Friday, October 30

Walk on the Wild Side

Perhaps you readers remember that thing I said about it being very rare for one to ever see two baboon troops come into direct contact because of how good they are at avoiding each other.

Turns out I was dead wrong about part of that statement.

Having not accomplished jack this week thanks to the baboons being all out of place, I wanted to go out and do something. Just finding one of our missing troops would be satisfying enough. Tina and I thus decided to go look for them off in the boondocks of the left side (don't tell me it doesn't make sense - that's just what we call it) of the mountain. We had no GPS readings or anything else to go by except our ears and knowledge of where the had been the previous few days.

Our main troop was up the mountain yesterday, but not today. We drove back out and headed up to the second troop's usual spot. We asked mountain bikers for any tips as we usually do, though no one came through today. None were seen on this road. Our last ditch effort was to go up to the high road and see what we could find.

"Look! Baboons!" Tina shouted and pointed directly ahead. I hit the brake and the car ground to an abrupt halt on the dirt road, narrowly avoiding the murder of three juveniles. We hopped out for a quick inspection. After spotting a few key characters like Mortimer, Bruno, and Eva, we identified them as troop-number-two. At last!

We unpacked our stuff so we could follow them. This plan did not last long. A wahoo echoed into the forest, originating nearby. And I heard a reply from further down the mountain. Tina and I looked at each other. Neither of us was going to get real data out of this day. We both knew the other wanted to find out what was happening down there.

We followed some of the young adult males down the hill, eventually passing them when they halted. They were a bit agitated - actually the whole troop seemed more vocal and excited than usual. We crossed the lower road we had already gone through, and kept moving into the bushes.

We found our main troop. Well, we found half of them. The juveniles and sub-adults were all there, mucking about, grunting, and acting just as agitated. Bertrand, Chester, and Damian, the other three adult males, were all there, too. Only two or three adult females could be seen.

We were both quite happy to have found these guys. They were still way too high up on the mountain, and far out of their home range, but it was closer to their usual territory than in the previous few days. I felt somewhat relaxed, so I went across the road into the bushes have a celebratory pee.

As I am doing this, a wild cacophony erupts behind me. I turn around mid-stream and see a pack of  sub-adult males from troop 2 charging down the hill towards the road where all the troop 1 juveniles and sub-adults are sitting. Shit was starting real fast. As soon as I finish my piss, I turn around and dash after them, fumbling with my pants and zipper, which I manage to get closed just before I jump into the thicket of dead branches and needles after the males.

Screams and wahoos are everywhere in there, males are chasing each other up and down trees, and around frightened children. The whole place is a huge mess and I can't begin to follow everything that's happening. But I know I am witnessing a rare event. The larger defensive force of Tr.1 eventually pushes back Tr.2, out of the thicket. They take up spots in the trees nearby, and the wahooing continues. I didn't think sub-adults could wahoo. Boy was I wrong.

Tr.1 eventually pushed Tr.2 back further, a ways up the mountain. The two sub-adult forces sat there for quite some time, me sitting in the neutral zone between them, watching. The wahooing had ended, and the groups had settled down to just staring daggers at each other, a mere 20 meters between them.

This seemed to be going on forever, so I went to find Tina to see what she'd learned. She pointed out that the females were nowhere to be found, but there were still fainter wahoos coming from down the hill. We both wanted to know more.

Down through the forest, we saw a large male running around, chasing some other baboons occasionally, and even more occasionally giving a wahoo. When we reached the next road down, we saw it was Aaron, alpha king of the troop. And he had herded all the females this way, far from the site of battle. We found almost all of our missing females down there, and Aaron was being more forceful in pushing them around than we'd ever seen. He had a reputation as being a calm and "sweet" baboon, in spite of being the alpha.

It was tense down there, as one would expect from a dozen females who were being pushed away from everyone else in the troop by a single massive male. It was simmering down, though. I had seen the end of the conflict, now it was just a matter of tensions subsiding. We weren't going to wait, though. It was rather late by this point, and we'd found three of four troops in a single day with minimal advanced info.

Right now I'd like to bow to science, and give a brief description of the model which is usually (and was) obeyed during these troop-to-troop engagements. The groups get divided into two factions during these encounters: the leader males with the females, and the sub-adults and juveniles.

The sub-adults and juveniles are an excitable bunch as always, and they tend to itch for fights and new things. The cape baboons are definitely what we call neophilic. Also, the young males (of which there are many), will eventually need to emigrate from their troops, and they don't have a lot of choice. They frequently use these instances to get information about opposing females, if possible. Plus, if they're really lucky, during one of their incursions they'll be able to copulate with a female.

Which is why the alpha and most females stay very far away. The females don't care much, but the alpha doesn't want anyone getting near his females. Just as Aaron did, the alpha will herd the females away from the opposing troop, quite a distance sometimes, in order to protect them for his own good.

In the end, the troops go their own ways and it doesn't happen again for a very long time. (Un)fortunately, we're not dealing with chimpanzee warfare here in Cape Town.

Wednesday, October 28

Don't Let This Happen To You

A few days ago, we were up on the mountain with the troop, and followed them into the upper vineyards. This is a common place for them to forage. They don't care for the vines much, but the fallow fields nearby are perfect for them since they are filled with a wild, barley-esque grain.

The group was on edge this day, since the second troop had been spotted a few hills away. There was nothing for our troop to do but avoid them, but certain thresholds had been lowered...

Alia has been acting a bit off-color lately, probably because she is pissed that her baby died. Today, she decided to blow off some steam in the vineyards.

Alia lashed out at one of the juvenile females. We don't know why. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe she had a smaller altercation with the juvenile's mother earlier in the day and decided to take it out on the child. However, Alia is not a high ranking female, so her chasing and swatting at a higher ranked juvenile made a lot of the females unhappy.

The chase quickly changed shape, and Alia became the target of the rage of almost a dozen baboons. She screamed and ran, while the others screamed and followed. All the while, I stood in one of the vine rows with my supervisor, quietly observing and recording. Then, the chase halted, and Alia was left surrounded by the opposing force of baboons. She grunted threateningly at them, and they responded in kind.

