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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Monkey business

Gibraltar is the only place in all of Europe where you can find primates in the wild. Known as the Barbary Apes (a misnomer: they are macaques), the endangered animals nearly went extinct in the early 20th century. Today, nearly 300 primates live on the rock, and most of them gather around tourist sites hoping to catch an easy meal.

The best way to get to the top of the iconic rock is by cable car, which takes about 6 minutes. For roughly $20, a one-way ticket includes a self-guided multimedia walking tour and access to the major attractions on the way down to the town at the base.

As you step off the cable car, the monkeys await. A young boy eating a candy bar as he exited was stunned when a monkey charged at him, jumped on his back and stole the candy bar from his grasp just as he was about to take a bite. The boy was fine and was laughing about it, but it was still a shock to see it as it happened.

First lesson learned: Don't eat around the monkeys.

We spent the next few hours strolling from site to site, enjoying the monkeys along the way. Babies jumped from tree to tree or clutched their mothers; juveniles wrestled and clacked their teeth together and the older males napped on the rocks.

If the monkeys weren't cool enough, we went subterranean a few times, which provides respite from the sun and heat.

St. Michael's Cave, with its high ceiling dripping with stalgmites, was incredible. The first visitors to set foot inside were Neanderthals nearly 40,000 years before Christ. Later, the caverns were thought to be the Gates of Hades, the entrance to the underworld. In the 20th century, the caves were used by WW2 soldiers as an emergency hospital, and it serves as a concert hall to this day.

After all our walking, we stopped for a beverage at the eatery next to St. Michael's Cave. While Lauren ordered a passion fruit slush puppy for us to share, I watched the tourists taking pictures of the monkeys gathered outside. One woman was nervous, so I told her there was nothing to worry about unless she had food on her. Lauren came out and started telling the woman about the boy with the pilfered candy bar.

The words "They won't bother you, as long as you don't feed them" were still hanging in the air as a monkey lept from the roof onto Lauren's back. She shrieked and the frightened woman looked horrified as she watched the monkey try to snatch the slush puppy from her hand. Lauren didn't relinquish the drink, but some spilled on the ground and the monkey bent down to lap it up.

Meanwhile, another monkey swooped in and grabbed the styrofoam cup from behind, and finally Lauren let go. The monkeys had won, and we were still thirsty.

Second lesson learned: Don't drink around the monkeys.

We wandered off down the path again, laughing all the way. And by the way, I got it all on camera. Pictures to come....
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