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Monkeying about in Kruger

by Jenny McLarney

After two connecting flights, an hour long conversation with South Africa’s first ever pop idol winner (!) and a particularly bumpy landing I arrived in Phalaborwa; the only town in South Africa to boarder Kruger National Park.

A warning to all those travelling to Phalaborwa: the runway is small…very small. As is the plane, in fact (although it could cater for more) there were only nine other passengers on board and I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the jolted landing that threw several drinks in the air. This is especially true of my carefully savoured apple juice that decided to launch itself all over my clothes. So the people from the monkey rehabilitation centre may have been slightly disturbed by the small, drenched girl that greeted them; especially as the distinct whiff of apple insisted on following her through this rather ornate airport.

Never in my whole life have I spent so much hands-on-time with animals, and boy do you have to be a real animal lover for this
project.  Between me and the other six volunteers we had four baby vervet monkeys: Eva, Emily, Evan and Milan, one baby baboon called Davey and one dwarf vervet called Jade.  Having never had a pet, or barely even touched an animal before I initially found the 24/7 care afforded to these animals extremely difficult. I was unsure of how to hold the babies, how to feed them and how to ‘play’ with a baby baboon without being bitten. This task is especially difficult when you have other chores to do such as preparing the food for the rest of the centre.  Yes ladies and gents you have to prepare plates and crates full of juicy fruit, fresh vegetables and tasty bread with a baboon and a vervet springing from one kitchen top to another, jumping on your back and nibbling at anything they can get their hands on.  This task very much depicts the rest of the centre: it’s crazy.

Playing pool with a monkey on your head, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with monkeys jumping on you, swimming with the monkeys, sleeping in the same room as them, all took a full week for me to really get used to. By the end couple of days I started to see the different characteristics of these fascinating creatures. Eva was the smallest and most dependant, often wanting to cling on to someone, Evan was the loudest monkey that wanted all the attention while Emily was the bravest jumping to defend Eva when Davey would get a little too rough at play time.   In fact the more you spend with these animals, feeding them, weighing them, bathing them, the more you learn about them as individuals and can watch them grow physically and emotionally.

Spending time by the pool with the monkeys was a highlight especially when launching Davey into the water. Baboons can all swim and usually love to splash about but Davey had a complete aversion to getting wet.   After speed paddling to the side of the pool he’d jump out and charge around on an angry rampage before sitting down, shaking himself dry and intently growling. But Davey could often be a naughty baboon, he hated being put back in his cage and we would chase him all around the centre before catching him by his tail. He loved to steal the spoons from the kitchen and get into any indoor space…not to mention drinking the other babies’ milk. Never leave ANYTHING unattended when a baboon is around, cameras and phones are bound to be dropped in the pool, down the toilet or pissed on.  And believe you me you DO get pissed or pooed on at least 3 times a day…so bring plenty of old clothes as  you soon learn to leave appearances at the gates of the centre.

Wild monkeys are also something to look out for. These roam around the centre and when changing the food and water outside of the quarantine there were often so many we each kept a stone in one hand just in case they decided to get too near.  Yes this is an utterly unique experience where I was completely out of my comfort zone but I learnt a huge amount from a project I would never usually have chosen.  Certainly it was a fantastically interesting week and a great end to an amazing trip.

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