Located a 5-hour drive NNE of Johannesburg, and 10km from the nearest major road, Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre is an oasis for orphaned and rescued vervets, baboons and other animals.
Owned and run by Bob and Lynne Venter, the centre is able to succeed through the financial and practical help of a small army of volunteers who stay for anything from a few days to many months. The most important part of this is the word “volunteer”. It’s not a monkey cuddling holiday with some work thrown in. By participating, you’re taking an active role in the running of a professional facility, dedicated to animal welfare. Time with the animals is obviously a draw for many people, however the right mindset is essential.
The facility routinely receives visits from the government, journalists, and film-crews, and as a result of this, high standards are maintained 24 x 7 x 52 for good reason.
By being involved, you’re expected to care, be interested in, and learn about the animals.
South Africa is a country still, at some level, adjusting from white minority rule, the end of apartheid in 1994, and the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013 after his presidency ended in 1999. This is a country where over 27% of the working population are unemployed, essential services are under strain and the political cycle places pressure on the government to act in short-term ways.
Land expropriation has once again come to the fore, with the government talking about accelerating the return of land ownership to those with an historical claim to it. Whether or not this comes to pass in a meaningful sense is not known. Whatever the eventual outcome, this hangs like the sword of damacles above the heads of families and businesses alike.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with a wildlife rehabilitation centre? These factors all have a significant impact on the very existence of Riverside, and the work that it does in protecting part of our biodiversity.
The part of the Limpopo region in which Riverside is located is dominated by large scale orange production farms, utilising intensive fruit production machinery and techniques. This has changed the landscape beyond all recognition. The pressure on the farm owners and operators to increase their yields increases year on year, resulting in changed outlooks and altered behaviours. Fields and orchards are subject to routine aerial spraying to control pests, with aerial spraying, by its very nature, an imprecise business. These chemicals affect the lungs of monkeys such as baboons and vervets, with sick animals being brought to the centre suffering from respiratory problems.
Monkeys eat a lot of their favourite food stuffs, which includes oranges and bananas, and will damage plants and crops while they’re doing this. They’re not alone in this, and this in turn leads farmers to install electrified fences, making movement from one area of natural food and habitat to another more difficult.
The last resort for some farmers is to shoot breeding adults, potentially leaving the juveniles to fend for themselves. Looking at parallels in the UK, we have eradicated many species from our island nation in order to protect our livestock, crops and families, as well as to put food on the table. The pressures on indigenous wildlife are in no way specific to the Limpopo or South Africa – they have been, and are being, played out across the globe as a rapidly increasing world population attempts to exist in a finite space.
Much of northern South Africa is punctuated by tarmac corridors, bounded on either side by electric fences and razor wire. The roads have been built in large part to facilitate the movement of large quantities of timber, fruit, vegetables and mined commodities. The benefit in keeping roaming animals away from the traffic is undeniable, and the incident of road accidents would surely spiral without control. There are numerous animals of sufficient size that they would make a mess of most vehicles. The impact is that the landscape has been divided into bite-size areas, and while many of the monkeys have learnt how to scale them, not all animals can do so.
Because of their immense intelligence, power, size and sometimes aggressive behaviour, baboons particularly have been treated like vermin for years. Scenes around Capetown with packs of marauding baboon attacking people, raiding houses, damaging cars and causing property damage serve only to reinforce this view. Tourists treat full grown baboons as curios and photographic opportunities until the animal sees something it wants, and takes it. You cannot argue with a large adult baboon. Who’s at fault here?
Baboons are not alone in this. With a shrinking natural habitat and encroaching human habitation, all monkeys are under pressure to exist alongside their human cousins.
The startThe roots of Riverside go as far back as 1992, when Bob ran a construction company at the time. A farmer had shot a vervet mother, and when nobody volunteered to keep the orphaned baby, the farmer intended to kill the infant. Bob intervened in the situation, and as a result of this, 14 criminal charges were laid against him for defending the animal. At this time, South African law listed vervet monkeys and chacma baboons as vermin and pests. Interfering with a person in the process of killing any of these animals was a criminal offence. Bob was sent to court and asked to hand the baby vervet to the authorities. Bob, being certain that they would kill the animal, refused to co-operate. When his trial began, Bob took the monkey with him to court. The magistrate and members of the court were understandably un-impressed. However, after a lengthy trial, they were unable to convict him on any of the charges brought against him. Bob noted that this was ‘because I acted in an inexplicable fashion by saving this animal,’ ‘It was the first time this happened in South Africa. That’s how it all started and what made me want to start a rehabilitation centre for these animals.’
