Friday, March 1, 2013

Stollen Marshmallows - Zimbabwe

We hired a taxi to take us camping.  Stop.  I'm still questioning this bizarre decision.  Who hires a taxi to go camping?  Really!  I come from the west coast of the United States.  I've experienced and seen many strange things, but this concept still boggles my mind.

In fact, the old lady carrying a school marm's desk on her head just outside of Lower Gweru, while walking down the road with a baby strapped to her back was actually less bizarre to me than the concept that we hired a taxi to take us into the savannah to go camping.  Even I looked at my camping companions and thought, "Americans are strange;" knowing full well that I was speaking of myself!

Jaime became boyscout extraordinaire on this adventure- a strong theme for Jamie, as you may be noticing.  Starting our campfires, directing where to place tents, exploring our surroundings, strategizing 'toilet facilities', etc.  I looked after the food.  I did not expect my assigned duty to become the hardest job of all- that I would blatantly fail at by the end of this adventure.

The campsite was relatively unimpressive.  A little glorified bush campsite a few kilometers outside of Gweru.  We packed our own water in, as well as food.  The land was dry: rainy season a distant memory.  A hike provided a beautiful little 'lookout' lodge nestled above the expanse of the Gweru flatlands on a rather large rock outcrop.  This lodge was much larger and more ornate than the lookout towers I know well in the United States.  Perhaps because it's purpose was quite different.  I assume it was meant as a hunting observation lodge.  Wildfires in Zimbabwe are unimportant; hardly worth a second thought to Zimbabweans and certainly not something they would watch for or bother to waste resources putting out.  But, then, timber was not so much of a commodity in Matabeleland, as I was used to in the US.

We were charmed by the 3 young monkey's crawling and playing near the lodge.  They provided a thrilling degree of amusement to we unsuspecting Americans.  The little monkeys wrestled and chattered, hopped and stopped to inspect this band of huge, goofy looking pale primates in front of them (namely- Americans).  Eventually, the little fellows scattered back into the savannah at the call of their elders.  Adventurer Jaime (an American biologist) could not resist the urge to follow the little guys and observe their world- our friend Alek in mildly resistant accompaniment.  Alek had been in Zimbabwe longer than Jaime, thus feeling an obligation to 'protect' his fledgling American companion from Jaime's own potential gung-ho-ness gone sour. I returned with my less adventurous friends to our campsite to indulge in a bite of lunch and the comfort of a nice novel.

Jaime and Alek didn't stay on their observation mission as long as I'd assumed they would.  Though he never said so, I suspected that the thought of getting lost in the African savannah and the very real threat of stepping on a spitting cobra while walking through the bush or, worse, disturbing the zen of a black mamba with their relentless personalities hell-bent on revenge for the slightest infraction (for those who don't know, mambas can chase a man at speeds of up to 40 mph through the bush, then raise themselves up on the very tip of their tail and strike a tall man directly in the throat- after which he will surely die within 2 hours).  Of course, once I got to know Alek, I have no doubts that Alek provided Jaime ample dissertations referencing the dangers of the African savannah along their bush wack.  Alek was nothing if not an over-protective professor of science and the saving of one's own skin.

Considering that we were stuck without a vehicle in this campsite for 2 more days, I found Jamie's reservation and Alek's adventurous tempering toward scouting far away from camp admirable.  The last thing I needed was a dying husband on my hands- (I am hardly the nursing type).

It wasn't long, of course, before we discovered that Jaime didn't need to go looking for the band of monkeys.  They were ever so happy to find us.

Around the campfire we sat laughing largely about the 'unique' things we'd seen in our Zim stay so far. In the dancing light of the fire, we captured sight of movement: quite a bit of movement, I might add.  I was all but in a panic, of course, envisioning a lion, hyena pack or worse a pit of roiling, angry mambas come to chew us to bits- I've never been accused of lacking imagination!