Then, Alia turned her gaze up, towards me. I was standing a dozen meters behind the arc of baboons threatening Alia. She threat-grunted in my direction, and raised her eyebrows repeatedly, a clear aggressive gesture.

Instantaneously, the other baboons wheeled about, threat-grunted, and raised their eyebrows in my direction.I froze. I had no idea what happened; if I was their target. Bottom line was that a dozen angry baboons staring at me with murderous intent.

This is a classic Oh Shit moment in zoology. Pissing off a male is easy to fix. You back down immediately and show you are submissive. Male fights are dangerous and costly - they won't fight you if you show them they've already won. Mothers are a different story. When you're surrounded by a horde of them, it is usually very unclear why they feel threatened by you. One cannot say what the smart move is. A dozen angry baboon females can bring on far more hurt than a lone, lumbering male.

So I froze in fear.  The seconds crawled by, and after... (probably) 3 seconds, the females returned to screaming and barking and all dispersed throughout the field.

Maybe they were threatening me, maybe they were not, maybe I did something to scare them off or maybe they realized their mistake and the silliness of their actions. No one can know the mind of an angry mob, whether it be human or baboon. I prefer to just be thankful.

Friday, October 23


We had a pleasant surprise waiting for us in the field on Monday. Well, several, actually. Firstly, despite finding "our troop" during the search the previous night, it turned out that it was an entirely different troop. We know little about them except they're small, quiet, and show up out of thin air to get in the way when you want to collect data. Their big old male was throwing a huge male fit where the adults all chased each other around while shouting and jumping.

I was following around a female I thought to be Punzle since she had a young baby who would be the target of many grunts. However, the child looked different to me. Was it just the natural process of getting older and the fur changing colors?
you can't tell unless you've seen them with this expression hundreds of times, but the older sibling on the right is SO PISSED that those boobies are now off limits for him
Quite the opposite actually. The child had become younger.

This was a true newborn baboon, a "blackie" as we call them. As one would expect, the name derives from the extreme darkness of their hair, which fades with age. Wendy had given birth sometime over the weekend and we were the first humans to see her new child. There will be a great amount of grunting in the troop with the newborn around.
you have no fucking idea how hard it was to get a decent version of this picture. The mothers won't let us anywhere near their newborns, so I had to zoom in to the most retardedly high magnification and take like 70 shots
The rest of the day passed as usual, and it was only when we wished to leave that an obstacle threw itself in our path.

I've mentioned Rickey before. He's a sub-adult male, probably between 6 and 7 years old. Every troop has one like him: a sub-adult who invariably has an attitude problem.

We're headed back to the car so we can go home, and there are a few juvenile males sitting on the roof. They dash away as we open the doors and start doing our thing. This is normal behavior.
aw dude you know I'd totally get off your car if I could but I suddenly became so fucking fat as soon as I lay down here
However, Rickey has to one-up his little cousins, so he prances over to the car and climbs on top, refusing to move. We quickly shut the doors and step back, not sure what to do. Somehow we have to get rid of him, but will he get physically aggressive? Its unlikely, but still a considerable risk if he does get angry. Rickey uses our moments of hesitation to let loose hot piss all over the roof of the car. Truly, this is our glory.

Tina mentions some things about "testosterone" at which point, tired of waiting and sick of Freddie's antics, I say "I'll take care of it," and approach the car, key in hand. I carefully unlock the automobile, occasionally glancing at Rickey, who's head is drooped over the roof a few feet from me. No aggressive expressions from either of us. I open the door, climb in, and shut it with more than the usual force.

Rickey remains immobile. He'll never know what hit him. There are several ways to do this, and at this point, I am safe and it all just becomes enjoyable from my end. I shift into reverse before starting the car, then quickly turn the key in the ignition and pull out of the parking slot.

The combination of engine noise and sudden backwards motion sends Freddie scrambling for stable earth. We all have a good laugh, though are sobered somewhat when we remember that the back left portion of the car is covered in baboon urine. Poop and pee makes our work feel more legitimate sometimes, and it certainly gives one's car the real African feel. Real African smell, too.

Tuesday, October 20


What a day. It wasn't looking hot to begin with, though the heat of the sun built up substantially, and we had to get up extra early to seek out the troop, which had "wandered" up the side of the mountain. We succeeded in finding them, and as we followed, the events of the day made this day perhaps the most exciting I've seen so far.

First, an update on the dead baby situation. Alia seemed to have returned to normal, no false-wahoo'ing, less  overt breast swelling. She might not be on good terms with some folks though, but more on that later. Unfortunately, Matilda (one of the pregnant females) gave birth over the weekend, but her baby also died. She was carrying the decaying corpse around today, though she did not appear to be as stricken as Alia had been. We believe the cause of death was probably something related to the birth, as we saw no signs of violence on the corpse.

Early in the day, tensions were high among the troop. The team has consistently remarked that the troop is a more aggressive troop than others we've seen around in various parts of the world, including right here, and the death of two infants wasn't lessening any of the strain. The big impact today was the presence of the second troop, who we could not see at first, but could definitely hear. Many wahoo's carried over the woods to our location. Aaron (alpha) and Bertrand (older adult male) responded with their own wahoo's on occasion.

Once the troop was finished with its extended sunbathing session, they walked into the woods, doubtlessly headed toward the vineyards. In the woods, the air became literally hazy with all the pine pollen being released. Hopefully this means my allergic reactions will diminish soon, as the pollen is expended. The other troop's wahoo's were heard by our troop from the edge of the woods, and from this point forward, events became a bit unclear.

Aaron became quite incensed, and began aggressively chasing one of the females. This might have been displacement aggression brought on by the other troop. Adult baboons moving at full speed are very difficult to follow, much less meticulously observe, but from what I saw, the whole troop went into a bit of a frenzy at the sight of this seemingly unprovoked aggression. When I saw Aaron a few seconds later, two females were chasing him. I followed them deeper into the forest, where Aaron was wahoo'ing at a female (I'm guessing the same one), both of them slowly climbing up the same tree.