RiversideTurning off the tar road onto the Riverside dirt track, you’re immediately transported into a world of scrub (or bushveld), low grass, thorn bushes and dust. A 2km bumpy track brings you to a gate with animals set into the metal-work, and shortly afterwards to the front of the beautifully mural covered main building (Hadeda House). We were immediately “greeted” by a pack of excitable, vociferous and somewhat intimidating dogs , including 2 very large German shepherds, and a sizeable African mastiff, plus other assorted breeds, sizes and shapes. Figuring that volunteers wouldn’t intentionally be subjected to a mauling, we carefully disembarked the car and, keeping our fingers out of range, made our way to the office! We’re welcomed by Kyler (a Saffer) and Beth (English). Their warm smiles immediately made us feel welcome and at ease, and within minutes we’ve dropped our bags in our room and headed out on a tour of the facility. First up is the most important building for volunteers – The Hide. It’s the volunteer hang-out for tea, coffee, lunch, and post-dinner cards and games. It has fridges, shelving, an urn, toilets and a large braai. Next to that is Georgie – a vervet cage that houses about a dozen of what we soon learn to be furry pick-pockets. Behind Georgie is the pen where Starsky and Hutch live – a pair of apparently tame geese. Opposite Georgie is Transval, a vervet introduction enclosure, which bounds onto the Transval semi-wild enclosure. “Introduction” (or “Intros”) is a transitory step where the amount of human contact is much reduced, and for the successful residents, their next step is semi-wild, then release. Next there’s Baby Kitchen, where bottles are made up for Tyga and Olive – 12 week-old orphaned baboons – as well as porridge for some of the other younger or more in-need animal residents. Adjacent to Baby Kitchen there’s what must be the liveliest and most frequently visited enclosure – Monty. This houses the younger end of the baboons, who were generally 8-10 months old during our time. More of this later. Next up is Clinic, where the sicker of the animals receive individual attention, medication and care. Continuing the circuit, we arrived at Food Prep. Food prep is, in many ways, the heart and hub of Riverside. It’s the scene of much industry from 07:00 until late morning, and it’s not uncommon to find between 10 and 15 people engaged in a variety of tasks. Next, nestled between the places so far described there is an area for staff and volunteer accommodation with lush grass, and neatly maintained paths which give the area a pleasant and relaxing air, as well as being a comfortable space to spend time with the younger monkeys. Our tour continued and we reached a cage housing what were known as the Middles. These were baboons that were markedly larger than those in Monty. Opposite Middles was Natal – a further vervet introduction cage, backing onto the Natal semi-wild area. Moving on from Transvaal we find Flonasalemi – a semi-wild enclosure for baboons – named after 5 Dutch nationals heavily involved in its construction. Tucked away behind Flonasalemi is the final enclosure within the main gate – home to a troop of Samango monkeys. It seemed rarely visited, in part because of location, in part due to their reclusive nature, and in part due to wild baboons (more of this anon). This brought us to the accommodation. Although only a 5 minute walk from the centre of events, whether by chance or planning, having it located separately is a master stroke as we would find. It means that when chores are finished for the day, we could walk to the accommodation and feel as though we had really finished. The largest accommodate block is Francolin with about 10 rooms, each room housing between 2 and 6 people. In addition to Francolin there are several other smaller wooden buildings housing anywhere from 2 people upwards. There are toilets, shower blocks, sinks, washing lines, a fire pit (boma), tables, and lawns to chill out on. Outside the main compound (back near Hadeda house), Quarantine houses animals that are newly arrived into Riverside, and where their health/ provenance is unknown. These animals can be sick or well, wild or domestic. Then there’s Freedom (which houses 2 sociable donkeys), then Cape A and Cape B introduction cages, that border onto the Cape semi-wild enclosure. Last, but not least, there’s Ostrich corner. You’ll never guess who or what lives in here!
