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    One of my favorite moments was with the Whiskers. We were at their sleeping burrow, before sun up, to meet and greet them and to take their morning weights. While we were focusing on the weight box and recording who the individual was, in the box, and what their morning weight was, they had discovered the smell of squirrel in a back entrance to the burrow. Keep in mind that the squirrels are the actual architects and excavators, physically doing the digging, resulting in the elaborate burrow systems that the meerkats claim ownership of. Once the Meerkats take up residence, the ground squirrels are unceremoniously evicted, moving on to start construction on a new burrow begins.

    So, the thought of sharing their home with a ground squirrel, even if just for one evening, is apparently unacceptable. Upon completing their turn in the weight box, curiosity drew them to the rest of the group, gathering at the back door, and what was turning into a proper mobbing. Complete with bobbing heads, raised tails, spits and the occasional vertical jump, as each member tried to get the best vantage point for the pending strike.

    Now, as curious of a person that I am, I was still pretty upset over the recent outbreak of dominates bitten by snakes, and I found myself constantly on guard for the fanged ones. So, rushing over and looking down a burrow entrance, just didnt seem like the most prudent of things to do. Even though the body language of the kats doing the mobbing seemed intense it didnt appear to be overly cautious. Everyone was getting in on this and my nerves were starting to get to me just a bit. What is down that hole?

    Vickie had picked up her hand held computer and was recording data, about the mobbing, while trying to get a good look in the hole without interfering with the group. The meerkats were mobbing, but not pushing down the hole, and it was then that I heard the most ferocious, guttural growl, that I have ever heard. Ever. Okay, its not a snake. Right? Unless the snakes in South Africa growl.

    It was then that Vickie, with laughter in her voice said, Its a ground squirrel! A cute and fluffy ground squirrel made that growl? Then I realized what the view, from the ground squirrels side of things, must have looked like. Yikes! The meerkats really did appear to be threatening the squirrels very life. Whats a squirrel to do? Well, this poor guy decided to do the only thing he could, and that was to make a run for it.

    Before I had a chance to take the lens cap off the camera, the squirrel had puffed up his cheeks and pushed his chest out as far as he possibly could, made one last menacing growl, and with lightening speed worthy of any Olympic athletic, broke through the line of meerkats and never looked back! He was running so fast that a trail of dust, and his bushy tail sticking straight up behind him, was all you could see.

    It was such a cartoon moment! It made me think of the Road Runner and I half expected the squirrel to get out at least one beep- beep as he disappeared into the Kalahari. Even the Whiskers seemed impressed at the great escape and that trail of lingering dust.

    Click here for next installment: The Lazuli


    Again, the light of the full, African moon, served as my night light and just as the moon was beginning to set, it was time for us to wake up. That tapping sound was Sophie, knocking on the rondoval door, not the pitter patter of little Meerkat feet. It was six oclock, in the morning, and time to start the day.

    This morning would be a little different than the morning spent at the Whiskers. We, the recently GPS trained Earthwatchers, would be operating the handheld units and recording our locations, every 15 minutes, as we followed the Lazuli during their morning forage. Well, that is the plan.

    As we waited in the vehicle for Vickie, our researcher for the morning Lazuli session, a White-browed Sparrow-weaver landed outside the drivers window and seeing its reflection in the side mirror of the vehicle, decided to chase the intruder off. Very interesting! For several minutes he attacked his own reflection, and the side view mirror, and was repeatedly puzzled as to why that silly, although very handsome bird, refused to leave. Sophie was able to put the window down and we took pictures of the little guy. He just seemed so indignant that the bird in the mirror wouldnt leave!Even after his best wing poundingdisplay. Oh well, off he flew, as the researchers approached from their farmhouse.

    Today I was paired up with Dale and Dyane. By mid-morning the temperature was probably around 68 degrees, sunny, and really quite comfortable. What can I say? Im from Pittsburgh! It really was a beautiful bright sunny day. By noon, we were standing under a tree, in the shade, waiting for Vickie to finish up the meerkat vocal recordings.

    The Lazuli are a group of twelve now. With Young being the dominant female and J. Alfred Prufrock, former dominate male, recovering from a snake bite. Thundercat seems to be taking on the position of DM and Alfred is not challenging him. Alfred is weak and very much concentrating on taking care of himself. So it wasn t a hostile take over and no blood was shed and Alfred is still a part of the group.

    It took a while for everyone to make it up, out of the burrow, and into the sunshine. Vickie started weighing, and recording the Meerkats morning weight, and we were busy trying to enter the GPS data. Dont get me wrong, it really is easy, with all pull down menus and even a key to go back. But who has time to watch a clock when there are Meerkats to observe? None of us apparently! We would become so engrossed with watching the meerkats that no one was paying attention to the time. So, that first day, I am sure who ever downloaded the information, from our GPS units to the computer, had to be asking if all three of the Earthwatchers were actually on Earth, at the same time!

    It wasnt an exciting morning, it was just their daily routine, yet we were mesmerized by them.   The work on the burrow entrance is something that is done as soon as they warm up a bit.   But it seems like some kats have better technique than others.   (See photo)   Being a part of the process counts, I am sure, but one little fellow sure did eat his share of dust that morning.   After the clean up they headed out for breakfast.   The food pantry seemed very full, there wasn't the need for much movement, and everyone was successful at finding enough to eat. 
    Vickie was working on capturing the meerkat vocalizations.  But finding the meerkats was the difficult part.  This area still had high, wheat colored, grass and the kats blended right into it.  Good for the meerkats because they would be very difficult to spot from the air, but also bad for us while trying to observe them.   These guys move quickly and they would brush right up against your moving foot.   Causing my heart to stop several times.   No one wants to be the first Earthwatcher to injure a Meerkat with a hiking boot!
    So I decided to sit down, somewhere close to the middle of the foraging group, and try to get some close up photos through the tall grass.   Even with the camera lens it was difficult to make them out.   But it was so beautiful that they blended so well.   Then I felt a rub, against the side of my leg, and looking down there was Alfred.  He was sitting next to me, actually leaning on me, in the shade that I was casting.   It had been a hard morning for him and I guess I provided shade and a great hiding place.  Thank goodness the group wasn't moving too far or too fast and it was getting close to the lunch time weigh in.   Then I felt his little body slide down, as he fell asleep, and took a nap right next to me.   Now, you tell me, who is remembering to take the GPS readings while this is happening?
    I still had my camera in hand and I tried to move as little as possible.   As much as I wanted a photo of him, sleeping next to me, I wanted him to sleep more.   So I didn't shout for the boys to come back and take a picture.  The experience of feeling his little body breathing next to me is a memory I'll have forever.   
    Vickie completed the noon weights and Alfred, rested from his nap and ready to find lunch, was up and off with the others. 

    The morning ended with an up-close and personal, path crossing, with the largest critter we have met so far. He didnt seem interested in us and we didnt move a muscle until he was almost out of sight.   It just made me smile to think that he might have heard Vickie and her "Yummmmm yummmmm" calls.   How funny would that be?!   Showing up for a bit of egg and a sip of water! 

    Next installment: The Aztecs - click here.


    After lunch and our mid-day nap, um I mean break, we gathered back in the dining room at the farm house, for our afternoon burrow assignments. Linda and I were paired up with Sophie who would be leading the adventure to the Aztecs burrow. (Again, jumping up and down and screaming inside of my head!) This was former Whiskers girl, Monkulus, splinter group. Zaphod, along with some of the roving Whisker boys, have also decided to stay on with Monkulus, and her group. But, the most exciting thing has to be the four pups that Monkulus has had, since forming the Aztecs.

    These guys are officially the first Aztecs and the first meerkats to have the AZ letters in their codes names.

    AZM001= Marmite, VAZF002 = Tofu, VAZF003 = Abaca, VAZM004 = Piglet

    Since the Aztecs had not been observed that morning, and they had moved on from their last know sleeping burrow, Linda and I were hoping that Sophie would be able to demonstrate just how the tracking and radio collars worked.

    The pale blue, of the morning sky, had morphed into a dark gloomy grey and it felt as though it could rain. Rain at the end of May is unusual, but it can, and does happen. It had rained, complete with thunder and lightening, the previous night and the night before that. The vegetation was actually starting to green up again and new flowers were beginning to bloom.

    When we arrive at the last known location of the Aztecs, there are no Aztecs, so Sophie sets up her tracking equipment and starts listening for a signal. This should be straight forward since there are two meerkats, who wear radio collars, in this group. Zaphod and Monkulus both have radio collars and each collar has its own frequency. So finding the group should have been fairly easy. But it wasnt! After an hour of walking back and forth and left to right, inside and along the dry river bed, Linda and I knew, just by the look on Sophies face, that something was up. And it wasnt just that the sky was looking more and more ominous. Finding the Aztecs, before the storm hits, wasnt looking like a possibility. Yikes! Where are you guys?

    Sophie was getting mixed signals. This could mean that there had been a group split or that one of the collared kats had been separated from the rest of the group. Neither option was a good one! A few large drops of rain, hitting our heads and splashing our faces, pressed the point that we were running out of time. Linda and I stayed behind to look for signs of meerkat paw prints, in the sand around bolt-holes and under trees, while Sophie power-hiked back to where we left the Land Cruiser.

    When she arrives with the vehicle there is just enough time to check one last bolt-hole. The stronger of the two signals was coming from a bolt-hole near where their last known sleeping burrow had been. But it had rained during the night and the watermarks from the rain drops, in the sand, were pristine. The sand had not been disturbed by little meerkat paw prints. Oh no! A signal, from a radio collar, on a meerkat that has been in a bolt-hole for almost twenty-four hours, was not a good thing! My stomach was flipping as we got back into the vehicle to return to the farmhouse. But Sophie felt confident that the group was still okay. She had seen this before. A group is spread out and foraging, the alarm is sounded; the kats run in different directions and land in separate bolt-holes.

    For now we must have faith. Faith that the entire group, although separated, are all safe and sound and they will unite when they emerge from their hiding places in the morning. So we will have to wait to see the newest members of the Aztecs.

    But this wasnt something that I could easily get out of my head. The following morning I was scheduled to visit the Elveera. The Aztecs werent on the schedule until the afternoon. So, I immediately put my initials on the schedule board, in the Aztecs slot, because I had to know how this was going to end. Fortunately, Jack didnt mind switching places with me, so I ended up back at the Aztecs the following afternoon with David and Vickie.

    Part 2 - Saturday Afternoon on May 24

    On our return to the farm house for lunch, from our visit with the Elveera, there was good news about the Aztecs. They had been spotted, earlier in the morning by a research volunteer, and all were accounted for and present. What a relief that was to hear!

    So, after lunch David and I head out with Vickie, and her tracking gear, off to the Aztecs last known location. But upon arrival, to that location, the Aztec were no where to be seen. (Oh no, not again!) Vickie starts tracking them and this time a signal was loud and clear. The Aztecs had traveled up and out of the dry river bed and were foraging near a burrow entrance that was on much higher ground.

    After a beautiful, sunny morning, the afternoon sky was turning dark and threatening to offer up a repeat of the prior day rain showers. The Aztec were foraging close to the burrow entrance, as I was preparing sit down and start with the photos, when a crack of thunder jolted all of us. The Meerkats were now on alert; standing and staring in the direction of the approaching storm, as a herd of Springbok were moving quickly to stay ahead of the dark thundering clouds. Since we hadnt noticed any lightening, and the kats were still above ground, I really wanted to get a few photos of these guys. It had gotten so dark, so quickly, that Vickie decided to start the afternoon weigh-ins, before the Meerkats decided to call it an early evening. But the kats were preoccupied with the movement of the Springbok, and the rumbling of the storm clouds, that the Yummm yummm calls went unanswered.

    Well, apparently the Meerkats were far better at reading the weather, and the storm clouds, than we were. The next crack of thunder sent all of them diving down the burrow and the opportunity for evening weigh-in was gone in a matter of seconds and a poof of dust. Nothing left for us to do but pack up and head back to the farm house. But no sooner had Vickie picked up her tracking gear, a bolt of lightening followed immediately by a deafening rumble of thunder, had her tossing the gear and the three of us jumping back in unison! No one wanted to be the one holding that radio antenna during this storm! If the situation hadnt felt so charged it would have been funny!

    This was nothing like the rain shower we had experienced yesterday afternoon. This was an all out thunder storm which meant business! And now it was beginning to pour. A bolt hole was starting to look pretty good at this point. Even if just to stick our heads into! Since there was no walking out of this one, Vickie decided to radio Sophie, asking that she drive to the burrow and collect us.

    We were like a pack of anxious, wet hounds, scrambling into the back of the Land Cruiser and out of the rain. (Hopefully we didnt smell like a pack of wet hounds!) My hair was so saturated that I was actually able to wring the water out of my braid before getting into the vehicle. But we werent the only ones that needed a lift back. Along the way we picked up one of the other Earthwatch teams, who had just been hit by the storm, then several of the bird research volunteers that had been out in the field tracking. We now totaled nine in the Land Cruiser, complete with backpacks and tracking equipment, successfully out running the storm, laughing the entire drive back to the farm house.

    Why were we laughing? One of the research volunteers had jumped into the cargo area, yep, that tiny area behind the third seat where backpacks and gear were stowed. Okay, it beat getting soaked and dodging lightening bolts, especially while lugging tracking gear. But with every bump we hit, which was about every other second, we ran the risk of losing that cargo passenger. (Not really but I swear he caught air at every bump!) And for some reason, the rest of us, safely packed inside the vehicle, couldnt stop laughing. (Or move for that matter.)

    Sigh. Even though the second visit to the Aztecs was better than the first, there was no real opportunity to photograph them, or to observe the four AZ pups.

