Thursday, May 31, 2007

A hairy tale

I've promised Kitchen Witch, who recently wrote about her run-in with some Canadian bears, that I will tell the story of "the time I punched a baboon." Everyone should have a story like that, don't you think?

It happened in 2002. I went on a trip to South Africa with my mom and stepdad. We had a lovely tour guide named Colin who said things like "jolly good" all the time. (The older generation of English-heritage South Africans have a vocabulary that is sort of hilariously Jeeves and Wooster-like, because they were essentially walled off from global pop culture during much of the 20th century, due to apartheid. This leads to phrases such as "ring the doorbell" being translated as "touch the goodie." I would love to see a thorough linguistic examination of the phenomenon. But I digress.)

We had a lot of amazing experiences, including walking through the Cape Malay district of Capetown, visiting the botanical gardens at the base of Table Mountain, touring the Stellenbosch and Paarl wine country, and checking out a lot of really pretty beaches and seaside towns.

Near the end of the week we took a day trip to Cape Point, which is part of the national parks system. It's a breathtakingly beautiful place where we were able to see some very large elands and other wildlife.

If you followed the link in the previous paragraph, you may have read this:

"At the car park there’s a reputable restaurant with great big windows which take in the awesome views and dizzying drop below. Here one can retreat from the wind and have a bite to eat with no danger of baboons snatching your scoff."

That pair of sentences is one of the best I've ever seen written about South Africa. It is awesomely prophetic, because the park is awash in hairy, fanged primates.

On the way to the park's main gate, we had to stop several times to wait for baboons to scuttle across the road. At the gate, we were handed a pamphlet that offered helpful advice such as "Keep your car doors shut when you get out to take photographs. Once a baboon gets into your vehicle, it is very difficult to get it back out again." There were entire baboon families perched atop many of the vehicles in the parking lot. And the restaurant had installed barbed-wire fencing along the edge of its roof, because apparently in the past there had been a problem with baboons waiting up there, then jumping down on hapless patrons who were leaving with takeaway lunches.

After a hike to the lighthouse, we were hungry, so we decided to have a meal at the restaurant. We sat down at a white-tableclothed, Evian-umbrella'd table on the outdoor balcony. We were perched directly on the stony cliffs that led down to the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. An immaculately dressed waiter brought us a basket of bread rolls. Then he reached into his apron and handed me a generous double handful of smooth rocks.

"Keep the bread rolls covered," he said. "And if the baboons come for them, throw these rocks."

I stared blankly. I had a sense, at that moment, that no odder sentence would be spoken to me for years to come.

But seeing no apparent danger, I ordered a sparkling water and a springbok carpaccio, and we fell into lively conversation.

Jabbering about something or other, I distractedly opened the cloth napkin that enclosed the bread rolls and began to pull out a roll. It was at that moment that I saw, over my mother's shoulder, a dark shape bounding over the balcony wall. A 40-pound baboon arced through the air and, with a thump, landed on the table in front of me.

My first thought was of the little pile of rocks next to my plate, but the baboon's face was at most two feet from mine, so throwing something wasn't really the way to go. I panicked. Instinct took over, and I reached out and punched the baboon in the chest.

Startled, the baboon sprang, frog-like, over my shoulder and narrowly missed landing on the next table. The family at the table screamed and scattered. The baboon disappeared over the low stone wall.

"Good heavens," said Colin. My mother and I stared at each other incredulously.

Then the food arrived. It's really a very good restaurant.