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Animal holiday in South Africa: Meeting the meerkats in Vanzylsrus

As Carolyn Hall discovers upon spending time with the diminutive stars of the BBC programme, Meerkat Manor, Africa is not just about the “Big Five”.

The day starts at dawn, with the two of us plus our Scottish guide, Laura, sitting outside the entrance, looking a bit like groupies, and nervously awaiting the appearance of a famous face. Only, this entrance is not one to a hotel room or a backstage area, but to a dirt burrow.

Just as Laura checks her watch, right on cue the famous whiskered, fox-like face appears: our first sighting. And like all groupies, cameras are ready and clicking away before our diva even fully emerges. True star that she is, full of confidence and nonchalance at finding an audience right on her doorstep, she emerges and yawns her way into the start of her day.

Thus is our introduction to the first member of the Uberkatz family, one of several study groups at the Kalahari Meerkat Project, near Vanzylsrus in South Africa.

As it transpires, our first encounter is not with the dominant female of this matriarchal mob. She is the next to emerge and easy to identify: Tina, wearing a tiny radio collar.

Although we have been furnished with a list of names and identifying marks for each of the 13 mob members, we are far too engrossed in the early-morning antics of these endearing social animals to tear our eyes away for a single moment. We even refrain from moving too much, and we whisper to each other so as not to frighten these bundles of energy – all for nothing, it turns out. On the whole, the meerkats ignore us, though they have been known to climb onto visitors to use them as lookout points. We are so close, my partner is muttering curses at his wrong choice of camera lens, and backs off.

Meanwhile, the entire group of animals emerges in rapid succession, literally popping out of the ground and pausing at the top of the mound, seeming to pose for the camera, as stars are wont to do.

Balancing on a tripod of two legs plus a tail, these entertaining creatures really do line themselves up facing the sun, in order to warm up after a night underground, before beginning their day of foraging for insects and other invertebrates.

The five young who appear, and also take very little notice of us, are only a month or so old, and although they belong to the dominant breeding pair (Tina and her mate, Gump) they are communally cared for by the entire group.

But first things first. As part of the study, each animal is weighed twice daily. A set of electronic scales balancing a Tupperware container with sand in it is placed on the ground and each individual is enticed inside using bribery. A tiny piece of boiled egg is the treat – and it really must be such, as several members try to get weighed more than once.

Like human young, the juvenile meerkats have no idea how to find food or how to dispatch what they do find; it’s up to the adults to educate them. This leads to some hilarious antics, with youngsters enthusiastically digging up the desert in mimicry of the adults, but all in a rather haphazard, messy fashion and with very little success. Live offerings, which are normally jealously defended, are given to the young who are then left to struggle with whatever delicacy has been deposited before them. I watch one who has an oversize worm wriggling to escape, like a giant piece of spaghetti slapping a child’s face when sucked in fast. Sharp teeth and determination make the little meerkat the winner of this encounter, and to my surprise he begs for more.

By now, there are meerkats scattered in all directions and lively vocal contact is maintained between all the individuals. It’s hard to know where to look or which one to follow, but thankfully they seem completely unbothered by having us – heffalumps by comparison – lumbering amongst them.

Our presence also fails to prevent them from undertaking their guard duties. This is done with an air of intense seriousness, as they peer fixedly beyond the camera lens regardless of how close we come. Alarm calls are given several times and the response is immediate – youngsters are protected either by being straddled or surrounded, and at one stage everyone hightails it (literally, with tails pointing directly skyward) to the nearest underground entrance.

After several hours, it is with great reluctance that we leave this entertaining group. Our only consolation is having a return visit arranged for later that same afternoon. Midday in the Kalahari is too hot for anyone, including resident meerkats, and so “time out” is taken by all.

On our return, our guide is Seline from Istanbul, who takes us to spend time with the “Whiskers mob” – the real stars of Meerkat Manor. This group is smaller in number, has no youngsters and is consequently a quieter group; this, combined with the fact that it’s still too hot at 5.30pm for much activity, means we have to rely on modern stalking methods (i.e., radio signals) to locate them.

The group of six is found lying flat like worn animal-skin mats beneath the shade of a bush, blithely unconcerned at our approach. Every few minutes they move to a new cool spot and flop down starfish-like in the shade, looking decidedly hot and bothered.

As the sun begins to sink in the sky, at some unknown signal they all begin foraging and moving with purpose back towards the current burrow in use. Being fickle homeowners, meerkats do not dig their own burrows but commandeer those dug by ground squirrels, often sharing the same space in relative harmony.

Unusually, this group has two pregnant females (Rufio and Brea) due to give birth around the same time. Often, the dominant mother will kill any other young; we’re hoping that if both give birth at the same time, she will get somewhat confused and think they are all hers.

Adding to this, the slightly younger pregnant female, Brea, appears to be making a bid for the top spot, judging by the submissive behaviour being displayed by Rufio, currently the dominant female, when in Brea’s presence. Seline assures us that Rufio is “not a very nice character”; she is hoping Brea will win out in the end. Such is life as a diva with an ambitious younger understudy.

Arriving back at the den as the sun drops closer to the horizon, it is time again for weighing. At the most, a heavily pregnant female weighs in at around one kilogram, but tonight Rufio isn’t playing the game, and no amount of enticement will get her on the scales. Like a prima donna who has gained weight, she refuses to confirm it and turns her nose in the opposite direction.

Sitting up with rounded belly facing the sunset, her eyes glaze over as she falls asleep, jerking herself awake each time she tips off balance. Like an older relation who’s had one too many glasses of sherry at Christmas time, she gazes blearily around to see if anyone has noticed her nodding off.

Finally, without even a last backward glance at her adoring fans, she is the last to disappear into the den as the sun touches the horizon. And it’s time for us to leave, too.

Make it happen

Visits to the meerkats only take place on Sundays and are only available for guests staying at one of two places at Vanzylsrus, the Van Zylsrus Hotel (vanzylsrushotel.com) or Leeupan B+B.

Vanzylsrus is approximately 700km by road from Johannesburg, or 1,220km by road from Cape Town on the route to Botswana and Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park. The nearest local airport is Upington, approximately 400km away.

The meerkats themselves are located 20km outside of Vanzylsrus. It is possible to get there in an ordinary family car, as most of the route is on tar, the balance being a good (but rutted) dirt road.

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