    The next chance to be with the Aztecs was now scheduled for Tuesday, May 27, in the morning. Again, I run to the schedule board and put my initials in the Aztecs slot. Maybe the third time will be the charm. But, just to be on the safe side, I also signed up for the afternoon visit too.

    Part 3 - Tuesday Morning on May 27

    Finally! Finally we are going out to the Aztecs burrow when Monkulus and Zaphod are actually going to be home! Well, we are going to their sleeping burrow, from the night before, and there is a very good chance that they will be there when we arrive this morning.

    Today is Vickies day, again, to weigh the Aztecs, with Dale, David and me in tow, attempting to do the foraging focal and remembering to keep track of the 15 minute GPS clock. It really is a nice day and there doesnt appear to be a cloud in the sky. What a relief! A sunny day with the Aztecs, without a downpour or cloud to ground lightening, forcing everyone, including us, back into their sleeping burrows.

    We arrive before the group is up and have enough time to settle in, take camera equipment out, then wait for that first head to pop up and check out the morning weather conditions. The first one up is Monkulus and right behind her, poking his nose out of the burrow, was Zaphod! It was so good to see these guys. Zaphod is a favorite of mine, I was really looking forward to meeting and photographing him, and not just because he is a senior citizen. (But I am partial to the elderly.)

    Something you might take note of in the photos, at this location, is the burrow proximity to the road. Way too close for any kind of comfort! The plus side, yes there is a plus side, is that this is not a main road. This road is traveled mostly by the research volunteers, who are all very careful drivers, who are always on the look out for a meerkat or two crossing their path. And they do share this information, via the radios, so that everyone is aware that there is a group of meerkats foraging or setting up a sleeping burrow near the road. Okay, with that said, it is still way too close to a road!

    After some sunning, and a quick jump onto the scale, we are now off and ready to cross the road. Well, they are but Im not! Since this isnt a highly traveled road and visibility, both ways, is very good, the crossing was uneventful and swift. Phew! Most of the morning was spent foraging as Monkulus moved the troops further and further away from the roadside sleeping burrow. It appears that she may have a better burrow in mind for tonight.

    Midmorning they decide to stop and have a break around the remains of a felled tree. Monkulus takes first tour as sentry and climbs to the top of the log, as the others settle into the more shaded and cooler spots, Dale and I see this as a great photo opportunity. David is ready for his iced water and a midmorning snack of his own.

    But I have been having some problems with my vision and adjusting to the new optical lens implants. The implants provide me with fantastic close vision, but I still need corrective lenses for distance, and they didnt work with using the camera. I was spending a great deal of time putting the very expensive glasses on, while following the meerkats, and then taking them off to take their photos. So this chance to sit down and unload the gear, and really concentrate on taking photos, was a blessing.

    Break is over and off we all go. After twenty minutes or so I realized that I no longer had my new glasses with me. That realization felt like a lightening bolt going straight through my head to my toes! Do I mention that I lost my glasses, in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, or do I say nothing and order a new pair when I get home? I did have the GPS unit, and I had been inputting the locations, and I was pretty sure they were back under the logs we had rested by. Okay, big gulp, and make the announcement. Why did everyone look even more shocked than I had anticipated? The Aztecs, however, were totally unconcerned about a pair of glasses and were continuing to move away from us. Before we had a chance to decide on a plan of action, Dale had taken out his telephoto lens, scanned back where we had come from and found a reflection from the glasses. They were less than 100 feet away. What a relief! Found the glasses and didnt lose the meerkats. Yes, I attached the glasses to a chain around my neck. Very cool look. Not!

    Before stopping for the noon weigh-ins, the Aztecs decide to investigate yet another, roadside burrow. This burrow is actually in the side of the road. Please say no to the road! The gang is very interested in what could be down this burrow and they start frantically scent marking and cautiously sniffing the entrance. What ever had been there was long gone and it now properly smelled of Aztecs.

    I am sitting on the bank on the other side of the road, taking the pictures of the meerkats checking out the road side burrow, when I feel a tug on my hair and the next thing I know; I have a meerkat on my shoulder and I can feel the toenails resting on the side of my head. Squig! She is as light as a feather and I can feel her fur against my neck and cheek. My camera is still around my neck! David is running over, to sit next to me to be in the picture, because this is the closest a meerkat has been willing to let him get. Monkulus spent most of the morning hissing at David, as he stalked, um, I mean followed her around, trying to do a foraging focal on her. David is 6 4 tall and wears a size 14 boot. He dwarfs a normal size person so you can imagine how a normal size meerkat would feel.

    My camera is still around my neck! Dale was taking pictures on his camera, not fair, he then offered to unclip mine and see if Squig would stay. Good girl! She wasnt bothered at all and Dale took a dozen or so shots of us. Then I just sat there while she did her thing. She moved about a little. Looking in all directions and repositioning her little feet from time to time. Dave and Dale decided to move off and check out some of the birds, Zaphod was sitting next to the burrow entrance, the kids were playing, and Monkulus was foraging. Squig and I were doing guard duty.

    Vickie decided that this was a good time to do the noon weights and she set up the box and started the Yummm yummm calls. Squig stayed on my shoulder for quite a while. Eventually one of the boys managed to position himself in a thorn bush and Squig moved in for her sip of water and bit of crumbled egg.

    With all of the kats weighed, and refreshed, they were ready to head out for their afternoon foraging. Thankfully, it was away from roads and burrows close to the roads.

    With our part done, we were headed back to the farm house for lunch, and a bit of a rest. Sigh. This had been a really good morning. I was so glad I had signed up for their afternoon visit too.


    What I am going to do here is go through some of the preparation steps for the trip, what life in general was like at the KMP, and what worked for me and what did not. Now, you have to keep in mind, this is coming from someone who has never experienced summer camp, sleeping-out, backpacking or serious hiking. The bike trail along the river, on a mountain bike, had been my kind of roughing it. Walks with the dogs and gardening are next on my physically active list. I also have long nails and even longer hair.

    So, needless to say, friends and family were highly amused and laughing out loud when I told them that I was going to South Africa, to live in a desert for two weeks, trekking after Meerkats and bunking in a rondoval. My husband was so supportive about accompanying me, that I did suspect a hidden agenda, such as photographs of me in total disarray roughing it, to use as our 2008 Christmas greeting cards! He has always been the adventurer, hiking into and camping at the Grand Canyon, sleeping out on an Indian reservation, white water rafting and things like that. (Someone had to stay home with the dogs . . . . me!) So he didnt pack until the night before we left!

    Just let me interject something at this point . . .
    The time that was spent planning, figuring out what I was going to need, and I needed everything, what I was going to take and where I was going to get it from, then packing in such a way as to fit as much in as possible, was such a fun part of the adventure that I am already looking forward to starting the process over again for March. The weather will be much warmer then and that means much lighter clothing.

    The first thing I did was find out what size luggage I could take, weight restrictions, number of pieces that could be checked and how many could be carried on. This was easy enough by calling, or going on line, and checking with the airline. I cant stress wheels enough. Coming from the states, flying on Delta, each passenger was able to check two bags, plus one carry on, plus one personal bag. Such as a purse, backpack or camera case that can fit under your seat.

    Most of the time the airlines wont misplace, or lose your luggage, or send it on a different flight, but I wasnt taking that chance and decided to pack both bags with items to get me through several days, just in case the checked bag was lost. So, basically, I over packed! Good thing, because we became one of the very small percentages of passengers, whose luggage is left behind, and doesnt arrive for several days. Sob.

    We each had one checked piece of luggage, one carry on, plus a personal piece. My personal, carry on item, was my padded backpack camera case that also accommodated my laptop. And I was able to stuff it under the seat in front of me. (Okay, sort of.) David brought a soft, nylon briefcase, which he was able to slide under the seat in front of him also.

    The biggest thing that didnt work for me was the carry-on duffle bag. The next time it will have wheels! Fully packed it weighed about 40 pounds and had an over the shoulder carrying strap. That, in addition to my backpack, totaled a very reasonable weight for me to carry. What we hadnt planned on was the debacle that followed after we checked our other bags. (The ones that had the wheels.)

    The Amazing Race
    We arrived early enough at Pittsburgh International, to take our time, check the luggage, and get to the boarding gate at a leisurely pace. And that part of the plan worked well. There was a delay in boarding but no one seemed overly concerned. When we were able to board the plane, we were immediately asked to deplane, because the plane was leaking oil and they didnt want to risk the flight to Atlanta. (You think?)

    Now, when making the reservations for the trip, I did note that there was only one flight, per day, leaving from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Our connecting flight from Pittsburgh was the last Delta flight, of the day, that would have allowed us to make the flight to Johannesburg. A huge, red flashing sign was going off in my head, toggling between panic and migraine. Okay, why not, both!

    What I would do differently, the next time, is to schedule a much earlier flight with a longer lay over time. Allowing for the unexpected and the extra time for adjustments.

    There were 18 of us that needed to make connecting international flights in Atlanta. Delta was able to find a competitor, which was leaving immediately, but only had 12 open seats. We were then told that the first 12 passengers, to arrive at the boarding gate, would be accepted onto the flight. You have to be kidding me! Wait, where are the cameras? Have they mistaken us for the new batch of contestants on the Amazing Race?

    This is where wheels really would have come in handy. David started out lugging everything, but the distance to the alternate terminal, from Delta, was at least 3/4 of a mile. After being overtaken, then passed, by an elderly, white haired lady who had wheels on her carry on, we decided we needed to add speed to the equation and divided up the bags between us. (The Amazing Race . . . right?) This is where wheels really would have come in handy. Long story short, we made it. I also discovered that you can drag a duffle bag along the floor, by the shoulder strap, and run at the same time. This is where wheels really would have come in handy. So, have I mentioned that the next time I will have a carry on with wheels?

    What was in the bags?
    Besides clothing and a pair of hikers, in the carry on, it had to be small, sample sized items. A quart zip lock bag is a really small bag even for sample sized items. Think toothpaste, deodorant, bug spray, Neosporin, lip balm, lotion, shampoo, sun screen, makeup and a very tiny can of hair spray. Plus any and all prescription and over the counter drugs you might need. (Motion sickness was packed in all the bags!) I thought of purchasing these items when I got to Upington, but, they were so specific, that I didnt want to chance not getting them. The supermarket in Upington is very well supplied and priced reasonably.

    The checked bag had all of the full sized items, that you are restricted from packing in your carry on, plus sandals, flip flops for the shower, tennis shoes and additional clothing, plus 24 T-shirts for the school children.

    We arrived in Johannesburg, after 18 hours, but our checked luggage spent the night in Pittsburgh. Thus, missing the connecting flight from Atlanta and put on the waiting list, for the following day. At this point, I had most of everything that I would need, and was so happy that I did really stuff that carry on bag.

    We exchanged dollars for rands, with a rate of $1.00 to approximately 7.75 rand, before exiting the airport. Here was the only part of the journey that was a little uncomfortable. At this point I strongly suggest keeping everything close at hand. All money, important papers and passport were on my person, in multiple zipped pockets of my cargos. We had reservations, at Petra House, which included transportation to and from the airport and breakfast the following morning. The total cost was approximately $67.00 dollars for the both of us. And it was a very nice place and I loved their dog. He could smell my dogs, and could probably see the residual dog hair from them, on my pants, so he was following me around. This was right after the owner said the dog is a bit aloof. How funny was that?

    The Upington airport is really small but comfortable and not scary. There are maybe 40 seats in the waiting area, a snack section with five or six tables and chairs and a patio section directly off the snack section.

    Once at the Gannavlakte Location
    The photo of the kitchen is very representative of the day to day there. You can see the appliances, the counter space, the stove and the sink. You can even see the rondovals from the kitchen window above the sink.

    The distance between the buildings is also very close and easily traveled in a matter of seconds. I tried to show views from all angles. Just remember to bring a flash light. That is very important because there is no outdoor lighting. (Remember that lights attract bugs, mostly the flying type, but why chance it?) If there is a full moon, which was beautiful when we were there, it really does provide enough lighting for easy movement between buildings. But a flashlight is still a must. The rondoval becomes very dark after the over head and the lamp are turned off. Had I had a flash light that first night, I wouldnt have stubbed my toe on the bed frame, thus avoiding the entire peeled off toenail saga. Yep, it hurt, but the bleeding stopped by the second day. And I was good with socks, especially since I had over packed!
    In Conclusion

    I cant think of one negative thing that happened. The food was fantastic. Tina is a great cook and Vegetarian dishes were an option at each meal. The days are paced with scheduled breaks, for lunching and napping, or additional hiking if you chose. There is enough free time to do the things that you need to do, like maybe laundry, sweep the sand out of your rondoval, visit with the research volunteers, or just download your photos and update your computer journal.

    The time with the Meerkats seemed to pass way too quickly. Take as many pictures as you possibly can and edit them later, or even after you return home. I am still carrying around my card reader and keep finding new details on the photos I took. Little things that I didnt even realize were in the shot, at the time I was taking the picture, are like little surprise presents now.

    David and I both had a very positive experience, and really want to do it all over again, in March, with the FKMP if possible. Just for a slightly different experience. We felt very safe in our surroundings, the rondovals were comfortable and we needed for nothing. Okay, I missed carbonated, peach flavored, water. Next time I will get some in Upington at the Supermarket.

    Oh, the White-Browed Weaver-Sparrows have nests, in the trees behind and around the rondovals and the farmhouse, providing much amusement and great photo opportunities. They actually come to the rondovals, snatch up some of the thatched roofing, add it to their nests then rinse and repeat. One afternoon I was positioned under the trees, trying to encompass as many of the nests as possible into one frame, when something big and brownish grey flew into frame, snatched a sparrow and was gone. Did that really just happen? It did! Sophie and Dave (Bell) had been sitting out on the front porch and they had seen it fly in. It was a bird of prey, a young one, who was enjoying his find of such an easy buffet. He was still around, lurking in the perimeter trees, when we left.

