At N/a’an ku sê, a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia, several volunteers sported curious bumps beneath their outerwear. The lumpy mounds covered their torsos, and a ball-like shape protruded from their chests. Tails dangled from the hems of their fleeces and sweatshirts.
There was no shame in asking: “Excuse me, but is that a monkey in your top?”
And there was no shortage of excitement in answering: “Yes, indeed — a baboon!”
In the southern African country’s national parks and game reserves, visitors “view” the wildlife. Here, at the animal preserve, the guests “watch” the animals in the same way a babysitters club cares for the neighborhood kids. The volunteers help feed, exercise, entertain and comfort the creatures who, after significant trauma or hardship, have found themselves in the protective embrace of the organization.
In 2006, Marlice van Vuuren, an esteemed Namibian conservationist, and her physician husband, Rudie, founded the sanctuary on a farm about 30 miles east of Windhoek, the capital. They named their foundation N/a’an ku sê, which means “God will protect us” in the San language. Their mission is multifold and multi-species: to safeguard orphaned or injured animals, to educate local farmers about conservation practices, to protect imperiled carnivores, and to provide health care, education and job opportunities for the San (or Bushman) community, the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa. The focus is on rehabilitation, research and sanctuary.
“The wild belongs in the wilds,” said Cila Venter, the Namibian general manager who leads orientation sessions. “All of the animals here are orphans.”
The foundation employs a small staff at the sanctuary, medical clinic, school and two research sites in Neuras and Kanaan. Yet it leans heavily on volunteers to help with the daily tasks, a trail mix of domestic chores (cleaning pens, prepping food, building repairs) and into-the-wild duties (feeding the big cats, walking the anteater and caracal, sleeping with the baby baboons).
I arrived in early July, the country’s winter and the start of the sanctuary’s busy season (June through September). Piet, a tall, thin San with a kind smile, picked us up at the airport, adding two more to the protean pool of volunteers — a head count of 42 during my stay. The other guest, Danielle, who hailed from England, stopped fussing with her smartphone long enough to squeal in delight when a baboon crossed in front of the van.
The driver entered the secured gates, and I was seized by a TMZ moment: The words “Jolie-Pitt Foundation” appeared on the wall of the main building. Brangelina visited the facility in 2010, four years after their daughter, Shiloh, was born in Namibia. The couple supports the project in her honor.
The stars here, though, are the animals who go by first name only: Samira, the 17-year-old cheetah; Barkie the anteater; Jaws the meerkat; and Violet, a doll-size baboon.
The residents have back stories reminiscent of Bambi’s. Many of the tales involve a farmer shooting the parents, an accepted form of defense against predators that threaten livestock. The sanctuary, which is also an active farm with cows, sheep, goats and chickens, works with the locals to formulate a less destructive and more tolerant approach. Don’t fire first, they tell them; call us. The organization, for instance, can trap an animal and relocate it to a less developed area, or collar and release the animal and track its movements via GPS.
“What pays, stays,” Cila said. “Namibia is a country with wide open spaces where the animals can run freely.”
The animals living on the property are either undergoing rehab (such as Jaws, who had his jaw wired after a dog attack) or can’t return to the wild because they no longer fear humans. Once they lose the intimidation factor, neither party is safe.
“If I can give you one piece of advice: Don’t trust a leopard,” Cila said. The cheetahs, however, are “cowards.”
One morning, I followed California volunteer Meaghan FitzGerald into Samira’s pen. The grand dame in the elegant fur coat glided over and, like a housecat, nudged me for an ear scratch. My advice: When a cheetah wants some attention, give it to her.
The staff assigns the volunteers a rotating list of duties that changes each day. After breakfast and lunch, which are served in a family-style dining area with two fire pits and a swimming pool, we would rendezvous at the animal food prep station for instruction.
My first assignment was to accompany the dozen baby baboons on a stroll to a watering hole. Now, if you’ve ever promenaded with a baboon, then you know that it’s no dog walk in the park. Some of the rascally monkeys, who range in age from 6 months to 3 1 / 2 years, copped rides on our shoulders, backs and heads; others wrapped their elastic arms and legs around our waists, Baby Bjorn-style. Many volunteers carried a wobbly pyramid of monkeys. Then suddenly, as if they had heard a silent bell, they would switch positions and people.
The roundelay continued until we arrived at the stream. Once we reached our destination, the babies scattered like children at a playground, climbing a lone camelthorn tree and rolling around in the dry grass. They never ventured too far, though, as we were their favorite set of monkey bars.