Our welcomeAfter dinner on our first day, we meet Bob. Bob is a story-teller, a leader, a man passionate about his project, and he and Lynne are fiercely committed to the concept of family. By arriving, you are becoming part of their extended global family, and are expected to behave as a family member would treat another. Honesty. Respect. Teamwork. Support. Empathy. It’s a good model, and it resonates with me. As his speech continues, he sets out the expectations he has, laying down clear rules (they’re not guidelines), including the likely reaction of failing to adhere to these. I start to feel a little ill at ease, and wondering just how this week is going to work out. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m able to understand and decode what happened. Bob is a man with a lot on his shoulders (as has Lynne), and they have learned the hard way that if things go wrong, they can go wrong badly. He’s routinely creating (with his staff) teams constructed from people from across the globe, of varying ages (average I’d say is about 20), experience and expectation. These rapidly forming and re-forming teams are part-responsible for helping keep his project and animals alive and well, and themselves safe. The directness that I found so disconcerting initially is, I reflect on later, not un-common amongst older South Africans (I know many others). It’s not personal, and I believe that it is necessary. It will undeniably upset some people.
A typical dayThere is no standard day – they’re all different, dependent on many factors, pre-eminent of which is the needs of the animals. This variation is undeniably a good thing. The majority of volunteers are required to be in the Hide by 06:45. This isn’t a request, it’s a statement, in order that work starts punctually at 07:00. This means an alarm at about 06:00. Collections of people gather near the sink and loos, cleaning their teeth in the communal area, while mutely acknowledging one another in the emerging dawn light. There’s little conversation at this time of day, with everyone focussed on spending as much time in bed, as little time on ablutions and getting to The Hide on time. You’re all doing the same thing, so there’s a camaraderie about it. Virtually nobody showers in the morning. There’s no point! The Hide fills up with people smoking, drinking tea/ coffee and getting themselves ready for the get-go. Shortly before 07:00 everybody peels off to their allotted job to start work, which runs until 09:00. The morning shift is centred around food prep, cleaning enclosures, hand-feeding the youngsters/ smaller animals, and re-stocking the enclosures with food. The cool of the early morning is welcome. Breakfast (09:00 – 10:00) is always welcome! There’s no seating plan, and there are exactly as many seats and place settings as people. The food that’s provided varies day by day, including cereal, juice, toast, bacon, scrambled eggs, scones, boiled eggs, and pap (not everything on any one day). Those that have been at Riverside for longer bring their own juice, fruit, and cereals etc. to provide variety. Everyone clears their own place setting. Once you’ve finished brekkie, the way that you spend the rest of the time until 10:00 is largely up to you. I invariably found myself in either Georgie or Monty, getting to know the monkeys. 10:00 til 12:00 is “chores” that vary day by day. If you finish your allotted task early, you’re expected to join another team who might be running behind time. You don’t have to work fast and join another crew. Nobody cracks a whip per se. It’s between you and your conscience. I enjoyed time in the enclosures knowing I had done my bit. Noon heralds the Baboon walk, which is where the occupants of Monty accompany the entire volunteer community down to a river location. The baboons excitedly choose humans to ride on, and being chosen is a product of many things, including luck, gender and time spent with them in the enclosures. While by the river, the baboons career around in a joyous demonstration of freedom, playing, climbing, arguing, swimming and learning their craft. 13:00 is lunch, which is taken in the Hide. Riverside provide breads and spreads, but after that it’s down to you. Fruit, cakes, salads etc. are all for you to buy. It’s a sociable time, with groups and individuals intermingling. If you finish lunch early you can hang-out with the monkeys. The hide has fridges and cupboards for food. Everyone names their food, and there’s a “free shelf” for food left behind by previous volunteers for others to use. 14:00 until 16:00 is work, and then (mostly) you’re finished for the day! People choose to either dash to the shower, chill out on the grass, or spend time in the enclosures. The choice is yours. I opted for as much enclosure time as I could get. The working days are long, and it’s undeniably hard work, much of it manual. You need to be comfortable with, or at least prepared to deal with, urine and faeces. Jobs are hugely varied, from food preparation, bug hunting, harvesting, cleaning, feeding, monitoring, weighing, feeding and more besides. You’re allocated tasks, and unless you have a decent reason why you can’t do something, you’re expected to do what’s asked of you. Riverside do everything they practically can to ensure ample animal contact time, work variety and down-time, but animal care is a 7 day per week business. Dinner is then in Hadeda House at 18:00 (or thereabouts). What is served varies, but it’s hot, tasty and there’s generally seconds available. It’s a single course, with provision for vegans and vegetarians. Those looking for menu choices, gourmet meals and a wine list are in the wrong place. Dinner generally wraps up at about 18:30 – 19:00, and people peel off in different directions. Some go to bed (I did!), some play cards, some sit around the boma with music and drinks. By 21:00 it’s quiet, and by 22:00 it’s generally silent – save for snoring!