    Also, the ground squirrels are very curious. Leaving the bottom part of your door open apparently is an unwritten code for, Welcome . . . . Come on in and check out my stuff! Which is probably why there is a sign, on the kitchen door, reminding all to shut the door after entering. The squirrels would have to declare a holiday if they managed to have full run of the kitchen pantry.

    Almost Forgot
    Almost forgot about the dreaded fences and the possibility of failing to climb. I failed to climb. It required upper body strength, which normally wouldnt have been an issue, but as I started to pull myself up and felt the pressure behind my eyes increase, I had this vision, no pun intended, of my brand new optical implants popping out of my eyes and becoming lost forever in the sand of the Kalahari. Or worse yet, one of the Meerkats thinking it was alive and pouncing on it only to choke and, well, not a happy ending. Who wants to be known for that? So I chose to hike to the gate and then hike back to the Elveera burrow. That day the Meerkats crossed back and forth, through the fence, at least five times. My two EW teammates and the researcher were starting to fatigue, just a little bit, after the fourth time over. I just stayed put on the burrow side, took pictures through the fence, served as a sentry a few times, until the Meerkats decided they wanted to be on my side of the fence.

    I hope this helps, even if just a little, but if I can do it, anyone can. And I had a great time doing it!


    We rise late, but are still the first to have breakfast soon to be joined by a taciturn guy who looks like an incognito rock star, with his lady manager. Which is what he proves to be. He was one of the stars of the Meerkat Festival concerts, a South African singer named Danie something. Our host Berlia is completely excited to get an autographed CD The rest of morning means less splendour: We are told to go and see another Motor Electrics company to try and have our car fixed. The guys turn out to be less than interested, even though Robbie from Asco can clearly tell them where the problem must be. So it is decided that we get a replacement car delivered to the Kalahari Meerkat Project.

    Ive been at the Kalahari Meerkat Project two years ago in 2005, on an Earthwatch expedition, when no one really cared about the future stars of Meerkat Manor (read diary here). After my stay I became the webmaster of the project, kalahari-meerkats.com, making our stay at this project otherwise closed to the public possible.

    At 11 am we meet Prof. Marta Manser, one of the project leaders, and Christophe Bousquet her PhD stundent. I have the long-awaited pancakes with banana and caramel topping at Café Molinari in Uptington. We leave only after noon, for the 210 km trip to the Kalahari Meerkat project. The drive is quite boring, apart from the potholes and the odd buck or dassie. When we finally arrive at Kuruman River Reserve (KRR), the place is more or less deserted -  the volunteers have just left for their afternoon visits to the meerkats. Only Dave, the assistant project manager, is here. He is about to visit Frisky who live quite close to the farm, and we get our stuff ready to join him for the evening weights.

    The Frisky meerkats


    Frisky live close to the Rus en Vrede farmhouse, on the Heights farm just opposite the farm entrance. They were once one of the biggest groups, with close to 50 animals. They are down to currently 10 animals, led by the long-term dominant couple Bootle (female) and Gazebo (male, radiocollar). Frisky are one of the few groups now who have a non-related male, with Gazebo coming from Drie Doring who live just South of Frisky.

    Dave only has to take the meerkats evening weight, so we set out only around 5 pm. The light is soft, but the landscape is so overgrazed that it seems hard to the eye. We spot the group from the car, already close to their recent sleeping burrow.

    It is overwhelming to be back with the scurries again, even if the group is small and the area bleak. They are foraging peacefully, with Clinton Baptiste trying to get a hole through to Alaska, while Gazebo scans the horizon like an elderly statesman, but eventually they all settle down near their burrow for some grooming, but also some getting used to the idea of sleeping. They do this with their heads tucked under, forming a ball. I did not remember this position from my previous trip. Anyway, we just sit there and watch and take pictures and enjoy being with the meerkats (again). Its a pity somehow because Dave knows a great deal about meerkats. I should bombard him with questions.

    Back to the farmhouse we are given our room, in the PhD block, i.e. we stay in the researchers farmhouse, not the Earthwatchers farmhouse that is a few km away. We have dinner with the researchers, in the armchairs in the common room it is still too cold to dine outside. The dinner is also where I finally meet Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock we agree to spend some time on the website the next day. Were all interrupted by David, a volunteer coming home late from his visit to Commandos, performing a dance - Commandos had a huge IGI (intergroup interaction) with Whiskers, with a lot of males being at loss which side theyre on, while others seemed fully aware that they were picking the neighbours fruit. Such action has been rare in the recent months, with no females pregnant and the groups intent on finding the scarce food that the drought produced.

    Sunday is always a more relaxed day for the researchers: Apart from their individual weekly day off, they take Sundays easy and only go out to take the meerkats rollcalls, morning and evening weights, without further ad lib observations. Furthermore, with Earthwatchers as well as the Meerkat Manor film crew being around, the choice of groups available for a visit needs to be considered. We agree to join Helen, a volunteer who has been here for six months. Shes to go out with Moomins. They are well known to sleep in (and go down the burrow while the sun is still up), so we leave later than 7 am.

    Moomins were one of my favourite groups during my 2005 visit, because they were so relaxed and playful and they lived in beautiful surroundings. Since then, the Moomins have moved Southeast, so that they now have Big Dune in their territory which was in the Whiskers grip during my last stay. Whiskers have moved to take over part of Young Ones land, while Young Ones are where Elveera used to be and so on. The researchers promised to provide an updated territory map for the KMP website, so it will be interesting to see how territories shifted, in response to group sizes, the drought, and the loss of whole groups to TB.

    Another change in Moomins is the loss of Burgan, the former dominant male, and of Grandpa Grumble the oldest subordinate male, by End of June. Burgans remains had been found, predated by whatever animal, which was interrupted in its meal after only taking part of the upper body and forelegs. A strange sight, the ones who found him told me. Grandpa Grumble, who I vividly remember since he used to do sentry duty on my shoulder, just disappeared that same day and was not found sharing the fate of about 70% of the projects meerkats. This means that dominant female Grumpy, Little My and Grumpys daughters are now without a non-related male, and open to the advances of roving males if their natal males allow this. Toft, the oldest son of Grumpy plays dominant male, which includes most dominance behaviours except for the mating with his mother or sisters. However, natal dominant males also go roving while none of their female relatives is in oestrus. The bad thing is only that the Moomins territory has been so removed from the others that encounters with rovers were extremely rare. The Moomins move Southwards might prove very useful in this field. A pity that Zaphods rover gang was recently seen at Soxs dam in the Northwest, rather than near Big Dune.

    We reach the sleeping burrow after a short walk, but then wait for 30 minutes, until Grumpy and Frida appear. Third is famous Fluffernutter, the meerkat born without claws and no fangs. The fangs grew later, but the claws are still clearly missing, only replaced by calloused toes and claws are just the most important tool meerkats need to survive. Born in December 2005, Fluffernutter just survived his second Kalahari winter a remarkable feat only made possible for a mix of reasons: His own strong instinct to survive, his kind family responding to his begging even when he was no longer a pup (he wouldnt have survived in a more aggressive group), his extreme competitiveness in food fights (Fluffernutter is the all-time No. 1 food competitor of the project), but also the contempt of Earthwatchers and even the odd volunteer who feed him egg even if they shouldnt. Rumours go that he was once fed an entire egg, by an Earthwatcher. He must have choked. Anyway, looking at a Moomins family portrait, Fluffernutter can still be discovered with ease due to his low weight: He looks like a juvenile, a bit too thin for his fur, weighing around 470 g instead of the ca. 570 g of his two siblings, or the almost 700 g of Grumpy. Chances are good that he will catch up once the rains bring plenty of food.

    Fluffernutters sister and brother stand out since they also wear radiocollars because they were fitted with heart rate transmitters (see Rascals). Within the next 20 minutes, the whole group appears above ground and starts to sun all of them issueing soft sunning calls. Compared to my last visit, they are much less playful maybe because there are no juveniles around, but also because they dont want to spoil their energy on playfighting when food is scarce.

    Helen starts weighing once everyone is accounted for I couldnt tell if Grumpy or Fluffernutter, both well-known egg monsters, wins the race to be the first on the scales. Weighing takes approx. 20 minutes, after which Helen returns to the farmhouse. JJ and myself are okayed to remain with the Moomins while they forage, and later walk back to the farmhouse my assertions that Ill find the way back past Big Dune, across the riverbed and along Old VanzylsRoad are convincing (and prove right, after all). Equipped with a radio, we set out.

    Led by Grumpy, the Moomins make a beeline for the foraging grounds (theyre famous for doing this beeline) and fan out in the plains. After a few minutes, the 19 meerkats are gone or so it seems, all of them busy digging hidden in low bushes. I observe Fluffernutters strategy for a while: he often digs in places where other family members dug without success. With the hard-baked top sand removed, he digs deeper in the loose sand and sometimes finds a treat. After just 15 minutes of foraging, he finds a big millipede and defends it hard enough that he gets to eat it all by himself. Either hes ferocious, or his relatives are kind but it works.

    The Moomins forage in a large bow around the Big Dune, and while I crouch down to take pictures of flying sand, Malpa Hamadryas a subordinate male comes to stand on my leg for a little guarding. JJ is at the same time approached by another meerkat, but it unfortunately doesnt see the need to guard JJs niece and nephew would have loved to see a meerkat sit on top of uncle JJs new cowboy hat!

    Something remarkable happens when the Moomins come across the far end of Big Dune and step on the plains on the other side: they all go on guard not because of a predator, but rather because of someone else unwanted. Could it be that another meerkat is in the neighbourhood? Or even the Hoax, the small new group with wild animals that has been seen South of Big Dune? Hoax are not yet fully habituated: They allow weighing and dyeing except for the dominant female Mau Mau (who had been taken for a male first because she was too elusive to be sexed); and it is also Mau Mau who still tries to lead the otherwise habituated group away from the researcher when they forage. However, Marta who is the most experienced habituator in the project right now, said it wont take much longer In any case no trace of Hoax or another meerkat is seen by the Moomins or us, and they resume foraging.

    We decide to leave Moomins to themselves around 10 am, and start the walk back to the farm. Underway we see two white-backed vultures, a hare startled to leave her hiding place a few steps from us, a lone wildebeest observing our hike, and various birds. The leisurely walk takes longer than expected, but this is just fine in this region.

    Afternoon & Gamedrive


    We join Marta and Tim for lunch, and start discussing the KMP Friends project until later in the afternoon. While I discussed most things with Marta before, it is very interesting to hear Tims angle he seems sometimes almost surprised by the amount of interest in meerkat biology and research (not just in cute meerkat characters) generated by Meerkat Manor, but he has for sure a many useful ideas which will be realised on the website over time. The rest of the afternoon is spent with organising photos, taking pictures of the farm for the website, reading, and watching the volunteers and some Earthwatchers play volleyball.

    At 16:30 the driver with our replacement car arrives, and after taking the new one over we join Marta for a drive through the reserve. First we drop by the Gannavlakte farm to deliver some stuff, and I finally meet Helene, the Earthwatch coordinator and a few of the Eartwatchers only briefly, unfortunately. On our way back along the riverbed, JJ suddenly yells stop because theres a cat near us. So after years and years of coming to Africa, we see our first African Wild Cat, a redhaired guy. We obviously met him just after he had hunted down some prey, because he is absolutely unwilling to run away. He remains sitting in the riverbed for minutes, almost aglow with the soft light of the setting sun, so that even the Earthwatchers who follow behind us can see him. A wonderful experience! We are less lucky in finding the aardvark that had been observed in the riverbed for weeks he obviously left for a new burrow. Later on, while driving to the Pharside dam in the Western part of the reserve, we also see another Kalahari inhabitant from close: a bat-eared fox. A successful gamedrive, so that we almost forget our Gin & Tonics, and thus have sundowner after the sun is down.

    We leave at 7 am for Elveera, together with David. Hes Dutch and started at the project as assistant working mainly with yellow mongooses, ensuring their habituation for future projects. After the decision to stop yellow mongoose habituation until there is again demand for it, David now works as a meerkat volunteer. His thoughts are still with the yellows though maybe hell be the one to rekindle the demand for habituated yellows

    Elveera moved South since my last stay at the KRR, theyre now on the B side on the Heights farm North of Drie Doring, West of Frisky, South of Lazuli. Their current sleeping burrow is the worst imaginable: Next to piles of rubbish left by the farms workers, and close to two jackal carcasses probably victims to poison or a gun. The farmers around KRR dont like what they consider cattle predators. Apparently they only recently noticed that the meerkat researchers are the ones researching the Meerkat Manor meerkats the series is now also on satellite TV in the KRR region. This maybe softened the attitude of the more resilient farmers to the projects work but it doesnt yet help the jackals or other conservation issues like overgrazing

    We have been warned that Elveeras dominant male Habusu usually goes berserk at the weights box marking anything within reach and occasionally even trying to bite, and making it quite hard to weigh anyone else than him. We expect to be in for some action until David notices that he has taken the wrong backpack, the one of the Drie Doring group. Not only does he miss his own Psion handheld and spare batteries, but hes also got the Drie Doring scales. It is decided that hell try with what he has (both groups are free of TB, theres no danger to spread the disease with this backpack mixup) so we expect Habusu will go completely and utterly berserk about scales with another groups perfume.

