The issue of interaction with wildlife on an overland trip is often the stuff of dreams. Many of us imagine the thrill of bouncing across the plains of East Africa in the middle of an endless herd of wildebeest, zebra and lions as we are awestruck spectators to the Great Migration. Others dream of the caribou migrations of the Great White North, or meeting up with the great predators; wolves, lions, bears and tigers. Many overlanders travel with the hope of getting close to wild nature, and this can the reason for the trip itself – but it does need caution – often you get more than you bargained for, as you provide the entertainment for the wildlife, not the other way round!
A few years ago some friends and I were on the banks of the Sand River that forms part of the border between Kenya and Tanzania. We’d been ‘that’ lucky Land Rover – in fact pair of Land Rover Defenders, sitting for a few days awestruck, cameras whirring, in the long grass of the Masai Mara National Park whilst tens of thousands of wildebeest mooed, pooed and chewed their way past us, chaperoned by vast hordes of zebra and antelope and stalked by plotting, slavering lions. We didn’t have a guide or an itinerary, we were just out wandering in the bush, footloose and fancy free, and able to decide on our own route, camp spots and timetables, so as the sun reached its high point one day we pulled in on the river banks to make some sandwiches and survey the great rushing river – sitting on the Kenyan shore and watching the vast crocodiles on the other, Tanzanian, bank a few yards away. The crocodiles watched us, too.
We’d put up a camp table near the rear wheelarch of one of the Defenders, and a friend and I were making sandwiches for the group, slicing cheese and tomato to add to ham. We had a few cold stubbies of Tusker beer to hand, and these were going down well. I made a sandwich, put it on a plate, and looked up to laugh at a mate’s joke, then looked down to carry on making more food. The sandwich had gone. Odd. Someone must have taken it to eat. I looked round but couldn’t see it. Oh well, make another. Not thinking too much of the event, I carried on chatting and looked away again. When I looked back, that sandwich had gone as well. Something funny here. I looked up at the Land Rover roof, and then at my mates, wondering if someone was playing games. Nothing. When I looked back, the loaf of bread had gone as well. Hmm. Then there was a half-amused, half-annoyed yell from the other Defender’s crew – a vervet monkey in a tree above the two Landies had spied a bag of oranges on the cubby box in the second truck, and the open sunroof directly above…. in a lightning raid, the furry bandit had dived in through the sunroof, grabbed the oranges and leaped out again, then scurrying up his tree again, from whence he decided to fling oranges and orange peel at us in equal measures, all the while chattering excitedly. Neil, one of our gang, threw some back, and the monkey decided this was a great game – a first-class food fight erupted between Neil, a six-foot Scotsman, and this two-foot high vervet monkey.
Enjoying the monkey business however, I noticed that my block of cheese had also vanished from the table. This was too much. I took a step back and looked down and around the aluminum folding table. A glittering pair of mischievous brown eyes met mine, and then quickly vanished again. There was another vervet monkey hiding in the Defender’s cavernous rear wheelarch. In fact, as I watched, a slim brown arm reached out from this excellent hiding place and made a grab for the pile of tomatoes I had been slicing. Laughing, I batted the hand away, and an enraged little face peered peevishly round the wheelarch rim at me, chattered indignantly and then, discovered, bounded away under the chassis, clutching a half-eaten loaf of bread and trailing crumbs, muttering monkey swearwords under his breath.
Not all monkey encounters end in such good humour however. Some days afterwards I was driving alone into a village, heading southward in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, when I spotted a Jeep Cherokee ahead of me moseying along the same track. I’d been doing some work with the Born Free Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Services, and I was heading for a Ranger Base in the park for a sundown beer. The Cherokee was heading for a nearby safari lodge, and he had one of those nifty nylon roof-rack organisers on its top, a zipping bag system which allows the user to weatherproof and carefully catalogue all their roof inventory. All fine so far, the Cherokee and my Land Rover pottered along the track. As we entered the village I noticed a troupe of baboons loitering under a nearby tree. Baboons are very intelligent and very curious, and they love cars, especially slow ones. They loped towards the two 4WDs, and sure enough they scampered onto the roofs to see what was happening with these exciting additions to their territory. My roof space was taken up by a spare tire, a big kettle, a roof tent and a metal box – all baboon-proof. However not so the roof of the Jeep – the baboons decided this intricate bag system was a puzzle set up for their personal enjoyment, and straight away three or four set to investigating it. Baboons have large sharp front canine teeth and strong fingers, and with this excellent set of tools they began mining operations into the bag system, testing all uncovered contents for edibility and interest, and hurling away into nearby bushes anything that was lacking in either factor. Clothing proved a momentary diversion, and showers of underwear and socks announced that the baboonery had discovered someone’s smalls bag as the Cherokee trundled along at around 30 mph. A fight broke out over a toiletries bag – a great game, this. By this time, laughing, I was honking the Defender’s horn and flashing lights, and trying to scare the baboonatics away. The comedy increased as one of the troupe decided to have a meditative poo up on the roof stores just as the Cherokee came to a puzzled halt, and then the driver stuck his head out of the door wondering why this idiot behind was flashing and honking so wildly.
“Get in! Get back in!” I yelled, pointing – baboons, though entertaining, can be vicious and aggressive, and the driver’s eyes came up wide as golf balls as he saw his large-fanged stowaways. Straight back in the cab and foot down, and the Cherokee took off rather more urgently – after a couple dozen feet the Baboonigan Demolition Committee decided their new toy was unsustainable and they all hopped off, trailing miscellaneous undergarments in their wake.
Encounters with wildlife can be entertaining when travelling away from the tourist trail, and it’s worth remembering that they very much have their own agendas and daily lives – the bush is their home and you are the guest! Some weeks later I had crossed over the border into Tanzania, solo vehicle again, and was camping on the rim of the wonderful and inspiring Ngorongoro crater. The night was cold, and my girlfriend and I were snug in the roof tent on the Landy – that is, until she announced she needed the powder room. We had a slight issue here, because I had camped up under a lovely broad-branched tree with bushes and shrubs spread around it, hoping that this would break up the cold easterly wind that was coming across out camp spot. Shortly after nightfall a wandering gang of hyenas had had the same idea, and we had heard their characteristic low ‘whoo-whoop’ cries as they padded into the vicinity and checked us out, eventually bedding down in the shrubbery nearby – but not until after one had scratched himself vigorously on the rear crossmember of the Land Rover, to loud and doglike sighs and grunts of satisfaction.
OK. So I had to get out of the tent, climb down the ladder with headtorch and panga (a large bush knife) and, with as much stamping and clomping as possible, clear a spare in the nearby bushes where my better half could ‘powder her nose’ – without shouting or making overtly aggressive noises to provoke any hyena investigation. In short I was trying to clear away sleepers without irritating them too much. Gulp. Hyenas are related to both dogs and bears, and have huge powerful jaws. As I stomped and rustled through the bushes, all I could remember was a statement I’d read somewhere about their jaws being able to crunch a man’s femur with one bite. Much more of this and I’d need the powder room myself. At any rate, I established a perimeter, and told the ‘sensible one’ of the pair of us that the coast was clear, then escorted her from tent to ‘comfort station’, before retiring to a discrete distance as requisite nose-powdering went on…..
They say one of the advantages of overlanding is that it takes you away from your domestic comfort zone. At large in the world with only four wheels and a prayer you may well encounter big hairy things with more legs than you – be ready and keep a sense of humour!