Food & Animals

A run in with Baboons in southern Africa.


The animal, a male specie, scratched its balls and then its head. Was it trying to tell Tom, “Do you really have balls enough to defend this picnic basket?”

I have worked in many places on this globe. Thinking of animals, Africa comes to my mind, more precise, South Africa, the Krueger National Park or Botswana and the Chobe(1) resort. But I also recall an incident at the mountain overlooking the Cape. I was fortunate to spend a few good years in South Africa, a country which reminds me of giant steps. It has its highest point in the Transvaal where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. From this upper plateau one step down is the Orange Freestate. Then another terrace and another and the last one ends in the mountain plateau before the final step down to just above sea-level. From this last mountain one can see on a clear day Cape Town in a distance and the land’s end.

I will never forget my first visit to Cape Town coming from Johannesburg by car. I stopped, in one of the many turnouts, along the serpentine road leading from the top of the mountain to the flat land below. With me were Albert from Austria and Tom, an American friend. Neither one of us had ever been to Cape Town before and the setting in front stunned all of us. Below fertile land, cut up in many parcels, some green, some freshly plowed, dotted with farms and outlying houses. The roads led to a larger concentration of roofs and an occasional tall building sticking out from the city of Cape Town in the far distance. The peninsula in front of us was framed only by the green, blue and gray colors of the oceans and the rock plateau from where we viewed the land below. It was a breezy, clear day.
South of the city where the land ended we knew that such must be the Cape of Good Hope. There it was, the famous point where the cursed flying Dutchman is said to have originated. Over the centuries many sailors have reported sightings of the doomed vessel rounding one of the three points which make up the most southern tip of Africa.
The three of us were looking forward to discovering the city dating back to the sixteenth century. We planned to visit first the wineries in Stellenbosch. We wanted to take pictures of the Castle of Good Hope built in the early 17th century and to visit the many beaches. I passed my binoculars to Albert and looked forward to our visit of the History Museum, curios to find out more about the jewel in front of us.

Albert had read to us, on the trip since Joh’burg, from a book about the Cape. Our excitement and the level of expectations had risen as we got closer to our destination Cape Town. The more I heard about the Cape, the more did I want to see the historic places in southern Africa. Tom who seemed to have a never ending appetite for food had found the picnic basket being more important than the unbelievable birds-eye-view over the land beneath us. I noticed that Tom was busy eating. He was grazing on cold hot dogs, ostrich biltong, passion fruits and apples.
I was deep in thought. Next to me Albert was reading aloud from an article about the Dutch East India Company and the colony in the 17th century, when we heard a fierce scream. Like bitten by a tarantula both of us jumped and turned to Tom.
Instantly I drew my pistol. What I saw was Tom, catching air and trying to kick a monkey away from the picnic basket. His “Go away you ugly bold legged monster!” was countered by the animal’s screeching, growling and hissing sounds. The baboon did not leave. It jumped back a few feet. There it sat on the yellow dusty ground. It looked inquisitive at the angry Tom. The animal’s eyes scrutinized us. It kept an eye at the cussing Tom.

The animal, a male specie, scratched its balls and then its head. Was it trying to tell Tom, “Do you really have balls enough to defend this picnic basket?” The monkey was not easily frightened. As Tom stepped closer, the monkey did not leave but escaped a blow from his shoes by finding a way past Tom’s legs to the basket, grabbing an apple it retreated to a ravine.

All happened so fast that Tom was still trying to get his balance back after the unsuccessful kick, while the monkey had long reached the safety of the for humans impassable terrain.
I lowered the pistol. I didn’t see any sense in shooting a baboon. Maybe such was good thinking? When a whole horde of the monkeys arrived I was ready to vacate the scenic spot. Nothing could have stopped them from getting into the picnic basket. Tom’s actions looked funny first. The monkeys, one by one, attacked the food basket. Tom was screaming at them, fending them off with kicks. I watched one animal been thrown into the air. The tip of Tom’s boots got a second monkey. As these baboons regrouped Tom threw stones at them. Yet they refused to leave. And the food basket sat smck in the middle in the dust, just aproximately six meters from Tom as well as six meters from the hissing baboons.

We both, Albert and myself, sensed the danger in which our friend Tom was. We gestured and shouted: “Tom! Get into the car!” “Leave the basket!”
Tom must have noticed he was outnumbered but still he did not give up. As he made a move to retrieve the basket, I grabbed him with my left and dragged him off to our car. Surrounded by aggravated baboons, the pistol in my right I fired a shot onto the ground. It ricocheted from the rock and sent stones flying in the air. The loud bang and another two shots gave us the space and time needed to get inside the car.

As we drove off, heading downhill, we left the grunting and fighting baboons behind us. We all realized that this had been a dangerous situation and Tom would not have stood much of a chance to win a fight for food with the local wild baboons.

Tom summed it up “It doesn’t matter where you go in Africa, never underestimate those locals.”

1. Chobe is a wilderness resort in Botswana land. It happens to be also the place where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton got married the last time (third marriage to each other).

by helmut schonwalder