    The first Elveera meerkat to get up is Teabag, a younger brother of Habusu, soon followed by the rest of the group. They sun for a long time giving me time to take a lot of pictures. There is not much grooming, except for Jo Jo Hello (the dominant female wearing the radiocollar) and Habusu who groom each other extensively. JJ in the meantime serves as a windshield for Chocolatine, a subordinate female who basks in the sun leaning against him. When weighing starts we are all surprised to see that Habusu is rather scared than angry about having the wrong scales the group sniffs the scales, and David doesnt succeed in weighing Habusu. The first time this happens Habusu runs to hide behind Jo Jo Hello instead.

    The group leaves the sleeping burrow around 08:25. I get the GPS to enter the marks of the groups foraging directions (this is what the Earthwatchers usually do) luckily I seem to master it again after a few tries. The group moves towards the workers homes where the rubbish piles are even bigger. They forage between rusty metal, plastic bags and dead goats or porcupines. It must be rich foraging grounds and the meerkats seem to carefully avoid the rubbish itsself, but its really ugly to look at, so JJ decides to return to the farm after one hour. There are not many sentinels in the first hour of foraging. The group keeps foraging, the only notable thing is that there are many food competitions between the two dominants, which is unusual. Jo Jo Hello also seems to be a little bit unwell once she goes into the ball position usually only seen before sunset, and a bit later she vomits a piece of food. Are these the signs of an early pregnacy? A while later the group starts to make move sounds and finally leave the worst area. We climb two fences, over to the sheep meadow (so overgrazed that there are just bushes, no single blade of grass left).

    The meerkats go on foraging, interrupted by several predator alarms, one of which is to a martial eagle flying high. David just mentions that session with Rascals where a martial eagle obviously somewhat habituated to humans flew past him only 3-4 meters high. Luckily the Elveera martial eagle is not of that kind

    After the three hours of foraging David starts with the lunch weights. Now Habusu is back to his normal self and is the first in the box, followed by extensive anal-marking. A pity only that the spare batteries are in the other backpack, so David cannot do any lunch weights.

    We walk back to the farm and meet Dave whos cycling back from his stay at Zappa. They have had three wild males immigrating, so theyre currently being rehabituated. Habituation seems quite well underway, the group again allows one person to walk with them while they forage. Only one of the subordinate immigrant males is missing. It returns later that day, fortunately.

    The Aztecs meerkat family


    Close to the farmhouse we meet Sophie who just finished weighing Aztecs, after an eventful morning including a puff adder encounter. I decide to stay with Aztecs for some time while the others head back to the farmhouse.

    Aztecs are a splinter of Whiskers, and a very small and young group, so they are very alert. The three more experienced females are frequently on the watch, while the four subadults forage loudly. The only male is the youngest, too young to serve as a dominant male. They only move some 50 meters within the 40 minutes Im with them, including a lot of alarming, but also a lot of laying flat on their bellies in the shade. At some point Murray the youngest is left behind while fiercely foraging in a bush, and he doesnt notice until his group is out of sight. Due to the wind he cant hear them. He obviously gets nervous and starts to look around, standing on his hind legs and peering in each direction for about five minutes. This shows also what habituation means: A tame animal would probably run towards the human, expecting to find help but not a habituated meerkat. To Murray I am just a weird animal. Finally one of the group appears from behind a bush, and Murray speeds to rejoin his family. They go on foraging as if nothing happened.

    JJ is already with Tim and Marta, preparing lunch I join them just at the right time. After lunch we again discuss the website project.

    The Lazuli meerkat family


    At 5 pm we leave for Lazuli, with Rob. Hes only doing the evening weights. Lazuli, who had been in the center of the reserve, have by now moved down the riverbed to the A side of the Heights farm, some 3 km West of  the farmhouse. They currently border Aztecs and Young Ones to the East and Elveera to the South. They are led by female Aretha (with radiocollar) and her brother J. Alfred Prufrock, after the former dominant male Padloper recently died; Aretha seems to be generally accepted as the dominant female, but her younger sister Diana is obviously bigger, and very often asserts dominance. Aretha also never had a successful litter since taking over dominance from her mother Eleusine more than a year ago.

    We find them on the Southern riverbank, already close to their burrow. They are all extremely nervous first I think it is because of the sheep in the riverbed, but judging from their persistance it must be something more dangerous. Finally Rob spots a Tawny Eagle some 300 m away, on a tree. The effect is stunning: The meerkats alarm, then groom, then alarm again, bobbing their heads up and down, jump around with raised tails for a full hour! Lazuli still groom much more than Frisky the day before. Interestingly, Aretha very often grooms subordinate meerkats maybe another sign that she is not such an aggressive dominant female.

    Lazuli are one of the groups with TB incidents; two of the meerkats show clear signs of TB infection. The disease has been there when the project started in 1993, but is still of major concern to everyone, and from several discussions we learn that many things are unknown. But with three groups recently eradicated by the disease, and a forth on the way, it will remain one of the most important problems that needs to be investigated. Seven groups didnt have TB fatalities so far. Sadly it is several of the previously mighty groups that are dwindling now. What is clear is that most if not all animals now have bovine TB, so chances are low that infections between humans and meerkats occur. But still, utmost care is taken to keep the disease from spreading further,  and to not spread the disease to uninfected groups with the researchers or rather their gear (e.g. backbacks of infected groups) as vectors. Julian, the PhD student studying TB in meerkats, is unfortunately not onsite, it will be interesting to see what comes out of his work.

    Rob succeeds during the Lazulis alarming commotion to weigh all but two, female Landie and subadult Papillon. They have been around however when whe arrived, a few meters away, so Rob assumes they went down in that burrow. At the same time as Rob completes weighing, the meerkats get really nervous the eagle has taken off and is no longer seen. A few of the meerkats start to make move calls and move away dashing to the next burrow 100 m away. The whole group, excluding the two missing animals, follows them. It takes 15 more minutes of nervous sprints and a lot of head-bobbing until they start to go down that burrow. The last is Mungo Jerry until her sister Diana pops up again after 2 minutes and checks one last time for the eagle.

    Dinner is ready when we come home Alta prepared a ham and veggie quiche.

    We leave at 7 am with volunteer David and MSc student Irene. Rascals currently stay on the B-side, South of the main road on a farm that was a hunting farm until recently, but now mainly hosts cattle. To the Northwest they share borders with Whiskers, but there is currently no habituated group to the East. We park at a windmill and walk 700 m to the sleeping burrow. Even from our car we spot a martial eagle on a tree maybe the one that took half of the Rascals group some time ago when he or she had chicks. Also the previous dominants, Yeca and Spofl, were predated, only her radio-collar was found in a tree.

    Currently dominant are Blondie and her brother Harvey. Blondie as well as her littermate Fool wear radio-collars and heart rate monitors. Irene studies the reaction of meerkats to certain vocalisations, on a heart rate level. The monitors are tiny and usually used for lab rats. They are inserted by a vet, and obviously they do not disturb the animals, as their behaviour and the social interactions remain unchanged.

    First up is Coati, one of the older males, but he quickly vanishes again. The group is very hesitant in coming up to sun maybe they have had an encounter with the martial eagle yesterday. Only after 8 am the group is out and Irene can start with her experiments while they are sunning. Fool, her focus animal, indeed behaves like any other meerkat, I cant notice anything special about him during the experiment other than that he wears a radiocollar. David meanwhile refreshes the groups dye marks. After her experiments Irene returns to the farm to analyse the data collected, while the Rascal group and ourselves continue with the morning routines weighing (which is more difficult now since the meerkats already start foraging) and foraging. We also encounter a group of four Pied Babblers, the study subject of Krys, but they dont seem to be habituated.

    The area is nice, open plains with many trees and bushes, and not much high grass. The meerkats spread over a considerable area while foraging but also frequently come together in a predator alarm. The eagle is still to be seen. During the three hours of observation (starting when the group leaves the burrow) we see many food competitions involving several of the groups members, but Blondie whose dominance position is still unstable frequently forms the center of such competitions. There are not many raised guards, but we observe two bolt hole renovations. The group moves quite fast in an Eastern direction, to a place where even David has never been before over two fences, not just one. Our three hours of observation are up, but weighing is impossible due to the wind that just picked up. The wind also has another effect: The Rascals get more and more nervous, and go on guard duty more often. It seems the wind interferes with them hearing their sentinel calls, or just hearing anything. A sudden gush of wind then drives them all into the bolt hole a few of them were just renovating. The opening is big enough to see 17 meerkats piled up in one small hole. After a while they start to come out each of them feeling the sudden urge to scent-mark the entrance. We leave them with the picture of one young Rascal hanging around in the bolthole entrance wondering about the world outside Getting back we heard from Marta that she had a visit of Aztecs just at her house.

    The Whiskers meerkat family


    Our short stay at the KMP is drawing to an end, and we still havent seen Whiskers the Meerkat Manor movie stars since they were always busy with the movie crew and the Earthwatchers. On the other hand, they are close to the farm house. So we just ask if we can see the Whiskers on our own, promising to not interfere with the movie crew. The movie crew will only arrive later, since they plan to pay a visit to Zaphod first as Zaphod and some other Whisker males have decided to go on a roving expedition.

    The Whiskers have been led by Rocket Dog since her mother Flower died in January 2007. Male dominance has been shared by Zaphod (the former dominant male), if he is around, and the oldest of his sons. For the sake of Meerkat Manor it was decided that both Rocket Dog and Zaphod wear a radio collar.

    So JJ and myself walk over the Young Ones plains (that has become the Whiskers plains in the meantime) to the far end where the group had been last spotted without a radio antenna, just equipped with our keen eyes. But they fail us, seems the Whiskers are still far away. So we just sit and enjoy the vista from the red dune over the plain and the dim light of a sun clouded by dust until we see the film crew, Ralph (the Oxford Scientific cameraman) and Helen (the ex-volunteer/scientific advisor) appear at the other end of the plain. However, they also cant  track the group with their antenna, seems they are still foraging in the dunes. We walk towards each other, and I finally see two meerkats scurrying over the dunes. The 27 Whiskers who currently form the main group are so spread over the dunes that they cant be seen properly. First of all JJ and myself witness a funny food competition. Little Amira (of the youngest litter) finds a millipede, and is immediately rounded up by Rocket Dog the dominant female. But Amira cedes only a little piece to big sister, who leaves the scene being barked at by Amira. Jogu is no better and tries to steal another bit but to no avail, Amira wont let him have any. She puts up a fight for about three minutes before she can enjoy her feast!

    Both the movie crew and myself set on our tasks of taking footage/pictures, but it gets more difficult by the minute, with the sun setting in the haze. Ralph and Helen soon give up and leave. I was given the task to bring back a picture of Petra, so JJ and myself try to spot her amongst the dune. JJ finally succeeds, and Petra even poses kindly as if she knew that a fan wanted her picture! With the bad light conditions, her pictures are amongst the few that are in focus Less lucky with most of the other movie stars, we notice a fork-tailed drongo sitting on a nearby bush. He lets us approach, and even seems to want to land on JJs leg. Ringed white and red, it seems that we encountered a habituated drongo they will form the focus of Tom Flowers PhD on cheating, because drongos cheat meerkats into leaving their prey to the drongos.

    The Whiskers now start to settle down and groom each other, and after a while the whole group can be seen united around the burrow for the first time were with them. We also settle down and just watch them go along with their evening routines while listening to the barking geckoes that chime in. It all has a very relaxed, almost magical touch to it so much different than my previous visit at Whiskers two years ago, when they evicted De La Soul, chased evicted Mozart, and war-danced the Lazuli rovers JD and Bobby all in one afternoon. The Whiskers dont seem to hasten now, even though the sun has long settled. And it is rather dark when they suddenly start to alarm only to calm down but very attentively look into one direction, all of them. I start taking pictures with my camera steadied on my knees (instead of my Gorillapod left at the farm), of the funny scene of both the Whiskers and JJ straining their eyes to see what it is that moves. After a while, Rocket Dog decides she has had enough of it and walks towards the burrow entrance. It seems that JJ and myself are quicker in identifying the animal as a hare, for the Whiskers remain attentive. But then, in the blink of an eye, or rather in exactly 20 sec, 23 of the 27 Whiskers have gone down. The four others remain out for a while, and it is Rufus, the youngest, who goes down last.

    We walk over the plain to Tims and Martas house and are invited for a Gin and Tonic. After dinner we join the two of them for a night game drive through the reserve on the back of the bakkie (pick-up) to spot the spring hares Marta has been mentioning. But first we encounter two genets with their ringed tails dangling from the trees they took refuge in, followed by lots of springbok and steenbok, two porcupines engaged in a fight, and several spring hares. The latter look like kangaroos in how they jump, only that these miniature kangaroos have black-tipped bushy tails. It is on the Young Ones plain a.k.a. Whiskers plain where their hopping comes to a finale: Its the sheer amount of them that turns this barren plain by day to a hopping frenzy at night.


    This time, our cat Alba has her usual emergency visit to the vet the day before I leave, instead of the day I leave, for my holidays. So leaving on Sunday feels very relaxed, with everything just done without a hurry. I take loads of Swiss chocolate and Swiss cheese with me who knows, I may find someone who appreciates it? The BA flight via London to Johannesburg is actually quite good; I have my dinner in London at wagamama though. My seat on long-haul is, as always, two rows behind screaming kids, so I don't sleep much.

    This trip to the Kalahari, one of our favourite destinations, has two reasons. One is to see the Kalahari and its wildlife in summer, after the rainy season a first after my/our trips in 2005 and 2007. The other is to visit the Kalahari Meerkat Project (KMP). My most favourite hobby is the Friends of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, a venture for bringing info on the KMPs meerkats to the public and raising funds for research on meerkats. Five Friends have spent a week on the field site already as part of a Friends Visit, and Ill join them for another week. And theres much to do, for the FKMP Definitely a working holiday, but fun work!

