Becoming a monkey’s uncle
In America, when you see a Land Rover, it’s likely to be in Beverly Hills. Here it is a shiny status symbol for those whose ”other car” really is a BMW.
But in the veld country of southern Africa, the Land Rover is a necessity. Usually beat up and painted with an inch or two of dried mud, it is a life support system in a region, like the Venda region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province, that has only seven miles of paved road.
Venda is stuck in the northeast corner of South Africa and is slightly larger than Delaware. It has only one city, Thohoyandou, where most of the pavement can be found. Outside the city, you depend on gravel roads and dirt.
It is a land where most people farm and raise cattle. Almost everyone lives in a round mud hut called a rondavel that is at most 15 feet in diameter. Small villages are scattered through the hills. You can tell who has status, or at least who has money. While most rondavels have thatched roofs, some of them show off by having tin roofs.
Even more ostentatious are those with double-hung windows cut into the mud walls and at least one rondavel in the capital is two stories tall.
And in the north, about 30 miles south of the Limpopo River that divides South Africa from Zimbabwe, there is a primitive provincial park called Nwanedi. Covered with low hills and scrub vegetation, it is a place where your Land Rover may very well have to stop to allow a herd of giraffes in front of you to cross what passes for a road.
The grassland passed by and we headed up into the hills. We passed the defining baobab and acacia trees of the region. The baobab is built like a gargantuan broccoli, with a massive trunk and only the wisp of foliage floating around its top. The Venda people say that God planted the baobab tree upside down, with its roots in the air.
The acacia is the tree you see in every photograph of Africa, where the top of the tree seems spread out like the anvil on an aging thunderhead. It is a spiky tree and sometimes called the ”umbrella thorn.”
But two other trees were more interesting to our guide. One is the marula tree, which is related to the mango, and bears a sweet, tasty fruit that ripens just as it falls from the tree. Tasting a little like a persimmon, the fruit quickly ferments on the ground where it is sometimes eaten by animals. Elephants have been known to go on a bender when the marula fruit ripens.
And the mopane tree, with large leaf pairs that look like the twin prints of a deer hoof. A type of caterpillar feasts on the tree and in turn the Venda people feast on the mopane worm.
Unfortunately, the worms were out of season when we were there.
It’s a dusty trip, and in January on the other side of the equator, quite hot.
So our guide — who would make Crocodile Dundee look like a sissy — suggested we drive up to a little place he knew for a swim under a waterfall.
The Land Rover left anything that could even be mistaken for a road and went into the bush. When we crossed a dry stream bed, the Land Rover climbed over boulders the size of Holsteins and dipped and lifted its wheels individually as the engine pulled us along at the speed of a snail.
When we could drive no more, we got out and walked. At the end of the path was a waterfall and a pool cut into the rocks underneath a 50-foot yellow sandstone cliff.
Sunlight angled in from one side and the blue sky and yellow rock were fragmented and reflected in the pool.
And the most extraordinary thing happened. A troop of baboons peeked over the top of the cliff at us. There were eight or a dozen of them — it was hard to count them as their heads tentatively bobbed up and down among the rocks — and they were led by one aggressive alpha male who picked me out to negotiate with, probably because I was the only one out of the water at the time, sunning myself on the rocks.
While the rest of the baboons would poke their heads up and squawk and then disappear, the leader stared at me and bared his teeth. He sat on a promontory and rocked slowly back and forth, holding himself up with his arching front legs.
I didn’t know what the body language meant exactly, but I thought I’d reciprocate. So, I faced him, bared my teeth and bobbed back and forth. It drove him nuts. He screeched and ran behind a rock. When he reappeared, he went through the process again. So did I. He screeched and ran behind a rock.
We did this four or five times before he seemed to give up. I don’t know if he accepted me as his new boss, or whether he just thought the water hole wasn’t important enough to defend at that moment, but it felt to me as if I were communicating with an alien. He might as well have been from another planet, and we made halting and fretful attempts to figure each other out.
At any rate, they left us alone and went back to gleaning through the grass at the top of the rocks.
And I wondered if I were now an adopted baboon.