Everybody’s got something to hide, except for me and my monkey
- The Beatles
Until last week, the only monkeys I knew were Tarzan’s Cheeta and Curious George, which led me to believe that monkeys were attracted to men with limited vocabularies or yellow hats. The only yellow hat I ever owned was a hardhat that I wore during my summer job with the local Public Works Department for my hometown. Given that I was an awkward teenager well into my 20’s, my supervisor thought it best that I wear it to prevent serious head trauma when operating heavy equipment like lawn mowers or paint brushes. Sadly, I was asked to return it after I completed my time there, so, without a yellow hat to call my own, I had to trust that my abysmal command of the local Nigerian language would be enough to secure the affection of my fellow primates.
With a week’s vacation circled on the calendar for the beginning of August, I boarded a van bound for Calabar on Nigeria’s southern coast. Highway travel in this country is enjoyed only by masochists and the mentally unstable, and usually both qualities are found in the drivers of public transport. This trip was no exception. Our driver on this occasion favoured a genre of music best described as gospel gangsta, with lyrics like “Shake your booty to the left that Jesus gave you, Shake your booty to the right for the Lord”. I tried to see if the four nuns on board were singing along, but they seemed to be too busy praying that our driver would stop playing chicken with oncoming transport trucks. Ten hours later, I shook my booty out of the van and met Kristel and Esther for the next leg of our trip.
The sanctuary for the monkeys that we would be visiting is located at Afi Mountain, near the border with Cameroon. Home to orphaned drill monkeys and chimpanzees, it has become known as the Drill Ranch, which conjures up images of monkeys in tiny cowboy hats riding sheep and spitting monkey-sized wads of chewing tobacco. Well, it does for me, at least. Operated by Pandrillus, an organization dedicated to the protection of drill monkeys and chimpanzees, the Ranch has been taking in orphaned monkeys for the past dozen years or so, with the goal of reintroducing the drill monkeys into the wild. That same goal is unfortunately not realistic for the chimps, as they tend to become more habituated to humans, so survival on their own is unlikely. For more on Pandrillus and its operations, check out www.pandrillus.org.
The Ranch’s location is remote by design and getting there is only slightly easier than finding Shangri-La. The road leading to the Ranch is accessible only by motorbike or the sturdiest of jeeps. With no money to rent the latter, we jumped on the backs of a trio of bikes and sped off into the forest. Now, I’ve had some wild bike rides since arriving in Nigeria, but nothing compares to that one. We flew up and down muddy hills so fast that my rear end spent more time in mid-air than on my seat. I held on to my driver so tightly that I think he was expecting an engagement ring at the end of the ride.
The destination proved worthy of the perilous journey. The Ranch is in a beautiful location, with Afi Mountain dominating the horizon and lush forest surrounding the camp. Cabins are placed to maximize the opportunities to see the drills, so we could sit on our front deck and watch them hop from tree to tree. Our first afternoon was spent trekking in the forest canopy on a walkway suspended high among the trees, followed by a swim at a nearby waterfall on Bano Stream. Both were pleasant enough, but I couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t risk my life for nature walks. I came to see the monkeys, dammit! But the approaching darkness meant we’d have to wait until the next day to see the star attractions. Until then, we sat in the dining area and marvelled at the dozens of bats flying past our heads, some so close you could feel the breeze of their wings. The camp mongooses also provided entertainment, as the pair of them dug for insects around our feet and attempted to finish our meals for us.
An early morning rain shower the next day proved mercifully brief, and the skies cleared enough for us to join the staff on their rounds to feed the monkeys. First up were the drills, Separated into six groups, their numbers have jumped from seventy orphans to a community of almost three hundred monkeys, two hundred of whom were born into the project. Watching them feed, one could sense the power of these animals. The males were especially impressive, built like weightlifters, with broad shoulders and purple and fuchsia asses. OK, maybe weightlifters don’t have colourful asses, but speaking of asses, we also saw a number of females with swollen behinds, which meant they were ready for mating. Obviously, this is a key difference between our species, because if any guy ever said, “Hey, honey, is it just me or is your ass looking huge?”, he could pretty much count on sleeping on the sofa. The drills were somewhat skittish in our presence, but we still managed to see them up close through the electric fence. One male seemed particularly interested in me, even with my bony ass. He continued to present his ass to me, while showing his fangs. “He’s smiling at you,” said the attendant, “That means he likes you.” Maybe for his next meal, I thought.