    The ATMs at JNB airport work just fine, and I meet Tim (the head of the KMP) and Dafila his wife at the check-in for Upington soon joined by Matt Bell. I've met him before in Cambridge, but didn't know that he's one of the oldest researchers. He joined the project in 1998 as Marta's assistant and later volunteer, then did his PhD on banded mongooses in Uganda, then returned to the KRR to research pied babblers. And probably will work with meerkats again in the future. Another researcher, Johanna, joins us in Upington; based at Edinburgh University, she will do her PhD on the genetics of meerkats (yes, the paternity tests are revived!) and focus on the hereditary aspects of helping behaviour. She will only stay for three weeks to understand the methods used to collect samples and of course to fall in love with the meerkats...

    Rob is the one to pick the five of us up at the airport. We go shopping (the Upington bottle store now accepts credit cards!), and at noon head off for the KMP. Due to the recent rains, the Pearson's Hunt road we took previously is not advisable to be driven with a trailer, so we take the longer road via Askham. The Kalahari is soon all around us but green! There is the red Kalahari sand but the grass and yellow devil's thorn are flowering, and the shrubs have leaves. It is a different type of Kalahari than the one I know. But different, not worse.

    Chatting with Matt, I learn that he is actually the one who named Zaphod, Yossarian and Rapunzel, back in 1998! Zaphod and Yossarian where the main characters of his favourite books at that time, and Matt is still amazed that Yossarian turned out a bit weird, as his namesake in Catch 22. Rapunzel was named after her fairytale name twin because she just never wanted to climb the scales. Rapunzel, Rapunzel let your hair down Rapunzel, Rapunzel, get on the scales!

    We stop in Askham to buy sandwiches, in the surprisingly well-stocked Kalahari Supermarket (they have fresh fruit and frozen meat, along with the usual dry stuff), and then drive on for another 1.5 hrs, to the Rus en Vrede farm where the Meerkat researchers stay. Megan and Christèle (Robs successors), Melissa the Earthwatch coordinator, and several of the volunteers and students are there to meet us. Too many young women, for an old woman like me, to remember their names hope I'll get it right over time...

    Melissa drives me to Gannavlakte, where the Friends and the birders (bird researchers) live. On the way we pass a 30-strong herd of eland, and many springbok and wildebeest despite the culling that had to take place last year to bring the number of game down to sustainable levels. I finally meet the Friends who I had met online so often, but not yet in person: Monica and Dave, Loretta, Jane and Suzette. They've been here for a week, and have plenty of stories to tell about their experiences! We soon leave for a sundowner on Big Dune too soon for my Windhoek Drought to be cold enough, but it still feels good to be back on the farm...

    Back at the farm, we get the plan for the week, who will visit which group when. Currently available are Lazuli, Whiskers, Kung Fu, Drie Doring, Commandos, Elveera and Aztecs. Frisky are not part of the rota, while the other groups have more or less semi-habituated wild immigrants who don't allow for the group to be visited by more than one person. Some of the Friends have seen Van Helsing while they were out looking for Whiskers - after a two-hours walk, nota bene! It's a pity however that I can't see my dear Pig (Grumpy) and her Moomins...

    Two of the volunteers, Kate and Claire, join us for dinner; we have boerwors and pap with tomato sauce truly South African... My Swiss chocolate finds a few very grateful connoisseurs, and after dinner a few of us head out with my iPhone, and the excellent Starmap application I downloaded just for the Kalahari. So now it's no longer just the Southern Cross and Orion I recognise... I go to bed too late!


    The day starts early, at 05:30, since we leave at 6:00. Loretta and I go out with Kirsty, to see the Lazuli. They're one of the oldest groups observed by the project; led by Young and Wollow, a Whiskers male, they're one of the largest right now, with 24 meerkats if all are present. Their current territory is in the plain Southwest of Big Dam. They have recently taken over a burrow from Hoppla, an 8-strong group with two ex-Lazuli males, two wild females and their four juveniles. We watch the sun rise behind an acacia, and only about 20 minutes later, the first meerkat pops out of the burrow. It's Lutzputz, one of the yearling natal (i.e. he's offspring of a group's female) males. The rest of the group get up within the next quarter of an hour, and sun and groom themselves. Soon the juveniles and pups start to play-fight feisty, rambunctious and fierce, and fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kirsty weighs the meerkats; some of them jump on the scales as soon as they're out, to get a bit of hard-boiled egg, while others are hard to convince, so that they are lifted by their tail base and placed on the scales. Young the dominant female is definitely pregnant, and so is probably Caroline, a younger sister of Young.

    I take a walk to the bushes, and returning from there, I spot more meerkats, about 100 m to the East. They must be the Hoppla who settled nearby after being driven out from their burrow by the Lazuli. They are still sunning themselves, but guessing from their constant glances towards us, they seem well aware of their neighbours contrary to the Lazuli who seem oblivious to the presence of other meerkats nearby. The Hoppla's females are not yet fully habituated, so they probably won't tolerate a group of humans getting too close. So Kirsty walks over alone and confirms their identity from a few meters away. My camera's zoom is still strong enough to make out the radio collar around J. Alfred Prufrock's (the dominant male) neck, and we can confirm that there are four adults and four juveniles.

    Eventually, the Lazuli leave their burrow and start foraging. Loretta and I have the task to do foraging focals, i.e. we observe the foraging success of various individuals over 15 minutes, by measuring the time they spend with foraging, and the size and if possible type of prey they get. We start with Wollow the dominant male, who soon finds a large scorpion only to nicely bring it to Loretta's feet to devour it there (luckily after biting off the sting). About 5 of the 15 minutes are spent with digging, which is rather long for an experienced adult.

    The Lazuli now forage closer to the Hoppla who are still sunning at their burrow, and eventually Rum, a subadult female, spots them while standing guard. Her family still continues foraging, but tension rises, with most adults now standing up and watching their neighbours. It will still take 6 more minutes of foraging before they call to battle. But then it comes in one blow: all the Lazuli gather in the shade of a tree, with their tails erect, wardance on the spot and then pronk towards the Hoppla in one tail-raised wave. They cover the distance of 50 metres in a matter of mere seconds and the Hoppla dash away, clearly outnumbered by the Lazuli force.

    The scent marking frenzy goes on forever, it seems. With the Hoppla gone, we finally approach their burrow. The Lazuli pups gradually fall asleep after all this excitement (well, they still vocalise do they even beg in their sleeps?), while the adults keep excavating the burrow. Are there Hoppla pups down there? They are not a regularly monitored group, so their pregnancy status is not known to the day... The adults and juveniles certainly fled, and we don't see a babysitter escape from the burrow. And no dead pups are brought up by the Lazuli, fortunately. So either their brave babysitter protects the pups, or else the Lazuli are just overly excited. Anyway, they only cool down after half an hour of excavation.

    This gives us the opportunity to observe the red haartebeest, a strikingly beautiful antelope in the distance. And there are Southern Pied Babblers around, an endemic bird with a similar social structure as the meerkats. They are researched by Mandy, Matt and the team in the Gannavlakte farm, so we try to note down their rings two rings on each leg. Difficult with a bird only a bit larger than a blackbird, but fortunately enough they are territorial, so Mandy and her team will know which group we met.

    The Lazuli resume foraging, and we walk with them. Loretta and I continue the foraging focals, of Young (the dominant female), Prieska and Calvinia (a male and female subordinate), and Eigg and Rum (a male and female subadult). Differences in foraging success are not extreme a lot of food is anyway found on the surface, after the recent rains. There are two predator alarms: one to a Lappet-faced and a White-Backed Vulture (who don't hunt meerkats) and the other probably to an eagle the meerkats are very certain that he's dangerous while the vultures are just interesting. I also get a first meerkat on my head: Rufus, a subordinate male of Whiskers origin. He's known to be an avid sentinel, and to often use human lookout posts.

    After two hours of foraging, Kirsty starts with lunch weights. We leave after watching Rufus climb an acacia to lookout. Like with my kitties, going up is easy. Going down less so, and he falls down from a height of approx. 4 metres. Same as my kitties, he lands on all four, shakes himself, and wanders off as if nothing happened.

    We spend the early afternoon at Gannavlakte, chatting, watching pictures and observing a group of babblers, including TomBoy, the sexiest bird alive (or so think the babbler females, according to research history).

    At 5 pm we set off to see the Whiskers, me together with Kate, Monica and Dave. We see them foraging at the main road when driving over to Rus en Vrede, and they're still there to welcome us 20 minutes later. They're on the other side of the road, i.e. on a farmer's land, behind a large fence. Kate insists that they will eventually cross to the KMP side where their burrow is. And she is right... Thundercat makes a daring run across the road after watching carefully. The rest of the group are less concerned, they forage, pick a beetle there, Nugget stands guard here, the juveniles play-fight all on the main road. We're taking pictures of them on the dreaded road. I guess we hear the approaching car before they do, but then they also start to watch out. It's none of the researchers. The four of us remain on the road, forcing the driver to slow down but he is not really inclined to do so; he approaches us and the kats with approx. 70 or 80 km/h. We step to the side, and so do the meerkats. All meerkats? No. Nugget the brave believes he's cool, standing in the middle of the road, staring down the vehicle. What does he think he's doing? Ningaloo survived this by getting between the wheels, instead of under the wheels. But would another meerkat pull this feat? I remember screaming Run, you stupid, run! But I can't see what happens; I just see the blue car rush past me.

    The dust eventually starts to settle. I hear Monica complain about her stomach, and feel mine is a knot. But there is no flat meerkat to be seen. All of them, including Nugget, forage, on both sides of the road, as if nothing happened. How can they bear this??? Well, the story will continue...

    As they cross over to the reserve, we master the fence, and follow them. We're on Young Ones flats now, which have been occupied by the Whiskers during the larger part of the past two or so years. The flats are covered with drie doring bushes, so it is hard to follow the meerkats. They forage at leisurely speed, giving us time to recover from the previous excitement. We're now supposed to do bird scans (determining the birds within 20 m of the meerkats), but no birds are within range, on the flats. The atmosphere is really pleasant, in the warm evening sunlight, with the kats foraging and occasionally stopping to groom, watch or sun. We get plenty of photo opportunities. The juvies start to play-fight on a farm road. Ella scans the sky, perfectly posing. Little Pamplemousse throws up her prey only to just swallow it again like my cats do. Must have had a bite too much. Ella grooms Thundercat (does this prove that she actually loves him??? sorry, guys and gals on the AP board, for re-fuelling your discussions on this subject :-)). They finally settle around their sleeping burrow, watching the scenery. The scales come out, and a bit later one after one file down the burrow. Thundercat is the last one to go down.

    We have Tim and Dafila over for dinner at Gannavlakte, we have mutton curry with rice and a dhal. It is excellent. However, I haven't been feeling well that afternoon, so I decide to call it a day. I have over 39C fever when I measure it. My good old travel sickness is back. I know how to treat it so that the spell is over within half a day. But it means I can't go out to see Zaphod, the next morning.


    18-Mar: Kung Fu


    I have a restless night, but sleep in until nine. My pyjamas are soaked, but I certainly feel much better. I'm just having breakfast outside when Tim arrives, to check out a kitchen that was recently added to the birder's building. Melissa, also sick, Tim and I chat for a while, and then he takes me back to Rus en Vrede, since we anyway have an appointment for lunch, to discuss FKMP stuff. I spend an hour typing my diary, on their stoep (porch) when suddenly a meerkat rushes by. She stumbles into the little fenced garden behind the house and takes a minute to find out again only so can I see that it's a young female, with SH+MB mark. Could be a young Whiskers, Popple. Was I to know...

    There are quite a lot of FKMP matters to discuss with Tim, on how to use the Friends Funds, and the Friends visits contributions, so I leave only after 3 pm. Later I meet Alex and Beke. Alex recently published an article about traditions in meerkat groups, and tells me about his most recent experiments on how meerkats learn he's about to return to UK to process the data he's gathered. Beke is the German/Swiss PhD student working with slender mongooses. They are tricky beasts: Larger cousins of the meerkats, they usually live alone or just with their most recent pups, at least during summer, even though their territories overlap. Only in winter a few animals may congregate to spend the night in one hole. They rarely use burrows, but sleep in tree holes, being very able climbers. They rather hunt than forage she's even seen one snatching a bird in flight. She's collared 15 so far, but they only tolerate one visitor, and the closest she got so far was 2 metres. It will be interesting to see what comes out of her research especially if compared to the meerkats.

    Meeting Rob, he tells me about the enormous IGI (inter-group interaction) between Kung Fu and Whiskers, this morning, on the main road. The Friends who were out with the Whiskers saw it from one end, while Rob witnessed it from his car they brought him to a stand, and he stopped other vehicles from driving into the frenzy. The Kung Fu saw the Whiskers first, and attacked them while they were foraging, oblivious to the approaching danger. With both groups similarly strong, the battle went on for over an hour, both sides launching assaults, sweeping along the road with tails raised. The Kung Fu finally kept the upper hand, forcing the Whiskers to retreat, in disorder. Ella initially gathered only 10 of the 18 Whiskers around her, while the others were lost. This is why I saw Popple, all alone. We would have to wait until the evening session to see if they reunited.