Enclosure timeTime in the enclosures is the draw for many people I’m sure, and certainly was for me. I guess that over the week I spent in the region of 14 odd hours sitting in enclosures with the baboons and vervets, plus another 7 on baboon walks. It was magical. As an older male I found that I had to “work” harder at being accepted by the monkeys than the younger and slighter females. This isn’t sexist or ageist – just a fact that I was viewed and treated entirely differently by the monkeys for gender and size related reasons. A key point made by Bob was that we were entering their (the monkey’s) world. You cannot force the pace of acceptance – it happens or it doesn’t. It takes between 5 minutes, to a few days, or maybe not at all. What to expect in an enclosure:
- You will get urinated on.
- You will get excreted on.
- You will most likely have your hair pulled.
- You will almost certainly get licked, bitten, scratched, poked, prodded and generally treated like a monkey.
- You will be sitting on straw, which contains food, excrement and urine.
- You will get landed on unexpectedly. Baboon bums are hard!
- You’ll get fingers in your ears, mouth, tummy button, eyes and up your nose.
- Your possessions (glasses, phones etc.) will be taken if you’re not vigilant.
- Possessions in the enclosure will easily get damaged or broken.
- The monkeys will climb inside your clothes.
- Being groomed by a monkey is a unique experience, but they have strong fingers. It can be uncomfortable.
Monty TimeMonty is a lively cage – there’s no 2 ways about it. There are periods of calm and tranquillity, but much longer periods of high paced activity, as the occupants play and find their place in the hierarchy. Seemingly fierce and extended “fights” break out from apparently nowhere, with biting, chasing, pulling and screaming all part and parcel of the day. As an older male, I found myself the destination for pretty much every baboon in Monty. They would run over to me, offer their bottoms/ rumps for a scratch, and then run off. I was also something of a toilet, and found myself quite literally soaked in urine from the waist downwards. Everybody gets wee’d on, but me more than most. It was part of the experience! You can only get so wet, and it washes off! When a baboon runs over to you, leans into your chest, places their arms around you and starts “talking to you”, the feeling is beyond words. You’ve forged a connection and a bond. This is not an experience that you can buy.
Georgie TimeWhen we first arrived, within 5 minutes of being able to, we had entered the Georgie cage as a family of four. We immediately found ourselves absolutely swamped by 12 or so vervets, jumping on our heads. After a little while things settled down, but it was pretty disconcerting initially! Leaving the enclosure was no mean feat – they’re very agile! On a subsequent visit, I entered the cage quietly and respectfully, sat peacefully for an extended period of time, and found myself accepted. I could groom them, stroke them and to some extent “play with them” (I turned my hand into an elevator that they clung to). Based on this, my confidence grew. My next visit was utterly different. I entered the cage more confidently, and interacted a little more boisterously than before. I was immediately swamped by them, nipped and generally made to feel less welcome. I attempted to assert my authority over one individual by “staring him down”, which led the entire troop dynamic to change. Rather than receiving warning “nips” I was now bitten in several places. I realised that I had blundered, and left the cage. It was a salutary reminder that I was in their world, on their terms. I could only blame myself.
Middles TimeThe Middles are significantly heavier than their Monty compatriots. They weigh in at a fairly hefty 10Kg or so, and it’s possible to see the progression from cute and manageable to larger and more intimidating. Along with some others, I went in with Kyler and Beth, and we all sat along the enclosure wall. Immediately we found ourselves “inspected” – which is to say that the baboons walked up, put their faces about 1cm from yours, and examined us. This is intimidating and exhilarating in equal measure. To be looking directly into a baboons eyes, nose to nose. These are big, powerful animals, and they hold the power in the enclosure. They open pockets, zippers, rip clothing and as a volunteer, there’s little that you can do to prevent it. Discouraging them, staring them down or pushing them away can result in sharp bites. I lost two buttons from my shorts, and one other volunteer was pretty badly “picked on”. Kyler and Beth have complete control in the enclosure, so the risks are managed, but respect and care are paramount. As in Monty, the baboons landed on us, and sat on us, expect now you have 10Kg on your head or shoulders! As I was walking to leave the enclosure, I was almost knocked to the floor as a baboon landed unexpectedly on my head from behind! Middles is an experience not to be missed (if you have the opportunity, which is not assured), but take NOTHING in with you, and wear only clothes you would genuinely happily put straight in the bin directly afterwards!
