.  It’s an on-going battle where the sunrise does not signify the end of the fight, just the beginning of another.  There are no rules.   As the sun falls, the wildlife adapts to the changing arena.  Strengths become weaknesses and tactics are altered, but the game is unchanged.

As the moon rises, our human advantage of sight disappears and the darkness heightens our sense of vulnerability.  Earlier in the week we had approached a buffalo kill and been continually circled by a hyena protecting its meal.  This felt different as we relied on one spotlight and our ears to track the unpredictable trio.   We felt exposed.

My heart was racing, but my sense of fear was quickly overtaken by a sense of excitement – I felt alive!

Hyena - Danilo Calcaterra

(Photography Credit – Danilo Calcaterra)



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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at


  1. How exciting, and frightening at the same time. I’m really envying you this experience. May just have to sign up for this. Wonder if it’s offered over the winter school break when I’m looking for a place to settle for at least a month.

  2. You really captured the feeling of your encounter with hyenas, both in prose and photos. As a volunteer photographer, who receives the end result of your work? What’s the project?

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