At this point, Bertrand steps into the picture. Aaron is wahoo'ing his head off, and Bertrand is just slowly approaching, from behind me. He grunted like he would to an infant as a sign of affection. I stepped out of his way and he stopped at the foot of the tree and continued his grunting. Aaron advanced on the female through the branches. I noticed she was caring an infant, probably about a year old, and both were screaming at high pitches at Aaron.

Aaron closed within striking distance, and took a swipe at the female. Bertrand exploded. His eyes lit up and his massive old frame rocketed up the tree at Aaron. The two wahoo'd and roared at each other as they exchanged swipes. Bertrand drove Aaron up the tree until he had nowhere to go, at which point the younger adult leapt to the next tree over. Bertrand continued to threaten him, but gradually worked his way down the tree with the female and child, and went away with them into the forest undergrowth. Aaron remained in his tree for some time.

All the while, I stood there and watched the entire scene unfold. It was pretty sweet. My supervisor couldn't help but remark on the massive grin drawn across my face when I returned to report on my findings.

We talked about the event for a while. None of us could explain why exactly Aaron went apeshit. Maybe it was displacement aggression since Aaron was too far from the other troop to battle with their males, but was put on edge by the constant wahoo'ing. However, the female's child was almost certainly one of Bertrand's little entourage. There would be no reason for him to go to such lengths to defend the female and child from the alpha male unless he believed the child to be of his blood. I asked about Bertrand's grunting, which might have seemed out of place. It is most likely that Bertrand wanted to calm the situation, make everyone, Aaron and spectators alike, cool down. This is one of the major documented uses of grunts among baboons. Usually it is quite effective...

So, I had finally seen some real male aggression, up close and personal. And I saw my preferred male come out ahead. Not bad at all.

The troop continued through the woods to the vineyard, where they foraged for some time. We actually saw troop 2 several vinefields away, but a full on altercation between the groups didn't occur. Such encounters are very very rare, and I'll probably not see one before my time here is up. Today's antics were more than satisfactory to sate my desire to witness action.

What a weird day.

I keep having to push back all these entries I've been brainstorming (some since before I arrived) but when things like this happen, a lot of events get superseded. It also explains a lot of why my estimated ideal posting rate of "twice a week" has jumped to "about every other day." And even now I'm still accruing more content that I've got time to distill. I hope you like text? (I've got a lot more pictures too...)

Monday, October 19


Friday's in the field always suck. Lately they've been these epically long days. I could endure such an inconvenience on virtually any other day - I would just go back to HQ and do some fun and maybe even productive stuff. On Fridays its the end of the week and its all been building upon you, and the weekend is so close.

Friday turned out to be a long and somber day. We found the baboons in a usual sleeping spot. As soon as we arrived we became confused, since we kept hearing the "wahoo" call... from a female. A wahoo call is a very specialized male call that only the mature male contenders are known to use. Why was this female seeming to wahoo? She was Alia, mother of the youngest baby baboon in the troop. Or, at least she had been. The baby was nowhere to be seen.
cue powerpoint photo montage, backed by Green Day - Good Riddance
The infant was dead. We knew this because Alia's breasts were full, real full of milk which wasn't getting consumed and didn't have anywhere to go.

The whole tribe seemed to be awkwardly avoiding the subject. After about half an hour with them, I could no longer shake the feeling that this was going to be a very quiet day. Here was this female in mental and physical anguish, screaming out at her fellows. Everyone just kept silent and didn't do anything about it. But what could they do?

... and I just called the troop a tribe. One of those little things that transcends the editing process.

Baboon grieving can be a disturbing reflection of human behavior. Some of the animals appeared to offer comfort by grooming Alia and letting her groom them. Alia was definitely not a high ranking female, but it appeared the rest of the troop was being lenient with her at this time.

Alia spent the whole day barking randomly. This behavior seemed like it a was a nervous tick, not a choice. She would be grooming a juvenile and out of nowhere she'd let loose that bark, often right in the face of the juvenile. She didn't interrupt her grooming for it. Was it a high level decision based behavior? Was it some built in fixed action pattern elicited by this event? Was it a scream of pain just because her chest hurt from being bloated with milk? (Me: I've heard that hurts when they're overly full; Karen: Oh you better believe it.)

Infanticide is never a surprise among baboons. Infant baboons are extremely vulnerable to disease, predators, and their own kind. This case was even less of a shock to us. The previous Friday, when last we saw the troop, Alia and her child had been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse from females and sub-adults. Alia sought protection from an adult male, a common practice among mothers. Aaron is the alpha, but she did not seek him out, so the child was probably not his. No one in the troop would mess with one of his offspring. Alia went to Bertrand,  another adult male, an older gentleman, huge, but missing his canines and past his prime. He would accept her offers of grooming, but did not seem especially interested in her child. Despite still peckering an isolated female every now and then, Bertrand mostly sticks to the grandfathering role. He is often accompanied by a gaggle of small baboon children who are probably his progeny. Alia wanted her child to be one of them. If Bertrand did offer some protection, it clearly was not enough to make the difference.

Aaron is young, and likely only recently took up the mantle of alpha male. The troop used to have many more males in the troops other than Aaron, Bertrand, and Chester. We do not know where the other males went, but their departure was very recent. I have been considering the possibility that Alia's child was the progeny of none of these males, but belonged to one of those absent, perhaps the previous alpha. With the ascendancy of Aaron and the disappearance of the other males, it is in the best interest of the remaining males to kill her child so that she will begin cycling as soon as possible so that she can produce a new offspring who will carry their genetic material.

The male behavior was clear. But why did Alia seem so distraught? Its very far from obvious. All of the complex cognitive states I "witnessed" in the baboons could have been artifacts of my human perception. To say that the experts disagree on the extent of baboon cognition is an understatement. Some behaviors are clearer than others - the baboons certainly did not feel remorse for killing an infant. The mother's own troubles may not have only been the result of swollen breasts and lingering hormonal desires to suckle and hold an infant.

