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Muppetting around the South African bush

“You little b******!”

The thieving so-and-so met my gaze, dropped his pickings and scarpered.

Overnight, the diminutive yet resolute army of vervet monkeys sharing our camp had gone from being viewed as cute, playful creatures that leapt around with an admirable zest for life to annoying little g*** that had to be chased away with a menacing growl and whatever came to hand.

Animal lovers, fear not; not a finger – or indeed any other item – was laid on our ‘furry friends’. Despite this respect not being reciprocated. Who’d have thought that merely strolling past, minding your own business – as our group leader Marjolein did – would be sufficient to warrant a hefty slap from a particularly large, aggressive specimen with bright blue genitals? (Not that his eye-catching nether-regions were relevant to the story, but they WERE rather noticeable…)

Oh yes, there was a good reason for the strange, improvised locks on the catches of the kitchen’s two fridges, drinks cooler and cupboards. There was a good reason why no one housed in a rondawel – a traditional African hut with a thatched roof – slept later than say, the crack of dawn. There was a good reason why any books or magazines left laying around ended up shredded – or at least had pages (usually the latter pages) ripped out. (Particularly irksome when, unsuspectingly, you’ve been engrossed in a novel for some time. The characters have almost become real, the tension has mounted; the story builds to a climax and then… then… what? No ending?! Nope. How the plot resolves is entirely up to you!)

But then we HAD been warned…

Our group of Wildlife Conservation volunteers – a.k.a. the Muppet Quintet (a name we bestowed upon ourselves, I hasten to add; but more of that later!) – had arrived at Hoedspruit Airport, South Africa, on a sunny Spring afternoon. Four Brits (Jonathan, Helen, Sally and myself) and a Swede (Linda) had been brought together by sheer chance (well, by all of us happening to book the same start date at Campfire Safaris, the private game reserve at which we were to stay, that is).
Soon we were hurtling along a rural highway in a bakkie (in other words, a pick-up truck with three rows of seats in the back), the aforementioned Marjolein, a young Dutch woman who was helping out at Campfire, at the wheel.

 “Wow, look at the scenery!”, “My nose is getting burnt!” and “I can’t breathe!” were just some of the exclamations as we tore along the road, the intense South African sun drenching us in its scorching golden rays. We gasped for breath as our skin was sandblasted into oblivion (still, no need for an exfoliator, which was just as well seeing as I didn’t have one with me), hair whipped into an almighty tangle that would take seemingly a million years to un-knot. And it was fantastic! The sense of freedom, of adventure; of having broken free from dreary offices and days spent glued to computer screens!

And when a group of giraffe elegantly sauntered towards us as we negotiated the rutted dirt track of the game reserve? There were gasps of delight and excitement all round, everyone delving into rucksacks for their cameras. Damn! Why had mine sunk to the very bottom of my bag? I foraged among bottles of suncream, water, snacks and various items of clothing. The likelihood of taking some fantastic shots was slipping away with every second! As were the giraffes…

Of course, at that point I didn’t appreciate that there’d be… ooh, about a zillion more opportunities to take photos of the long-necked lovelies over the next few days, let alone weeks.

“Here we are!” Marjolein informed us as we pulled up by an impressive three-storey watchtower. Three exuberantly barking dogs – Sasha, a hugely overweight golden retriever, Boersveldt, an aggressive Staffordshire Bull terrier, and Lola, a tiny ball of cotton wool with huge brown eyes (hey, I never claimed to be an expert on breeds of dog!) – charged to greet us, jumping up at the bakkie, tails frantically wagging.

Huge grins spread across our faces as we took stock of our surroundings. The ground floor of the watchtower comprised an open, spacious kitchen and dining area. A number of green-painted rondawels, decorated with orange, yellow and brown tribal-esque patterns, casually surrounded it. Welcoming and cosy yet with a rustic African feel… Perfect!

And what could better put the finishing touches to the scene than a tree full of playful monkeys?!

During a welcoming speech later that afternoon, we were warned to be cautious of them. We chuckled. Our furry companions would be so entertaining! 

And they WERE entertaining. Sort of…

It was shortly after dawn on our first morning at Campfire that our ‘furry friends’ – no, make that ‘furry FIENDS’ – ‘introduced’ themselves.

Too exhausted following the long journey to bother battling with my mosquito net (I was sleeping on a bottom bunk and erecting the net would involve screwing hooks into the underside of the bed above, which, to be frank, seemed like far too much effort at that point…) I’d slipped into a fairly comatose-kind of slumber. It wasn’t my alarm or the first rays of light shining through the flimsy curtains of my rondawel that roused me – it was the almighty racket of Furry Fiends bounding all over its roof.

