In South Africa and other parts of southern Africa, baboons and wart hogs run free like squirrels or coyotes do in most of the southwest US where there is suitable habitat.
All of the five species of Baboons live in Africa and Arabia. The species vary in size and weight, but all of them have long, dog-like muzzles and powerful jaws, close-set eyes, thick fur except on muzzles, short tails, and protruding butts--well, what did I just say about being like humans?--that are callused, hairless and nerveless pads for sitting. And bright red.
They are ground-dwelling social animals who live and travel in structured troops of anywhere from five animals to two hundred and fifty, depending on species and circumstances. Fifty is about the average.
The characteristic sound baboons make is called a bark but it's more like "Wa-hooo." A baboon bark can be heard for miles. They also grunt, screech, and click to communicate. In addition to vocalization, baboons have a consistent repertoire of facial expressions, postures, and gestures, all of which have meanings. Baring the canines, which are long and sharp, is the response to a threat. Gestures of submission are expected in return. If not, there will be a fight.
In fact, baboons can detect from vocal exchanges between individuals what the dominance relationships are between the individuals. They tend to take more interest in disputes between families and authority challenges than other types of disagreements within the troop.
Although mostly herbivorous foragers (and not carnivores), they will eat just about anything including insects, fish, shellfish, rabbits, birds, vervet monkys and small antelopes. They can be active at irregular times during the day and night but generally "get up" around 7 or 8 am and spend time with the troop grooming their long hair while the "kids" play. Then they leave in columns to forage and return to their sleeping place about 6 pm and engage in more grooming.
The males dominate the females and will cuff them around if they stray too far, and the females are often cause for aggressive fights among the males. So much for the textbook description.
DON'T COUNT ON YOUR LOCKS
Did I say baboons are so human-like? Human juvenile delinquents, that is.
Baboons are smart, clever, and adaptable. They get into all kinds of mischief to the point of creating serious problems for tourists and authorities. They can learn how to manipulate all kinds of locks, and they've also learned that it's easier to steal food than to hunt for it. Put those together and what do you get?
Breaking and Entering
At our first stop at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, we had rooms with French doors that folded back against the wall so the room was completely open to the balcony. No screens. The view from the room was incredible and the weather pleasant, so most of the time we kept the doors open. Even the restaurant had no windows but was open to nature, including bugs (but that's another story).
However, the clerk at the registration desk warned us never to leave the room unless the doors to our balcony were closed and locked from the inside. Why? The baboons will get in your room and plow through your things, looking for food.
My friends in South Africa, Lana and Eric Smal, told me a baboon had invaded their house. When Lana got up in the morning, she found a baboon sitting on her kitchen counter eating out of her fruit bowl.
Trash Can Trashing
Even the trash cans in South Africa have baboon proof locks, unless you want this kind of mess.
Highway Robbery and Harassment of Tourists
Baboons also break into cars. In fact, they have even learned how to stop cars on the road.
At Knowsley Safari Park, 2009, a troop baboons broke into the luggage compartment on top of a car and ripped apart clothes searching for food, although one did try on a hat. They'd been known to break side mirrors and windshield wipers but this was unprecedented.
Authorities in Cape Town report that baboons lie in wait at busy tourist locations and listen for the "tweet" of the locking system. If they don't hear it, when the people leave they open the car door and forage for food.
Pick Pocketing, Purse Snatching, and Highway Robbery
Baboons on the Golf Course
My friend Lana also told me that baboons are "very naughty." They love to roam the golf course and steel the golf balls. It looks like the baboon below stole a golf cart…at least the food inside.
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE
By now you get the picture. Baboons are not sweet cuddly animals. They're not "out to get you" and can be perfectly fine neighbors if you understand them and take appropriate precautions. But don't cross them. If you see a baboon raise his eyebrows, bare his teeth and shout "wa-hoo!", get the heck out of Dodge. You don't want to be close.
ALL FOR A BLAST OF HOT AIR
The fifth book on my Tour Director Extraordinaire series, All For A Blast Of Hot Air, includes the character Manny Balzac—Balzac for short.
When my heroine falls out of a hot air balloon into the African bush, Balzac shows up with her lost cell phone and they get acquainted. Actually, Balzac is a Mandrill, which used to be referred to as a baboon but technically is a larger species. Mandrills are the largest of the monkeys and are shy and reclusive, but still social animals.
I hurled downward, screaming, snatching at the air as my cell phone careened into the trees, outdistancing me. Blood pounding in my ears, I crashed through the dense foliage. Thick branches flexed, broke my fall, and snapped back, bruising my bones as I bounced from one to the next.
Long, sharp thorns viciously slashed my skin with deep painful gouges. I tried to cover my face with my arms. Seedpods ripped at my hair and tangled in it.