Alone, the feeling of grief or remorse is not an advantageous behavior. Remorse ought only to exist so as to make sure an animal learns from its mistakes and does not repeat them. Grief might come about as a result of slowly changing hormonal levels which cannot adapt so quickly as the brain can. Grief could also serve a  purpose similar to remorse, to make sure the female does not make the same mistake as she did with the child which died. She won't want to go though these pains again, so she'll change and adapt her behavior to avoid these situations. Next time, she'll know what not to do, and it could save her next child's life. She lost fitness by losing her child, but her ability to care for a child is strengthened, thus increasing the survivability of future offspring and hence, her fitness.

Thus it all works out in the end and every one is... happy?

Monday, October 12

Live from a field in South Africa, Part I

When I started this blog, I wanted to talk about primates and animal behavior a lot, but I also wished to chronicle my adventures through the culture and life of South Africa. This will be the first such dedicated post, and I hope my description lives up to experiences at Rocking the Daises 2009.

All of last week, I kept hearing tidbits from a few people here and there, in the real world and the online one, about some music festival in the Cape Town area. And aKING was playing. That was all I knew. Come Friday, I finally make some effort to see what the logistics and lineup is. In the process I found a sweet site that covers most of the goings ons in Cape Town, which ought to keep me busy and not bored for a while to come. It also told me that the festival started Friday, ran all Saturday and Sunday, was at some wine estate north of the city, and required I buy a ticket at the local coffee shop if they still had any left.

Day 1

I woke up early, and I jetted to the coffee shop (none other than Seattle's Best Coffee - haven't seen any Starbucks yet) and got my ticket... card. One of the main South African ticketing services came up with this idea of giving you a card with a bar code on it, and then when you buy a ticket, it goes on the card in their database, and they scan the card at entry.

Before you can use said card, you need to activate it. So I had to go back to the house and do that before getting out of the house with all my necessities. It was already past 10 and I was missing hard earned music. I hit the road.

The highways and roads in South Africa are a bit on the... slim side. Also the signs suck. This road kept switching between telling me I was on the M7 and the N7. Of course by then they were the same thing, but I kept thinking I had missed by turn. Getting out of Cape Town lead me by this fatty nuclear plant.
those visible supports at the bottom make this look like someone's rush project
The highway is literally right next to the cooling towers, so that you can see the huge steel beams supporting the structures. About a kilometer beyond that, I found myself passing legitimate African shanty towns.
20% less corrugated steel than an average Namibian shantytown
How... convenient. I bet their energy rates are superb!

Well, this was more like the Africa I had been lead to expect. So were the dudes by the side of the road trying to sell everyone giant batches of trash bags, 50 for 3 bucks. Once I got outside of the township areas and into the country, the trip became much less exciting. It generally just looks like a hilly landscape in the midwest when you're in the Western Cape region. There is still bush in South Africa, but you have to go a way.

Oh, right, how far do I have to go? I glanced at a sign: 40 miles?! What the fu-oh its in kilometers, damnit. Thus, I really didn't know how far I had to go or how long it would take since I really didn't have a good idea of how far a kilometer is in terms of a mile. Or how fast kilometers per hour is in terms of mph. But in theory I could reason this out and it would make sense. My mind didn't like this. It felt like it took way too long.

Finally, I pulled into the dirt road which signaled the final stretch. I was waiting in the... "queue" to pull into the lot, and glanced around at the ordinary but nonetheless scenic landscapes.
so uh when I was driving back I ran over the dead animal which was already roadkill (I SWEAR I DIDN'T KILL IT), but I'll be damned if it wasn't a baby ostrich
Hoooooly shit its an ostrich
Africa: Nuthin' but a G Thang
I pulled into the dirty field and grabbed everything. Except my damn water bottle. Well, they must have some sort of solution to this, we're in the middle of nowhere, they can't just be selling people beer. Onwards!

My ticket/card worked like charm, and I got a pack of info with some warpaint, a condom, and a neat booklet inside. The booklet's map became useful in time, but at first was just confusing. Nonetheless, the really big stage and general source of noise made it pretty easy to figure out where I wanted to go.
what no one told me there was a swimming hole. why didn't anyone fucking tell me about the swimming hole?
Provided I knew where I was going at all. Which I didn't. All I knew was that this was some big music festival  with lots of rock and ethnic music, but the rock part meant there would likely be more white people which made it safer. And I paid 350 rand for two days, so it better be good.
In the words of the comedy tent MC: FUCKING HIPPIES
Well, it appears that I had stumbled upon the Bonnaroo of South Africa. A dirty field in a relatively middle of nowhere location, filled with hippies camped out for three days, and lots of rock bands - some big mainstream headliners and a lot of indie and reggaeish stuff. Not as many jam bands, actually, I don't think there were any. More diverse in general from my glances at the Bonnaroo lineups of late. But, because there are only 10 million people in South Africa, it was definitely smaller.

I approached the main stage in time to catch the latter part of the Jack Mantis Band's performance. It was a standard band setup, except Jack sang and played acoustic rhythm, so they had no real lead guitarist. Instead, they had a saxophonist, which I might prefer in general, but was certainly glad to see since I had this strange feeling that I was going to be hearing plenty of electric guitar over the next two days. However, at the end they played this sweet rendition of All Along the Watchtower with the next act, a guitarist named Dan Patlansky.
featuring Moses on the bass!
Then Dan Patlansky played. He's in his late 20's, but he's the most prominent blues-rock guitar virtuoso in South Africa. And, he's really good. There's not a lot more I can say. The guy has incredible talent. But, watching a three piece band where the guitarist is the only one doing anything can get sort of old for an hour. I always did say I liked bands as full as possible.

One other little irksome thing (to me at least) about electric blues is that the vocalists have to have this raspy baritone thing going on. Patlansky definitely did, Mayer's got it, Vaughan did too, certainly Hendrix as well, plus all the black bluesmen. I've heard people say that it something about having soul. Well, what if Marvin Gaye sang electric blues? How would that sound?

