Early Monday morning I sat on a camping chair in the desert outside a town called Oudtshoorn, watching a family of meerkats emerge from their burrow as the sun came up.
The meerkats hung out for a while — stretching, sunning their little bellies, scanning the horizon as they balanced on their hind legs and tails — paying us no attention as we snapped pictures of them in front of an impossibly beautiful mountain backdrop. Eventually the meerkats melted away into the bush to collect bugs for breakfast.
It was a pretty good way to start the week.
I could really end this post right now. If you have any sense at all you’ve already stopped reading and are booking your trip to De Zeekoe in Oudtshoorn, where you can go for the weekend and meet the meerkats yourself.
But I’ve got a few more meerkat pictures I want to share so I’ll just continue for those of you who are still with me.
Let me back up a bit.
What’s a Meerkat?
Meerkats are not cats and they are not rodents — they are part of the mongoose family. Their scientific name is Suricata suricatta. Meerkats are bigger than squirrels but smaller than house cats.
Meerkats live in the deserts of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Angola. A meerkat group is called a mob, a gang, or a clan. (I prefer mob.) They live underground in burrows. Meerkats eat mostly insects and some plants — they get moisture from the food they eat and don’t need to drink water. They mate for life, but if their mate dies they’ll find another one.
Meerkats are part of what wildlife tour operators call “the Shy Five” — a group of animals also including the aardvark, the aardwolf, the bat-eared fox, and the porcupine — so named due to secretive and/or nocturnal behavior that makes sightings exceedingly rare.
Meerkats are fu*king cute.
Meeting the Meerkats
The Oudtshoorn meerkat experience is hosted by Five Shy Meerkats, a tour company founded by Devey Glinister. Devey, his son J.D., and their staff have spent many years observing the meerkat mobs in Oudtshoorn and creating a unique experience in which humans can sit and watch these adorable animals up close. The meerkats live on property owned by De Zeekoe, a working farm and lodge 17 kilometers away. (More about De Zeekoe in a future post.)
These meerkats have never been fed, touched, or otherwise interfered with by humans. They are used to seeing the strange people who come to stare at them for an hour each morning and to hearing human voices — i.e., they are “habituated” to people. But the meerkats are 100% wild and their daily life is not affected by this tour.
I cannot tell you how excited I was to see my first meerkat mob. I could barely sleep the night before.
My colleagues and I spent the night at De Zeekoe on Sunday and left the lodge at 6:45 a.m. (Luckily the sun rises late in winter — if we were doing the tour in summer we’d have to wake up about two hours earlier.) We arrived at the Five Shy Meerkats starting point just after 7:00.
There were about 20 people on the tour. After some coffee and rusks and a brief introduction from our guide, Rudolph, we each grabbed a chair and trekked about five minutes down to the meerkat mob’s burrow for that day. (The mob frequently moves from one burrow to another. The tour guides scout out the area the afternoon before so they know where to take their guests the next morning.)
Rudolph helped us arrange our chairs in a semi circle about ten meters from the burrow.
About ten minutes after we sat down, the sentinel meerkat emerged.
The sentinel meerket’s job is to scan the area and make sure there’s no danger before the rest of the mob comes above ground. The sentinel had a 1000-yard stare, looking right past all the people. (He knew we were no threat.)
A few minutes later, another little meerkat face popped up. Then another and another, until all 11 of the meerkat mob were present. There were also newborn babies down below but they were too young to come up, alas.
After about 30 or 40 minutes (I kind of lost track of time) the meerkats silently began to move off into the desert. “Don’t go, Meerkat Mob!” I nearly cried. But our time with the mob was up. Soon they were gone — little stick figures in the distance — and the same sentinel meerkat was left behind to watch over the burrow.
We stood up, folded our chairs, and trekked back up the hill, then drove back to De Zeekoe for a hearty breakfast. I wish I could start every Monday like this.
A few tips for the Five Shy Meerkats tour:
- The best way to get to Oudtshoorn is by flying into the town of George, which is 60 kilometers away.
- Book your meerkat tour well in advance to avoid disappointment. (I tried to take this tour when I passed through Oudtshoorn last year but left it until the day before to book and then I was too late.) The tour costs R660 (about $44) — a damn good deal in my opinion. De Zeekoe guests receive a R100 discount.
- Dress warmly, especially in winter. I recommend a coat, warm hat, gloves, hiking shoes, and two pairs of socks.
- Be prepared to be patient. We got lucky and the mob woke up soon after we sat down at the burrow. But you might have to wait an hour or even more, especially if the sun isn’t out.
- Although you’ll be quite close to the meerkats, you’ll still need a zoom lens to capture good close-up shots. My 70-300mm lens worked perfectly.