Tuesday, 5 October 2010

An encounter with baboons

I thought the most stressful thing about our group walk on Saturday morning would be getting all the participants (6 dogs, 3 adults and 2 children) onto the mountain before the cows came home.

My friend A doesn’t like getting up early, and even when I perked the coffee and left it tantalisingly in the kitchen, she refused to get out of bed until she had been served in situ.

Then our friend W, with her 2 dogs, arrived late. ‘Only by 6 minutes!’ A said, rolling her eyes at me – but if you add the additional 30 minutes it took to get A moving, time was marching on. (‘Patience’ is not, it must be admitted, my middle name.)

Then there was the collection of A’s son from a friend’s – when we arrived, he was standing at the gate, as instructed, and I was thrilled; but then I realised he was desultorily munching on a piece of toast and was barefoot – we had interrupted his breakfast and he required that we wait for him to finish it, and find his shoes. By the time we’d loaded him and the other kid into the car, the dogs were going nuts, my head was crackling, and A was apologising profusely (not to me; for me).

But finally – finally! – we were on the lower slopes of the mountain, the dogs were let out of the cars and ran maniacally all over the place, and we were off.

We took the longish route I walk every day, up behind the Allesverloren vineyards on the slopes of the Kasteelberg, which is effectively a mini wilderness area. The latest Riebeek Valley Handbook (the ‘essential guide for visitors and residents’) tells us that the mountain is home to 150 bird varieties, too many plant species to count (including over 100 varieties of orchid), and civet cats, dassies, porcupines, bushpigs, steenbok and baboons.

So we panted up the slope, the dogs having a grand old time. Poppy (a wiry-haired terrier-type street special) cockily kicked up dust; the elderly Harry (a shaggy, inky Collie-cross-something) kept to our heels; Simba (a ridiculously handsome young golden retriever) ran ahead, along with Sara the Wobbly Dog; Hullabaloo ran circles around us; and Tara (a fat little daschund) tottered along on her tiny legs, barking at everything that moved…

… when suddenly a terrible screaming rent the air. (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘rent’ like this, but, believe me, ‘rent’ is what it did.)

‘Oh, god!’ said W. ‘I think Poppy’s caught a bird.’

A bird on this part of the mountain would likely be a Cape francolin, a helmeted guineafowl or maybe even a peacock, so we envisaged a nasty scene of bloodied feathers and flying fur. W called for Poppy – who, surprisingly, ran up to us… at the exact moment that Sara and Simba, sensing something we couldn’t see, took off away from us along the trail as if their tails were on fire.

The screaming sound went on and on, horrifyingly, and we added to the confusion by screaming Simba and Sara’s names, to no avail.

And then we saw the problem. Baboons.

Now, anyone who lives in the western Cape is familiar with the problem, down on the Peninsula, of troops of baboons who’ve been habituated to humans (who haven’t helped matters by feeding them), and who as a result have become extremely aggressive. Baboons are big, clever creatures, and the adult males have terrifying teeth. Any South African knows not to approach a baboon – it is a wild animal and if it feels threatened, it will attack.

And there was no doubt that the baboons we’d run into felt threatened. So would I, if two large dogs were after me and my family.

And so for 20 minutes pandemonium reigned. We corralled and leashed the dogs we could get our hands on (Harry, Balu and Poppy); W held them. A bushwhacked off the trail, straight up into the wilderness, screaming for Simba. I ran to the edge of the kloof up which the dogs had disappeared, shouting for Sara and Simba. Tara, the daschund, leapt unhelpfully around my feet, barking dementedly. The children were, like us, terrified. The sounds of shaking trees, breaking branches, snarling and shrieking continued.

Then, eventually, Sara came running up out of the kloof, followed by Simba. Both dogs looked immensely pleased with themselves, as if causing an adrenaline surge that could probably be felt on the Richter scale was just the ticket for a sunny Saturday morning.

Quickly, we examined them. Sara was unharmed. Simba, however, had a deep gash in his neck. The vet later told us the wound hadn't been caused by a baboon – more likely by a branch or sharp piece of rock that had snagged Simba in his headlong rush up the kloof. It took 6 stitches to close.

Once we’d all calmed down, we were able to work out what had happened. The initial screaming sound we’d heard was a warning being given by a baboon sentry – during the hysteria we could see him, perched on a rock outcrop up the kloof. The baboons reacted, sensibly, by running away from us and our dogs – but by then Simba and Sara had seen them and gave chase. Fortunately for us, these baboons are not at all habituated to humans, and all they wanted to do was get away – although I daresay that if one of the dogs had caught one of them, there would have been a different end to this story.

And next time I invite any youngsters along for a nice walk on the mountain and they say, ‘Do we haaave to? It’s so booooring!’ I’m going to just smile and nod.

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Claudine said...

I must assume there is an ending to the story :) ....I only got as far as you walk past Allesveloren every day. I'd never make it further than the winery you see. :D

/the babbons are terrifying.

Muriel said...

Well quite a lot of wine was required afterwards, medicinally...

Muriel said...

The baboons seem to have commandeered the top Allesverloren vineyard - I had to beat a tactical retreat yesterday when I ran into them when I was walking on my own with my 2 dogs. The sentry spotted us as we starting climbing the slope and barked, and I thought the troop would move as we approached them, but the sentry's calls got more and more hysterical, the dogs started getting frenzied, and the baboons just sat and stared at us in an uncomfortably challenging way. I suppose I'm going to have to find another walking route.

Claudine said...

They are quite a pest at times aren't they?

Wine's a great medicinal. Especially the Allesveloren port. Oh, that's not strictly wine is it? I like it anyway.