Around this time my thirst levels crossed a threshold and initiated an irresistible appetitive behavior which cause me to seek potable water immediately. I had seen some ordinary looking boxes referred to as "Hydration Stations" all around, but no explanation or water source to accompany them. A quick look at the map told me there was one right between the beer huts near the stage. Upon closer inspection (read: talked to the dude giving out water bottles), I learned that the bottles they were giving out would allow me infinite refills. Unfortunately, the bottles cost 5 bucks (40 rand blah blah). I didn't bother asking if I could use their water with a different bottle (since I had left my behind) or if I could fill an empty beer can with water since that just didn't seem like a good plan to last me ten hours. Fine, give me your 40 rand bottle that says "Rocking the Daisies" on it. Now I won't buy a T-shirt unless I really like it.

I stayed by the stage for the "Red Bull Radar" which is this competition to see which up-and-coming band is gonna get this sweet record deal. The three that made it to the finals this year were a Passion Pit type dealie, a solo sensitive folk Jack Johnson type dude, and evil clown violin rodeo music. The last guys were really weird looking and sounding. I though they were going to win. But the unanimous decision came down in favor of the indie electronica dudes.

I'd had about enough by this point, and despite the allure of the saxophonist in the next group, I decided to head to the comedy tent. Yes, there was an exclusive comedy tent! Well, almost exclusive - they had these native drummers dudes playing in there for an hour, which I also listened to. The comedians then came on and joked about them for a while.

But comedy! And I was about to see the Best of the Fest lineup. Well, the tent was certainly packed. A good first sign. I managed to squeeze into the back. Behold my terrifically awful photography! You can't tell the comedian is Xhosa which made for great jokes!
Mahn, you so white its IRRITATIN. Its like a COCAINE party in mah nose except there's no coke, just your WHITENESS.
As I watched these comedians, I began to realize a few things. 1, Afrikaners are weird. 2, Being South African is pretty much like being British, and if I recall, the British know their comedy. 3, imagine the civil war ended 20 years ago. Now imagine the racial comedy in that kind of atmosphere. Oh yeah.

They were all damn funny. However, the closer for that section, Rob van Vuuren, was absolutely amazing. He's definitely got a lot of physical and silly comedy, but the guy was absolutely hilarious. Midway through his extended routine, my face muscles hurt from laughing so much, and that hasn't happened in quite a while. He's pretty respected around here, and he does plenty of shows in Cape Town, so hopefully I'll have more to hear from him.

I've realized of late that I really like comedy. Throughout the summer, I went to a lot of musical gigs for local artists, somewhat for the radio show, but mostly just for fun since I like music and all that. However, a few happenstantial comedy outings set me seeking out more of that just before I left, which why I went to the boston comedy marathon and visited the alternative comedy sleepover to name a few. One might say the culmination was our hour long live radio chats with Dick Doherty. Anyhow, this all reminded me of just how much I like comedy. And I think I had started to forget it since coming here! Thankfully, the comedy tent was there to remind me how great it is and the interesting take on it South Africa can provide.

I also learned something interesting about South African colloquialism. I was very confused when many of the comedians kept using saying the word "cock," but they were using it as an adjective. I eventually reasoned (correctly) at that, that its an Afrikaans way of saying shitty or shit. I didn't realize till later the word is spelled "kak." In a similar vein, getting the local humor of South African people and places is rather interesting, but not too hard to pick up, thankfully. For example, it took me very little time to acquire the knowledge that Port Elizabeth is the New Jersey of South Africa.

So the comedy was great. But when that portion was done, I really did want to get back to the stage for some more music. Thieve was coming up, afterall. After listening to a song or two by them , I decided I was hungry, and needed to replenish my reserves. Fortunately the food hut was located just to the north, where I could still hear the music. I decided to buy food from the braai stand because isn't that what South Africa's all about? I'm quite hungry here; what's the most expensive item on the menu? The Braai Bag? Sure, gimme. The guy said some stuff in a think Afrikaans accent and I paid him... wait, did he say something about grilling this myself? I think I heard a laugh so he must have been joking. A minute later he handed me a bag.

Noooooope, he wasn't joking. Shit, now I have a bag full of raw but delicious looking meat through which the juices are rapidly seeping. Uhh shit shit, I could give it back I guess but that's so much trouble there's got to be some way to salvage this. Hijinx! This is exactly why I came here, baboons and hijinx! Okay, how bad could this be? The meat is cold, so I have no idea how old it was when it was put in their cooler, but its been kept cold. Okay, so if I put it in the car right now and then do my thing for a few hours and drive back, it'll be fine. Yeah! Of course it'll be good, we've done way worse stuff with meat while camping, I'll just make sure I cook it right when I get back and cook it straight to hell. Everything will be fine.

So I did just that, and I even happened to have a clean plastic bag in the car to protect the truck from getting meat juice everywhere. Excellent, the weather is even cooling down and the clouds are rolling in, so the meat wouldn't bake in the car.

Pleased with myself, I returned to the region, though I missed almost all of Thieve. Well, time to actually get some food (which turned out to be a shwarma). I wasn't really interested in Captain Stu, and I needed a stage break since the next three were gonna be the bonanza, or so I was told. I went to inspect the DJ tent.
only my camera can truly convey how bumpin this tent was
The DJ tent was created to allow MC's and DJ's to rap and rhyme and place funky beats ranging from reggae to techno. I wanted to see what Chamber Concept was all about, since they were given the spotlight of the festival at the DJ tent. What I found was a colored and a black dude rapping while two white guy laid the beats. It wasn't bad but it wasn't anything special, either. Rap lyrics are usually beyond me, and the beats weren't very interesting, since that's hardly the focus of the music. Oh well, I can stop by later to get glimpses of what other DJ's are doing.

