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Monkey nirvana

Niokola Koba Park

 

So why do we put ourselves through this physically and emotionally challenging journey that is better suited for people much hardier than me? Because achieving minor victories over sand and potholes and breakdowns and border crossings is rewarding. Completing these things and surviving, and regaining our spirits to go on another day is satisfying. Finding a hotel with a hot shower, having an icy cold Coke, buying veges and melons and a fresh baguette and lunching down a dirt track, even finding a private spot to camp – none of these things would we cherish so much, appreciate so much, sitting at home watching TV.

And, because monkeys exist.

On the way to find monkeys we pass hundreds of donkey carts, wheels sloping inwards, a flatbed platform atop each carrying straw, with the driver, a man or a boy, always one leg bent on the platform, the other swinging down, stick in hand. Two collided trucks, black sacks of something strewn down the highway. Shoes for sale, peanuts, more Orange phone cards. Open fires, and now the highway is on fire, the heat so fierce I fear we will melt as we drive past.

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Goats, hiding in the shade. Cowardly these goats, not desert goats. Power poles but no power lines. Massive 6 foot termite hills, brown and bulbous. Small concrete thatched huts for those with more money. Conical roofs. People are sitting in the shade of the trees, but the colors of vegetables, red and green, are missing now. Perhaps the soil is less fertile despite the trees. A lot more motorbikes. Our path is blocked by men pushing a broken truck. Then a tiny bouncing goat. Cute, but I still think it wants money from us. And a deceptively pleasing highway, fooled again, potholes so deep that at one point our turn signal was violently jolted from its socket.

We stay in Tambacunda, near the park. Our hotel, Le Relais, has a swimming pool and a decent restaurant and my mood shifts more positive. Never mind that Lonely Planet West Africa is 5 years old and the pizza shop they mention has disappeared (as well as numerous hotels). The cadeau children are back. There’s nothing like sitting in a car with unblinking, unsmiling faces pressed to the window next to you, staring solidly for minutes on end. On the road in the morning we overtake a man in a three wheeled chair with a hand crank and a small boy, holding a goat by its front feet. We stop for lunch in a solitary glade and begin eating when I see four boys have appeared, stealthily. They ask for cadaeus softly, from a distance and we ignore them. Then, without seeing them move, they are closer, the cries for cadeau louder. And one of the boys has a machete, nearly as big as he is. He appears to be their leader. And then they are even closer, arms length, as is the machete. I am feeling very, very nervous and motion Rick to begin packing up. The boy with the machete starts toward me and I’m mentally saying goodbye to my left arm, when he reaches down and helps me remove a stick from my skirt. I hand over a box of breakfast bars which creates a frenzy and we make a hasty exit. Oh the joys of paranoia.

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The park has an autumn feel, the trees are red and green, until we realize the red is just dust from the earth. At the entrance to the park we are assigned a guide for two days. We didn’t really want a guide, but it’s mandatory and he seems nice enough, especially speaking no English. All I care about is monkeys. If I can just see monkeys all else is forgiven.

Just a few minutes into the park we start to see wildlife! Here is what Rick sees:

– a troupe of monkeys

– baboons

– a herd of antelope

– blue metallic birds

– mongoose

– a racing gazelle

– a crocodile

– hippopotami

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DSC_4305.jpgHere is what I see

– some little brown dots

– some medium sized brown dots

– some large brown dots

– some blue dots

– some black dots

– a grey dot

– water

– nothing

I am happy to see the little brown dots, but a bit disappointed that they were not closer, when we pull into something that might pass for a hotel – a place called Simenti. All my dreams have come true! There are monkeys everywhere, just a few feet from me, dozens and dozens of them! Loads of little monkeys, and even smaller baby monkeys, that you could hold in your hand. A tiny newborn clinging to its mother as she moves, their tails wrapped around each others to stay connected, a monkey next to me cleaning itself, a monkey sprawled out sunbathing. Monkeys on a brick ledge, monkeys in trees, monkeys in bushes. Monkeys galore! Something upsets the monkeys and they all start shaking the trees and making their strange combination of barking and cawing. It’s baboons! Dozens of them near us, though not quite as close as the monkeys. Great big baboons down to little baboons, although the smallest baboon was probably the size of the biggest monkeys. I am in monkey heaven! My heart is dancing with joy.

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We return to our hut and have some sardines on toast. I throw the can away in a metal drum and a few minutes later lo and behold an adorable monkey is sitting on the edge of the drum with my tin in its paws, licking it.

I go to breakfast the next day. As usual miniature stale bread sticks and a plate of jam. Rick has gone to take photos when two tiny monkeys jump up on my table. One grabs one bread stick, another the other. They are sitting there happily munching them, not afraid of me at all, when the proprietress runs up with a sling shot. They start when they see her but give her cheeky looks, as if they know she won’t really hurt them. Before they make their escape one scoops up a handful of jam in its cute little paw and the other delicately helps itself to a sugar cube. They slip me a smile as they scurry away.

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Dinner the night before was a decent salad, unremarkable spaghetti, and a moldy banana. I don’t traditionally go for moldy bananas but in this case I have some friends I think might have use of it. After breakfast the next day I put the banana in the drum and sure enough a few minutes later three monkeys have found it. They do not like to share. One monkey grabs it and runs a few feet away, peels and eats the banana. The other monkeys sift disappointedly through the remaining trash. One picks up a roll of toilet paper, not ours, and seeing it is inedible, sadly places it back in the bin.

 

All is forgiven.

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