If the drills were interesting, their chimpanzee cousins were fascinating. Fewer in number because no breeding is allowed, the chimps lived up to their billing as our closest relative. As we approached the enclosure, a rope stood shoulder high between us and the fence some eight feet away. When asked why the rope was there, the attendant explained that it marked how far most of the chimps could throw. Point taken, we lined up behind the rope to watch the attendant feed them. The differences between the chimps and the drills were quickly recognizable. Where the drills were reactive to the food being tossed, the chimps actively motioned and called for it to be thrown to them. They also tended to become irritated if people just stood and stared at them, so we were encouraged to wave our arms and jump up and down. Soon, we were smacking our heads like we were auditioning for a Three Stooges film
Somewhat emboldened by our success at making complete fools of ourselves, we ducked under the rope and walked along the fence toward a stream that passed through the area. One of the big males followed us and waded into the stream on his side of the fence. “Watch out!” cried the attendant, as the chimp swiped his arm through the water and heaved a handful at us. Taking their cue from him, some of the others grabbed mud and began tossing it at us. At least, I hope it was mud. I admired their aim – my camera bag took a direct hit as we ran for the safety of the rope. Taking their food with them back into the forest, the chimps clearly had had enough of our company, one of them making farting noises with her mouth as they left. I loved it. Animals with attitude. I definitely wanted to see more of them. As it turned out, this was part of their plan.
Given the chance to return for the afternoon feeding, Kristel and I once again took our places in the safety zone behind the rope. A larger group of chimps had gathered this time, the most distinctive being a grey-haired male who was approaching his 20th birthday and likely facing his mortality. As before, the attendant encouraged interaction and we happily obliged. The chimps watched us carefully throughout. It’s a cliché to speak of the intelligence behind those eyes, but it’s also too striking not to mention. The feeding complete, the attendant moved on to the next compound and left Kristel and me alone with the chimps for the first time. Without any new tricks to show them, they soon grew bored with us and seemed more interested in scratching themselves. So, we decided to walk around the perimeter of the compound. As we left the safety zone, the path between the forest and the enclosure narrowed to a single track. Suddenly, one of the chimps charged, picking up ammunition as he ran. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, which I assumed was Dutch for “Run!” So we did. A hailstorm of half-eaten pineapples and mud came our way as we reached the forest on the first corner and put some distance between us and the surly monkey. A piece of wood the size of my head soon followed, again with a toss of admirable accuracy. I began to long for my yellow hat. “I don’t like these monkeys,” Kristel said under her breath, her head carefully turned in case they could read lips.
Her vote was to abandon our stroll and head back to our cabin, but I refused, determined to show this monkey what he missed by stopping short on the evolutionary ladder. Peeking out through the branches, we spotted him sitting well away from the fence. As we approached the path, he reached over for a piece of fruit and made a half-hearted attempt to eat it, all the while glancing over his shoulder at us. If he could have whistled nonchalantly, he would have. “You don’t fool me, monkey” I muttered to myself as we inched along the path. Sure enough, as we came even with him, he charged again, his faux snack turned into a nasty projectile. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel. So we did. Eventually, our hairy assailant gave up the chase, likely determining that we were no match for him.
As we caught our breath, the old-timer we had seen earlier came running toward us. Bracing for the worst, we saw instead that he only wanted to walk with us, but the effort of running had been hard on him. One of his back legs had apparently been partially paralyzed since he was an infant and combined with his now advanced age, it clearly pained him to run. So, we sat with him for a few minutes until he caught his breath, and then we moved on slowly to allow him to keep pace.
At the last corner before the safety zone, the path narrowed even further. Perfect place for an ambush, I thought. And so did the chimps. Racing from their hiding place, four of them formed a simian gauntlet between us and the exit and began to pelt us with whatever they could get their paws on. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, but it was too late. They had us pinned against the forest. I was laughing so hard at our predicament that I managed to swallow some of the mud that hit me in the face. I briefly considered retaliating, but in the mud-throwing department, I was clearly outgunned. Instead, we made a break for it, dodging monkey missiles as we sprinted for safety. Reaching the no-fly zone, we collapsed on each other in helpless laughter. I’m sure our attackers were exchanging high-fives on their side of the fence, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back.
“So, what does ‘fuckaduck’ mean in English?” I asked as we walked back to our cabin, spitting out mud as we went. “That was English”, Kristel replied.