Fine, well I don't want either musical choice so... more comedy! It happened to be improv time right around then. They were pretty funny, what can I say? Not as funny as the straight up stand-ups, but still quality stuff. Quality enough for me to lolly about there a while longer and miss the beginning of Desmond and the Tutus.
TUUT TUUT. Aha. Ha. ha. Fatty, you'd better be reading these.
Right, so they sound an awful lot like another Harry Potter tribute band. But they're really just a generic indie rock band. Shocking, isn't it. Still enjoyable to listen to for half an hour. I was pretty stoked for the next band, called Freshlyground. According to rumor, Freshlyground was some real fusion music where you get all parts of South African culture coming together, which is the kind of thing I really like to see, given my adoration for similar such projects like the Afro Celt Sound System.
There was this huge townie Irish guy standing behind me who knew all the words to the ballad they played about LOOOOVE
Freshlyground was pretty excellent. It was pretty much everything I was expecting. I'm not sure what else to say since I already gave you the link to their site and music. Here look at more pictures.
Around this time the wind started to pick up and it was getting darker, so I moved further into the crowd to absorb their heat, which was a fine move. I caught this really nice scene on camera as the sun passed over the hills.
Despite being a hippie festival, I didn't see a lot of drugs out. The festival seemed to be pretty clear about not allowing illicit substances. Then again, when did that ever stop anyone? There was way more weed at the Brandeis spring weekend than I saw out here during the day. When night did fall, then I started to get a few whiffs of kush. Still, pretty weak representation. Oh also, I learned the drinking age in South African is only 18.

Okay, so the next act was completely unknown to me. However, after conversing with some random English girls for a while about the various acts etc, I heard that most people were very excited about this band, and that they'd been touring around the world, and this was one of the first times in a while they were going to play back in their home country. From looking at the shirts people were wearing, it also seemed that these guys were the main headliner of the festival.

The band's name was Just Jinjer, and I learned later that all of what I heard was true, and that these guys are the most successful South African musical act in history. So that meant the crowd was close to 10,000 strong for these guys, everyone was really intense, and the band, seeing as it was their first time back in a while, was really looking forward to it.
there were way too many people and way too much motion for these ever to look nice on my camera
They opened with a sweet cover of Ramble On (in true hippie music festival style I was wearing my tie-dyed Zeppelin IV t-shirt), and then broke into their classic material. Even though I didn't know those songs, I had a pretty good time thanks to the showmanship of the band and the fervor of the audience. I also learned later that each member of the band had drummed professionally at one point in their career. Which explained the part of the show where the bassist when behind the kit, and the drummer and singer/guitarist brought out a dual snare apparatus and the three of them played this massive drumming orgy, culminating in a cowbell solo. I shit you not.

That was definitely the highlight of the evening. Everyone wanted them to play more, so there was gonna be let down afterwards. I stopped by the DJ tent and heard some of Richard the Third. He was at least not a hip-hop DJ, but his techno was a bit heavy on the unoriginal basslines. At the very end I heard some of Markus Wormstorm, who I enjoyed quite a bit. But he's a real DJ, since he has a bloody wikipedia page. I would have liked to have stayed for more of the dancing, since it went way late into the night when the bands had stopped, but at that time it hadn't really picked up yet and I really needed rest and meat and not to be driving back at 3AM.

So I drove back. The car I use for such excursions is without radio, which sucks once the novelty of driving in Africa wears off and it just becomes annoying. Driving on the left side of the road seems really uncomfortable at first, but its really not so bad. The bad part is the signs and the lack of lighting. The South African versions of Interstates can be these two lane highways with no lights. Or even the four and six lane highways have these sections where suddenly POOF no lights. The exit for my house, for example is just such a stretch.

When I started driving here and my supervisor was observing me learn the roads and the car, she told me that the left side driving is not so bad, but one must be careful because there will be moments when you're tired or distracted, and you take the action of a natural right side driver. I made it back to that stretch and off the exit safely. Had just a few blocks to go. Then I did it. I took an easy right from the one way exit into the wrong lane.

Thing is, it would have been fine if I could have seen the oncoming lights, and just shifted over a lane. But, there was a fucking divider between the lanes, preventing such an action. I hate dividers. Always have. So I turn on my emergency flashers and go real slow past these cars who flash their lights and honk timidly at me. And once I get past the damn divider I pull into my right lane for like 20 feet and then take my last turn into the safety of my neighborhood. Then I go to the house, and pull out my meat.

We're bad South Africans because we don't own a BBQ. I must admit that having a BBQ in use all the time while growing up was a nice deal. However, MIT weaned me away from such luxuries effectively enough. And it taught me a little creativity, I like to think. So, I turned the over on broil tossed the meat in a pat and let 'em roast.

I had to keep an eye on it all, and thankfully the meats came with turning sticks, but in a little time, by braai was complete. I meant to take a picture of the final spectacle, but sadly, I forgot because I was too hungry. I only remembered after I had devoured my feast. All in all, 50 rand well spent.

My duties complete, I tossed my belongings on the table, showered, set the security and alarm, and went to sleep.

Day 2

I awoke around 8:30 to find myself not-dead from eating the braai the previous night. There went my excuse for skipping out on the final day of the festival. I'd have bought a Saturday only pass, but that wasn't an option. Intent on getting my money's worth, I went back out Sunday morning for more because why not. There were a number of bands I was definitely looking forward to, and I was psyched about more comedy.

The drive was getting pretty dull by this point. I observed more shanty town instances this time, though. I arrived a little after 11, and caught the second half of the Simon Van Gend Band, which was okay. Indie folk rock sung by a guy who sounds pretty much the same as Colin Melloy. Son of a Thousand Blues was the next act up. I enjoyed these guys a lot. They were another mixed race band, and the black guy singing was really good on stage and had a damn fine voice. Also, their guitarist (who I think might have been French) was pretty good too. Midway through the set, they played this awesome 10 minute cover of Whole Lotta Love. It was a nice, full sound. They're on Universal's label, so they might be going places.
the singer kept telling people he was running for president in the next election and to vote for him
340mL had been recommended to me, but there was more Best of Fest in the comedy tent, so I went over there for an hour. I also caught the end of the unplugged comedy sessions (think Flight of the Conchords) which were pretty alright. The Best of Fest roundup turned out to be a few of the same people with a splash of new blood. Problem was, all of them were running out of material. When van Vuuren came on, he was still funny, but he admitted to having very few jokes left (though he managed to make plenty up based on that premise). So... it wasn't as good, but it was still pretty funny. So when I actually heard a joke repeated from previously, I left and found the last band starting.