    In the afternoon, Kung Fu welcome us still on the main road, but they forage on the B-side South of the road. Kleintije the dominant female is pregnant, and very much so. With her recent litter of seven, she beat the all-time weights record for a project female, with 1250 grams at lunch weight she actually looks like one of these all-too-round zoo meerkat... Ningaloo the dominant male very soon lives up to his reputation as a head-climber within 6 minutes after our arrival, he climbs Loretta's back, backpack, and later head. And there he stays. Suzette and I do bird scans, so Loretta can still act as scribe and GPS logger. But it isn't really convenient. After 15 minutes we decide to change roles; Ningaloo just switches heads, and I have him, for the next five minutes. Suzette is the next in row.

    The Kung Fu continue foraging as if their day had been eventless. We continue our bird scans. There are several birds around, amongst them fork-tailed drongos. Once we witness their trick: A drongo issues a loud alarm call, and all meerkats dash to a bolthole. Meanwhile, the drongo flutters down to the ground just where a juvenile left his prey, and the drongo scoops it up to devour it on his perch. I also do my personal focal on Bauer, VKUM006, for a while hes my namesake! Well, hes probably named after Jack Bauer, of 24. But wasnt Jack named after me? Bauer is just busy looking for food, and does a bit of guarding. Nothing spectacular like saving the world. Maybe hes named after me, after all?

    The Kung Fu don't move more than 100 or 200 m until they reach their sleeping burrow. We observe them cuddling and grooming while the volunteer, Fiona, weighs them. Kleintjie weighs 1100 grams and there is still some time to go until she'll have her litter. Will she beat the weight record again?

    Back at the farm we learn that most of the Whiskers reunited only Savuka and Pamplemousse are still missing.

    Finnie joins us for dinner, a vegetable stew. Finnie does his PhD on yellow-billed hornbills. They live in pairs and have a highly specialised way of breeding: the mother seals herself into a tree hole, leaving only a slit open for the male to feed her and the 2-4 chicks safe from predators. This leads to a very high fledging ratio: 27 out of 30 observed couples successfully raised young. The female also uses the time to moult her flight feathers. Finnie investigates what happens in the tree hole, by providing nesting boxes with cameras fitted to the top. His PhD started only in 2008, but he presents many interesting preliminary findings on the behaviour of the female and the chicks.


    No KMP meerkats for us today... We leave around 07:15, for Kuruman, a town approx. 200 km to the East. The drive is monotonous, even though I may drive for part of the trip (after I've been added to the project's insurance list). Kuruman is a province town, even though it is one of the oldest cities in South Africa a certain Rev. Moffat founded it as a mission. The mission is one of the main attractions of Kuruman; it is a museum today. The other main attraction is the Kuruman Raptor Centre (KRC). I had scheduled a visit to them weeks ago it had been on my list of places to visit since my first trip to the Kalahari in 2005!

    Mike, Sue and Jason Finlay greet us at the Centre, and Jason takes us on a tour of the aviaries: Black eagle, Black-breasted Snake Eagle, Martial Eagle, Spotted Eagle Owls, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Tawny Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Giant Eagle Owl, Fish Eagle all of them injured in some way that they can no longer fly. Jason explains each animal to us, how it lives in the wild, and how it came here. Mathilda the giant eagle owl barely opens a pink-lidded eye for us. And Gus the PCG has just eyes for Jason, but doesn't feel like hopping on his shoulder. We can enter some of the aviaries, always taking care not to disturb the birds. Others are to vary of humans, so we leave them in peace.

    A bit further away we visit the vulture site: it is no enclosure, but an open space with a vista to the grassland, where the disabled vultures stay: a Lappet-faced, a White-backed and five Cape Vultures. With them is a disabled White Stork. Their wild counterparts regularly visit them, while there is vulture restaurant time. So this is actually not a vulture restaurant, but a vulture hotel. Two Cape vultures also succeeded in breeding, twice the first Cape vulture chicks in the Northern Cape in dozens of years, as they are locally extinct as a breeding species. Both chicks fledged successfully, and left the KRC with the wild visitors. Vince, the first, was equipped with a GPS sender, and could be tracked up to Botswana. I wonder whether he will find a mate to breed, some day.

    Many of the disabled raptors were electrocuted or mistreated by humans, so that their under wings had to be amputated. The Kuruman Raptor Centre also hosts a small exhibition about the Kalahari raptors, as well as a model of a power line, sponsored by Eskom the national power company who pride themselves in inventive technologies to prevent electrocution of raptors. The ideas are good, but on our way back we don't see any of them put into action.

    After a cold drink we go to see a non-raptor attraction at the KRC: the two pet meerkats. The two females are held in an enclosure; they were brought to the KRC because their owners no longer wanted them. Jason would like to have a male, and let them have pups, before they are released as a family. The KRC had half-tame meerkats before, and they and some of the raptors featured in The Meerkats, a BBC movie. That previous group split however, and one part was lost to TB, while the other disappeared.

    The two meerkat females are fun to watch. The larger one will definitely have to lose weight before she's released. Lola, the slimmer female, is feisty she crawls all over us, barks at the black cat outside of the enclosure. She even climbs us to sniff our nostrils really going nose to nose. Next comes a foraging expedition to Monica's hair her thick braid seems very interesting to Lola. The finale though is her discovery of Melissa's cigarettes, in her trousers: She bites and digs at them so furiously that we all believe she's a nicotine addict... Funny little bugger! Definitely a different experience to the KMP, even though they also climb heads yet they don't interact while doing guards. I wonder how Lola will fare once she's released from captivity.

    In another enclosure nearby we see a kori bustard the heaviest bird who still can fly (why can no one tell me how heavy they actually are?). That individual is not in good shape though; it was collected at the nearby Tswalu lodge, entangled in a fence. It recovered quite well during the past week, but still can't stand on it's legs. Jason will bring it to the Kuruman vet again, in the afternoon.

    We then enjoy an excellent lunch with kasseler, chicken roast and salads, prepared by Sue, and learn a lot more about their feathered guests and pets (3 dogs and 2 cats). Only around 3 p.m. we say goodbye everyone liked it very much and Melissa certainly wants to visit again, with Earthwatchers, if possible.

    We briefly stop at the Oog (Eye), another local attraction. It's a deep water-filled hole looking like a pond overgrown with nympheas pretty and somewhat unexpected in the Kalahari, but otherwise unspectacular. Melissa and the Friends then go for a brief shopping trip. We planned to go to see the Moffat Mission, but miss the turn-off. Already being late, we drive on. There's another stop at the Van Zylsrus Hotel, and us ladies raid their curio shop. I just get a bag of Shepherd's Tree Coffee (a coffee substitute made from roasted ground roots) and a tortoise keyring, but the other ladies really splurge... :-) The hotel seems very nice, with colourful rooms and lots of murals with a Kalahari theme including meerkats, of course. The best is their courtyard garden though: a splash of verdant green in the middle of the Kalahari! And they have a small (but clear) pool

    We make it back to the farm just in time for the sunset; we're invited for drinks at Tim's house. Most of us have Timm's, Tim's Kalahari-adapted version of Pimm's (Lime cordial with rum), and we talk about research, the KRC visit and the Friends visit. Lisa and Sarah later join us for dinner, back at Gannavlakte, for home-baked chicken fajitas.


    Monica and I join Christèle to go out to Lazuli; they still inhabit the same burrow in the Elveera flats, just next to the road, after their victory over the Hoppla. We observe a herd of springbok in the morning light, until the meerkats appear. Calvinia is the first one out, around 7:25 quite early today. The Lazuli have a reputation of sleeping in something Alex would like to look into, as this may represent another tradition amongst meerkats. We observe them while they groom and play-fight with five juveniles and six pups, it's play-fighting at it's best! Christèle is surprised by Rufus on her back while she collects the weights; not the easiest to get a bunch of play-fighting pups out of your scales to weigh an adult individual, while balancing Rufus on your back... But he obviously has to fill a guard-on-human quota? The Lazuli hang around their burrow until well past eight before they set out to forage.

    Their direction is the perimeter fence at the far side of the Elveeras flats. We do foraging focals, but also see lots of pup feeds, even by juveniles. I have the pleasure of playing guard-post to Rufus, one more time. Once, they all go on alert, but we don't see what they alarm at. They finally cross the fence, and Christèle and I follow them to the other side. They seem very nervous, and we nearly loose them twice because they run off in the high grass. We find them again foraging in a green patch under a tree. They're all covered in seeds sticking in their furs, and some drag whole grass blades along. Suddenly, they run off again, to a nearby burrow, and fervently wardance and scent-mark it. It was the Jaxx' sleeping burrow until one day before. The pups have had too much excitement, and collapse in the shade of little bushes. Unless they just roll down the burrow

    Still nervous, they run to the next burrow, and the next. At one point in time, a juvenile discovers a small sand snake not thicker than a pencil but is too excited to eat it. Christèle should start doing lunch weights. However, whenever she's set down her scales, the meerkats pronk away to the next burrow. Silly guys. And weighing is not made easier by the fact that Rufus climbs her twice, or decides to use the weights notebook as his lookout post. We do a Ningaloo (the term we coined for enticing a meerkat to change from one human to the next without touching ground), so I'm left with Rufus crawling all over me while Christèle completes her weights.

    Instead of lunch, I prepare the nature walk that is scheduled for Sunday. It leads from the farmhouse to Big Dune, following Whiskers road. I've prepared a list of burrows that had some significance in the Whiskers' life history since several Friends expressed their wish to actually see the places where Meerkat Manor was filmed, or where some of the meerkats were born. Apart from that, the walk will focus on trees and their usage by bushmen, along with a bit of information on bushmen who long ago lived in this region.

    The burrow where Flower was bitten by a snake is the first on the walk, close to the farmhouse. I almost stumble over the Whiskers, resting in the shade of a nearby bolthole. The burrow I look for is no longer in use, but it is somehow touching to see Ella and her family so close. I track the other burrows on my list, and note down interesting trees, to complete the information for the walk. On my way, I see several steenbok, gemsbok and wildebeest, but it is quite hot for all of us. Before reaching Big Dune, a car approaches, and I run to ask Steven for a lift back to Gannavlakte.

    In the afternoon, Monica, Loretta and I join Chloé for the Commandos. Chloé is a Brazilian-French MSc vet student. She's doing a six-month thesis in animal behaviour, and decided to combine this with her vet background, studying behaviour of TB-infected meerkats. Her study hasn't progressed far, but it is interesting to join her to this group.

    They are almost 8 km away from the farmhouse, on a neighbouring cattle farm. We find them after a 15 min walk under a collapsed camelthorn tree alternately alarming at and mobbing two huge brown bulls. Everest, Panthro, Cho face them from their vantage points while the rest of the group hides under the log. The bulls are rather curious about the little ones. And too curious about us. No sudden movements. It's fun to watch the meerkats though.

    They forage back to the sleeping burrow, which is close to our parked car. Chloé freshens up the dye marks while they forage so some of them have really weird marks now Returning to their burrow, they celebrate coming home with a small war-dance has anyone visited in the meantime?

    In the soft evening light, their plague the TB becomes obvious. Kili, a pregnant subordinate female, has a large submandibular lump. Rastas and Everest have inguinal lumps, and Coop is loosing weight. At the burrow, Kili does not join the others but takes the last sunrays in on her own. Chloé notes that Rastas' lump has burst, issuing pus. Chances are that she will be euthanised soon. It's a sad visit to this group that became famous as the meerkat mafia. But whichever group moves east of Gannavlakte, their fate seems doomed. Yet even without the four infected animals, the Commandos are still 12, a good number. I keep hoping that they will be there the next time I visit. However, if Kili gives birth before she dies, her pups will be suckled by a TB-infected mother and TB can be transmitted this way. It would be interesting to find out if the cattle on this farm are the TB carriers but the farmers in the region flinch if TB tests are only mentioned.

    Back home, we have dinner (Vetkoeks en Mince fried salty doughnuts with minced meat) together with Irene, Kate and Valentino. Irene does her PhD on Crimson-Breasted Shrikes, red-black-white birds the size of blackbirds. Irene is interested in their song, since they are amongst the few birds whose couples sing a duet. They learn to sing together, and alternate in starting a phrase. Kate, the only American in the project, is an assistant in the Southern Pied Babblers project located at Gannavlakte. Last but not least, Valentino is the technician on site.


    Monica and I are again together, to visit the Kung Fu. The volunteer is Lisa. They have moved to a new sleeping burrow since their encounter with the Whiskers, North of the main road and to the East, yet still close to the road. On the way there, Lisa recounts the events of the recent changes at Commandos, who were her group in early January. Both dominants Zorilla had been dominant for years had to be euthanised due to tuberculosis, in the first week of January. The group was without a leader for the first time in their history, and they just didn't seem to know what to do. Dominance amongst the males was quickly settled, with Panthro being the only remaining non-natal male. Samba, the oldest female initially seemed to establish female dominance. However, the next-oldest, Celidh, had been heavier and feistier than Samba for a while, so she challenged the spot at the top. The females battled fiercely, whenever they met, for days. The group, still shaken by the recent changes, chimed in on any side, or amongst themselves. It was anyone against anyone. Both females soon had bloody wounds, but Samba suffered more. Celidh eventually succeeded in evicting her, with the group taking her side. Samba returned a few days later, humbly submitting to anyone in her path. She's been allowed to stay, for now. But this is maybe not yet the last chapter of the story. And on the other hand these fights may have helped spread TB further, in the Commandos. Another chapter for their story...

    The Kung Fu rise early, at 7:15; one by one they emerge from their burrow, and sun themselves. Kleintjie looks even bigger than a few days earlier she's 1124 grams, 80 g heavier than the morning before. Will this again be a large litter? Her last litter of seven has survived to date, even though two of the pups, Bean and Littl'un are way smaller than the others, yet still determined in all their pup business. Lisa lets me lure Princessco to the scales; she's less fond of water and egg than the other pups, but after a while she obliges, and drinks quite greedily. I was not aware that the meerkats also gnaw the nozzle of the water dispenser!

