fear of the dark

Fear of the unknown is probably the only phobia that affects every single person on the planet. There are many irrational fears peppered through the psyche of the everyday man (or woman) on the street but most are borne of unpleasant past experiences. What has enabled human beings to rise to an unsurpassed intellectual plane is the capacity of the brain. The gift of imagination has granted us the ability to invent ground breaking technology and to surpass nearly every hurdle that mankind has faced. However, this talent has a flipside. The power of imagination is so potent that it is capable of destroying lives and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks. These terrifying thoughts generally need a catalyst, and the most commonly responsible is the dark.

leopard yawn while on night safari

Lioness Silhouette

From an early age, fear of the dark has plagued young children. Sleepless nights wondering what monsters await under the bed or what manner of aberrations reside inside the closet are common place. As a youngster, I myself refused to sleep with a limb hanging off the bed due to an irrational fear of having it bitten off by a fanged menace loitering in the shadows under my mattress. Even noises that are heard during the daylight hours and ignored are transformed by darkness into the ominous footsteps of objects of our own fear. The human world is so dictated by its ability to see and analyze what is seen, that when that sense is removed, the true power of the brain is unleashed. And such monumental creative power is hard to control. Let’s not forget that fear of the dark has its roots from early man when we were perceived as prey by all manner of fearsome beasts that roamed through the shadows of night. The discovery of fire was hugely influential in primitive engineering circles but perhaps more than anything, it gifted man the ability to overcome darkness and keep perceived and very real dangers at bay.

leopard while on evening game drive

Nottens Stalking

The bush is home to some of the most feared land predators in the world today. The power and reputation of the lion, the speed and guile of the leopard and the sinister hyena all ply their trade under the cloak of darkness. Viewed during the day, the cats especially are often construed as large kittens and many a guest has wanted to rub the belly of a sleeping lion as it dozes through the daylight hours. However, once darkness begins to envelop the land, these nocturnal nemeses come to life and undergo a transformation as extreme as that of a caterpillar to a butterfly, perceptually at least. The inky shroud that drapes itself across the landscape transforms these slumbering felines into efficient killing machines. Blackness is their ally. Their behaviour changes, their demeanor changes, our perception of them changes.

leopard while on night safari game drive at Sabi Sabi

night safari leopard

When we view cats at night, that primal fear is once again resurrected by the Cimmerian shade overwhelming us and these magnificent creatures come into their own. The comfort and warmth offered by the Sun has deserted us and instead, the brain starts to recall all the horror movies it has witnessed, adrenaline levels rise and the infinite power of their imagination is released. The darkness seems to invade every pore in our skin and systematically undo all our common sense and principles. It is the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that the absence of light brings. The knowledge that their eyes are able to penetrate the gloom with consummate ease; that these predators must kill to survive and that we ourselves could become prey lend itself to a very different experience.

night shot of leopard

hungry cub

At Sabi Sabi we are blessed with wonderful levels of habituation and when a 200kg male lion stalks past the open Land Rover only a few metres away, the inhabitants hold their breath as one. Men, women and children alike shift slightly in their seats to put distance between themselves and the superior specimen. When it makes eye contact with you, even though the spotlight is illuminating its visage, the feeling of insignificance is hard to shake. The uncomfortable knowledge that you are being evaluated by a killing machine whose eyes seem to look right through your skin and into your very soul is a profound experience. Your conscience struggles to balance the feelings of wonder and respect with that of ancient fear and the primordial instinct to survive.

lion at night

kruger male lions at night

Mapogo Brothers

The ability to slink through the shadows without a sound, yet seeing everything, has enabled these great predators to thrive. The psychological advantage that they possess over their quarry is as old as life itself. Darkness always has and always will carry with it the stigma of danger. Throughout history and every religion in the world, darkness is seen as a bad omen. The lack of depth perception, the inability to evaluate a situation in relation to its surroundings and the feeling of cold isolation, all play a part in amplifying the power of darkness. Surviving a day in the bush is a far different prospect to that of surviving the night. The playing field flips and all of the senses and skills that enable us to flourish under the comforting companionship of the sun are removed and those that relish the darkness come to the fore.

leopard on night safari

night shot of leopard

 Just because the majority of organisms on Earth need the sun to prosper, it does not mean that those who crave the sanctuary of darkness should be seen as evil. Everything in nature has its balance. Without some species being able to flourish in darkness, a perfectly good ecological niche would be wasted and the balance would be upset. One cannot exist without the other. To paraphrase the great Chinese philosopher Laozi, nothing exists in isolation. For life to exist there must be balance. This implies the harmonic existence of two things or what philosophers call ‘duality’. Man has woman, heat has cold, good has bad and light has darkness.

leopard on night safari

leopard at night while on safari

by: Ben Coley (Bush Lodge Ranger)



  1. jerry kovac says

    Thank you Ben. You’re a great writer and painted an incredible picture for me. I’ll be making my first trip to Africa in July and will be spending a few days at Sabi Sabi Little Bush Camp. Perhaps our paths will cross.
    Jerry Kovac
    St. Louis, MO. USA

  2. tao says

    Thank you, Ben, for such a beautiful writing and awesome pics. You triggered our imagination: as the darkness is falling we are suspiciously watching our cat gently asleep on the blanket… Looks like next night we’ll feel as hosting the entire dreadful Mapogo coalition in our bed.

  3. walker says

    Beautiful post. I hike a lot and am in the US. In the day, I never feel a thing, but sometimes, I like to watch the sunset up over the hills and if I am alone, can defnitely tell the difference. Where I live, we have mountain lions or the puma -and in the day you think nothing of them. But at night, especially when you reach a bush/tree covered section , every little rustle in the bush , every little insect’s noise and every little shadow becomes much more acute and takes on its own meaning. It is almost like some strange part of you that is still wild takes over and you become hyper aware, the heart beating ever so faster. Fascinating and scary sometimes. I can only imagine what it would be to be out in the bush with lions and hyenas and of course elephants, buffalo, rhinos and leopards at night and on foot!

    I have visited before, but the Kaleserie and Timbavati, am hoping to make the Sabi area my next visit.

  4. birdie hunter says

    A real pleasure to read and so good to hear some intellectual comment rather than just description. Bravo.

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