The closers, Bed on Bricks were a punk, reggae, blues, funk, and rock fusion band? So they played music. The lead singer busted out a saxophone every now and then. Much like the comedians, I'm running out of things to say because I'm tired now and I was more tired by the time they came on. But they played a neat set, and since they were very last, the organizers even let them have an encore.
these guys reminded me Reel Big Fish... just a tiny bit
I wanted to leave as soon as that was done, however. There was more raving in DJ tend till 6 o'clock or something, and it sounded alright, but there was no way I or anyone else had proper energy for that. It was time to leave.

The drive back was mostly uneventful as always, except for the increase in traffic due to people leaving the festival. Nothing too slow. However, the skies grew dark near Cape Town, and eventually opened up on the highway, unleashing torrents of hail. The clouds were think above me, but over the bay to the west, the sun lit up the stormy countryside. It was quite a sight, blinding but impressive. I would have taken a camera except for the extreme and idiotic danger that would have entailed.

And I made it back unscathed. Plus the car had been washed of all the dirt it had accumulated from being in the field for two weeks. But, I needed to refill the tank, and that wasn't such a pleasant experience for my wallet (350 bloody rand).

So, in retrospect, it was a pretty excellent time. Well worth the money and time investment. I got all kinds of tips on bands and music to listen to. If you're a listener of the WMBR radio show Droppin' Knowledge, you'll likely here some of these bands on the airwaves. The comedy was great, and I now possess knowledge of who and where I can find good shows in Cape Town. I definitely want to see van Vuuren again.

The configuration of three venues, one for music, one for comedy, and one for dancing, was rather brilliant, in my opinion. Maybe, I'm just lucky to be attracted to all three of these forms of entertainment. However, I've not seen other places put such a strong emphasis on the stuff that wasn't the big music on the main stage. The smaller festival size may have this balance possible. All I know is that it worked.

The people? Yeah, mostly white English people. A lot of hippies, but the music was mainstream enough to attract others. I met a surprising number of Americans. I'm amazed how many of them hail from the Boston area. A lot of couples were here, but a pretty young crowd overall. The comedy folks were more mature, but the vast majority of people were in their 20's or younger.

Thus ended my first significant foray into the world of the South African music scene. Daisies, as I've been told, is pretty representative... though it doesn't explain what the other black 3/4's of the population listens to. Figuring that one out is going to be a bit more of a challenge... and if I wanted to do it right, probably quite dangerous.

In conclusion, the reason this is part I is because part II will arrive in December when The Killers come to play in a different field at different wine estate outside of Cape Town. Voerspoort!

Friday, October 9

Radio South Africa

Today, we went up the mountain to look for the troop. The slopes were damp and wet, the logs strewn about slippery. The incline was nothing too easy either. It slow going and you have to be constantly wary. This is about as bad as it gets.

I bring my MP3 player with me on these mornings, usually to fill the time before we meet up with the troop or when I'm just scouting around. As many of you know, I'm usually not listening to music when I'm using my player. Instead, I listen to audiobooks so I can be/feel more productive (and I listen to music all the time anyway).

Thus it happened that I was sunbathing (as baboons are wont to do), waiting for the baboons to wake up and come down from the trees, and listening to Fire Upon the Deep. The book was finally starting to get really good, too. The Sansa Clip model has this tendency to delete your files and directories sometimes when you stop and start. This was just such a time. Left with only the included music files to listen to, I decided to venture into the realm of commercial African radio.

After activating the handy FM antenna (damn that thing can be handy), I scrolled through the stations a couple times. South African radio has a lot of talk and news. The best I could find was a smattering of talk and news plus music. So I settled in on one such station.

And then shit really started to get good.

At 8AM, the final segment of the morning show started, and the announcers introduced Dr. John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, who was going to discuss the more recent science behind the stuff he studies (male-female relationship shenanigans), particularly hormonal effects and implications.

Ohhhhhh yes, this is just what I need to close out a week.

The the radio played some MGMT before getting back to the interview. I've spent so much time looking at molecular pharmacology studies and animal experiments that its been a while since I've heard from the high level sociological side of affairs. I was simply elated to have such an interesting and relevant topic tossed in my lap for my first African radio experience. I was so elated that I'm going to explain some of the recent science which Dr. Gray discussed.

So here's the deal. Testosterone apparently just isn't good for female stress. The more and more females move into the male-centeric workplace, the more testosterone they're going to generate, just as a natural consequence of being in that particular design of competitive environment. But, setting females back a half century isn't the solution. Since Gray is all about this happy relationship business, his answer is that having stressed females come home and interact with their male counterparts and look for all kinds of stress relief from them isn't a good idea. As he puts it, the bloke should be the "dessert." Looking to the male to provide the mainstay of happiness is not a good tactic for either individual.

Gray's main suggestion is that females look to themselves to find happiness, and once that's accomplished, look to the male to allow the female to ascend from "feeling good" to "feeling great" (or in real people speak: have sex with the guy).

Oh, I might as well say now that he also talks about boning a lot. As in, females shouldn't be looking to satisfy males with boning because then the attitudes and hormones don't jive well. Again, too much testosterone is apparently not so good because it reduces sex drive in females. They need more of that oxytocin business. So the optimum strategy is to remove the testosterone and build up oxytocin in its stead and then sexual arrousal occurs. Though you can use sex to increase oxytocin too, since there's a decent amount of that kind of hormonal release going on during the squelchy.

Consequently, females ought not to be "putting out" since it should really be the other way around. Males should be providing when needed, which as the male anchor put it, "is fine with me." The female hormonal system just tends to be more... picky, we'll say, about when it wants some.

To boil it all down, males should smile and nod a lot and then have sex on demand. Females need to follow three key steps: 1. Realize they're stressed and their dude can't solve all the problems and shouldn't be given that kind of burden. 2. ????? 3. Have lots of sex and feel great.

Oh yeah, and everyone should be more communicative and honest about their feelings etc etc etc...

As usually happens with self-help advice, it sounds good and it makes decent sense and its very positive, but I didn't find it particularly enlightening. Maybe he explains better in his books and at his seminars, but Gray never explained (or gave examples) of how females can overcome this masculine stress in order to reach the "good" stage. Workplaces are still stressful in general, and plenty of the are discriminatory as well. I mean, I have a few ideas but that's not exactly the issue in question here. I don't have any complaints about the advice he did give (and note that I'm probably butchering his perfectly crafted message, just a bit), I'd just like some clear applicable value presented.