    Around 8:15 the group starts foraging, led by hungry Kleintjie issueing lead calls. Ningaloo immediately goes on raised guard seems he wants to spend the morning on that log! Monica and I start our foraging focals, whereas Lisa collects ad lib data (raised guards, food competitions, helping behaviour, dominance bids etc.). The group doesn't move more than 200 m, as the hornbill flies, within 2 hrs, and we finish our focals very early. The morning seems eventless Ningaloo even forgets to guard on anyone's head until they all suddenly go on raised guard, on logs or on the ground. It takes us a while until we identify what they've seen minutes ago: a white-backed vulture! As he draws very close, the meerkats sprint to a bolt hole under a blackthorn bush. It's one of the more impressive predator alarms I've seen, and of course the group remains nervous for long, afterwards. They scurry around us I'm glad we've finished our focals earlier! As usual they finish the predator alarm with a bolt of bolthole renovation.

    Suddenly we see part of the group lined up on the main road, that side of the fence and a car is approaching fast. Luckily the meerkats stay in the shade of the roadside bushes. Nevertheless we decide to climb over to them. The road seems an all too convenient playground for the juveniles, and lookout post for the adults. They're still freaked by the predator alarm. So weighing them takes ages...

    Our afternoon is not as lazy as usual, since today is braai day. Braai is the South African word for barbeque, and it is considered serious business. Valentino, being the only white South African male on the farm, graciously accepts the job of head braai master taking care of lamb chops and sausages, but us ladies are supposed to do the side dishes. It has become a tradition that Earthwatchers (and Friends) invite the researchers over for a braai on their last Saturday on site. We chop up veggies and bake bread until we have to leave for the meerkats.

    Monica, Jane and I are off with Dave to visit Aztecs I get to see Zaphod again, finally! I haven't seen him in almost four years, as he was off roving with his buddies during my last visit in 2007. Looking very much forward to seeing the old guy. With ten years, he's the oldest meerkat in the manor, and the oldest male of the entire project history.

    We've driven past the current Aztecs burrow more than once during the past days, since it's located next to the farm road along the riverbed connecting the two farm houses. This is where we start, with a rather weak radio transmitter signal. It points us to the other side of the dry riverbed, a lovely meadow that is being grazed by a herd of wildebeest. Tough luck! Nevertheless we set out to find them. The signal keeps changing location keeping up with the wildebeest's location. What are those guys doing? The beasts, ancient in their looks, meet us with a certain contempt. It's their meadow, after all! When we get even closer, they start to snort and grunt they're also ancient in their sounds... The herd, about 40-50 strong, could easily decide to trample us. The old bulls seem to consider that option. But well, they retreat in a cacophony of snorts, and finally we see the Aztecs, who seem to enjoy the spectacle, on guard. Abaca, guarding on a log, makes a wonderful picture, with the wildebeest as a background. It still feels a bit strange to be in 50 m distance of a herd of wildebeest, without a vehicle around me. I feel less vulnerable with other species, even the eland.

    We find everybody but Squig and Burdock, the two evicted (or sometimes self-evicting) females; they've been seen recently, so we know they're fine. Monkulus is pregnant, and Zaphod is thriving. Monkulus has three pups; Lola and Chaca were named by our host Melissa, but the third is still waiting to be named; it will have a name at the end of our visit... Their father is unknown; Zaphod obviously still keeps trying to mate with Monkulus (probably his niece), but rovers easily divert her. It will be very interesting to see Johanna's results on the paternity tests. Bruce, one of the notorious ex-rovers whose descent is unknown is a prime candidate. But Zaphod maybe played a part in this too, so Johanna intends to sample and re-analyse most of the older kats in the population if she can get a sample of Zaphod. Paternity tests are much more reliable with tissue or blood than with hair. Hair with roots can probably be pulled out at the price of a annoyed chattering by Mr. Zaphod. However, to draw a fresh blood sample, the researchers would have to capture and anaesthetise him, and they don't really want to risk this, given his age. This is also the reason why he wears a radio collar it was put on him when he started roving, in the months after Flower's death in early 2007. The battery is long gone by now. But he doesn't seem to mind his collar, so it is just left.

    I try to stick with Zaphod for a while. He's sometimes the grumpy old man, sometimes the caring elder but he looks perfect. He's a huge meerkat, and obviously very experienced, and not very fussy when it comes down to having a decent food competition with a juvenile. I see him defend his savoury millipede to the last morsel... No wonder he doesn't like egg!

    They're still in full foraging mode, and probably 500 m from their sleeping burrow; we're not sure if they will return there. Monkulus keeps giving lead calls, so that the group is not lost in the drie doring bushes. And of course she is very intent to lead them (and us) towards the wildebeest. Where else? Is there no other place in the Kalahari than near these wildebeest? They keep watching us from a distance, and definitely show they're annoyed by us. Stomping the ground raises dust clouds, so their silhouettes in the soft evening light make a stunning view, at least.

    Eventually the Aztecs decide to part with their friends the wildebeest, and head for the riverbed. In top speed. Run 50 meters, guard, run again, guard again. Luckily their tails are visible while they run, and we can catch up with them while they guard. They're swallowed though by the higher sour grass in the riverbed, but I catch them with my camera as they cross the tracks of an old farm road, against the setting sun. Amazing!

    They finally reach their burrow much less out of breath than we are and have nothing better to do than alarm, then bark, and then war-dance their two evicted females who welcomed them there! Squig and Burdock retreat. Monkulus, Zaphod and their crew settle around their sleeping burrow, and start their evening toilette. The sun is as good as down, so they huddle for comfort, with only a few still looking out for their evicted aunts. Zaphod is in their midst and falls asleep. Falling meaning that he rolls down the burrow entrance. :-) They pups seem to like (or respect?) their grand-uncle though, as they hug and groom him most.

    All kats are successfully weighed, except for the evicted females who are not being considered as part of the group and thus subject to weights while they're away. Monkulus weighs 1019 g a bit lighter than Kleintjie Zaphod is one of the last to be marched to the scales, graciously accepting a few sips of water from the bottle.

    Through my zoom lens I suddenly see two more meerkats in the twilight, on a burrow nearby. They're Squig and Burdock! With the other Aztecs minding their own important business, I walk over to see them. As if this strengthened their confidence, they gradually come nearer to the main burrow. They're more and more difficult to see in the fading light. The Aztecs either don't see or don't mind them, and they are down their sleeping burrow by now. Before it gets too dark, we see Burdock and Squig sneak down one of the many burrow entrances, next to their family. I hope they return just another time, after Monkulus has given birth.

    The guests for the braai arrive after 8 pm. All staff, volunteers, PhD and MSc students and assistants from Rus en Vrede, Tim and Dafila, the birders living at Gannavlakte, Melissa and the Friends and me are close to 40 persons! We enjoy a good evening, and even succeed to take a picture of Tim, Dafila, Melissa, the Friends and me! It is a too late night though...


    22-Mar: Whiskers and Nature walk


    Each volunteer usually has one day off, during the week, but on Sunday, they only go out to the meerkat groups to get the morning and evening weights; no focals or ad-lib observations on Sundays. It still means that those Friends who want to join have to be ready at 6 am. Jane, Suzette and I are, and we are going to see the Whiskers, with Kate. They're an easy 5 minutes walk from the Rus en Vrede farmhouse, so things could be worse.

    While we wait for them to rise, we get ample time to observe the birds. Jane, a keen ornithologist, spots a Gabar falcon, and the nearby sociable weaver nest is already busy. Just before sunrise (around 7 am), we see an awesome sight: a Kori bustard in flight! I don't know what startled him, but he decided to launch off just over our heads. It becomes clearer to me than ever why they are the heaviest birds that still can fly. Kori bustards are MASSIVE! They look a bit out of place when foraging on the ground due to their unbalanced proportions, but even more once they haul themselves up into air. A swan starting from water is truly elegant compared to this. A B-52 with paper plane wings? But they have so sweet-looking knob eyes I won't forget the one we saw at KRC!

    Whiskers rise at 7:07 am, quite early. And either the Kori bustard too startled them, or else they had nightmares. Because they leave for foraging at 7:25! It's way too short to weigh all of them. The juvies play-fight a bit, but this is it. Hey guys, we got up just to see you, and now this??? They don't care, spread out, and are gone by 7:30.

    To make matters worse, there is no car around until almost 9 am, to take us back to Gannavlakte, back to our beds.

    We reconvene for lunch of left-overs, and leave at 2 pm, for the nature walk. It is still hot, so Monica and David decide to call it a day, after the first station, which is the place where Flower got bitten by the snake. The remainder of the walk brings us to several places out of the Whiskers life history that are dear to the Friends, but we also stop at several trees that were used by bushmen for medicinal or food purposes. Toothache and TB, but also haemorrhoids or sterility were treated with herbal medicines partly in the way we use phytomedicine, partly as a component of a ceremony or healing trance. I find this stuff very interesting well, the guide to the walk and some background material about the bushmen, and the animals around here, will be online some day at the FKMP website.

    The walk also leads us to a large sociable weaver nest will it still be here the next time I visit of will it have crashed the tree? just next to the burrow where Mozart, Shakespeare and their littermates were born. It's a coincidence that the remains of their grand-mother Holly were found near this same burrow! The walk ends at another memorable place, near Big Dune, at the burrow where Flower was born. The Friends and I have collected sand from most burrows, as a souvenir of their trip. We're still glad that Kate comes to pick us up, as the heat hasn't gotten much less... We're too lazy to visit the place where Meerkat Manor filming started, as it is a bit of a walk in the dunes. But on the way back we stop at Big Dam (also known as Kalahari Country Club to Meerkat Manor afficionadas), and find the place where Mozart's remains and radio collar were found. While preparing the walk, I found another strange coincidence: The burrow next to the tree where she was found happened to be the burrow where two years earlier her brother Shakespeare babysat the latest Whiskers litter, before he disappeared, never to be seen again! It's a pity Monica can not join here she would have loved to see this, I guess.

    We return back to Gannavlakte, and have a lazy evening at least it starts lazy. We have Shepherd's pie. I also get Tina's okay to copy several of her recipes, for the website. Friends and Earthwatchers, watch out, the famous Banoffee Tart recipe will become available (as soon as I have translated it from Afrikaans...)!

    The end of the day is a bit less lazy. The Friends sit outside on the stoep before going to bed, and suddenly, Loretta calls over from the bathrooms: Hey ladies, there is a snake. No excitement (yet), just a simple notice. The snake is a fairly large puff adder it is said that she's the fastest-striking snake (something we will hear again and again in the next half hour), and her bite can kill a human (not a meerkat though, at least not in each case). She rests on the concrete stoep in front of the bathrooms, absorbing its warmth. We all stop short after the phrase What if Loretta hadn't taken a torch?.

    All residents gather and debate, and Rob is phoned. His advice is simple: Catch it! Melissa and Alex (one of the birders) take action, get a large trash can, wooden planks and long metal sticks. By now the puff adder has retreated behind the bathrooms building, to a place with more vegetation where she can't be caught with ease. To cut the next half hour short: The snake can't be caught, and gets more annoyed by the minute (remember fastest-striking snake). Eventually someone suggests that she should be killed, before she kills one of the humans here. It's a sad decision, and everyone feels unwell with killing wildlife. But feeling unwell with the possibility of a puff adder bite takes the upper hand at last.


    Today is a premiere for me. I've never before been to visit the Drie Doring meerkat group. In 2005, they were off limits to Earthwatchers (no groups south of the road, on B side, were). In 2007, the time was too short. And in the past days the rota wouldn't allow it.

    They are still bordering the Frisky, as they have for a long time. We give a lift to Christèle and Gini who visit them, and only a short drive further is our parking spot. We pass through a cattle gate, and the burrow is just there on a meadow. Finn MacCool, the former dominant male, pops his head up just before 7 am, but the others take a bit more time. But eventually the whole group is out except for the females Trinity, Nikita and P-Chan, who are evicted by visibly pregnant dominant female Mist. Most of the group join in a bit of play-fighting with the juveniles and pups except for Finn MacCool who remains almost one hour at the place where he emerged from the burrow. He isn't even disturbed by new dominant male Thor's scent-marking frenzy at the scales. He takes the Drie males' reputation serious, this guy again another tradition that could be investigated by Alex. The players seem to involve us as well scurrying around us, and little Buttercup even tries to climb me after perusing my shoe as a scratch-post. Once they all investigate Loretta's camera while it rewinds, and make a very feeble attempt at mobbing it. A very relaxed start of the morning!

    The group starts foraging after 8 am. The terrain is lovely, with lots of acacia bushes. The foraging is not very eventful though, and there are often no sentinels on guard everyone is hungry, I assume. Finn MacCool is the first guard I see, again. We observe an exciting pup feed: The Dread Pirate Roberts (yes, this is the pup's name) gets a little mouse from a helper! Small as he is, he crushes and swallows the mouse until only a drop of blood remains on his jaw. And my darn camera is on manual focus and I don't realise it! Mist, super-hungry as every pregnant female is not so obliging a bit later, and seems to almost crush a little pup during a food competition.

    Over time, the sentinels take their duty more seriously. There is an alarm to a vulture, with several sentinels guarding on logs. Finn MacCool is always the first. Juvenile Captain Planet tries to mimic him, but hey its difficult to even climb such a log when youre so small! It seems though that Finn MacCool found a valid alternative to scent-marking, with guarding... And suddenly, he gives Loretta that look, saying I need you as my guarding post. So be it, to Loretta's delight! I soon also get a companion, while photographing the renovation of a bolthole: Falco, a younger male, climbs on my Freitag bag, and later up to my shoulder. And he stays there for ages so long that I resume by photos of meerkats emerging from the bolt hole. Several meerkats crawl over my knees and between my feet; briefly, juvenile Commander Keen tries to climb me, and guards from my bag too short to take a pic.

