Travel Flashback: Close Encounters of the Baboon Kind


It’s said that what you focus on is what you attract. (I believe “be careful what you wish for” falls in the same category of advice.) On my first trip to Africa, I discovered that wildlife is not exempt from this rule.

The first time you visit a place that is completely, extraordinarily different from what you’re used to, you’re bound to have some anxieties. Will I be able to eat the food without getting sick? Will I be able to communicate with the locals enough to find my way around? Will I be able to find a Western-style toilet? Et cetera.

In the case of Africa, we added baboons to our list of mild anxieties.

My travel buddy was researching Victoria Falls, one of the great sights of southern Africa. Baboons, she learned, are a big problem there, especially in the dry season, when food is scarcer. They even have a reputation for stalking pedestrians, in particular women and children (apparently they can tell the difference between the male and female of the human species), and making off with whatever food their victims are carrying. The problem is particularly acute on the bridge that crosses the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. When she told me that, somewhere in the same email with a discussion about how we could stay on the Zambian side of the river and easily walk over the bridge to Zimbabwe, I replied that that was so very interesting, and by the way, under no circumstances would I walk across that bridge.

After that, all her jokes were about baboons. “I wonder if the baboons will be able to smell a wrapped granola bar through our day bags?” “I wonder if our travel medical insurance covers baboon attacks?” Her co-workers sent her off with the refrain, “Watch out for the baboons!” In Cape Town, she sent a postcard of a grimacing baboon back to her office.

In hindsight, I realize that she was, cosmically speaking, asking for it.

The baboons really are everywhere in southern Africa. The first time you see a few wandering along the side of the road (our first sighting was not far outside of Cape Town), you get excited. Look! Baboons! But it only takes about 15 minutes before you’re totally over it. What’s more, the locals will tell you the baboons are nuisances. They’re like the African version of squirrels, except they’re really big, and they bite. If a baboon wants to take your food, even if you walked a long way and crossed a bridge into a different country to buy it, well, it’s best just to let him have it.

In Victoria Falls, our hotel had a lovely patio restaurant that looked out over the open bush. My friend and I were having lunch on this patio when baboon karma caught up with us.

Our food had just been delivered, and we were both looking down at our plates. When I looked up a moment later, an adult baboon was charging straight toward us, barely 15 feet away. He was already so close, and moving so fast, that in the next instant, he was just inches from my friend’s side. Standing on his hind legs, he towered above us. His long arms scrabbled across the top of the table, grasping for anything. We both leaned back in our chairs, my friend with her hands raised like she was being robbed, trying to stay as far away from him as possible. The breadbasket went flying; a coffee cup hit the ground. The long table of Japanese tourists next to us squealed with delight.

And then our baboon interloper got his hairy fingers wrapped around the bun of my friend’s chicken sandwich, and he ran off as quickly as he had arrived. He had already disappeared into the bush by the time the staff came running out onto the patio – surely drawn to the scene by the hysterical Japanese tourists, since we were too paralyzed in our seats to make a sound. Once the furry felon was gone we started laughing, but I noticed that my hand was shaking – just a little – when I took a sip of water.

My friend got a new plate of food, and one unlucky man on the wait staff had to spend the rest of the lunch hour standing on the lawn, in the full sun, on baboon sentry duty.

I didn’t hear another baboon joke for the rest of the trip.


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