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Hugo the Car Eating Honey Badger

Tamboti Camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa is a coveted bush camp; no shop, reception or facilities on the premises, just a long row of fixed tents – tents that are permanently pitched on sturdy stilts and sit atop a raised hardwood platform. I checked in at the Orpen gate a few kilometers away. In doing so they told me - as they stamped my paperwork – to be careful of baboons and of the honey badger. The warning seemed trite and obligatory.

I was assigned tent number forty, the most sought-after tent in Tamboti since it has fence line on two sides and a fantastic view of a wide, mostly dry riverbed. I emailed the hospitality manager six months in advance of my stay to request this location. When my confirmation came that I was being granted my request, I was a bit frightened being that I am a solo female traveler staying in a bush camp in a tent behind only canvas walls.

Trite or not I do heed warnings. I disposed of my food scraps in a trash receptacle far away from my accommodation. Inside my tent I put everything resembling an edible item in the refrigerator for safe keeping not wanting to repeat an event from a previous trip whereby I was awakened in the night to the sounds of a tiny door mouse loudly chomping his way through the skin of my avocado.

The first night was extremely peaceful. The sky was filled with a gazillion stars that twinkled while being serenaded by lions huffing and hyena whooping. I slept like a baby.

The second night was a different story altogether.

Close to midnight I woke to a loud scrambling sound. There was no doubt whatever was making the sound was very close. I felt around like a blind person for the torch I had placed on the nightstand before sleep. Prior to getting out of bed I shined its light all around the tent to make sure whatever was making the sound was not inside. When the inside coast seemed clear I made my way to the door.

The door was wooden with a screened door outside. The wooden door was split so I could open the top half or the bottom half or both. I opened only the top half and looked out to find myself facing - for the first time in all my trips to Africa – a honey badger. I had seen documentaries about how formidable honey badgers are. But until I saw one in person staring back at me without an ounce of fear in his being, I did not realize just how daunting facing a honey badger would be. This guy was huge; much bigger than I imagined a honey badger to be.

As I stared at him through the screened door, my mouth agape, he stood and stared back as if to say, “What?”

Hugo the huge honey badger came to mind as his new name. “Goodnight Hugo,” I said before closing and bolting the doors. For all I knew he could come right through screen, so I wasn’t going to linger longer.

I heard Hugo knock over my trash can and scramble around my outdoor kitchen. He then shuffled down my stairs and through the sand then up the porch of my neighbors’ tent where I assumed, he carried out the same rummaging routine.

I fell back asleep. It was not long until a loud sound jolted me back awake.

I sat quietly in bed for a while trying to figure out what I was hearing. The sound was coming from where my car was parked. Something was messing with my rental car.

I heard a metal boing noise. Then I heard it again…, and again.

Once more I felt for my torch in such darkness there is no difference between eyes open and eyes shut. Once located, I shined the light around my tent to make sure nothing was inside then strapped on a head light and grabbed my torch knowing I had to face this unknown beast. I opened the top half of the wooden door and shined the light - nothing. I opened the bottom half of the wooden door and shined my light - nothing. I opened the screen door and cautiously walked onto the porch and shined the light up, down and everywhere - nothing. I went down the stairs of the porch and started up the path towards the car shining my torch left, right and center. When I topped the slight hill, I shined the light towards my car and there he was; Hugo the honey badger was standing beside my car looking at me as if he was upset I had disturbed his recreational activities. Out of instinct, or fear from watching too many documentaries about honey badgers, I turned and fled back inside my tent like a complete coward fully expecting Hugo to run after me.

When I got back inside the tent and calmed my heart a bit, I began to wonder what the heck he was trying to do. There was no food or water inside my car, just a Tony Park novel and my Bushveld guidebook. Unless he was into Tony Park or wanted to do some research, why the heck was he trying to bite his way into my car?

I again heard the boing noise. I could not let him continue. Not only because I was liable for the damage but also because that car was my transportation for the next nine days.

After much internal dialog I decided I needed to distract him. I needed to throw something at him. Frantically I walked around my tent and tried to find something I could spare as I was sure whatever I threw I wouldn't get back, but I couldn't find a thing. Then I open the refrigerator and there, in the door, was a jar of mustard. It was heavy enough to pitch from a distance, I thought as I practiced like an American baseball pitcher about to take the mound.

With my headlight strapped to my head, my torch in one hand, a jar of mustard in the other and a bundle of gathered courage I bravely headed back out into the night, onto the deck, down the stairs and step by step up the path until I again saw Hugo standing beside my car. I yelled, "HEY!" then threw the jar of mustard towards him. After that jar of mustard left my hand all courage drained from my body and I fled back into the tent hurriedly locking all the doors behind me. I sat on my bed a minute to gather my wits then heard Hugo messing with the jar, claws on glass. At least he was not messing with my car anymore, I thought, then I crawled back into bed.

Ten minutes later though I heard a ruckus just outside the mesh window of my tent on the path that led to my car. Again, I jumped out of bed and grabbed my torch this time to shine out the window only to find not one but two honey badgers now outside my tent! Hugo was in an all-out wrestling match with a much smaller opponent. The wrestling and growling went on and on. They were fighting for the mustard, I thought.

After five minutes or so I heard them meander on up the path and out of earshot. Finally, the honey badger brigade was over. Again I went back to bed.

But no. At 4:45 in the morning I heard the not so delicate claws of Hugo on my deck. I sat up in my bed and said out loud, "What now?" As I lay there I heard the unmistakable sound of him lapping water. Once more I grabbed my torch and jumped out of bed this time throwing caution to the wind, not checking to see if anything was inside my tent. I opened the top half of the wooden door and there was Hugo lapping soapy water from a pan I had let soak in the sink overnight. He was left thirsty after eating all that mustard I presumed.

At that point I decided to stay up and start packing as I was to leave the camp that day. First light was not far off and I was anxious to see the damage Hugo had done to my car.

When first light came, I stormed up the path to find a panel from the drivers’ side door laying on the floor right where Huge had ripped it off. Thank goodness he left it so I could attempt to put it back on. At the front of the car I found the identity plate and plate holder in a “U” shape; the plastic holder filled with claw and teeth marks.

As I packed my car, I pondered why in the heck the honey badger tried so hard to get into my car. There was nothing inside but a Tony Park novel and my Bushveld guidebook. Unless he was into Tony Park or wanted to do some research there was nothing inside for him.

I left Tamboti Camp headed to Skukuza. While on the main road far from where I could exit my car if I wanted to, I developed a theory. Hugo had been hunting something that took refuge in the engine compartment of my car. The honey badger tried his best to get into my car to get whatever had escaped his clutches. The minute that theory entered my mind - knowing honey badgers eat snakes - I began to feel the flickering tongue of not one but many snakes on my feet and legs. If I looked once, I looked a hundred times down at the floor of the car looking for the animal that escaped Hugo’s ravage, but the critters were only there in my mind.

For anyone headed to Tamboti Camp in the Kruger National Park please say hello to Hugo and tell him I do not miss him at all, but I do think of him often. You might also want to buy some Gorilla glue as I found it quite handy repairing his damage.

As for me and my fear of staying in a bush camp alone…, if I can fight off a honey badger in the night, I can fight off whatever else comes my way. Sign me up for my next stay.

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