Jaime and a few others didn't have to go far to discover that it was our monkey colony brethren observing US like caged animals.  It provided Jaime perfect excitement and his chance to observe the observers.  Jaime did in no way think that He was the caged animal being sized up.

The night passed in fits and spurts.  I slept like a cat up a tree and awoke as grouchy as that treed cat would be.  Jaime slept much better once he finally crawled into the tent.  He and the monkeys spent much of the moonlight sizing one another up in what I can only call this 'dance of male curiosities'.  Who among these two dominant males would eventually be bested?

I crawled out of my tent to our friend Alek rekindling the fire and chewing a bit of breakfast.  As we began to emerge from our tents, Alek put a few cans of beans over the fire to warm.  He and I sat chatting softly with our cups of instant coffee imported directly from my mother's good will Stateside.  There they were, the three baby monkey's every bit as precious as before. Delightfully wrestling, climbing the tree, dancing, chattering and in Every way enchanting the lot of us silly Americans.  In nothing flat Jaime and the entirety of our fellow campers came out of our tents to sit by the fire and watch this amazing show of 'nature'.

Jaime didn't even bother to zip the tent up in his exit.  Note that most of the camp's food resided inside our tent, since as the one married couple among the group, Jaime and I had a large tent.

Alek noticed that our cans of beans were boiling over and quickly grabbed them off the fire, placing them a few feet away from the fire circle to cool.

The 3 baby monkey's shifted to the side of our camp opposite of where Alek had placed the beans.  The babies had our full attention and knew it.  All seven of us Americans were completely mesmerized by their every move.

I don't recall how long it took for the trance to be broken, but eventually someone realized that our beans were gone and something was rifling through Jamie and my tent.  The baby theatre troupe continued their distraction (as it was becoming clear it was), but we slowly started coming out of the trance.

I looked around and found Grandpa Monkey hiding strategically in a tree behind the tents, a couple mamas hiding in bushes behind the theater troupe and several what I can only call monkey warriors hiding in various places very near our tent city... some actively, stealthily removing items they found to their liking.

When I looked up again, Grandpa was devouring one of our cans of warmed beans from his perch.  His assistant dangling the one bag of marshmallows we'd all looked so forward to roasting- as they'd been a rare find in a unique store that catered to the strange taste of ex-patriots.

Once satisfied, Grandpa monkey hooted loudly, signaling something that sent the brigade of monkeys scampering all around us in a funnel cloud of hilarity, annoyance and moving food.  Jaime and Alek took up sticks, not to hurt the monkey brigade (we were still naive enough to think them all adorable), but to scare them out of our camp.  Mind you, even the largest of these monkeys might have reached our knee at full height.  Though avoiding the swinging sticks, the monkeys pretty much ignored us and got on with their intended business in spite of our shrieks and uncertain dance moves.

After being cleaned out of our food supply (the little buggers even took a few cans of food- which left us morbidly giggling to this thought, "How does a monkey open a can?"), our toothpaste and some of the water we were rationing; we spent the rest of the day lying low- not so eager to observe the wildlife any further.

Alek grumbled, "They even took our marshmallows!  Do you know how far I had to walk to get that bag of marshmallows?"

If the truth be told, it was quite evident that We had become the targeted wildlife on this safari.  Humility hit us all over the head- the natural world is Much smarter than we may choose to give her credit for.

It was one more day and night before we expected our taxi friend to drive back into the savannah to pick us up.  The brigade of monkeys may have taken off with our food and much of our water, but they did not bother with the bottle of rum we'd brought for good measure.  There we sat on our last night around a campfire passing the one thing left to us by a troupe of monkeys - rum.


  1. What a great life experience! I'd love to read a story from the monkey's perspective of the event. Even more, I'd love to hear the stories told by the taxi driver! "Yeah, one time I took this group of Americans out to camp in the savannah and ..."

  2. I suspect that Grandfather Monkey's story would read like a militarized band of gypsies! No doubt the cab driver retold some brilliant versions of his side of this story to his chibuku buddies.