An­nette Lodge comes to the aid of vervet mon­keys at a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre in South Africa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

SOME trav­el­ling ex­pe­ri­ences are des­tined to be­come in­deli­ble mem­o­ries, the kind you cher­ish and day­dream about when you are back home. I re­cently vol­un­teered to work for five weeks at the vervet mon­key re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre in the north­ern prov­ince of Limpopo in South Africa. I have no qual­i­fi­ca­tions for such a ven­ture but hoped my love of an­i­mals and a fas­ci­na­tion for pri­mates would be enough. I was thrilled when I re­ceived con­fir­ma­tion and set off with more trep­i­da­tion about Jo­han­nes­burg than about the wild an­i­mals to the north.

Af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing a bus trip out of the treach­er­ous no-go zone in a city that seems afraid of it­self, I am­met in Tza­neen five hours later by a fel­low vol­un­teer in a beaten-up ute. It rat­tles us out of the small town and into a gor­geous African sun­set that turns the thorn trees pur­ple against a haze of moun­tain ranges and mango farms.

Thirty kilo­me­tres along the road we turn on to a cor­ru­gated dirt track and even­tu­ally come to rest, seem­ingly in the mid­dle of nowhere, at a lit­tle set­tle­ment of tents sur­rounded by an elec­tric fence. I have ar­rived.

Sev­eral black-faced grey mon­keys am­ble up to check us out, chat­ting cu­ri­ously among them­selves. Inside the camp­ing vil­lage there are 12 tents dot­ted around a stone path­way and sur­rounded by trees on a ridge that looks across a val­ley of patch­work greens, punc­tu­ated by um­brella thorn and flame trees, jacaran­das and scrub. It’s a dreamy African land­scape that melts into a sky full of stars.

There are a cou­ple of eco-friendly bush toi­lets, a bush shower and a kitchen tent with a gas burner for heat­ing wa­ter; there is no elec­tric­ity. There are eight other vol­un­teers while I am here and they are from many walks of life, bonded by a ded­i­cated love of an­i­mals and a pas­sion to see the vervet mon­key in its wild sur­round­ings with­out the fear of hu­man preda­tors.

This rag­tag band of un­likely cham­pi­ons of the vervets has re­ha­bil­i­tated more than 700 mon­keys dur­ing the past eight years, from the sick, in­jured and or­phaned to dis­carded lab mon­keys past their use-by date for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. The sanc­tu­ary was founded in 1997 by Arthur Hunt, a South African whose pas­sion to save th­ese crea­tures in­sti­gated a le­gal bat­tle with the South African au­thor­i­ties to have their sta­tus lifted from that of ver­min, which al­lowed in­dis­crim­i­nate killing, to a pro­tected species. He be­gan an ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram en­com­pass­ing a na­tional vervet mon­key watch and set up safe houses, which slowly be­gan to change pub­lic per­cep­tion.

In a coun­try with a con­ser­va­tion pol­icy based on the culling of so-called prob­lem an­i­mals, such as mon­keys, which steal fruit, or ele­phants, which tram­ple crops, Hunt was a lone voice. His sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion to pro­vide a safe haven be­gan slowly with the help of vol­un­teers, do­nated build­ing sup­plies and a beau­ti­ful but pre­car­i­ous prop­erty with no run­ning wa­ter. Grad­u­ally, in­te­grated troupes of vervets be­gan to live hap­pily in Hunt’s care.

My days as a vol­un­teer be­gin at about 6am and end at sun­down. My time here in­volves dig­ging dams, mon­i­tor­ing the mon­keys (record­ing any ab­nor­mal­i­ties and feed­ing and wa­ter­ing), build­ing and mend­ing en­clo­sures and at­tend­ing to emer­gen­cies as they in­evitably crop up. Wa­ter is trucked in ev­ery day in tanks on the back of a ute. New vol­un­teers are in­tro­duced to the mon­keys and given a solid ori­en­ta­tion.

I ar­rive at the

be­gin­ning of the baby sea­son, a time when many vervets are found cling­ing to moth­ers that have died as a re­sult of be­ing hit by cars or shot by farm­ers. From safe houses and pub­lic car­ers, the or­phans are even­tu­ally chan­nelled to the foun­da­tion. Dur­ing my stay we have 16 ba­bies to care for; by the end of the sum­mer, there will be 50.

The ba­bies are so trau­ma­tised by their or­deal, they need con­stant re­as­sur­ance and care to stop them be­com­ing grief stricken and los­ing the will to live. The vol­un­teers give them 24-hour ros­tered care. The small­est ones are no big­ger than an adult hu­man hand and the youngest are less than a month old.

Their skin is iri­des­cent blue and cov­ered in downy grey fur. Their faces and large, pa­pery ears are pink, and turn black when they be­come adults. Work­ing on the baby shift for four hours a day en­tails sit­ting in an en­clo­sure and sur­ren­der­ing to the messy whims of th­ese enig­matic, play­ful and emo­tional crea­tures.

