Annette Lodge comes to the aid of vervet monkeys at a rehabilitation centre in South Africa
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: www.africaguide.com (click on volunteer/conservation link). Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns next week.
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