There can’t be many early morning urban running routes that result in a hyena or two lumbering past you. But that’s what I get after lacing up my trainers and heading out before dawn in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
During the night, while everyone sleeps, the hyenas come into the city’s suburbs to scavenge for scraps of meat and animal carcasses that the human carnivores leave behind. Then, just before sunrise, like vampires, they flee to hide in the deep surrounding forests – thereby coinciding with me wheezing my way up a hill called Yeka, on the city’s north-eastern edge.
More often than not, it’s a solitary beast, with a huge head atop the sort of shoulders you’d associate with a nightclub bouncer. It has the oddest running gait, as if limping after being shot in the buttocks by an air rifle.
My closest encounter was about 8m away. After black spots on dun-coloured spiky-looking fur flashed past me, the hyena stopped in the vegetation bordering the track I was running along. I halted too and saw that looming head looking back at me over those powerful shoulders. We pondered each other for about 10 seconds, before it bounded forward into the undergrowth.
Hyenas are well camouflaged and disappear from view quickly. Occasionally I’ll see a pair, and once I saw three together.
Their bite is stronger than that of a great white shark, and they’re reviled and feared in many countries, but in Ethiopia there is a long tradition of people and hyenas living side-by-side, tolerating each other. Some people point out the creatures’ benefits – they do, after all, provide an excellent animal waste disposal service. They also keep the feral dog population under control.
But hyenas played a less savoury role during the Red Terror of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in the late 1970s, when each day the bodies of those executed were dumped on the city’s outskirts. There are also present-day tales of beggars sleeping rough losing a toe or finger, or even a baby being snatched from its mother’s arms. Urban myths, one hopes – though I wouldn’t want to test the neighbourliness of a pack of hyenas in the dark, as happened to a friend of mine, a competitive cyclist, when he left his home in the early hours to go training.
After assessing the number of pairs of eyes glinting at him in the dark, and the sinister yelps and mutterings emanating from the pack, he rapidly backtracked – very thankful that he had not pulled shut the entrance to the walled compound where everyone else was still sleeping.
Despite hundreds of hyenas apparently prowling around Addis Ababa, my very first close encounter actually happened near Ethiopia’s eastern border just outside the fortifications of the walled city of Harar.
There the famous hyena man gives tourists a night to remember by feeding hyenas that appear out of the dark next to one of the city’s old gates with meat skewered on a stick held in his mouth.
I was awed by the close-up of that enormous bristling head and beefy upper body.
I now feel a bit sorry for hyenas. If one appears during my morning jog, and there’s an Ethiopian nearby en route to work, the hyena typically gets an earful and speeds off hurriedly appearing rather brow beaten.
For me, far more disconcerting than hyenas are the human encounters with Ethiopian runners. Typically, they appear at my shoulder as if from nowhere, utterly soundlessly – though I presume they do breathe like the rest of us – while none seems to sweat. They just glide by in a most galling manner.
Nearing Yeka’s peak the track winds between the slender grey trunks of eucalyptus trees before breaking out on to a rocky outcrop where there is a wonderful, panoramic view of the city below.
Usually I have the spot to myself, which is fortunate as I crouch down and retch and heave for a minute, trying to catch my breath. Addis Ababa is at an altitude of about 2,400m (almost 8,000ft), while Yeka must be nearing 2,900m (9,500ft).
After that indecorous arrival, being on top of Yeka is sublime. The rising sun’s first rays slant through swathes of dewy mist covering the crenulated cityscape below. You can see Bole airport at the most southern point, and follow the final approach of an Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet sliding through the air, silhouetted against a triangular mountain further to the south.
Best of all, afterwards it’s downhill back home, and then breakfast suffused with post-morning-run endorphins and cups of freshly ground Ethiopian coffee. By then, the hyenas have all retired to the forest.
But I’m already looking forward to encountering them again, when I next set off for a run, before another glorious dawn.
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