They jinked and turned, lowered and raised themselves like seven-year-olds on a sugar high. Meerkats, one of the world’s most endearing animals, are not found in many places other than the Kalahari desert in Africa, and when they are, they usually disappear from sight within seconds.
At Tswalu, a game reserve in South Africa owned by the Oppenheimer family, we were privileged to be sitting five metres from their burrow with Cooks, a “habituater” who has sat with the dozen and followed them for a year as a part of her study.
A cape fox appeared, and was immediately mobbed by the meerkats. They bundled together, vocalising and intimidating her with frenzied scratching of the ground. A chase ensued; they ran around the burrow in circles, till the fox was seen off.
The temperatures soar to as high as 40 degree celsius in the summer afternoons, rainfall is sparse, and the animals here are adept at finding and storing water.
In our short visit, we saw hundreds of sprightly springbok and Oryx, dozens of Sable and Roan antelope, a handful of skittish desert black rhinos, the famed black-maned Kalahari lions, a lone cheetah and even had fleeting glimpses of an aardwolf (a small, insectivorous hyena-like mammal) and an aardvark (shelters of a variety of mammals and reptiles).
Tswalu, set amidst the low Kronenberg mountains, is a ‘green desert’ on the threshold of the starker, treeless Kalahari, a name that means ‘The great thirst’. Stunted camel thorn acacias and shepherd’s trees provide meagre shade, and the Silky Bushman Grass (typical grasses in the Kalahari) and ground scrubs cling on, but barely. The powdery red sand makes it easy for trackers to read the movements of the animals, and for ground squirrels, mongoose and snakes to dig complicated tunnel networks.
The roads we drove on had some deep aardvark holes that snagged our jeep’s tyres a couple of times. Clear skies and vast, open landscape made for some dazzling sunsets. On our first evening, we saw the pink sand and fiery skies reflected in a waterhole. A pair of lionesses came down to drink, and as we watched them, the sky turned a deep red. Within minutes, velvety darkness surrounded us, a male lion padded up close, his reverberant territorial calls silenced everything other than a few barking geckos.
Away from the crowds
A thrilling array of discoveries awaited us at Tswalu. It was fascinating watching Moses, a small, ochre-coloured Tswana-Bushman use his specialised tracking skills to trace a cheetah and then a rhino with a calf. “He loves tracking pangolin so much we have to pry him away,” said Marko.
We marvelled at the enormous sociable weaver nests that looked like thatched roofs, watched dung beetles rolling enormous balls of dung, a Nyala sheltered her five-day-old calf right inside the camp, and the astoundingly bright night-sky held unfamiliar constellations like the Orion and the Southern Cross.
I asked Sib, a camp hand who had grown up in the Kalahari if he’d ever been to a big city. “Once,” he said, “to Johannesburg. I hated it. It was so crowded. When I came back, it was so nice and peaceful here. I lay in bed, heard the call of a black-backed jackal, and fell fast asleep.”
Tswalu is a hundred thousand hectare property in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, owned and maintained by the Oppenheimer family. Their aim is to preserve the land and wildlife. www.tswalu.com
STAY AT: Motse camp (sleeps 20) or at the Tarkuni lodge (sleeps 10)
SEE: The movie Meerkats, which is set in Tswalu, with excellent footage of the
landscape and wildlife.
BUY: Bushmen artefacts and beautiful jewellery made from discarded ostrich egg shells.