01 August 2009

When baboons attack

Moremi's Third Bridge camp site is idyllic, set amongst water holes and reed beds as it is, with fabulous views of sunrise and sunset. It's quiet and spacious sites are visited by hippos, kudu and -unfortunately - baboons.

When we arrived early yesterday afternoon we were pleased to see that a lovely camping spot under some trees was still available (park camp sites in Botswana are few and need to be booked in advance - we can't go to Chobe Wildlife reserve, as all three sites are booked out for the whole of August). Perfect, we thought, and put up out hammock, set up the tent and unfolded the roof tent. It was hot and we all had a snooze, followed by a bit of reading, then Stuart went for a shower while Merryl and I decided to start cooking dinner. Mushroom risotto, yum. The fire place was a way across the clearing, so we got the fire started and then got going chopping onions and getting out ingredients from the kitchen built into the side of the car. We had noticed earlier that a few baboons were ambling past, and we had read in the Bradt that baboons were a nuisance round the camp, specially when people left food behind amongst their possessions when they took off for an afternoon game drive. So we had waved our arms, shouted and generally tried to shoo them off - there might have been some throwing of sticks - but they were singularly unimpressed by our antics, although they eventually disappeared.

It was only when Stuart returned from his shower that we realised there were lots more baboons in the bushes than we had first thought. In fact there were about twenty of all sizes, including mothers with babies clinging to their fur, small ones and lanky teens, as well as a large dark grey male, who grumbled at me but kept his distance. Suddenly all hell broke lose as the baboon herd started closing in. I now realise that the two teens we had seen earlier had been scoping out our camp site and when they had discovered food smells they signalled the rest of the gang for easy pickings.

The big alpha male kept coming closer and started circling the car, grumbling threateningly at us all the while, while the smaller ones were all sitting around watching from the side lines. We realised he was figuring out how to get to our food, and as Stuart and I stood guard Merryl packed away everything into the car. Stuart was armed with a burning stick from the fire (very Planet of the Apes) and I first with a towel (for flicking), the first thing to hand, and then, when the baboon tried to grab it off me, a folding chair. It felt like being in a bar brawl, as we were holding off a 5ft, 60kg baboon who kept making threatening feints to get past us, meanwhile showing his massive canines (bigger than a lion's apparently). We weren't sure whether he was showing off to his mates, trying to save face as we were standing our ground in the face of his threats, or to trying to get at our stuff, but as the food was all packed away I am not sure.

As we were clearing away the dinner preparation from one side of the car I noticed alpha male eyeing up something on the other side, where Stuart had left one of the tool boxes from the recovery gear side of the car on the floor. I thought it was our medical kit, but it later turned out to just have been a box containing our 'water gear': solar shower bag, water hose and window cleaner. The box was sitting on the ground by the back wheel and when I wasn't paying attention for a minute, the ape swiped the tool box, hugged it with both arms and tried to make off with it. I did not want all our expensive medical supplies being nibbled at by a baboon and chased after him. Luckily he realised I would catch up with him and he wouldn't make it into a tree with the heavy box, and dropped it. Humans 1, Apes Nil. He immediately turned on me again and tried to scare me, but I snatched back the box and retreated. It was like a pitched battle. He climbed a tree stump next to our tent, still watched by his mates all waiting to see who would win this fight.

As a precaution we packed up the tent again and closed all the windows in the roof tent, and while our backs were turned Alpha Male tried to snatch our cutting board with his big hairy hand grabbing as fast as a monster in a horror movie. This time Stuart fended him off, as even pushing at him with the chair didn't deter him - he just tried to pull the chair off me, baring his teeth all the time and making a low growling sound. It was pretty scary being so close to an undomesticated animal, specially such an aggressive one, even though lots of it was just posturing - it worked to intimidate us.

Eventually we had everything safely stowed in the car, including Merryl, who decided she would prefer to sleep on the back seat rather than brave the possibility of being baboon bait. We later realised that the spot we were camping in was actually the baboon herd's sleeping trees, and that another camping group had trouble the night before and had moved for that reason, but neglected to point this out to us. Neither did the ranger who came to collect rubbish earlier in the day. So I guess the humans at this site were pretty much as useless as the baboons.

As it got dark Alpha Male wandered off with his entourage and harem in tow and as it got dark they all settled down to sleep - barring a few noisy squabbles.

Postscript: the night contained a few more noisy rebellions that had to be put down by the seniors which all involved high-pitched squealing, breaking of branches, slapping of inferiors and a constant loud roar from Alpha Male and his competitor - it sounded like very aggressive shouts of  'Rahoo, Rahoo' which went on for far too long.

Postscript Two: We have become Third Bridge folklore already.When we met a group of young German students at the other side of the camp site this morning to scope out a better sleeping place and other people's baboon experiences (they had a two kilo bag of pasta stolen last night), they asked us if we had heard about the people who had to fight off a group of baboons with a chair! We have great hope that our story will end up being mentioned in the next edition of the Bradt guide.

1 comment:

  1. Jason and MartinSunday, 02 August, 2009

    You are indeed the stuff of legend (though wether you are Chuck Heston or David Attenborough still remians to be seen!) We are sure that yor song will be sung around camp fires for generations to come... brave warriors of the mighty fighting chair! We salute you! :-)