Baboons in fynbos

Baboons play an integral role in the ecology of Fynbos vegetation and their diet is so varied within this plant system that it may be easier to note what they don’t eat rather than the extensive list of what they do!  I’ve been fortunate to sight a couple of the troops recently in the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve while out cycling and have been able to observe their foraging.  After good rainfall this winter the vegetation is green and succulent and the animals are in good condition.  The temperature has also been colder than usual so it’s interesting to note their thick ‘winter coats’.

A confident posture and bearing marks this alpha male. He is in peak condition and commands respect from the ranks.
Layers of thick hair serve as protection from winter’s chilly temperature.
Foraging on the fruit of wild olive trees, Olea europaea subsp. africana.  
They tuck in with gusto feasting on the ripe black olives. I too sampled a couple curious to test the flavour. Pleasant enough, the initial bite was grape-like, and then with a bitter after taste.
It was most surprising to see this plant on the menu: Cullumia squarrosa, or snake thistle. It’s a prickly little number! I had in the past seen them eating the flowers, but not the the needle like leaves. Reading a description of the plant, the inner involucral bracts are without prickles and I noted that they were only plucking off the top most growth.
They certainly get a good portion of fiber in their diet.  This plant is endemic to the Cape Peninsula – a coastal bush found only in the extreme south western Cape.

What’s on the Menu?

This is another post on the theme of baboon foraging  – whether a seafood repast, or vegetarian delight, the baboons here on the Cape Peninsula are masters at sourcing a varied diet.  Though at times there are opportunities to raid for ‘human derived food’, for the most part they’re out foraging in the natural environment.

I came across this scene in the late afternoon when this troop of baboons was making it’s way to an overnight sleep-site.  Most had well stocked cheek pouches but a few were still adding to this stash with a last snack or two.  Of interest was a mother with a baby riding jockey-style, confidently perched atop her back, munching on a clutch of succulent grass roots.  Suddenly she veered off into the bush.  Aha!  She’s spotted something of interest, i thought and stopped to watch.  Up she jumped and junior had to react quickly, but for the arched tail (Chacma baboons belong to the Old World monkey group and do not have prehensile gripping tails), he may have slid off ignominiously.   What was the prize up there in the shrubbery ….. ?

Confident baby riding on mother’s back supported by the arched tail.
Up she jumped into the shrubbery
Scrabbling in the shrubbery, baby and all.
The prize is a rain spider’s (Palystes superciliosus) egg nest!
Baby baboon might not be so interested.
Discarded rain spider’s (Palystes supercilliosus) egg nest.

It was a surprise to find that she’d discovered a rain spider’s (Palystes superciliosus) egg sac.   It appeared she was after the eggs, as I examined the image in close-up view and couldn’t make out any hatchlings.  The mystery was where did Mother Rain Spider lurk, as they have a reputation for aggressively guarding their egg sacs until the spiderlings hatch?!    Now where were we with that menu?  A couple of weeks ago I observed this same troop sucking on condom wrappers –  this incident left me wondering about the dangers of spiders and whether baboons suffer from spider bites as we humans do?

The storm brings a feast for Cape baboons

Two days have passed since the storm and the sandy beach where I photographed the galloping zebra has altered in the aftermath. Today it is strewn with huge piles of kelp,  dislodged by the powerful waves and borne in on the spring high tide.

The kelp brought with it a bonanza for the baboons, a feast of  mussels still attached to the fronds.  The baboons living along the coast supplement their diet with this highly nutritious resource which is rich in omega oils.  They tucked in with gusto, and I noticed that some of the older females had packed their cheek pouches until they bulged into hanging pouches.  There was a lot of ‘chatter’ as they sucked and chewed and a delightful sound of ‘hiccups’ as one greedy adult male gulped down the morsels far too quickly.

Foraging for mushrooms

The mist curls in through the valley as we leave the house early last Saturday morning.  It bodes well – the signs of a warming earth after the prior week’s soaking rain.  We are off on an excursion to learn about mushroom foraging organised by Roushanna Gray from “Veld and Sea”.  She is an authority on edible indigenous plants and runs excellent courses on foraging and the culinary arts.  She has teamed up with Justin Williams, an expert on mushrooms and the outing to Newlands forest is an introduction to harvesting edible varieties.  After the hunt Roushanna presents picnic fare based around culinary delights and the health benefits of mushrooms.

In the preamble describing the outing which we received by email there is an allusion to sensory experience:  “Mushroom foraging is also known as “the silent hunt”, where your senses come to the fore in order to track and locate these hidden fungal treasures.”

We set the GPS coordinates and after arriving at the destination wonder how we will identify our ‘man’ in the busy carpark.   It isn’t a problem, there he is beaming with a basket in hand which contains a huge porcini.   Some mushrooms are big, but this is one prize specimen.  As the group gathers it’s like a magnet, drawing comments of awe.

“Where did you find it?”  Is the overall chorus.

“On the side of the freeway coming into the park, it was there basking in the sun,”  says Justin.

We hadn’t yet started the hunt and already it is off to an auspicious start.

New laws require a collecting permit, which entitle the holder to collect one basket. Justin as permit holder is appointed the official “Keeper of the all Mushrooms”.

It’s clear that as Justin briefs us on the subject, he is passionate about mushrooms.   We’re impressed by his broad knowledge and hang onto his words as he covers matters of identification, medicinal properties, folklore, history to the description of the fascinating underground part of the fungi network – the mycelium.   We’re to come away with a new respect for this remarkable organism. The efficacious effects such as the Turkey tail which research shows a role in combating cancer; or the crucial ecological role in the decomposition of organic matter and the nutrient cycling in the environment.  Though not least are it’s culinary delights, and a whole new discovery of sensory umami.

The beckoning forest is a kind of enchanted Tolkienish, an alchemy of fecund earth and pine scent.

Within moments of setting off along the path, Justin’s internal antennae twitch and he spots quite the most fabulous speciman:  a Shaggy parasol.

It’s enormous, elaborate, textural  and we’re filled with a sense of reverence; into the basket it goes.  As we spot different species, Justin guides us through the identification process.   Toxic species like the panthercap or the fly agaric (highly hallucinogenic) could be confused with the Blusher (non toxic) species, and he warns it’s best not to take the risk in picking them.

There is a good yield of edible species: porcini (penny bun), bay boletus, pine rings and field mushrooms.  All are discovered with great deal of excitement.

The experience is topped by Roushanna’s wonderful picnic fare.  We start with an elixir – a drink which includes Turkey tail for it’s health giving properties; a tot of celebratory brandy buchu gives us a further boost.  Next is a rich earthy wild mushroom soup flavoured with marog, wild spinach, amaranth. This is followed by a delicious smorgasbord of green leaves, flowers and an aubergine and mushroom pate.  The finale is a heavenly brownie slice.  It’s pure decadence – boldly rich, the chocolate is as dark as the forest earth.  It’s texture is dense and flavours of truffle dust, num-num berries and foraged pine nuts seduce the palate.

Also at the picnic is Meghan Werner, the founder and brewmistress of Theonista kombucha tea.  The beverage is a delicious health enhancing product in combination of various flavours.  I choose the Rooibos and ginger, and there is also Rooibos and pomegranite, or green tea.   It’s a slightly effervescent  and tangy – an elixir made from tea and living cultures.

The whole experience is a treat; gathering food with a sense of sharing and appreciation.   I for one will be watching out for more from Roushanna’s inspiring programme of upcoming events and I’m hoping to follow Justin’s expanding recipe collection…. roll on fungi inspiration.