At last, I came to a jarring halt wedged in the crotch of the tree trunk, chest down, backpack up, still on me. In agonizing pain, I hung there, stunned, a throbbing lump, until I could draw in a deep breath. Bits of broken branches, seedpods like earlobes, and the chittering of animals and birds drifted down around me.
Held tight in the V of the tree trunk, I was able to turn my head enough to see the Zulu Warrior still above the trees, moving away. Elizabeth and Chanya hugged the edge waving and screaming. Will's voice wafted on the breeze, swearing. "Goddammit, Peter, put this damn thing down. We have to go back."
A blast of the burners roared and the balloon rose higher.
"Wait…" I cried, sucking in dust and a bug. As I coughed, the balloon vanished from my line of sight. "Don't leave…me." Those last words, a mere whisper.
My throat clogged with tears of anger and frustration…and maybe because I hurt so much.
I closed my eyes, too weak and strung out to do anything else.
The hiss close to my ear and an unpleasant odor sent a spike of adrenalin tingling along my nerves. Gagging and shuddering with revulsion, I opened my eyes…to an open maw full of sharp, yellow teeth and long incisors surrounded by a nimbus of grayish hair only inches from my face.
A blue and red nose surrounded by a thick mane. Close-set beady yellow eyes. Stinky monkey breath.
With a screech of alarm, I jerked backwards, the sudden motion wrenching my body out of the crotch of the tree. I tumbled, ass over teakettle, down the trunk, bumping and scraping my arms and legs along the rough bark.
I hit the ground with a resounding thud and remained there on my stomach, whimpering while the baboon peered down from the high branches grunting and hissing in triumph.
Above me, high in the distance the red, green, and black balloon drifted farther away. My heart pounded with fear as I watched it get smaller. Then, I dragged myself into a sitting position and struggled to free the backpack which had twisted around me in the fall. In my mind, I replayed what had happened, step by step.
I had been foolish to lean out of the basket. No question there. But as I thought about it, I reached the only possible conclusion.
Peter tipped me out of there on purpose. The realization left me breathless and without resources. Why would he do such a thing?
Blowing out a long breath, I fumbled in the backpack for my water bottle. I took a deep swig and swallowed my panic along with the tepid but refreshing water. Even if my cell phone, which had preceded me in reaching the ground, had died an early death in the fall, even if I couldn't find it, the internal GPS would continue to send its signal.
Whatever Peter's motive, before they'd gone far, Will would force him to land the balloon whether he wanted to or not. Will would come looking for me. Until then, I needed a somewhat safe place in the vicinity, out of the sun, where I could hang out for a while. Encouraged, I recapped the bottle and put it away.
A loud screech from nearby caused my breath to catch. My head came up with a jerk, and I shifted my gaze across the meadow. There, about fifty feet away, two dark-brown baboons tussled in the undergrowth, one small, one much larger. The small one screeched and clutched something in one hand, trying to fend off the other. The bulky aggressor smacked it in the head. With a cry, the small one skittered away, loping toward me with the large male in hot pursuit, both of them howling.
Holy poop. They're coming right at me.
Steeling myself to the pain, I scrambled to my hands and knees and levered myself to my feet. Baboons were nasty animals. After surviving my fall more or less in one piece—I wasn't sure about the number of pieces—I had no intention of ending up in the middle of a confrontation between two rabid monkeys. I'd already seen enough baboon to last me a lifetime.
Driven by fear and haste, I moved a step toward the tree with the intent of sheltering behind it. My shoe sank through the soft ground into an animal burrow. My ankle twisted. New pain spiraled up through my leg, and I sprawled flat on my face. Spitting out a mouthful of dirt, I pulled myself to my knees and crawled toward the tree, moaning as I dragged my backpack behind me across the bare ground.
As I reached the trunk, a flash of brown flew from the branches above, coming so close the rush of air brushed against my face, and I sniffed a nauseous gamey scent.
Startled, I threw my body against the tree trunk. The baboon with the blue and red nose landed on all fours in front of me and sprang at the two charging baboons, snarling ferociously through bared teeth. I held my breath and covered my ears as a dust cloud enveloped the fighting animals.
Calloused red butts waved in the air, spine-chilling howls like ghouls on steroids made me cringe. Tufts of hair flew. I half-expected to see blood and furry brown body parts scattering.
Then it was over.
The two brown baboons darted off in opposite directions, still emitting ugly barks, and the big male from the tree, with the red and blue nose, sauntered in my direction. A few yards in front of where I sat, he plopped down on his haunches in a sort of squatting position, exposing obscene male body parts.
I gagged and swallowed hard. Not because of the display in front of me. Oh, no, nothing like that. The male waved the prize he'd wrested from the others and actually flashed me a toothy grin.
In his human-like hand, he held my cell phone. I collapsed against the rough trunk, moaning. Why me? Why is nothing in my life normal?