From afar baboons and I get on just fine. I can appreciate, along with the best of them, how cute the babies are, how clever their social structure is, how bloody cunning and sneaky they can be. Laugh at their public sexual exploits and say 'ah shaaaame' when they all pick on and fight the smallest one in the troop. I can coo along with the novice safari go-er at the big-sun-shining-through-their-ears babies as they cavort and play and summersault. Put me in close proximity, however, and its not a pretty sight. I am generally a very peaceable, calm and happy person. But bongwes (baboons) just. Make. Me. MAD.
There has been many a bewildered visitor, staying in our guest cottage, who has woken up at first light, not to the sound of happy twittering birds but to my blood curdling screams of “BLODDY F(*&^$#!@#$G BONGWE’S! GO ON! BUGGER OFF! YOU’RE NOT WELCOME HERE”. And they may peer nervously of out their window and see me running half naked (with whatever was the closest article of clothing hastily thrown on. One memorable time it was my hideous – I loved it – hyena puke coat as it was known. A big multi-coloured and in retrospect I must say strange, article of clothing) throwing ineffectual stones at the bongwes. And that’s really annoying, how they just watch you, bored expression on their faces and calmly step out the way of the stone before it gets to them and give you an ‘is that the best you could do’ look. These said guests would understandably be alarmed at seeing this crazy eyed person running half naked in the early morning sunlight. Over breakfast they may (or may not if they were the polite sort) mention this strange spectacle. All the while nervously holding hands under the table in case I did something scary. I would laugh and explain that just yesterday they broke into my house for the third time that week and stole all my sugar, threw my rice all across the house, as if at a wedding and rubbed shit in it for good measure (the rice being the wedding bit, not the shit!). They broke my few remaining plates and pissed on my hi-fi. I’d say that they then went into the bathroom and chewed on all my shampoo (not easy to come by in this part of the world) and smeared their shit on the walls. “Oh but they’re so CUTE!” our guests would say “and anyway, they were here first. You can’t chase them away” And I would grit my teeth and smile and say nothing more. I realise this of course, that they also live here and we need to live in harmony but I’ve tried to be nice, I really have and they just don’t keep their part of the bargain. You don’t shit in your neighbours house at every given opportunity do you?
Then at lunch we put food out on the table in the chitenje - our open air dining room - and I turn away to get some water, turn my back for a second, and the bongwe has jumped down from the tree behind us and in one clumsy but very effective swoosh he’s taken the deliciously roasted chicken off the table and up into the tree. This chicken was bought from Chipata - the nearest town and a hideous six-hour round trip on a knock-your-teeth-loose corrugated road. It was saved especially for these guests and when they laugh and say “ooohhh, aren’t they cheeky” you tilt your head sideways and smile and sigh and say “yes, aren’t they just!” And go off to the kitchen to see if there’s ANYTHING you can find for your guests to eat now.
The next day we plan to go early into the park for a game drive and when the guests ask if they can borrow an alarm clock you tell them they won’t need it. “Remember the baboons on your roof this morning at dawn? Don’t worry, that will happen again. Trust me, you won’t need an alarm”. And indeed at 5 that morning the baboons (who roost in the trees above our houses) jump onto the tin roof from a great height, to the spot JUST above your head, sending a shower of borer dust into your now wide awake eyes and giving your heart the biggest “what the fuck was THAT’ start. Every bloody time. I’ve lived with this for 20 years and I’m STILL not used to it! We used to live in a grass house when I was little and although we got elephants eating our walls at least we didn’t have this NOISE.
So you wake up early for the game drive, clean the baboon poo off the seats of your open landy, curse that they’ve broken your windscreen wipers again, tut at the new scratches they’ve made and off you go. When you get into the park and see a troupe of baboons you can happily sit and watch them for hours with no feeling of malice whatsoever. As I say, I love them from afar.
Day four of your guests’ stay and they have bags under their eyes from all the early mornings but they are getting good at not leaving food out and locking the door to their cottage scraping baboon poo off their shoes. Coz that’s the other thing. All that bloody poo. Elsewhere in this gorgeous Valley the first rains are the most divine smelling time of all. The parched cracked earth finally getting the first fat drops of rain. That clichéd first rain smell. Where I live, though. Oh-ho. On top of the normal every day baboon shit there’s 6 months of dry shit getting nice and wet and releasing all the lovely smell for us.
