As a kid, ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’ was one of my favorite television shows. I would watch rapt, eyes glued, soaking up the image of every lion mane, every giraffe neck, ever elephant trunk. Later, I would prowl zoos, trying to count the spots on a Cheetah or the stripes on a Zebra. I was thrilled at the very many different shapes, colors and sizes that living creatures come in. I couldn’t get enough of it.
So imagine me in Victoria Falls in a hotel set in a National Park, where wild animals literally roam around the swimming pool. Kid in a candy store! It was early summer there, and the zebras, monkeys and giraffes that wandered through the grounds all had babies in tow. What a spectacularly beautiful experience that was.
Of course, we were respectful, and careful not to approach the animals. They are truly wild, after all. But it felt like I was in my very own episode of my favorite childhood show, able to be there and to see them living their lives, free. And I felt connected in a profound and moving way to the great teeming variety of life with which we share the earth. And yes, I was talking out loud about it all, in the same kind of florrid, flowery language. My poor husband.
And then we met the baboons.
Bob and I are big hikers. We had already hiked to the top of the Falls, and we had seen the rainbow in the mists above the water as the Zambezi River crashed over the side of the canyon. Now we wanted to try the hike down to the basin below, known as the “Boiling Pot.” As I said, we’re in a National Park, and the trails are well marked. But, as we started to make way down the steep descent, there wasn’t another human soul in sight and I began to wonder if maybe we had taken a wrong turn.
At first it was easy going, even though it was a very hot day and the sun was so strong that you couldn’t touch the iron hand rail that ran alongside the trail without giving yourself a blister. But after about half a mile the path started looking and feeling distinctly un-trail like. It was full of large boulders and broken, uneven surfaces, and it was tricky trying to pick our way through the obstacles and find safe places to land our feet.
All of a sudden, I look up to see a mama baboon nursing a tiny baby, not 15 feet away from us on the left hand side of the trail. “Oh, wow!” is about all I can manage to get out, as I point in her direction so Bob will see her, too.
We both smiled at her, me beatifically, feeling all warm and fuzzy, and connected. Then I notice there are a handful more baboons around, and they are on both sides of the trail. And then I notice there are even more up in the trees. In fact, there’s probably 35 to 40 baboons, some of them with babies. They surround us on both sides. And they are all staring at us.
Gone are the warm and fuzzies… I’ve got a chill, even in the heat, as if icy hands had just given my stomach a little squeeze.
One baboon is larger than the rest. Quite large, actually… nearly as tall as me. And he starts making a noise. Low at first, it sounded like “Eh, eh, eh.” And it got louder, and louder, and the other baboons started to join in, “EH! EH! EH!” and in an instant, we are in the middle of a pod of angry-seeming baboons all screaming at us. Connected is not what I’m feeling. Terrified, more like it.
We’ve got to move, and we’ve got to move fast, but it’s hard because the path is like an obstacle course. And I don’t care any more that the handrail is hot, I’m trying my best to hang on to it so I can climb, scale and scurry faster. Seconds feel like hours. Progress feels glacial. But soon, the cacophony behind us starts to die down and I think we might have just survived our encounter after all. I take a deep breath and try to focus on the beauty around us and slow down my hammering heart.
We get down to the basin and it is lovely beyond words. I am reassured that we found the right place… there are about 20 other fellow travelers down there, all gawking at the view. There’s even a park ranger who asks us to sign a guest book.
We strike up conversations with the other hikers, we ooh and ahh at the scenery… I even take one of my favorite pictures of Bob down there, sitting on a rock surrounded by the tropical fauna, looking serene.
And now it’s time for the ascent. I’m not as worried about the baboons on the way up because, for one thing, we are not alone… maybe 10 other hikers are joining us for the climb. And surely, the angry mob has forgotten all about us and moved on by now.
I had noticed a bench on our way down, just off the trail, in a nice shady spot probably about a quarter of a mile up from the basin. It’s hot, hard, and tiring work climbing up the rocks. The idea of a sitting in the shade, recovering a little, is very appealing. As we round the corner and the bench comes into view, I see that it’s occupied… by a baboon, nursing a very small baby. Uh oh.
Our little human posse comes to a halt, as we realize that there are baboons all around us. Boy, does THIS feel like a rerun.
On a side note, one thing we didn’t know was that while we had been down at the basin, a big summer thunder storm was starting to blow up over the Zambezi River. We didn’t know that the sky was about to open, but the baboons apparently did. At night, they all gather at the base of the “Boiling Pot” trail to take shelter and make their nests. And they were heading that way a little earlier today because of the storm.
Meanwhile, the humans and the primates are in a sort of stand off. Maybe 20 baboons looking at us, and us looking at them… no one moves. And then we hear what sounds like screaming and thunderous shaking of the underbrush coming down the hillside above us to the right.
It’s the other half of the baboon pod, and they are flying straight at us, tearing at the ground as they run… it’s astonishing (and a little terrifying) how fast they can go. They run past us, through us, all around us. One baboon brushes my hiking pants as he sails by. The baboons that had been staring at us give us one long, last look, and then they take off after their kin. In a harrowing instant, they are gone. Phew.
We hike the long, broken path all the way back up the hill side. We get to the top where we had first seen the sign, and I notice that it says “Do not feed the Baboons!”
Yeah. Good advice. You don’t want to mess with those baboons.