When people ask me about Africa, or my travel stories in general, the story about baboons in Kenya always come up as one of the more intense, captivating and scary stories I have to date. And I love telling it!
**featured image courtesy of pixabay.com**
I woke early to clean out my boots. They were filled with leaf litter, dirt and twigs from the day before. I even took out the insoles and scraped the insides with my hand to remove more crud- today was going to be a good day!
Donning my yellow pack filled with some peanut butter sandwiches, my hydration pak, binoculars, compass and paper for note taking, I was ready for another day in the jungle, leading surveys.
I and 10 others took to the forest trail heading west, singing songs. For whatever reason, completely unrelated, the song that always popped in my head before a hot, sweaty day of forest research was the theme song to ‘Cheers’!! Remember that show?!… where everybody knows your name…
By this time during my tenure as a Kenya forest guide, I was pretty confident in my abilities to lead teams of volunteers into the dense jungles of Africa- keep them safe, not get lost and conduct valuable biological research at the same time. So confident in fact, a night of heavy drinking wouldn’t deter me from leading the best damn forest research team this side of the Mara River!
I couldn’t keep that up however- working in the hot jungle, hungover and sick as a dog, was no way to act the part. So this day, I decided I was going to turn over a new leaf- while shaking the rest out of my boots, and really give my Vols their moneys’ worth, and an excellent leader.
We made our way single file through town, passing by shops just beginning to open for business. Stray dogs still lie in the dirt road, not ready to wake up. Jealous… wish I was still in bed.
After an hour or so, I led my team down an old logging road, into the heart of the forest, where we were meant to cut into the bush, at a certain point, and begin a survey of deforestation rates for the area. But I got lost.
I could have sworn it was around here somewhere.
I knew the entry into the forest transect, off the road was not too far, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. I kept walking, leading my guys deeper down the road, not wanting to give away my uncertainty. But I finally had to relent and admit I didn’t know where the path was.
Picture a dusty, red colored, clear cut road, in the middle of an African forest. Now try to imagine looking for a small branch, head-height with a tiny blue ribbon on it indicating an overgrown path through the jungle. Yeah, this wasn’t easy.
We marched back and forth down this road, frequently stepping into the forest to see if our path could be distinguishable from the surrounding undergrowth. But each possible transect didn’t seem right- shrouded in leaves and branches and green, overtaken by the forest, our path was impossible to find.
Pressure was mounting in the back of my mind. I could see my group was getting frustrated. It was nearly Ten o’clock and we hadn’t done a single thing except get lost all morning. I really wanted to give them the best experience possible- I mean they paid thousands of dollars to be here, I need to deliver!
I did my best to be positive and keep them laughing and having fun. I was good at that.
Suddenly, I saw a break in the wall of jungle to my left and thought it was worth checking out. I told my group to take a seat, relax, and that I would walk down this path for a few minutes, to ascertain if indeed it was our way. I had high hopes anyhow.
I took one volunteer with me, a Swedish guy named Mattias. He was awesome because we liked the same heavy metal bands.
So while the rest of our troop sat down and took a break from the morning’s bushwhacking, Mattias and I waded into the forest, feeling almost consumed by it.
We chatted a little as we stepped over felled trees and grappled with spider webs while swatting flies and mosquitos. This was a real jungle experience!
After hacking our way through, we came to a clearing in the forest, about the size of a football field, with tall, tall grasses filling the area and… a clearly defined path, straight through the middle of it! We found our way!
I was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to run back and tell everyone the good news- my ego bounding to fall in their good graces again as the best leader ever.
But, just to be safe, I suggested to Mattias that we cross the clearing to the other side, just to be sure. He nodded in agreement.
I started down the path, moving aside the tall grasses when at once I realized we weren’t alone. Something was moving in all directions. They were everywhere. The grass, up to 6 feet tall, was waving back and forth throughout the clearing. Creatures hid here, bumbling to and fro, screeching, cawing and yipping at us. We walked right into a troop of baboons.
There must have been a hundred of them, but we couldn’t see anything. Hiding in the thicket of grasses like raptors in a wheat field, they scattered and called to us, shaking the forest as they went. Flashes of olive-grey fur caught the corner of my eye as suspense mounted.Like from #TheLostWorldJP. W/ raptors closing in through the grass! #DinosaurAttack Click To Tweet
But I knew through training that they were more scared of us than we were of them. So I cleared my throat and instructed Mattias that on the count of three, we would clap and holler loudly to scare the baboons away, and push further into the bush.
This worked just fine, very well in fact. The troop of baboons gave way, tucked tail and ran for cover. Smiling again, I sighed a breath of relief.
On one hand I would hate for some kind of incident with a baboon, they’re extremely powerful animals with canine teeth longer than a lions, but I also promised myself to give my group a great experience, and after being lost all morning, I felt obligated to venture onward.
Mattias and I had crossed the field successfully. I stopped clapping and shouting, confident now the troop was a safe distance away. I meant to walk a little more (now standing once again before a wall of thick jungle), to finally convince myself this was the way. Almost ready to turn back, I heard this… kind of growl. It was a dark, bellowing bark that echoed throughout the whole of the forest.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
Without thinking, my heart started pounding out of control as adrenaline poured through my blood. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up in a nauseating, cold chill while an empty pit in my stomach grew, threatening to make me sick. FEAR. This was fear.
“What was that?” I asked Mattias. I turned to him- his skin was a pale, sickly white with his jaw dropped and shaking slightly… he was terrified too.
I noticed now the forest had fallen silent. There was no wind. No movement. The troop of baboons which seemed on our heels just seconds ago, had all but disappeared. There was no sign of them, not even a sound. Where were they?
The forest suddenly felt haunted, as if a dark cloud loomed overhead, enveloping just us and whatever lay beyond the trees. Then, we heard it again. A menacing, CCGGAOOOOWWWWWWWW sound that scared me beyond belief. It was like an explosion of rage and terror, a mighty roar from a ghostly lion. But this was no ghost. I decided it could have only been one thing- the dominant male baboon of the troop. The Alpha.
He was warning us. We had stumbled into his territory and this was now, as a matter of fact, a life or death situation. Against a full-grown male baboon, bent on defending his territory, we wouldn’t stand a chance. We would be torn to pieces.
I have been afraid for my life 3 times. One of those times was while driving trucks in the oil field, and another was here, on the cusp of being mauled by a baboon.
It was a non-decision, we couldn’t come this way. We turned around slowly and made our way back to the group, not talking the whole way. When we finally rejoined the rest, they didn’t even say hello. One look at us and they knew something had happened. The shock and concerned on the faces of the Vols was enough for me to call it a day. We told them what happened as we dragged our feet back to base.
“You’re never going to believe what happened in the forest today!!” Our story was the buzz of conversation for the afternoon. Once everyone was home safe and sound, I walked back to the staff banda and sat with my friends, still kind of shaken. I was going through a massive adrenaline crash.
I had a beer to calm my nerves as I listened to other staff members reassure me I did the right thing. Even my manager agreed it was too dangerous to proceed on that path, and that I’d made the right call. That was helpful to hear. Still, part of me felt guilty that my group didn’t get what they paid for- forest research. In my mind, they were mad at me for getting lost, only to turn around and come home. But I had to keep telling myself that had I pressed forward, someone could have been hurt or even killed. I did the right thing.
That night it was business as usual. I was back to having fun, drinking, partying and laughing with my friends. The drama and ceaseless adventures of my life would make great stories one day, this I knew. And I still had 5 weeks left in Kenya!