Words by Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Yesterday we crossed the Karoo on one of our favourite roads: Graaff-Reinet to Murraysburg to Victoria West, Loxton, Carnarvon and Williston. Spirit of the Karoo Route, we call it. You’ll meet no more than 10 vehicles in total on the roads between towns.
Between Graaff-Reinet and Murraysburg, we came upon an odd sight. A small flock of sheep, about twenty or so, were clumped together and looking uneasy. Around them were baboons, doing their best to look nonchalant. I almost expected one of them to be whistling tunelessly.
The young baboons were gambolling nearby, picking up invisible objects from the earth and popping them into their mouths. The older adults would walk by the sheep, within a few metres, then hop on the fence.
The enormous and very hairy troop boss sat on a small grassy knoll nearby, managing to look shifty and innocent at the same time.
Clearly something was up. There was an air of expectation, and the sheep sensed it. If they grazed at all, it was only a few bites and then their heads would be up. They hardly moved, boxed in as they were close to the corner of a fence.
Now, there are accounts of baboons being trained to act as shepherds. In fact, there was one in Eastern Cape’s Cathcart district over a hundred years ago, that was recorded as being quite devoted to the herd of goats he’d been trained to guard.
He’d drink milk from one of them and bring them back to the kraal every night, riding on the back of the last goat. Another was recorded as picking off ticks from his charges.
But what was going on here was not nearly so benign, in spite of the baboons’ casual air.
It was equally clear that nothing was going to happen while we were watching. The baboons kept glancing at us, as if wishing we’d leave so they could carry on their business. The sheep looked very much as if they wanted us to stay.
We eventually drove off reluctantly.
Is there any Karoo sheep farmer who could shed some light on what interactions happen between sheep and baboons?