A baby macaca sylvanus leaps onto my back and uses my shoulder as a springboard to vault itself onto the rock ledge above me. I gasp and then laugh, relieved when I notice it’s an infant rather than one of its parents.
I would have to get used to this type of thing. I was smack dab in the middle of “Ape’s Den” on the famed Rock of Gibraltar—and I was surrounded by dozens of free-roaming monkeys.
The macaca sylvanus, or Barbary ape as it’s more commonly known, is a species of tail-less monkey known as a macaque. Considered an endangered species, it’s the only wild monkey found in Europe and is protected on the nature reserve which covers most of Gibraltar’s uplands.
Scattered all over “the Rock,” which is a 1,398-feet high limestone monolith, the monkeys, although wild, are very used to people and will often approach tourists. It’s illegal to feed them (punishable by a fine of £500, about $800), and it’s not advised to eat in front of them. An ice cream cone for example, will last roughly 20 seconds in your hand in Ape’s Den.
To be sure, there’s a lot of monkeying around up on The Rock. The macaques, “or rock apes,” as they are called by locals, are notorious for stealing items from tourists…hamming it up for photos…bouncing on car roofs and, as I found out, using unsuspecting humans as their stepping stones between perches.
Apart from the monkeys, Gibraltar itself is an interesting place to visit. The 2.6-square mile city sits at the very tip of the Iberian Peninsula and is home to nearly 30,000 Gibraltarians (in addition to around 300 monkeys).
Although Spain has disputed its sovereignty for years, Gibraltar is officially considered a British Overseas territory and English is its main language. Spanish, however, is also widely spoken.
Despite Spain’s resistance, it appears that the British are there to stay. The same goes for the Barbary apes and local superstition even dictates that the two are connected. It’s said that if the monkeys ever leave the Rock then the Brits will soon follow.
In fact, late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took this belief quite seriously and upon hearing news of the decline in the numbers of the monkeys, ordered that new ones be brought in from their native home of Northern Africa to replenish the group. It seems to have worked and both the monkeys and the British descendants seem very much settled.
I was fortunate enough to visit the unique peninsula of Gibraltar and witness the antics of the wild monkeys thanks to an English teaching post I held in the Spanish city of Seville. In fact, I was on the clock when I visited Gibraltar. It was just one of the nearby places I was able to explore as a paid chaperone on a cultural day trip organized by the school.
Apart from the good pay, short working week and small class sizes, not many places offer the opportunity to interact with monkeys as part of their job description!
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