Friday, October 05, 2007

Scowler Monkey

And here is one of those competition entries I mentioned in my previous rant. This one won ‘Highly Commended’ in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writers Awards 2003. Of course, 'Highly commended' means that I wasn't quite in there with the prize-winners. But considering that this was an international competition open to pros and amateurs, I feel that I acquitted myself ably. I can remember the laugh I had when I read the results. First prize went to a South African. Second prize winner was a guy from somewhere in Scandinavia. Third prize was an American chappie. Then came the 'Highly commended' section and 'Steve Colgan, High Wycombe'. Ah ... exotic wildlife-strewn Buckinghamshire ...

I've included a couple of photos that I took at the time the incident occured.

Scowler Monkey

“Oh my goodness!”
Linton suddenly swerved off the road and skidded to a halt. His battered old Nissan juddered and stalled. As the air conditioning gurgled and died, the temperature inside the vehicle rose sharply as if an oven door had been opened. My wife Dawn released her pincer-grip on my arm and we both looked out of the rear window to see what had made us stop so dramatically. To our surprise, a large grey monkey stared back at us through the clouds of red dust we’d raised.

No, not stared.

Linton, our ever-informative Sri Lankan guide, pointed to the creature.
“You know what he is?”
“A grey langur, isn’t it?” I said.
“No. He is very stupid monkey!”
Linton glowered at the langur and made a noise that was something like a raspberry and something like a goat bleating. The monkey just scowled back at him. Linton slapped his hand hard on the outside of the driver’s door. If this was meant to scare the animal away, it failed. All the monkey did was scowl even harder. Its face seemed to be in serious danger of imploding.
“He’s not very impressed with us, is he?” I said.
“Then he shouldn’t have run in front of the van,” said Linton.

The langur began pacing backwards and forwards across the width of the road, his long rope-like tail curled above him like a question mark. Every so often he stopped to offer us an insincere grin packed with dangerous looking teeth. After a few minutes of this, he sat down on his haunches in the middle of the road. Earlier in the day I’d seen a number of langurs in the same pose. They’d been sitting by the side of the road in Wirawila just watching the world go by. With their heart-shaped faces trimmed with white fur, they’d looked like bizarre garden gnomes in parkas.

The Scowler seemed to be waiting for us to leave. He placed his hands on his knees and, if he’d had a watch, I swear he would have glanced at it. Linton appeared to take the hint and started the car. We pulled away slowly.
“Linton, stop!” shouted Dawn.
For the second time in as many minutes, Linton stamped on the brake pedal. Even before we’d stopped, Dawn had wrenched the door open and was outside pointing excitedly.
“Look!” she said.

The Scowler was still squatting on the spot where he’d so recently demonstrated his total ignorance of the Green Cross Code. But now a second large male had appeared. He stalked cautiously from a mess of scrubby bushes, passed The Scowler, and then took up a seated position on the other side of the road. As soon as he sat down, the rest of the troupe appeared from the bushes. In eerie silence, broken only by the distant wailing of wild peacocks, some 25-30 langurs crossed the road in single file, their tall tails waving above them like whip aerials. They were a mix of young and old, large and small, and some of the females had youngsters clinging to their underbellies. I realised that The Scowler and the other big male were acting as lookouts as the troupe passed from one side of the road to the other. What Linton had called a ‘very stupid monkey’ was obviously anything but. The Scowler and his colleague were acting as crossing patrols. All they were missing were the lollipop signs and flat caps.

The last langur loped after the troupe and was followed off the road by the two big males. In the excitement of seeing so many wild monkeys, I nearly forgot to take any photographs. A timely and violent nudge in the ribs from Dawn served as a useful (and painful) reminder and I was able to get two or three shots before they vanished into the scrub.

“Tchah! See? Now the road is clear!” said Linton. “Why do they cross the road when cars come? I think they are bored. They play with us for their fun!”

Monkeys playing chicken?

We got back into Linton’s car and set off again. The road before and behind us was clear as far as the eye could see. It was the same story to either side of us; nothing but acres of flat, arid scrubland. This corner of Sri Lanka was suffering from drought and the annual Yala monsoon was some months away yet. It was hard to imagine what the langurs found to do all day in such desolation. We really were in the middle of nowhere; the kind of place where an intelligent animal like a monkey could easily get bored, I imagine. A place where they’d have to make their own entertainment.

No … surely not …

Written on the 23rd January 2003

1 comment:

Spud said...

very cool and well deserved. You wordy gitbag :-)