Scientists will tell you that vervet monkeys eat fruit, figs, flowers and termites. Don't believe them. In Limpopo, South Africa, these grayish monkeys with the white-fringed, black faces prefer coffee and sugar.
If you so much as leave your window cracked, as I did at the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge, an eco-lodge overlooking the Luonde Mountains, these adorable varmints will figure out a way to sneak in and plunder your supply.
Don't get me wrong. I love being awakened by the sounds of nature (Limpopo's 600 species of birds perform a delightful wake-up call), but caffeine-starved monkeys with powder blue balls (the males have equally bright red penises) are not my idea of early morning company.
Everything else about Shiluvari was perfect. Set in the heart of a nature conservancy on the banks of the Albasini Dam, this quirky, family-run lodge has 14 rooms and thatched chalets, each decorated with art by local artists. Even the cabinets, rugs and bathroom amenities are hand-made by locals, in some cases out of baobab leaves and rhino and elephant dung.
Shiluvari was started in 1995 on the estate of a long-time Swiss French family whose great grandfather opened the mission hospital in nearby Elim. It's off the beaten path, to be sure, but it has everything you could ever want in a vacation: history (the family knew Gandhi), legends (white lions, tribal medicine men, etc.) and a pet warthog named Petunia.
Okay, so Petunia finally had to go, but Jack, the Jack Russell terrier, is on hand and ever-vigilant at picking up crumbs that escape from sumptuous evening dinners on the patio of the lodge's Wood-Owl Country Restaurant that overlooks the lake. Not that I'd willingly let a crumb go -- the African-fusion cuisine is much too delicious -- but with all the fascinating tales masterfully woven by Michel Girardin, one of the owners who joined us for dinner, a scrap or two was bound to fall into Jack's waiting jaws.
Girardin calls the province of Limpopo, South Africa's "wild west."
"It has a fantastic landscape, ancient kingdoms, extraordinary Venda and Shangaan legends, the Big Five and from a pricing point of view, it offers a bloody good deal," he says.
Birding tours, led by Samson Mulaudzi, Shiluvari's resident bird guide, are popular pastimes as is the Ribolla Arts Route. Betty Hlungwane, the lodge manager, provided us with a map of the route that leads to the homes and studios of 30 local artists where we were able to sit under avocado and paw-paw trees, watch the artists at work and hear about the dreams, visions and spiritual beliefs that lead to each piece of art. In these Venda villages, it's possible to strike up conversations with potters, batik makers, wood carvers, bead designers, drum crafters and young women dancing like pythons.
Although many of the artists on the route are unknowns and don't have computers, let alone phones, others, such as sculptor Noria Mabaso, impressionist Jackson Hlungwane and drum-maker Phineas Masivhelele, regularly sell to overseas clients.
I was particularly struck by Thomas Kubayi's 12-foot wood carving of Nelson Mandela with angel wings. Kubayi, who tutors local kids in carving from salvaged wood, also produces indigenous music CD's, one of which is playing while I write this.
Perhaps the best part of the Ribolla Arts Route and Shiluvari Lodge are the unexpected surprises along the way -- women balancing baskets of fruit on their heads, moms washing their toddlers outside in big plastic buckets, teenagers roasting prawns in wheelbarrows. And, yes, even pesky vervet monkeys.