As I peeled myself away from the comfort of my bed on Monday morning, a stiff easterly wind causing the slightly ajar windows to rattle noisily, I had a little inkling in the pit of my stomach that it was going to be a big day. The Ouma rusks(I miss your rusks Mom), generously dunked in my piping hot cup of Five Roses tea, along with the memory of the previous night’s chicken potjie(a stew, cooked over 5 hours in a three-legged cast iron pot over the coals), provided me with the sustenance I needed for the challenge ahead. The start of my third week here in the Kalahari and it was my turn once more to try and stay with and follow the Gosa gang around for the whole day.
I was dropped at the Gosa gang’s Bird’s Nest burrow by my wingman for the morning shift, Rob who still needed to get some diesel for the Ganda. This was the first time, since we have been observing them, that these meerkats had spent the night at this particular burrow, so I was very curious to see how they would behave at this slightly more exposed area.
By 7h30 the stiff breeze had abated just enough for Gandalf to emerge from the comfort of the burrow, seemingly well-rested, and scan for any sign of danger. Thankfully my presence was not considered any reason for alarm and he gave the all-clear for the other nine members of the gang to begin their days sunning their bellies. It was not particularly long before the slightly more nervous members of the gang decided it was time to move and all eleven of us headed south, them in search of food, and me in search of answers. Before I really had much of a chance to assess who was where and doing what, I realised that 6 meerkats had disappeared into the long grass and I was left with 4 in my immediate vicinity; Cleopatra, her trusted beau Gandalf, a female ‘teenager’ full of attitude and Hutch, a fearless young, sub-adult male with that ‘ready for action’ look in his eyes.
A pleasant couple of hours were spent in the general vicinity of Bird’s Nest burrow, the four ravenous meerkats gorging themselves on beetle larvae, while I worked on my ‘Meerkat’ pronunciation, trying in vain to imitate their different calls. I also did a little digging of my own to try and further my cause for acceptance, only for them to briefly glance up with a look of utter indifference.
Having returned to the burrow for a quick site inspection, the foraging continued and as I watched Gandalf standing on the largest of the mounds of dirt dotted around the burrow, he suddenly, as if he had somehow just remembered a very important meeting that he was late for, took off in a blur of legs, tail and dust. Unconcerned, the remaining three continued with their serious business of protein consumption while I pondered the curious dynamics at play in this gang.
The start of the 11am to 3pm murder shift arrived and Cleopatra and her two minions thankfully felt that the exertion of the morning’s foraging coupled with the severity of the midday sun justified some downtime and retired underground. This allowed me the opportunity to spread out the old aqua shower curtain and enjoy, in the horizontal position, the small shady patch provided by a nearby Camel Thorn tree, not before I learned a valuable lesson that the old aqua shower curtain does not provide adequate protection from the vicious nature of the enormous thorns of said tree. Despite these little luxuries, when 5 flies have decided that the orbit around your head is the perfect distance for a racetrack and escape from the heat is nothing more than a pipedream, the murder shift out here can potentially hasten the onset of delirium.
Fortunately however, I was spared the curse of insanity as the three fearless little creatures were soon out of their burrows and rushed over to investigate the old aqua shower curtain. Some more cooling time in the shade, and then the five of us, including Paul who had since relieved Rob, were off on another foraging adventure, heading south towards Gosa dam. It was very interesting to observe the general modus operandi of this little group. Hutch, in the absence of Gandalf and the other more senior members of the gang, did an outstanding job as the sentry, showing off is ever-improving tree-climbing skills, while Cleopatra, ever alert, seemed to be responsible for the timing and directions of the sprints across open areas to the next bit of bush cover.
By roughly 4pm we had made our way to the Gosa dam and the burrow on the dam wall that forms part of the gang’s network. Although we haven’t seen them spend the night at this burrow, we have encountered them a few times in the late afternoon, seemingly enjoying the view of different herds of antelope coming to drink on the opposite side of the dam. The relative peace and calm of the situation was briefly disturbed as Hutch suddenly took off down the dam wall and into the great beyond. He can hardly be blamed for the rash behaviour. He had after all been spending all day with two females, one extremely pregnant, the other a moody ‘teenager’. And then there were two.
With the quality girl time at the dam over, Cleopatra and her younger companion headed west and it wasn’t too long before we spotted a familiar figure surveying the landscape from his elevated position up a tree. It was Gandalf, and there was immediately a stream of chatter between him and Cleopatra. What was said only they will ever know, but the two female meerkats did a u-turn and started heading back in the direction of the dam, with Paul in hot pursuit. I stayed with Gandalf, who zigzagged his way through the long grass, heading first west, then south, then east, until finally he met up with Cleopatra and all the other remaining members of the Gosa gang as they bolted towards Camel Thorn burrow. Amazing!
A leisurely hour went by at the burrow, and as the shadows began to lengthen, we naturally assumed that the meerkats had decided on their resting place for the evening. Assumptions are dangerous in this job. In a matter of seconds I went from sitting on a mound of dirt at the burrow, staring admiringly at a nearby Sociable Weavers’ nest, to a near sprint through the long grass trying to keep up with ten meerkats seemingly hell-bent on testing the level of my desire to stay with them all day. Ultimately it would be two disgruntled warthogs, which literally stopped me in my tracks as they came charging noisily out of a thicket much too close to where I was running, that would cause me to fall agonisingly short of a full sunrise to sunset day with the meerkats.
Any hopes of driving to one of the other nearby burrows to see them go down for the evening were dashed when we discovered that the Ganda’s front right tire had lost its desire to continue holding air.
A big day. A long day. A very interesting day. No doubt there will be many more to come.