Monkeying around on Safari!

The Ballito MagazineAugust 5, 2019

Because we live in an area that boasts an abundance of monkeys, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to co-exist with them!  That being said, we must not forget that we have taken over their natural habitat, forcing them to reside and forage in unforgiving urban settings. That’s where Monkeyland KZN steps in, offering a sanctuary to confiscated, exotic monkeys and enabling a mode of ecotourism that allows us to admire our furry friends from all over the world without doing them any harm. It’s a win-win, really! 

Monkeyland KZN is the sister sanctuary to Plettenberg Bay’s Monkeyland, which was the world’s first free roaming multi-species primate sanctuary. Savannah and I, both avid monkey-lovers, had been anticipating Monkeyland’s public opening and were thrilled when we received an invite from Paula Hallam, a passionate volunteer from the UK. Filled with excitement, we geared up to experience what is called a ‘monkey safari’. 

With trusty shoes and cameras in tow, we chat excitedly on the way. When Sav expresses her life-long desire to see a Capuchin monkey, I am bewildered to say the least. What on earth is a capuchin monkey? Turns out, it’s one of eight diverse species Monkeyland KZN is home to. We were definitely in for a treat!

After parking in a wide open area, Sav and I are driven 2 km into the reserve, aboard a rugged safari vehicle. We are greeted by Zanele, one of the many friendly, highly-informed guides at the reserve. As she leads us through the foliage, where the surrounding trees suddenly reach up for the sky, we can’t help but feel as though we’d been teleported to a South American jungle! We spot a trio of squirrel monkeys frolicking in the leaves, jumping effortlessly from branch to branch. Their petite frames lead us to believe that they’re baby monkeys, however Zanele informed us that they were in fact fully grown!  Much to Savannah’s excitement, two Capuchins suddenly appear above us! They are exceptionally fuzzy with rusty-brown fur coats. I imagine they would be the ultimate cuddle buddy on a cold Winter evening, until I realise that owning a monkey as a pet is by far the cruelest thing you could do. 

Much to Savannah’s dismay, the Capuchins are unfriendly and blatantly ignore our existence. They swing playfully from their tails, resembling a couple of professional acrobats. You can tell this species is from South America by their prehensile tails which curl around the branches and act like an additional appendage. Pretty nifty, I think, as a wave of appendage-envy washes over me. The male capuchin sports an Elvis-type haircut, while the female has a miniature afro, and it is in this moment that I decide: these are the funniest looking monkeys I have ever seen. But I like them, especially after learning that they are a little grumpy when hungry. Because same here, Capuchins, same here…. 

As we move on, we enter what is called “lemur grounds”. It’s clear how the area got its name, as the lemurs have scratched away at a pole-like branch in order to mark their territory. This type of advanced behaviour is pretty impressive, considering the reputation of being less-smart than their primate relatives. The black-and-white lemurs resemble mini panda bears, and I can’t help but take one-too-many photographs of the one nestling on the low-hanging branch above me. Suddenly, a grumble crescendos from the distance, and I wonder if the sound I’m hearing is the growling, empty tummy of someone on the reserve. To my surprise, it’s a troop of black and white lemurs making sure that we humans knew that we were on their turf! I had no idea that lemurs could growl! And when they fight, they make a high-pitched squabble. Interesting fellas, these ones, with an exceptional tonal range for sure!

I just want to make it clear from the get-go that I don’t usually cry from happiness, but when we see a male Gibbon, hanging idly in the neck of the woods, I can’t help but tear up.  Perhaps it was his adorable physique or his large, expressive eyes that made me tear up with a unique sense of species admiration I only ever feel for my chihuahuas. I think, though, that it was ultimately the way he moved from branch to branch with his bendy arms – like Tarzan, only much less oaf-like and a hundred times cuter. Zanele informs us that apes are classified by their lack of tails and their closer resemblance to humans, and I am reminded how similar we are to our primates as we watch the Gibbon hang there, staring at us with a palpable intelligence. Interestingly, Gibbons are monogamous creatures, and therefore choose one partner to spend their lives with. We are told his wife is a blonde version of him, but sadly we were not afforded the opportunity to meet her

As we meander through the Pecan nut trees, we spot the ring-tailed Lemurs made famous by the animated film Madagascar. I giggle as I watch Sav take a selfie with a lemur who looks like a real-life King Julian.  They strut proudly, with their tails in the air, and are observably calm in our presence. As we walk out of the reserve, a lemur starts to follow us, and of course, Sav and I take this as a huge compliment! We really did have the best afternoon at Monkeyland KZN, and we can’t wait to return! Hopefully on our next trip, we will spot some of the species we didn’t get a chance to see. The spontaneity of forest tours ensures that every experience is a unique one. I will definitely be returning to this wonderful sanctuary, and I hope many more people will continue to support this great initiative. 

The 100 or so monkeys in the KZN sanctuary are either ex-pets whose owners didn’t want them anymore, surplus zoo animals, ex-laboratory animals or confiscated monkeys. This information is sobering, and Paula’s heartfelt sigh says it all. After working in Human Resources for 20 years in the UK, Paula made the life-changing decision to sell her possessions and embark on a back-packing adventure across Africa and Asia, where she engaged in voluntary work. Initially, she was involved with the Plettenberg sanctuary, and returned to SA recently to volunteer at Monkeyland KZN. We are so grateful for her help, and beyond thankful to have an educational, inspiring experience, right here on our doorstep. 

Visit their website to find out more about fees, opening times, group bookings, and their on-site restaurant!