Uh, so I haven't actually done any fact checking here because I just got back from walking with the baboons and wanted to write. However, my in-brain knowledge doesn't conflict with what was said. However, I'd relish some argumentdiscussion on the matter, since personal experiences or even SCIENCE tend to never quite agree with the pontifications of self-help authors.

At the end of interview, the announcers talked about how Gray is doing a tour and giving seminars, and since he's on SA radio, one would presume he's giving one in South Africa. Sure enough, he's giving a big seminar over the weekend... in Jo'burg.

Rule Number Two of Cape Town, as said by me: Everything happens in Johannesburg, not Cape Town.

The radio station I was listening to is called 5FM - streams and more info can be found here.

Sunday, October 4

The Real Africa Feeling

We trekked up the mountainside a few days ago but we couldn't fine the usual troop, so we pushed a bit further up and ran into another. This troop behaves a bit differently from the main troop, as I'll explain later, and as a result we don't enjoy studying them as much. We didn't have a lot of choice here, as otherwise it would have been a waste of a day, so we went on ahead with the plan.
In spite of the downsides, there are some great parts about working with troop 2. You're much more up in the wilds of the region, and those places are incredible scenic. There are houses and fences and  people around the lower areas. Up where troop 2 sleeps, the only people you see are bikers, and the only house I've seen is this one:
Finding housing has been difficult for some of the field researchers lately, so we joked about the possibilities of living here.

It must have been an amazing place when it was still standing, considering the views that remain.
Africa: A Story Told in Pictures
As it happens, very little of the vegetation here is natural. The fauna has remained much the same as it was hundreds of years ago (at least the baboons are still here). Originally, this area was part of the well-known southern African bush - a terrain which still survives in the vast rural regions of South Africa. When the Europeans came, they planted pines and eucalyptus trees for their own uses. The pine aren't like any I've seen in North America. They do have an African feel to them, I think due to the empty lower branches, and the large canopy-like upper branches. Eucalyptus trees are just something I've never been around before, so I didn't even realize that they were completely out of place.

In the modern era, there is some talk of removing all this foreign vegetation and letting the bush regrow. However, the introduced flora is not too invasive, and really that would cost tons of money. Plus, a large portion of the hillsides are now dominated by the vineyards (you can see them in the above photograph). There are a lot of wineries in and around Cape Town. The similarities with the California valleys are difficult to ignore.

It all adds up to some pretty spectacular views.
Africa: Life Out of Balance
The infamous Cape Town winds were active on this day, and wind whipping through trees across a mountainside is death for hearing the baboons vocalize to one another. I had to trudge up and down the mountainside several times, which was a boatload of joy. When I was finished, I found myself near the end of the forest, where the mountain starts to get noticeably steeper and rockier. This is the line where the Europeans stopped planting their own trees, and the native bush vegetation remains.
Africa: The Quickening
Baboons don't normally sleep in tall pine trees. Their natural sleeping sites are in the cliffs, similarly high so as to make it difficult for predators to catch them, and to shelter against the elements. Before the colonists altered the floral landscape, the baboons probably would have spent their nights up on the crags of Table Mountain.
it's called Table Mountain because according to Xhosa mythology, this is where uQamata bent over his consort when he was populating the world with life
Speaking of baboons, this was quite the cheeky troop, as I alluded to earlier. Troop 2 lives in a more remote spots, but it happens that their home range (which has been stable for a number of years now) overlaps with a popular picnic site which one can drive to. Tourists frequently do. Troop 2 has been receiving/stealing food from this site for a long time, and they've gotten used to a little resistance. They have learned to be afraid of humans more than the other two troops, but when they want/need to be, they'll be quite assertive with you.

For a first example, the mothers don't like me going near their infants. If I move within 30 meters of them,  they won't take their eyes off me, and if I get within 15, they'll usually walk away. The young baboons are much more likely to get out of my way when I'm moving near (not even through, mind you) their position. In baboon behavior, this is often a sign of respect to the dominance hierarchy, but this was my first time with these baboons, so I wasn't even part of the hierarchy. To be fair, it being my first time with them was good reason for them to be wary, but compared to the other baboons on my first days with them, it was quite surprising.

On the other hand, a female colleague was being... well... the baboon might well have been "hitting on" her. One or two males were particularly ballsy - she was standing on flat spot on the hillside recording some observations, and this big male swaggers by, moving right past her ankle on his way down the slope. Gave her the creeps. He made another pass, later, and she moved away. I swiveled my own position (which was sitting on a stump) to be more in line with him, but he effectively ignored me and continued to follow her a ways. So much for my masculinity keeping the baboons in line by my presence. When my colleague irritatedly explained what happened later, it became rather hilarious. Its not often you get to hear a researcher call a baboon a "jerk" because of a personal insult.

Towards the end of our work day (which in my world means noon), troop 2 pressed into the eucalyptus forest on their way to forage in the vineyards. I had a pair of first time experiences within. Firstly, a young baboon, probably a 3 year old female, came quite close to me where I sat on a log, taking a rest. She was looking at me directly, and wiggling her ears (a sign of good intentions in baboons). We though she might be threatening me, but after watching further, she seemed to be trying to be genuinely friendly towards me.

Unfortunately, the tender moment was cut short by the approach of a young adult male who is known as the "asshole" of the group. He made a swift appearance and was definitely threatening me. There is a simple formula for dealing with this. If sitting, get up. Once standing, turn around, and step away, in order to display submissiveness. Baboons will not fight unless they absolutely have to. Most social animals work this way. If you show them they've "won," they'll usually leave you alone.
that little punk at the bottom of the picture would never quite get his ass out of the show or stop moving around and blurring things up
We shuffled out of the forest as a segue from that event to something less dangerous. It was time for us to leave, anyway. During the drive back, along the unpaved mountain access roads, we had our windows open because it had become quite a hot day. We happened to roll through a puddle, splashing some muddy water over the vehicle and some of us inside. One of my colleagues remarked, "well, I guess that is the real Africa feeling."