What the heck…?

Not wanting any tailed intruders to burst in, I gingerly unlatched the door and peered out. I needn’t have worried. The Furry Fiends were occupied by far more engaging pursuits… One perched on almost every branch of the tree outside. The tree right by the kitchen. And each was happily plunging its gnashers into apples and tomatoes. Apart from the one waving a slightly dishevelled copy of ‘FHM’, that is…

“You cheeky little….” I began under my breath, marvelling at both their audacity and greed.

The mess strewn across the kitchen floor confirmed my suspicions. As did the lower fridge, its door agape.

Having salvaged what food I could, several sets of round brown eyes never leaving me for a second, it was time for MY breakfast – and Lesson No.2. Yup, I was foolish enough to pour out a bowl of cereal and turn to the fridge for, ooh, a few seconds, to retrieve a carton of milk.

Turning back, a Furry Fiend sat brazenly on the counter right before me, scooping handfuls of my breakfast into his mouth. The audacity! The nerve! The…the sheer CHEEK of it! I shooed him away. But was that muesli going anywhere near my mouth after a monkey’s mitts had been all over it? Not bloomin’ likely! He might as well have it. So I poured out a second helping in a clean dish, my back to the corner of the kitchen so that I’d only have to guard against attacks from two directions.

“What was all that noise?” asked Sally, emerging from her rondawel, the other three-fifths of the Muppet Quintet soon appearing from their respective accommodation. HURRAY!, I thought, breathing a sigh of relief. Reinforcements!

My comrades prepared toast, cereal and coffee, all of us now engaged in Breakfast Defence. The Furry Fiends remained on their respective branches. We watched them. They watched us…

Gradually they began to move forward, jumping onto tables. Gradually, we began to move forward, refraining from jumping onto tables. Tension mounted. Suddenly a frenzy of barking and squawking erupted as Boersveldt, Sasha and Lola bounded towards the monkeys. The monkeys, frightened by the dogs, bounded back towards the tree. “Boersveldt! Sasha! Lola!” shouted Marjolein, arriving to diffuse the situation. “Come here!” They ignored her. “I said COME HERE!!!” she yelled above the racket.

It was pandemonium. But pretty damn exciting too! You don’t get THAT kind of drama making morning toast and tea in the UK…

So how did we become the Muppet Quintet? Well, even following a few days in camp we still possessed just enough self-awareness to recognise that the combination of intense heat and extremely early starts (at least, that’s what we put it down to) had made us a bit…well, ditzy.

Furthermore, both our grey matter and muscles were taxed in ways they weren’t accustomed to.

Daily lectures, held on the first floor of the watchtower (how cool is that?!), encompassed topics ranging from Animal Behaviour to Ecology to Taxonomy. Walks through the bush found us learning to identify trees, animals’ tracks and dung (how proud we were as our poo-expertise blossomed!) We spotted wildlife: two-legged, four-legged, predators, scavengers, a corpse here, a corpse there… (thankfully not human!)

Then there was practical conservation work to be carried out; during the first month or so, digging. At about 6.30 in the morning.

Now would you find us happily digging dried mud in England at 6.30am? Not bloomin’ likely! You wouldn’t even find us UNHAPPILY digging dried mud in England at 6.30am. But in rural South Africa? No problem! Well, actually, that’s a lie. It was bloody hard work, the ‘soil’ we were removing from a water-less dam – to be transported to areas of severe erosion within the game reserve – so cracked and solid we might as well have been trying to dig concrete with a plastic spade.

How we toiled! How we sweated! Particularly as the temperature soared. But how we laughed! Particularly as we were soon transformed into a bunch of dirt-smeared urchins festooned with scratches, bruises and aching muscles.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that come lunchtime we’d exhibit the following symptoms: ten-tonne eyelids and the talking of gibberish – the simplest words and phrases somehow seemed to elude us – followed by fits of raucous laughter and an overwhelming urge for an afternoon nap.

By early evening, relaxing in the dining area sharing bottles of wine, the lethargy, gibberish-talking and hysterics would worsen, accompanied by the flicking of strange peanut-like bugs off the table and the blasting of mosquito bites with Helen’s zapper (oh yes, we knew how to have a good time!). 

Yep, we really had become a bunch of muppets. All five of us.

And so the Muppet Quintet was born!

And little did we know what adventures lay in store before the muppets would number only four…

To be continued….

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