*This post is a bit late – the following events happened a month ago, in South Africa*
I’ll admit, I was slightly dreading my stay in Plett Bay last month, where I would be sharing a stranger’s home along with scores of gap year volunteers.
I was there because I wanted to spend some time at Monkeyland, a world-class sanctuary for rescued monkeys, in the shape of a whopping 12-hectare forest where they roam freely around you.
Obviously, I was really excited about the monkeys. I was just worried about the big house full of gap year students. This is because it is in my nature to be a lone wolf. And also because I was still drastically ill with definitely-bronchitis and was feeling ever more lone wolfish than usual.
Paula was assigned with looking after me and carting me around for the five days I spent there. I’ve mentioned Paula before briefly, but as a reminder, she is an English volunteer who stays here for ages at a time.
She used to work in HR in the UK, with a pretty serious sounding job, but then she fell in love with Monkeyland. So she sold her house, her car, and most of her worldly belongings and she came out here to work for the monkeys, for free.
Paula has a heart of gold, laughs more than most people I’ve ever met (she chuckles after literally everything she says, even if she’s talking about the weather), and lives in the house full of gap year kids.
As it turned out, this house I was dreading was wonderful.
It’s owned by a very matriarchal animal-loving South African called Steph, who has three grown up sons and three dogs. I don’t know where the sons were, but the dogs were mostly in the garden playing.
Steph runs a regional tourism company called Go Garden Route, and has several rooms in her house, each with several beds in them, where volunteers for Monkeyland pass through all year.
She does unusual things like gets up every single morning at 5am, rain or shine, to go and watch the sun rise from the nearby beach.
With her highly efficient, caring, no-nonsense, ludicrously calm disposition, Steph is exactly the sort of person you’d want around in the event of an apocalypse.
Every morning at 7am, the madness begins.
The kitchen counter is set up with a military sort of breakfast layout, a production line of toast popping and hissing coffee pots.
There’s a TV blaring in the background, set to whatever channel it is that plays loud 80s classics on loop.
It might sound like hell but scuttling around in the morning with eight animal-devoted volunteers to the tune of Boy George is a surprisingly good way to start the day, as it transpires.
Steph barks at anyone who hasn’t done their chores, then bids them an affectionate farewell as everyone piles into cars and shuttles off to work at Monkeyland.
Monkeyland is a very, very special place.
Lots of organisations round here call themselves ‘sanctuaries’ but they aren’t, they are glorified zoos. This really is a sanctuary, consisting of acres and acres of forest, where 11 different species of free-roaming monkeys call home.
Many have been rescued from dreadful situations; having being kept chained up, as illegal pets, or in circuses. There are about 600 living there now, all of whom have formed families and found their place in the vast space.
Monkeyland has a very strict no-touch policy.
My knee-jerk reaction was to be disappointed that I would not have the opportunity to shake hands with one of these fascinating creatures, but that was only until I understood why they have this approach.
The aim, for these guys, is to actually ween their rescue monkeys OFF interactions with humans, so they can live as natural a life as possible in the jungle.
And it is natural. They can go where they please. Humans are only allowed to wander around a section of their forest. If they get injured, most of the time, nature takes it course. No interfering.
Sometimes dehumanising them is a long process, particularly for the monkeys who have been trained to do tricks, and are used to getting food in return for providing entertainment.
But the rule is, if a monkey starts doing backflips in front of you, ignore him – hard as that is.
To see them then scuttle off, bounce from the floor to the branches above and swing their way back to their band of mates, chattering happily as they go, is really very rewarding.
Humans are so arrogant to demand that we should be able to lock animals in cages and then either eat them or stroke them lovingly, depending on what animal.
Paula put it in quite a good way. She said, “Remember when you were little and smelly relatives would just come up and pat your head and coo at you in a boundary-blasting fashion? And how unpleasant that was?”
So anyway, all my days were spent like this, sauntering around the forest with Paula and watching the monkeys get on with lives, without being patted aggressively on the head.
I imagine some people would find it boring, but I could have stayed for weeks, observing these funny animals – who are so, so, so human in their gestures and facial expressions – live out their retirement from harsh pasts.
In the evenings, Paula and I would head back to Steph’s house, and we’d all sit around outside the fire and eat and drink wine and tell stories.
The other volunteers came from every corner of the world.
I particularly liked Lea, the pretty French chain-smoker who flounced around the house wearing a towel turban on her head and a green face mask, scattering witty remarks like glitter – in the sort of way only a French person can get away with.
I also warmed to James, a South African surfer/lifeguard/construction boss, and friend of Steph’s oldest son, who possesses a tan, a shock of peroxide blonde hair, a grin the size of Pluto and a decidedly evil sense of humour.
My dear friend Robson asked me one morning, from LA, whether I was getting lonely yet on this voyage of mine. Good question.
No, I certainly never feel lonely, and I’m alone a lot. But staying at Steph’s house, and being around such a vibrant throng of people for such a merry slice of time, made me remember how nice it is, actually, not to be alone.
On the way to the airport, the aforementioned Sad Bad thing happened (through my phone) and as I hugged Paula goodbye and clambered on the next plane, I cried a bit.
It was all OK though. Botswana came next, and that dried up the tears pronto.
*Disclaimer – the reason this post took so long is because my laptop somehow lost all the photos I had taken of Monkeyland (it’s all gone to SHIT since Steve Jobs died) and I thought maybe I could salvage them, but it seems not, so most of these photos were taken by Paula and nicked by me*