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 the 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 baboons at close quarters… mind you… 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 on 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.
But regardless how amazing they had told me they were, I still have no idea what word describes best my utter surprise when 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 have seen, watched and photographed over the last years and duly worked her fur and back from one shoulder blade to the next.
Gotta admit… I was petrified that on the next hair parting I would find some “goga” (ectoparasite) that would require that dreadful action (I am sure you know which one I mean) – the one when they pry it out and bite its head off, or nibble it to death. Luckily, my first ever grooming partner was quite parasite-free and there was no need to step into de-bug mode. I was elated to have groomed my way to her left shoulder blade with no surprises, and kept all my fingers. My eyes were hurting though…. as it is not easy to keep an eye on what you are doing, and another one on any of the bigger dominant males around – after all, I had no idea whom my grooming partner really belonged to?
Just as I thought I was off the hook, An-Gelada (as I decided to call her…) turned her head once more to look at me. This time her small beady eyes were not there any more – they were shut, covered by bright pink eyelids, clearly enjoying the moment and yearning for more!
She motioned unequivocally with her hand and by tilting her neck sideways, asking for a neck groom. Not only was I keeping an eye on her, and her putative male partners, but I’m sure I checked to see if my wife was around (LOL!!!).
I worked her neck on both sides, scalp, behind the ears and throat… and finally decided to call it a day. I may have expected her to leave, but instead she spun on her buttocks and faced me, eyes open and scanning my bare face, her eyebrows wriggled frantically as she searched for fur to groom on my clothed persona. I somehow knew that my turn had come, so I lowered my head and pointed at it, and with not an inkling of hesitation she rose in front of me and started to work my curls, ears, neck, sideburns… the LOT!
Now, tables 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 0-0.
My troop and fellow travelling partners 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…. if she has ever!