By the time I had a chance to venture back into the gorge, nearly a week had passed. We had just settled into base camp from a lengthy village trip. I had the itch to get back down into the wild and remote (as if the wild and remote base camp on the edge of a gorge isn't enough). None of the veteran Africa workers could spare the time, so I settled for Marcos. Seeing as we shared the onset of jello legs when encountering danger, I figured we made the perfect pair. He took some convincing, but I told him we could just hike out another way.
When I met Marcos and he told me he was from Brazil, I did a double take. He had a light complexion with a bit of bronze from the sun. His blond-tipped hombre hair fell in broad curls around the crown of his head, and a few curls touched the top of his dark-rimmed glasses from time to time. He was quiet, but he had a dry humor that I enjoyed.
Looking back on our descent, I can't help but view it through an ominous lens. That trip into the gorge led to, undoubtedly, the scariest moment of my life. Erica waltzed right into it all sunshine and skip-a-roos, but I know what waits for her. She picks up old rocks, walks through elephant rib cage bones, and laughs with Marcos. In my head I'm yelling "Turn around! Turn around now. Your underwear will need to be tossed after this." She never listens, though. She's one of those main characters you kind of want to slap and say "What were you thinking?"
I was thinking I didn't want to starfish pose on a six inch ledge above a terrifying precipice, ok? So cut me a little slack and keep that in mind as we roll through the horrible decisions I made this day.
As we neared the cove of certain demise, I told Marcos we should just hike out in a different cove. He merrily accepted the decision. Jello legs unite! We chose a cove that appeared to have less rocky crags. The slope wasn't gentle, but no way out of the gorge was easy. We would still have to make our way around a couple of outcroppings at the end, still doable. As we reached the halfway point and started climbing, we noticed that the reason this ascent had fewer rocks was because it was nearly like sand. When we would grab at anything or step on what we thought would be a good foothold, it would crumble away. For every five steps we took, we slid back four.
Within 20 yards of the outcroppings, we started hearing shuffling on the rocks to
our sides. We stopped to listen, but hearing nothing, and unable to see what danced on the rocks above, we continued.
Finally Marcos caught a glimpse and said "Oh look! Baboons!"
I stopped, feeling worry creep into my bones. I asked, "How many, do you think?"
"This is so exciting," he grinned. Then he scanned above us and said "There's a lot of them."
"What?" I whispered, yanking him down. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," he nodded, still oblivious to my fear.
That was when the first rocks started hitting us. The baboons armed themselves with twigs, rocks, grass, whatever they had. Their screams cut through the air like a knife. I felt all of the air rush from my lungs in a short shout that escaped my body, but I could barely hear anything over the noise.
"Marcos we have to turn around," I yelled, resolving myself to dance on the edge of the other cove again.
"Why?" he asked. "They're just monkeys."
"Just monkeys? No. Baboons have fangs that are longer than lion fangs!" I strained to explain over the noise, sensing new urgency.
"What?" He looked around, the blood draining from his face. "How do you know this?"
"I watch National Geographic, ok? Let's just get out of here." I turned to begin sliding down as quickly as possible, but a sound stopped me dead in my tracks.
A much deeper scream echoed up the rocky walls around us. The baboons stopped their chattering chorus.
My heart sank. I don't know how I knew this but uttered, "That's bad. That's the alpha." We can call it divine intervention, or fear-induced total recall from nights spent watching the Discovery Channel. The point is, I was right.
Marcos shot me a dubious look. "How do you know so much about monkeys?"
"Ugh. We can't turn around now, we won't be able to go down slow enough because of all of this sand. He might think we're charging him."
I thought Marcos was going to question my judgement again, but the deep-throated threatening noise came again, closer this time. The baboons around the rocks began to raise their voices and jump as they launched rocks at us.
"He's coming for us!" I screamed.
We both began scrambling with everything we had, inching closer to the outcroppings. Rocks and dirt thumped us from the family of baboons we'd disturbed. Marcos supported my legs with his hands a few times, keeping us both from sliding further back. I grabbed at anything I could to gain leverage. The grass was covered in these tiny hair-like thorns that got into my palms and arms like fiber glass. My knees were bleeding. The alpha sounded closer every time his voice bellowed deeply. My fingertips brushed the outcroppings. If we could just get on top of these rocks, we could escape.
"I can't reach!" I yelled to Marcos. The alpha's voice boomed again and he sounded so close that we both jumped.
Marcos quickly searched the ground and grabbed a stick. "You go. Find a way out, go back to camp and get help. I will fight him off." (Seriously. I can't believe my jello-legged friend did this.)
I looked around for another way out. "No. If we're together they're less likely to attack us."
"Go now!" Marcos yelled at me.
I eyed a few rocks to our side and turned back to Marcos. I grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled his face close to mine. His curls almost touched my forehead. "Keep the stick but we're staying together. We're not going to die here."
When those words came out of my mouth, I realized for he first time that we might actually die. We might be mauled by baboons. My writer's mind painted a horrible picture for me (thank you, writer's mind). Even on the chance that they 'just' mauled us, this wasn't an easy hike. Mauled Erica wouldn't be able to get out of this gorge. I began to pray. Of course nobody wants to die -- but a baboon attack? Bitten and ripped apart by wild African creatures? No. My husband would never forgive me if I died like this, I thought.
Before Marcos could protest again, I grabbed his arm and cut across to rocks where some of the baboons had found perches to throw things at us. The alpha presented the biggest threat, I had to hope that they would scatter. They did.
We hoisted ourselves up onto the outcroppings and realized what we had done. We stood in the middle of a huge baboon nest. Stupid Erica. What was she thinking? Suddenly the starfish way seemed like a walk in the park.
Finally on steady ground, we made our break for it. I've never climbed and run so fast in my life. My nails hurt from breaking them on the rocks. My muscles ached. I felt like I'd breathed and swallowed copious amounts of dirt, the remnants of it grinding in between my teeth. Blood ran down my leg and covered my knees.
Finally, I pulled myself up over the lip of the gorge and rolled onto the ground. Marcos rolled right after me. The baboons still squawked, but the alpha had fallen silent. We should have picked up and run from there, but we both just laid there as the cries died off.
Neither of us had the energy to move. Finally our breathing slowed and we looked at each other. "I told you we wouldn't die," I said with a half laugh.
Marcos mustered a smile. "Next time lets take the ledge."