Meerkat (Family Safari) Magic in the Kalahari
When planning our 6 month family safari through Africa, one of our must-do, non negotiable, has-to-happen experiences was spending time with meerkats in the Kalahari. So what is it like to spend an afternoon with your family and a habituated meerkat family in the vast expanses of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Read on…
Imagine a potentially perfect afternoon, but you are with your family.
These are the people you love the most, but they’re also the people that drive you the craziest. An hour before you were losing it with them as they went out of their way to antagonise each other. Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of that, you’re more determined than ever to make the most of the good moments, when they come. You want them to think about the good moments in ten years time, not the moments when you lost the plot.
This was us as we drove from Camp Kalahari in the Magkadigkadi Salt Pans on our way to spend the afternoon with a habituated group of meerkats. In tow were our 11 and 5 year old daughters, who had been bickering not long before. They knew that this experience had the potential to take them to kid nirvana. In the next two hours they would be surrounded by meerkats, and if they were very, very lucky, there was a chance that a meerkat would use them as a lookout post. In other words, sit on their head.
As we hopped out of the vehicle and started walking towards ‘Fit’ the Motswana man who was employed to spend all day, everyday, with this particular group of meerkats, I felt a certain level of pressure. We had 13 meerkats all to ourselves for the next two hours – would we mess this up? We’re far from the perfect family and there have been moments in the past where magnificent opportunities have come our way, only for us to fall into arguments and fighting. I knew this experience with the meerkats might never present itself ever again.
What would our lasting memory be?
We had prepped the girls to take away any expectations that a meerkat might jump on their head. We knew that almost certainly they’d be able to sit close and watch them – that in itself is an incredible privilege. We also said that if a meerkat chose to climb on mine or Mama’s head then that was just the luck of the day, we couldn’t control the situation or make the meerkats choose them. In fact, a group of safari goers had returned to camp that very same morning having spent a long period of time amongst the meerkats while they went about their morning behaviour and foraging, yet no one had had the luck of a meerkat crawling up onto them. Nevertheless, they had all loved the interaction and the proximity to these incredible little creatures. But our girls were dreaming of meerkats and were willing to be as still as statues, knowing that if they were patient and silent then something amazing might just happen.
As we walked in, Fit took Lena by the hand and walked with her to one of the burrow entrances. She sat down patiently to wait. Ellie sat down at a nearby burrow to do the same. I stood back with a long lens to take pictures without interfering in the experience. For the first few minutes nothing happened, until a meerkat sauntered in between myself and Lena. However instead of going towards our unbelievably still 5yo daughter, it ambled over to me. As it reached me it looked up and then climbed up onto my head, via my left forearm. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but hey, it was cool and I was happy. I took my first ever selfie with a meerkat on my head.
Fit brought Lena over, and she squeezed in tight, just a little taller than me – a ploy to trick the meerkat into going onto my daughters head, but the little mongoose wouldn’t have a bar of it. Eventually he hopped down and carried on foraging.
I followed some meerkats around, interspersing still photos with video. Fit had repositioned the girls and they were again waiting patiently. This time a meerkat stood up right next to Lena, looking her right in the face. She sat perfectly still except for the massive grin on her face. I tried to get the photo, but the camera wouldn’t operate.
Damn! Taking the video footage had killed my battery. I turned the camera off and then on again and managed to get a few incredibly beautiful photos. I tried for more video, and was momentarily successful before the camera died again.
I ran back to the car and picked up two spare batteries.
This time as I ran back I noticed Beck taking an iPhone video of Ellie, with three meerkats on her. One on her head, one on her shoulder and another trying to climb up her chest. Her grin was even wider than Lena’s. We took video and photos and then Lena stepped in behind her sister and a young meerkat scooted right up Ellie’s chest and onto Lena’s head.
Now for Beck. She hovered nearby and eventually a sentinel climbed up the entire length of her body, onto her hat and stood there looking for danger. Beck’s grin was as wide as both of the girls. We managed to get a couple of family photos – all of us tucked in together, with a meerkat sitting on Beck’s head.
The next hour passed in the same vein. Small periods of time where there would be some meerkat/human interaction. Then often a slightly longer period where we sat and watched them forage from close range, digging furiously for bugs, insects, scorpions and spiders. At one point the group gathered together in alarm. A jackal had been sighted in the distance. They high tailed it for another group of burrows further away. We high tailed it after them.
The afternoon finished with Ellie sitting back to back with the alpha female as the sun set in the west. Lena was right next to her big sister. A number of meerkats made their way to the burrow, sneaking in between the two girls.
I noticed a sad look on Lena’s face. I felt a flash of frustration that she might upset because the meerkat wasn’t actually sitting on her. We eventually walked back to the car I asked her why she looked sad.
“Because we’re going to have to leave the meerkats Dad”.
We had the most amazing afternoon. It was so satisfying that I felt like I needed a cigarette (and I’ve never smoked!).
It’s an experience we’d love to help other families experience. Drop us a line to start making meerkat magic with your family.