We feed them from baby bot­tles and spend the rest of the time play­ing. They jump on our heads, they swing off our hair, they suck our ears, they nib­ble our toes, they re­lieve them­selves all over us, and still I fall more in love with them ev­ery day.

They cry, they laugh, they have tantrums, and when they are fright­ened, they cling to each other so for­lornly, they seem like lost souls in a stormy sea. Their big­gest dan­ger is the Mozam­bique spit­ting co­bra, a large, ag­gres­sive snake abun­dant in the area. I am more con­cerned about the snakes than the ram­pag­ing ba­boons that oc­ca­sion­ally snatch a baby through the wire when we aren’t be­ing vig­i­lant. Hunt refers to th­ese un­in­vited vis­i­tors as ban­dits.

The ba­bies trust us and de­pend on us for their safety and well­be­ing. Each day helps pre­pare them for their de­par­ture from the baby en­clo­sure with a sur­ro­gate mon­key mother who will in­tro­duce them to a new troupe. Ul­ti­mately, th­ese tiny mon­keys will be­come fully in­te­grated adults no longer need­ing hu­man in­ter­ven­tion.

Our meals are eaten in a large kitchen at a crum­bling care­taker’s cot­tage about 800m up the hill from the tent vil­lage. A small com­mu­nity of Shangaani peo­ple also live on the prop­erty and one of the group, Mag­gie, cooks veg­e­tar­ian meals and leaves them for us in the kitchen to heat up in the evenings. Meal­times are hap­haz­ard, de­pend­ing on when peo­ple are avail­able to eat. They are not cer­e­mo­ni­ous but al­ways nu­tri­tious, with a beer on hand at the end of the day.

The Shangaa­nis share with us a rare in­sight into their cul­ture. Mag­gie is a san­goma, a tra­di­tional healer, and ev­ery night af­ter dark she sum­mons her an­ces­tors by chant­ing loud, mourn­ful in­can­ta­tions that echo across the val­ley and seem to stir the very soul of Africa. The first time is fright­en­ing but once I get to know her the fear sub­sides and the chant­ing, which of­ten lasts sev­eral hours, lulls me to sleep.

One day Mag­gie in­vites me to wit­ness the in­can­ta­tions. I ar­rive af­ter sun­set and she has al­ready started chant­ing. Her hut is a tiny room with a dirt floor and she is kneel­ing, un­aware of her sur­rounds; the only light is from the fire out­side. The chant­ing be­comes louder and I watch her re­cede into an­other re­al­ity. For two hours she sings, dances, gy­rates, claps, stamps and beats her­self with strange rat­tles fash­ioned from bones and skin. She makes sounds that seem to come from a deep well inside her belly, like rolling thun­der, re­ver­ber­at­ing over the top of her singing, as if she has more than one voice.

To­wards the end, the chant­ing gets louder and she be­gins to shake un­con­trol­lably. It is con­fus­ing and dis­tress­ing as the shak­ing and beat­ing be­comes vi­o­lent and I won­der if she will lose con­scious­ness. But even­tu­ally the sound turns to melo­di­ous singing and she wraps her ex­hausted body in her cer­e­mo­nial sarong and stops. She opens her eyes and is sur­prised to see me here. She apol­o­gises that she had to start with­out me for the chant­ing must oc­cur at the whim of the an­ces­tors.

The rou­tine at the sanc­tu­ary changes daily, de­pend­ing on the needs of the mon­keys. Hunt works tire­lessly as a vet, an ar­bi­tra­tor, a his­to­rian and the al­pha male among each troupe of mon­keys. He un­der­stands and speaks the lan­guage of the mon­keys, iden­ti­fy­ing more than 100 sep­a­rate sounds they make to com­mu­ni­cate.

Some days are long and re­lent­less but the hu­mour and ca­ma­raderie far out­weighs the tran­sient friend­ships formed on most hol­i­day pack­ages. This ex­pe­ri­ence is man­i­fold and a great ad­ven­ture.

The Vervet Mon­key Foun­da­tion is a tiny pocket in the larger scheme of things but the fact that it is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence to the lives of en­dan­gered an­i­mals with lit­tle more than a clapped-out ute, the vi­sion of one man and the pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment of vol­un­teers, is a mir­a­cle. It is a priv­i­lege to work with th­ese wild an­i­mals. The hard­est thing about be­ing here is leav­ing. An­nette Lodge is the au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor of the chil­dren’s pic­ture book Natemba (ABC Books) based on her ex­pe­ri­ence at the vervet mon­key re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre.


Africa Travel Cen­tre of­fers a 14-day vol­un­teer pack­age at the Vervet Mon­key Foun­da­tion from about $1600, de­pend­ing on ex­change rates; min­i­mum age is 18 years. More: (click on vol­un­teer/con­ser­va­tion link). Susan Kuro­sawa’s Depar­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next week.

Pic­tures: An­nette Lodge

Crea­ture com­fort: Mon­keys at the Vervet Mon­key Foun­da­tion in South Africa’s Limpopo prov­ince are nursed back to health by a band of ded­i­cated vol­un­teers

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