And just as I’m writing this I hear my mother shout next door. I go and see what it is and the baboons have taken her lemon squeezer thingy up the tree and is having a good old chew on it. She probably won’t see that again.
(the pots in the above picture used to have lovely flowers and plants in them before the baboons ripped them apart!)
Now I’m not sure if I should tell this story for fear of animal lover retribution but what the hell. My sister and I, a few years back, were in Cape Town and went to Cape Point with another group of guests (geez). It was one of those dazzlingly fabulous sunny hot Cape Town summer days that make you want to move there instantly (though I’m told the winter is as terrible as the summer is perfect). So anyway, my sister and I are in the back of her boyfriends pick up enjoying the sun and fantasizing about ice cream. I had just come to visit from a long and hard season of safari guiding in the bush and could think of nothing better than an ice cream. This was an accumulated six moths of dreaming about this ice cream, you must understand. So we get to Cape Point and our visitors troop off to trudge up the hill to see where the two oceans meet and T and I dash off to buy an ice cream each. As soon as we are five steps away from the ice cream stand a group of about 5 baboons come straight for us. In slow motion, as the thieves in Lusaka used to do, two of them distract us and, while T moves her ice cream to the side, out of their grasp, there is another one waiting, at her side to oh so efficiently take it off her. Then they go for mine. At this point we are laughing really really hard and both trying to cram the rest of my ice cream into our mouths before they take that too. But needless to say one of them nonchalantly walks up, stands its full height and tries to snatch the rest from me. And this is where some ancient survival (okay, so it was only ice cream) something clicks in me and I started SCREAMING at the baboon. I’m told I started yelling “FUCK OFF!!” a lot and very loudly. There were some modest Muslim families covering their children’s ears and hustling them away, some horrified bunny huggers looking on wide eyed. The baboon then came at me teeth bared (they really do have the scariest massivest (is that a word?) teeth) and as it lunged at me I kicked it. Square in the chest. It flew back about a metre and then came at me again. I jumped toward it, arms wide shouting and shouting. It took one look at this and gapped it. Oh what a feeling that was! 30 years of pent up baboon rage taken out on this poor unsuspecting creature! In my defense I have learned that that’s the best way to deal a wild animal coming at you with teeth bared!
Just a few weeks before I had been on a walking safari with the legendary Rice Time. Rice was a legend. Really. A true life hero. He was an elephant control officer in the 30’s and worked with my grandfather. He was my mentor and I learned everything I know about the bush from him. And my grandfather. Another post another time. Rice saved the presidents life from a lion and got his treasured rifle as a gift from him. He wore a Russian wooly hat every day of the year, including 40 degree Celcius October heat. He was heading blind and deaf when I worked with him, but was the most experienced game scout out there. You felt so so safe with him. It was hilarious trying to tell him that there was an elephant up ahead that he hadn’t seen yet without the guests knowing that he hadn’t seen it. I kept stones in my pocket to throw at him to warn him coz he couldn’t hear my stage whispered “Rice! Elephant” And when I did point at the looming elephant he’d say in a loud voice “ah! Warthog!”. He was a man of few words and little English. But whenever we encountered a grumpy lioness or similar situation he would dance at them and shout a spectacular torrent of swear words. The point of this story? Oh yes, only a few weeks before this baboon incident I had been on a walk with Rice and we had come across a pride of very grumpy lions that had a kill AND cubs in a bush. Two of the lionesses kept coming at us, bursting forth with that blood chilling growl, and charging 5 metres, stopping, charging again. Rice just shouted and threw clods of earth at them. I think the guests were more horrified by Rice’s colourful language than by the lions! And afterward he said. “Pah! Lions are just like dogs” So the point of this story is that when the baboon came at me teeth bared I remembered all the baboons of my childhood stealing my sandwiches (when you’re a 4 year old that’s like something the size of a horse coming at you with MUCH bigger teeth!) and my training took over and I kicked it out of the way! There.
So the reason for this tirade is that I am back in Luangwa for a few days. Luangwa, my home that I love despite, or maybe even because of the baboons. And yes they jumped on my roof at 5 this morning and yes, I got the fright of my life and YES I cursed and shouted at them but its so good to be home. I’ve almost missed them. Almost.