We three had somehow wound our way down into the canyon without experiencing any really steep slopes, but having walked for several miles in the sandy dry riverbed, Trusted Companion, Young One, and I were now looking rather hopelessly at unsafe-to-climb cliffs on both sides, covered with imposing vegetation of the kind that sports a thorn every few inches. The sun was low enough that the canyon floor was in a dark shadow, and the air was beginning to chill down. We were far enough from the vehicle, lost enough, and sufficiently plan-free that it would be perfectly reasonable to worry that we might not make it across the remote African Savanna before the leopards and hyenas came out to hunt. It was even possible that we’d have to spend the night huddled in some spot we could convince ourselves was protected from the elements and the wild animals. All this dark and scary truth had dawned on me over the last hour as we continued heading up a seemingly endless side canyon in search of a place to climb out of this river valley known among international extreme outdoors people as one of the most treacherous in the world, and known among the more traditional local folk for its dragon-like 50-meter long human-eating snake that was supposedly mythical.
That’s about when the questions started from the Young One.
“Are we lost?”
“No. I know exactly where we are.”
(In the bottom of some freakin’ uncharted canyon.)
The Young One was always worried about our survival, never really trusting my vast experience and well honed instincts.
Then suddenly, “POP!”
The local bushmen say that baboons are people, and that when we hear them they sound like they are merely speaking in an unknown dialect of their language. This is a story, of course, and they understand fully that the baboons are not people. And they don’t sound anything like us. The story goes on to say that the baboons became persona (as it were) non gratis when they broke a rule in sharing meat: They reciprocated in a meat exchange by giving some unsuspecting bushmen bits of human flesh to eat. Baboons have never quite been trusted since, so the story goes. And as night came closer during our trek up the steep-sided valley, we could hear the baboons beginning to speak from high above us on the cliff that impeded our return to base camp.
The first few sounds were loud pops that could have been rocks thrown against rocks. My traveling companions thought, in fact, that this is what they were, and became concerned over the possibility of rocks falling down the sides. I reassured them.
“No, those are just the baboons.”
“I’ve been hearing them for a while now. They appear to be following us.”
“Following us? They sound like they are throwing rocks at us!”
“Not throwing rocks. That’s just a contact call, letting each other know where they are! But yeah, they are following us. They know we are down here, and they’re tracking our movements by following along at the top of the cliff. It’s getting to the point in time where they will settle into their overnight spots, and they’re probably worried that we’re after them.”
“Oh. So the troop of wild baboons is not following us. They’re just angerly covering our escape routes.”
“Right. Should be no problem.”
Eventually we came to the point where we would go up the side of the cliff and head across the grassy plain in search of our vehicle, left behind hours ago. This was not the point where climbing had become more possible. Rather, this was the point beyond which if we climbed out of the canyon we would be backtracking to the vehicle. In other words, if we went ahead any father, we’d be adding to rather than reducing our estimated time of return to the truck. It was either climb up now and reach the truck just as night fell, or climb up later where it might be easier and spend time crossing the savanna in the dark. The fact that we were on the shaded (north) side of the canyon was also a consideration: As the sun went down, darkness would fall here first and fast. We’d be climbing in the dark.
Or, I could be wrong. I thought at the time that if the truck really was exactly where I thought it was, and we climbed straight out of the canyon and headed exactly north, then we’d bump into it even with our eyes closed, in about seven kilometers. And I would be very impressed, with myself. Or, it could be somewhere else entirely and we could be totally lost. Perhaps the baboons could be blamed in that eventuality.
“Are we lost?” the young one asked again.
“Why would you say that? Here. We climb out right here.”
“We’re totally lost, I know it.”
So as Trusted Companion looked on eagerly trusting that I was doing the right thing, and half smirking at the untrusting Young One, I carefully picked a route that would bring us to a flattish spot in about 12 meters of scrambling mostly across grass and eroded surface, with few thorny bushes. From there I’d pick out the next leg of our ascent. It was difficult and we were all out of breath when we got there. I spotted another target and headed that way.
“I need to rest.”
“OK, we’ll go ahead and you can watch how we go and follow behind when you’ve caught your breath.”
And so it continued, with the Young One, who was most out of shape, out of breath and falling father and farther behind. And the pops of the baboons continued, and as we went up in elevation we could hear their other chattering as well.
And then we could see them. You had to crane your neck to see the horizon, the edge of the cliff above us. And there you’d see contact between the brown grass and brush and the darkening blue, cloudless sky. And there would be a dark gray lump there, like a fire plug covered with a blanket, or a lawn gnome hiding under a beach towel, and then suddenly the rounded lump would drop out of sight and there would be another POP and some chatter. The bigger baboons stayed visible for longer, the tiny ones, the juveniles, popped in and out of sight quickly and randomly. And as we climbed still higher we could see their faces, and their monkey-face movements and their monkey-face stares. There is a difference between a monkey looking back at you from a cage in a zoo and a monkey looking back at you from a tree in the wild. And, there is a bigger difference still between either of those scenarios and a monkey looking down at you from 15 meters above when its Baboon Bubba and his 25 friends and relatives and you and Trusted Companion trailed some distance back by the Young One, who is still asking …
“We’re lost, aren’t we. I need to rest.”
“POP! … babble babble …”
One could easily imagine the drama as the humans emerge onto the plains. Finally … almost … reaching the edge of the canyon, where there is an abrupt transition from dangerously steep thornbush covered slope to very flat or slightly undulating grass covered plain, just stepping out of the canyon and onto the flats … and suddenly the troop of wild baboons …. wild angry baboons … swoops in from all sides, jumping on the humans and pushing them back down the cliff, Most Trusted Companion letting out a war cry as she pulls a giant baboon off my back as she herself is taken down by three females biting at her ears and ankles, and Young One and a medium size male monkey spinning like a giant eight-limbed Frisbee falling, screaming, all the way back down to the sandy bottom of the canyon’s now fully benighted floor, terror shining from their four collective eyes, the troop’s big male tearing through the tall grass directly at me with two or three of his cohort right behind him, moving in for the kill. Kill the humans!!!!
But that kind of thing never happens. By the time we were within 10 meters or so of the top of the canyon, the baboons had fallen silent and moved entirely out of our sight. They had no interest in being anywhere near us when we gained the plain. Instead of a primordial battle to the death between primate species, there was nothing, and we stepped, breathless, tired, thirsty, and hungry, out of the canyon. I took a compass reading and pointed to a tree in the far distance.
“That tree. We need to cross just to the right of it and we’ll see the car from there.”
And we did. My reckoning was dead on. We had gained valuable data that day. We had learned about ourselves and each other under conditions of adversity. And the baboons …. well, they had one hell of a story to tell, and I’m sure they are still telling it to each other and to their little monkey children to this day.