For my next job, I returned to the kitchen area to prep meals for the animals. On a long wooden table, I joined a handful of other volunteers to cut up carrots, apples and oranges for the vervet monkeys and baboons. Following a recipe, I blended yogurt with a thick oatmeal-like mash for the easy-to-please primates. All the while, Sylvie, a young duiker, a type of antelope, would flagrantly steal scraps off the countertop.
Toward the end of my shift, a staffer appeared with three buckets of compost from our own meals. Three of us plunged our gloved hands into the brown sludge. My eyes watered and my gag reflex twitched as I pulled out chunks of chocolate cake, nibbled pieces of cheese, slimy lettuce and gristly meat all coated in a slippery muck. Bon appetit, monkeys and chickens.
Nearly every evening, an employee loads a truck with horse and donkey meat and volunteers for the carnivore feed. The more dangerous animals (lions, leopards, wild dogs) live outside the main facility, in a heavily secured area lined with electric fencing. Our driver, Tessa von Ludinghausen, stopped at each habitat, and we took turns tossing the slabs of protein over the fence and into the mouths (or thereabout) of the sharp-toothed diners. She instructed us to remove our sunglasses, stay calm and throw overarm, for greater force and distance.
When we approached the lion and lioness, her lighthearted tone grew more serious. The king and queen do not think kindly of errant tosses. A petite French woman asked Tessa whether she could throw the carnage; Tessa decided that it was too risky. At a previous feeding, a volunteer had missed, and the lion charged the fence. Instead, she selected a robust German woman who had spent three months volunteering at the sanctuary and a Vanderbilt University student with the height and agility of a basketball player. We watched from the truck, and — communal sigh of relief — both hit their targets.
That night, I became one of the lumpy-clothing people.
The baby baboons are naturally wired to sleep with their mothers, who provide warmth during cold evenings. (In the winter, temps after dark average 30 degrees.) Because the wee ones are orphans, the volunteers step in as surrogate mommies.
My slumber party monkey was 9-month-old Mina. A staff member provided me with her overnight kit, which included a bottle and milk powder for a morning feed and extra diapers for accidents during the night. Before setting off, I poked holes in the nappies to accommodate her tail. The things we do for our children.
I waited in my tent for Tessa to deliver Mina. We zipped up the entire structure, to prevent any escapes, and I reached for the monkey as she slurped away on her bottle. I lifted up my sweater and she crawled inside, hugging her body against mine. Once she was settled in, I gingerly walked over to the dining hall to grab dinner. I carried the plate back to my tent and ate with one hand — the other was keeping Mina in place. Later, I mastered the art of brushing my teeth and washing my face without waking my cargo.
I crawled into my sleeping bag, frequently peering at her cuddled against my chest. I silently screamed to myself: “I have a baby baboon in my bed!” I imagined that 11 other people that night were shouting a similar exclamation.
Mina slept soundly, shifting only a few times. Once, she moved to my right side, leaning up against me, bottle dangling from her little lips. Later in the night, she ventured down to my feet, where she warmed my legs like thick socks. Eventually, she traveled north again. In the distance, the lions roared and the jackals cackled. I tightened my hold on her.
Though we had just met, Mina took after me. She was not an early-morning person either. However, we had a big day ahead of us. So, with Mina still under my sweater, I tiptoed out of bed and walked over to the dining hall. She popped her head out like a periscope, checking out the passing scenery.
In the kitchen, I started to prepare her bottle when I felt her slipping and then . . . off she went. Monkey on the loose. She climbed onto the rooftop, her saggy diaper barely hanging on. I called for reinforcements.
“We have a rogue baby with a nappie,” a staff member reported into his walkie-talkie.
A monkey whisperer arrived and caught her by the tail. I followed the pair into the enclosure, removing Mina’s diaper and performing my maternal obligations.
I tried to say goodbye to my little monkey, but Mina had already returned to her natural state, reuniting with her baboon family and leaving me to watch from the outside.
More from Travel:
N/a’an ku sê wildlife sanctuary is about 40 miles from Windhoek. Southern African Airways and British Airways offer two-stop service from Washington Dulles.
The sanctuary offers two lodging options: shared rooms for up three people and large tents for up to two people. Shared bathrooms. Stays range from two weeks (minimum) to three months. Cost: $950 for two weeks, including lodging, three meals a day, laundry, airport transfers and volunteering duties.