Monkey bussiness

Average maximum temperature: 30 °C
Average minimum temperature: 13 °C
Sunrise: 06:23
Sunset: 17:23

Somewhere in the Swakop River, Northwest
The shade provides some shelter from the heat, but not a lot. It’s half past one and the sun is at its highest point. I’m surrounded by the rustling and munching of the baboons, while a slight breeze occasionally blows around my head. Straight ahead of me are the hills we’ll undoubtedly climb in the remaining six hours of daylight, behind me are the hills we’ve already concurred. We’re following J-troop, who’s notoriously eager to climb. The hills might be a physical challenge, I prefer them over the woodland we’re currently in. We have to follow the baboons the whole day, and that’s a lot easier on the open rocks compared to the dense vegetation of the woodlands.

I have personally experienced why the Shitty Woodland deserves its name. Earlier that day I followed an adult male, who in the beginning kindly stayed on the easily accessible paths. Until the moment he decided there was too much good food hidden in the extremely dense thorn bushes. It was easy for him to pass through, but more challenging for me, being a bipedal human twice his size. While I orientated myself on his chewing (he was long gone from my sight), I looked for an opening in the bushes I could fit through. I saw holes big enough for a large baboon, but nothing big enough for a small Dutch like myself. I heard him moving, and suddenly my eyes met his brown ones. Conscious of my presence he decided to look for a calmer spot. A light panic grew on me, because losing him might mean losing the whole troop. Indecisive I looked around to see only twigs, leaves and bushes.
The male baboon moved further away from me and forced me to take a decision.  If I couldn’t pass under the bushes, I’d have to go over. The dry twigs sighed under my weight, the thinnest ones surrendered and made way. The strong twigs at the bottom, the ones that were too low to the ground to pass under, supported my feet enough to climb over it. My bare arms protected my face against the solid thorns that now scratched those same arms. But I made it! The warmth of the sun reached my body again and a small path led me to a dead tree, which I could use to rest while listening to the hypnotising nibbling of the male. I was relieved to hear a scream, followed by more rustling of bushes. A group of females with juveniles passed by, slowly searching for food. Luckily, I sighed, I didn’t lose the troop.

I am currently staying in Tsaobis Nature Park, Namibia, to study chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) within the project of the Zoological Society London which is named after the park. The Tsaobis Baboon Project began in 1990, and two baboon troops are being followed: J-troop and L-troop. Both troops consist of more than 40 individuals, of which many can be individually identified through ear notches.

Atop a rock in Leopard Quelle, 5 km from camp
This morning, when the baboons forced me atop the highest peak in the surroundings, I saw a group of zebra’s passing by, followed by a group of oryx. The moment of euphoria that I reached the top was emphasized by the eye striking view I was given: rocky hills in all the possible colours brown you can imagine, ranging from orange to grey shades. Where the baboons go, I go. As acrobats they travel across the, from my perspective, most impossible routes. Searching for the right route I climbed straight up. Despite the fact that I had started climbing as soon as the first baboons headed for the cliff face, they passed me at all sides. As soon as I had reached the top, I was at the back of the troop and had to hurry to keep up with the monkeys during the descent.

The most beautiful moments in Tsaobis are the sunrise and –set, when the deep orange sun emphasizes these same shades in the surroundings. Aside from that, the sun determines the setting of the moment. In the afternoon, I barely recognize a location we visited in the morning: the shades change the whole appearance of the place. While young baboons try to reach the cliff face, leaping from a near-dead tree, the setting sun paints the underlying rocks from grey to gold. When the jump fails, the golden wall turns into a slide which delivers the young baboons at the foot of the tree for a new attempt. Young enthusiasm receives endless possibilities.