Animal Encounter Gold Winner: The Battle of Waterkloof

By Gerald Yeung

Bruce Lee vs. the Namibian Baboon Army.

Namibia was founded on two indisputable truths. One: it never rains. Thus I lose my favorite excuse to opt out of a hike. Two: every Asian person is Bruce Lee. These two random facts play pivotally in the attack of the baboons.

The Waterkloof Trail, which exists only in a theoreti¬cal sense, consists of 17 kilometers of yellow markers. My friend Bearcat and I are told to follow them religiously.

“Oh, and take this map too,” says one of the park rang¬ers. On a crumpled piece of paper he sketches a crooked circle and scribbles small words along the perimeter. This is a Picasso of maps and a leap of faith to follow.

Our hike begins on a high note. We talk, we laugh, and we trap tadpoles in our baseball caps. With Taylor Swift blasting on my iPod, I am having the time of my life. “You smell that?” I ask, navigating through a thicket of tall grass.

“Smells like piss.”

Really strong piss.”

“It’s getting worse.”

When I can find nothing comical to say about this pun¬gency, a sense of urgency ensues. We inspect our shoes for rhinoceros diarrhea and find none. Then we scan for lurk¬ing predators, recalling from a recent game drive that it is a male lion’s territorial nature to urinate on everything. No lions. Good.

Then we identify the source—a rotting zebra. I dart away from the carcass before my breakfast returns as pro¬jectile vomit. My previous craving for zebra steak has evaporated, but Bearcat has already removed his pocket¬knife. “What cut would you like for lunch?”

We continue and the midpoint marker materializes after a protracted climb. We feast on Goldfish, apples, tan¬gerines, and beef jerky while mesmerized by the landscape beneath. This place has a natural sense of order to it.

“You think they have wi-fi up here?” I ask.

“Probably not.”

“O.K.”

Only three hours in and a record-breaking finish looms. Encouraged, fed and rested, we begin our descent, fearless and unsuspecting. But much to our irritation, the yellow markers, aplenty thus far, have developed a newfound penchant for hiding. I haven’t had to look for anything so hard since Where’s Waldo? In Hollywood. Also, good vision, I discover, doesn’t come easier with age. Neither does patience. With our confidence sky high and patience wearing thin, we invent our own shortcut. It takes us around a hill through human-sized thorn bushes and then down a waterfall on algae-slick rocks. We blaze through every improbable opening, driven by the intan¬gible concept of “manhood” and the unthinkable con¬cept of turning back. When we stumble into a dreamlike cove borrowed from the movie Avatar, it finally hits us—we are lost. Recognizing the severity of our stupidity, we backtrack desperately up the hill. Forty minutes later, the sacred yellow marker reappears.

“I never once doubted our abilities,” I announce.

Bearcat takes a celebratory dip in the river, very much bearlike. I can’t tell if he is trying to cool off or catch salmon. But his victory lap proves premature. The river leads us to a valley tucked between two towering cliffs—the proud home of hundreds of baboons. When their piercing war cries descend upon us, our immediate reaction is denial.

“It can’t be because of us,” I plead to the air. “We just got here. Besides, we humans are distant relatives, honored guests who have traveled from afar to visit.”

But with each measured step we take, the cacophony explodes tenfold. There is no turning back now, not with¬out backtracking thirteen kilometers and getting lost again. Alternatively, if we can somehow explain our situation to these estranged cousins—perhaps mention an ailing grandfather—will they commiserate and let us through? But how do we do this? With our eyes?

“Don’t look them in the eye,” warns Bearcat. He removes his baseball cap to wipe his forehead.

If I were the volatile drama queen in our partnership, Bearcat would be the cool-headed ranger in good times and bad. Now though, his expression betrays raw fear. Make no mistake—death is a distinct possibility here, if not from direct attack, then certainly from subsequent infection. (Fun fact: Untreated rabies can lead to coma and death.) I take his expression as a cue to pick up something sharp and put an angry rap song on my iPod. Where is the face paint when you need it? Being called “Bruce Lee” by everyone in Africa used to annoy me; now it offers a pos¬sible escape. Would my Asian heritage demand the same respect from King Baboon?

I am mortally scared of combat. Shaken though I am, I can smell a character-defining opportunity. Will this be the grand stage where my untried white-belt karate moves wow the world? Or, at the other extreme, a zoological experiment to see if I can outrun a baboon? Bearcat and I exchange a knowing nod and take the brave first step. I resist the urge to peek behind my shoulder for fear of coming across as weak. As the baboons’ bellows of rage reach a crescendo, the past reading I’ve done on survival springs to mind.

Jungle survival, especially on the subject of predatory encounter, has long been a hot topic. Countless litera¬ture and academic research, which likely includes several Ph.D. theses, have offered differing views on what to do and what not to do. Yours truly happens to have a massive appetite for such information.

Peter Allison, author of two candid African safari guides, said it all in his book title, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run. According to wildlife experts, animals often mock charge to see if you flinch. The best thing to do in these situations, they all claim, is to simply stand tall. “Food runs,” Allison’s friend Alpheus cunningly puts it, “and there is nothing in [the wild] you can outrun anyway.” Inaction was Allison’s recipe to surviving a standoff against two male lions. When I was reading his encounter from the safety of my couch, it made a world of sense to me. “Just. Stand. There.” I’d repeated to myself, sipping warm Ovaltine. I mean, shit, how hard can that be?

Fast-forward two months and here I am in Naukluft, presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to prove just that. For all the discipline with which I committed Allison’s words to memory, it takes one swift glance at a baboon’s fearsome teeth to swing my pendulum of indecision. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson offered a more cynical approach. “If you are in an open space with no weapons and a grizzly comes for you,” Bryson wrote, “run. You may as well,” he added, “if nothing else, it will give you something to do with the last seven seconds of your life.”

To run, or not to run, that is the question. Do I bet on expertise derived from years of field experience, or side with my vulnerable literary idol? In the end, I choose the latter—the coward in me relates to Bryson’s human shortcomings. Besides, being the elder of the two, Bryson has a longer track record of survival. In times like this, trust the numbers.

The baboons jump and wail and flail their arms. Then finally, the army charges our way. I freeze on the spot, moving only my arm to reach for Bearcat. “It has been an honor” is what I would have said had I not been so busy crapping my pants.

Then, a miracle.

They halt ten feet short of our defense line. They hover back and forth behind an invisible fence. I can see aggres¬sion draining from their faces. Then slowly and reluctantly, they move on. Perhaps they sensed my readiness to fight them to the bitter end. Or perhaps they knew better than to fuck with the Bruce Lee.

The moment Bearcat and I reach the other end of the valley, we toss our weapons and sprint up the hill to safety. Just like that, a showdown between primates is averted. And just like that, these baboons live to see another day.


Gerald Yeung is the author of Wannabe Backpackers: The Latin American and Kenyan Journey of Five Spoiled Teen¬agers. His futile pursuit of the American Dream was documented on the Hong Kong government youth blog. Now living in San Jose, California, outside baboon domain, he spends his free time running away from dogs. “The Battle of Waterkloof” won Gold in the Animal Encounter Category of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.

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