ReleasesShortly before we arrived, a troop of 96 baboons had been released, some 5 hours drive NW from the facility. For some of these animals, this will be the culmination of 5 years at Riverside, out of an expected lifespan of between 10 and 15 years in the wild. That is a bewildering investment of time, money, love and care for each animal. It was unclear as to exactly how many animals are at Riverside – simply because the ones in semi-wild die, breed and escape. It’s in the hundreds.
ThoughtsFor some years now, Bob and Lynne have been under the dual threats of their land being flooded by a proposed new dam (lake) and by land expropriation. There is a claim against their land for historical land usage for grazing. I don’t know enough about South Africa and land entitlement to have a view on this subject, other than to have a some sense as to how unsettling it must be. Should the claim be upheld, Bob and Lynne might have as little as 28 days to leave, and be offered little or no financial compensation. The proposed new dam would flood the majority of the site. As climate change and intensive farming methods place a greater demand on the water supply in the area, the likelihood of the dam being approved must surely rise. Despite these 2 threats, and alongside myriad other financial and other pressures. Bob and Lynne continue to invest tirelessly in the facility, putting down roads, building a new bridge, painting and improving the buildings and much more beside. Their energy and commitment are simply astonishing. There are 2 workforces – being “workers” and “volunteers”. The relationship with the workers isn’t something that I understand sufficiently to comment on, other than it appears formal more than family. The volunteer workforce is an interesting one. The volunteers are predominantly female, aged 21 or lower and from a wide range of nations (UK, Germany, Israel, France, Netherlands, Holland, Sweden and the USA were all represented while we were there for our week). The skills, expectations and outlook/ perspective appear equally diverse. The common language is English, making it easy for UK and USA volunteers. Bringing together teams on a weekly basis with people from teenagers to retirees, multiple nationalities, experienced zoologists through to people with zero animal handling experience is as much art as science. It relies on mutual respect and team-working – everyone pulling together with one goal. Individuals choosing not to work is a real prospect, and it can act as a contagion if not handled. This relies on team leaders who may or may not have leadership experience. This is where Bob’s rules and authoritarian style come in. Without his complete authority, things could easily degenerate to the point at which the animal welfare suffers. Rules about noise, congregation, alcohol, time-keeping and more besides may feel oppressive to some. But in my view, maintaining a facility that appears as professional as it is run is critical. I haven’t included all details of all that happens at Riverside – you need some surprises! We chose to volunteer at Riverside for several reasons, and they have all been fulfilled. It’s not a holiday/ vacation. While everyone has paid to be there, you are volunteering for the good of the animals and the project.
PracticalitiesThe accommodation is clean, secure and comfortable. I’d suggest taking a pillow. Laundry is generally once per week per person/ family. I strongly suggest a hand-washing kit (liquid, nail brush, pegs, plug). Jo’Burg is about 5 hours by car. Bob and Lynne are very happy to accept certain items sourced from overseas (ask). Clothes that wash and dry easily/ quickly are an absolute necessity. Clothes get subject to all manner of treatment. This isn’t the place for the latest high-end fashion. The water is drinkable, but doesn’t necessarily always agree with everyone. It can be chilly at night and early morning – pack appropriately. There’s a shopping trip once per week per person/ family, and usually a Friday night out. Valuables should always be stored in the provided safe boxes. Take a padlock. Check your insurance. Are you covered for this trip? If you get an infected bite, or lop a toe off with a machete, will your high-street travel insurance policy cover you? Talk to a travel health professional about innoculations.
Booking and travellingIt is very easy to book direct (https://www.riversidewrc.com). This way Bob and Lynne get more money, and you pay less. It’s as simple as that. All you need to be able to do is board a plane in your home country, transfer from your international flight to a domestic one in Jo’Burg, and get collected at Phalaborwa airport. The other route chosen by many younger, single/ independent people is via Oyster Worldwide. You’ll pay more, Riverside get less, but you get a t-shirt and a sense of security. If you’re travelling with kids, be sure to research the requirements for the paperwork that you will need to carry in order to get into and out of SA with your kids. Sign-up. Dive in. Get mucky. Enjoy!