Ethiopia is the opposite of what the world tells us – there’s nothing that will prepare you for the beauty and richness of experiences this country has on offer. I certainly had no clue what was in store for me the day I visited Simien Mountains National Park.
The aim of my Ethiopia visit was to enjoy the ruggedness of the Simien Mountains, otherwise known as the Chessboard of the Gods. It’s also one of the best places in the world to view Gelada monkeys at close quarters. That said, just how close my encounter was going to be was certainly not on the brochure!
Finding a troop of Gelada’s was not too hard. Essentially once you have spotted one, you can expect several hundred in tow; they are gregarious and very social (no jokes!). They are also the last surviving species of a once widespread group of grass-grazing primates, living in some of the most complex primate communities and indeed requiring the most advanced and varied communication skills – which in Gelada consist of an incredible vocabulary of grunts, barks and mutterings that is very audible when you are sitting amongst them.
Out of the blue, a small female ambled towards me and sat a foot away from me with her back to me. Scared to spoil the moment, I did what any great biologist in the world would do… NOTHING!
Annoyed by my lack of social skills, the female turned her head, gave me the once-over with her beady eyes and, placing her left hand over her right shoulder, tapped and shrugged her shoulder. The primal instinct in me knew exactly what I was being asked to do, and letting go of all fears, I reached over and started to groom for the very first time. A total novice, I applied every move I had observed over the last years and duly worked her fur and back from one shoulder blade to the next.
Gotta admit that I was petrified that on the next hair parting, I would find some “gogga” (ectoparasite) that would require me to pry it out and bite its head off. Luckily, my first-ever grooming partner was parasite-free. My eyes were hurting though – from keep an eye on my chore and on the nearby large dominant males in case they objected to my actions.
Just as I thought I was off the hook, she turned her head to reveal eyes tightly shut and bright pink eyelids – signs of ecstasy. She motioned unequivocally with her hand and, by tilting her neck sideways, asked for a neck groom.
I worked her neck on both sides, scalp, behind the ears and throat… and finally decided to call it a day. As I started to leave she spun around on her buttocks and faced me, scanning for fur to groom. It was my turn and so I lowered my head and pointed at it; she rose in front of me and started to work my curls, ears, neck, and sideburns!
Tables now reversed I still feared that she may find something in my hair. After all, she was a pro at this game and surely had a much better-trained eye than mine. But fortunately, it all ended in a draw – Ethiopia 0, South Africa 0.
My troop and fellow travelling partners on this safari to Ethiopia now needed lunch, and her troop had drifted a few meters beyond… somehow we both knew to which troop we belonged and parted our ways. However, there is not a day that goes by that I wonder how she shares this story with others.
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