    After these events the Drie get more relaxed, and around 10:40 they start hanging out in the shade. Time for the juvies to play-fight again. Time to get their lunch weights. A lovely visit it was...

    After lunch I do my laundry, and bake cakes. There goes some more of the chocolate I brought from Switzerland, along with almost one bottle of Amarula (a creamy liqueur made from local marula fruit, similar to Bailey's) but it's for three large cakes, for about 40 people! Furthermore, I wipe my rondavel, to get rid of all the sand, before my partner JJ arrives...

    He arrives a bit later than announced, due to a first flat tyre on the Pearson's Hunt road. We rented our 4x4 car, fully equipped for camping (including second diesel tank, 60 l water tank, fridge and roof tent) from Bushlore, one of the larger rental agencies in South Africa offering such cars. We chose them because of the many useful extras more to that later but the price for these extras seem to be bad tyres. But more to that later, again. Luckily Steven, one of the workers, can fix the tire, so that we've got a full set of six, albeit not perfect ones. The rear right actually seems to loose pressure...

    So JJ finally arrives. It's good to see him, and even better that this means the start of our holidays together. He gets a hug, a cold drink and a bit of leftover shepherd's pie before we leave to see the meerkats. It was a difficult decision for me which group to go to: Aztecs and Zaphod again, or else Elveera who I haven't seen yet, this time and they have the smallest pups of all groups available to us. However, last time when JJ and I were out to see them, they had their burrow behind the Heights farm's workers' houses. Meerkats foraging around rubbish, old metal and two jackals shot by the farmers. It was plain ugly. Did I want this again? JJ had walked back to our farm, last time, after the Elveera started foraging in this rubbish dump... And now the first group, for him, again there? Because this is exactly where they're staying now! And JJ makes me decide where to go... Well, the Aztecs can't get any better than the wildebeest session I had with them. So the Elveera and their smallest pups win (even though they wouldn't be the smallest pups we saw during our journey...).

    And it's the right decision: Christèle, Loretta, JJ and I find them in the dry riverbed just behind the workers' houses. But either they removed their rubbish, or it was no longer visible due to the now green drie doring bushes camouflaging it.

    They are on guard in a pile of dead wood, seemingly welcoming us, but spread out to forage again soon. Sisulu forages in the wood pile, involving a lot of awkward climbing but the bugs in there seem rewarding enough. The pups, born February 7th, are still tiny indeed... And loud! It's just three of them, but their begging calls are incessant and intense. The helpers are diligent we observe several pup feeds. One pup receives a huge live scorpion, sting bitten off by the helper, and successfully tackles it; it does take some time though to sort out all its legs and get them in the mouth. Most likely not to the pleasure of the scorpion, who goes through this exercise alive.

    I finally see Jo Jo Hello, the dominant female. She definitely looks older now than two years ago. She starts developing the same strong temporal lobes as her mother Eleusine had. I remember I thought Eleusine was a male, since this facial feature is usually a sign of elder males. But here it is again, in her daughter... Other than that, she's pregnant, of course who isn't?

    There are frequent and extensive sentinel sessions; Nathalie and Tutu, both barely adult, show stamina and guard for what must be the quarter of an hour. Age or experience don't seem to be the determining factors for sentinel duty, according to them. Tim and Marta would very much like to do more research on hormones and behaviour, again, as guarding, helping, babysitting and other communal duties are probably determined by hormonal status. It would be highly interesting to better understand the impact of hormones on cooperative behaviour but also the impact on behaviour on hormones, e.g. the impact of eviction on hormone levels of evicted females.

    Frequency and intensity of guarding increases and finally we see why: one of the workers' dogs is strolling around the houses, some 200 m away. The Elveera are curious, but not freaking; I call it the head-bobbing behaviour. First saw this two years ago with Lazuli, when they alarmed at a tawny eagle in the far distance, too far to be a threat, but still highly interesting. The same here: The meerkats go on guard, or even raised guard (why do they all want to be on the same small drie doring bush???), and stay there, occasionally bobbing their heads down, but always intently watching. It looks funny, as if their curiosity battled with their fear of predators. They definitely don't retreat though, so curiosity wins. It would be different, I guess, if the dog was just 50 m away...

    The meerkats show no inclination to return to their sleeping burrow, even though the sun sets. When they finally do, the pups and juvies still have some play-fighting to catch up with. Jo Jo Hello and dominant male Teabag groom each other intensely. This seems something to do with their shared task of dominance, as I feel that dominant couples groom amongst themselves more frequently. Dusk is approaching fast when they start going down their sleeping burrow.

    Back at the farm, Nate tells me about the group he observes most these days, the Sequoia. He loves them; their pups are very playful, and very obliging at the scales. They did experience a group split, a few weeks ago, and the splinter led by Finn and Sid Vicious didn't reunite with the one led by Benzedrine and Bruce. The former are now termed Sequoia 2, for the time being. The researchers want to keep track of them, on one hand because they're well habituated, and on the other hand because Sid Vicious is very interesting to them for Life History reasons, since it's the third known group he's in, and he's been an active rover in the past months.

    Rob and Kate join us for dinner, fabulous lasagna prepared by Monica thanks a lot for stepping in while Tina has a day off! We have the first of my chocolate amarula cakes for desert, since it's the last day the Friends are here. The Friends also brought wonderful presents: an amber pendant, a quilt pillow featuring my beloved Makonkie, a warm and a light t-shirt (perfect for the hot Kalahari days and the cool Kalahari mornings!) thanks a lot!!!!! Monica brought me a birthday present, but it had been stolen in Johannesburg Airport, since she was forced to check it in the cardboard box arrived, but with a couple of cheap plastic figures instead of the silver ornament. What a pity, I feel so sad for her (and me, of course). JJ mentions two days later, after reading an article in Getaway magazine, that JNB is the airport with the highest number of luggage muggings, worldwide. Do NEVER EVER put any valuables into your luggage when flying out of JNB!!! Still thank you very much to all you brought, Friends material and immaterial!

    Looking back on the week with the Friends, I enjoyed my time with each of them very much! The Friends and Rob agree that it was a great visit, and Tim shares this view so plans are to have another visit in a year from now, unless we get a slot in October 2009... It's time for a long goodbye, as the goodbye in the morning of 24th will be a sleepy and short one, most probably. Thank you, David, Jane, Loretta, Monica and Suzette, for making this such a wonderful stay!!!!!


    I am again up at 5:30, to say goodbye to the Friends, but also to go out to my second-last meerkat visit. Apart from that, it's my birthday... The Friends and Melissa have to leave for Upington early so that she can get back the same day, without driving at night. I hope they have a pleasant day in Upington!

    JJ and I arrive at the farmhouse, and Rob is the first over there to wish me a happy birthday. And without further comment, he hands me his present. It's the Moomins marks sheet???!!! Hey, I'm off to see the Moomins, together with Rob and JJ!!!!!!! What a birthday surprise!!!

    The Moomins experienced turbulent times in 2007. Their long-term dominant male, Burgan, was predated in July, and Grumpy (the dominant female) had her sons as dominant males. In October, a group split left the Moomins with only six adult females: all younger meerkats, including famous Fluffernutter, moved away from the monitored area and could no longer be followed. The remaining Moomins, still led by Grumpy (a.k.a. Pig no volunteer calls her by her real name...) where briefly joined by Hoax rovers who where then ousted by three completely wild males. These males, Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo, have proven pretty difficult to habituate, and this is the reason the Moomins have not been visited by more than one person, for a full session, in a long time. So you may understand that this indeed is a very special birthday present!

    We find their burrow in their old territory, in what is called the Moomins triangle, in the dunes. They're bordering Baobab, and Michelangelo is currently away roving there. Pig is the first to rise, at 7:10 am, and she remains by herself for a while. She's pregnant, and very relaxed; she's got a little wound on her jaw, nothing bad, it seems but it gives her a weird smile. Eventually the rest of the group emerges. The two males are definitely more cautious than the females and young, looking at us from a bit of a distance. Rob starts weighing all of them, including the two males. Donatello has quite a lump on his chin, with an open sore. Rob believes though, fortunately, that it is not TB, but the reminder of the recent dominance battle Donatello and Leonardo had. They swapped dominance again, Donatello now being subordinate. The three males seem fairly equal in strength, and possibly their aptitude for dominance, so even after more than a year, male dominance isn't yet settled.

    Female dominance is clear, as Pig has had this position almost since 2003. She's had her 9th birthday, two months ago. She's the mother of all four subordinate females, but all younger meerkats are the offspring of Frida, the youngest of the subordinate females. Pig is pregnant on a regular basis, but it seems that she's less prolific. Rob is not sure what the reason is; maybe it's just pure bad luck (or the way of the Kalahari), as the pups of her last two successful litters were assumed predated within two months. Other than that, it may partly be that she doesn't complete the full pregnancy term, and partly it's her daughters, usually pregnant themselves, who kill her litters. Pig's dominance is not challenged by her daughters, for now, but it may be that she is no longer capable of keeping evicted pregnant females at bay after she has given birth.

    The subordinate females are actually fairly old, for subordinates. Hemulen, with five years the oldest, is a huge female; she looks very strong and pretty. The other three subordinates are four years old. It is quite exceptional that subordinate females live to this age in their natal group; they usually perish at around three years of age, during evictions, unless they form new groups. Dominance is your ticket to old age, as a meerkat. It is one of the big riddles how dominance, and maybe cooperative behaviour, relate to this old age. The answer to it may lay hidden in the project's enormous database it just needs someone to find the right track to that needle in the haystack...

    The juvies and pups are playful as ever, the chase over and under Robs legs is on, while he should focus on weighing them. A bit later even the two shy males sometimes join in. Grumpy is groomed by many of the group. Around 7:40, they start foraging, Grumpy leading them out to the veld. We wait until the males are on their way, still very careful about not scaring them off. They seem pretty okay though they won't come up to us like the females and young, but they also don't run away, not even try to lead the group away from us, as it seems. So this first test is successful! We follow behind the main host of meerkats, and usually the two males remain somewhere to our side, Leonardo's easy-to-see Left Rib mark often to my right. The group is spread out over the area of about 50 m, and Pig constantly issues lead calls to keep them together in the high grass. Rob decides to return to the farm, as he didn't plan to collect data other than the weights, today. We may still walk on with the group.

    After the first 30 minutes, they go on guard more frequently once alarming at a small herd of springbok that rush by. Donatello, as well as the 2nd youngest female Regopstaan, are the most active sentinels. The terrain is fairly open, with not many tall trees. After another half hour of foraging, they suddenly rush to a small dune covered in drie doring bushes, with most of them on guard. They alarm at a black-breasted snake eagle he could easily get a pup... However, the group remains at the bolthole on that dune.

    The pups and juvies start to play-fight, while the adults flatten out on the sand. Even the two males relax around us, though they don't scurry around our feet as the others do. We have fun watching the little ones play-fight. The subordinate females join in but eventually it becomes clear that they don't actually play-fight with the young, but rather fight with each other. They're in a mild version of dominance fight! Hemulen, Misable and Frida are most active, while Regopstaan is still busier with guarding, most of the time though she has a little fight with Misable, too. However, no one actually dares to challenge Pig, not even regal Hemulen. I remember Rob's words that a female like her would deserve to lead her own group, and that it has been her, lately, who did most of the evicting... I wonder whether they are setting the stage for a time after Grumpy? Or is it maybe that Grumpy more and more assumes the position of a queen mother, with Hemulen being in charge of the day-to-day business?

    Analysing the videos I took shows a nice sequence: First Misable and Frida fight, wrestling, chinning, chattering little Whitson tries to join their play, but they ignore him, having serious business with each other. In the next sequence Hemulen rushes in and chins everyone so shes dominant over the two younger females. And in the next sequence Hemulen submits to Pig

    I wonder how things will progress with my dear Pig and her Moomins. It was great to see her, and them even though I guess that the males will need a little more time until the males are relaxed with Earthwatchers doing focals, or film crews getting footage But it was one of my most special birthday presents!

    We leave them soon after and walk back to Big Dune, and on to the farm a one-hour walk (even though the distance is longer than the Nature walk we did on Sunday). We have a lazy afternoon, and are back at the farmhouse at 4:30 pm, to get the current database files and photos for the website.

    A bit later we head out to the Lazuli, together with Gini, a Norwegian MSc student. We start at their sleeping burrow next to the road, on Elveera flats, but their radio signal is a bit ambiguous. However, we find them after approx. 400 m, despite the high grass, due to the pups' begging calls. Rufus lives up to all expectations: he runs to JJ and climbs his hat within less than a minute after our encounter! Good guy, it's the first time JJ has a meerkat on his head, and he's amazed by Rufus' weight, and his sometimes faltering sense of balance.

    The pups continue foraging, but the adults seem pretty alert. They climb a single dead log eventually three of them are on guard, a great sight. And suddenly the rest of them sprint to a bolthole and look West. No clue what they see, as we see neither a raptor nor a predator nor another meerkat. But maybe they just can't see above the tall sour grass in front of their noses... However, I'm incorporated in their guard duty, with first Axel and then also Rufus climbing my head and shoulder. It's not easy to concentrate on GPS position marking with two meerkats on you. Axel prefers JJ's hat though, and walks over to him. And this is where the two of them stay for the next ten minutes. The Lazuli, Gini and I are long gone by the time Axel decides to get down the direct way via JJ's nose... After a short sprint he has caught up with his family, but it takes JJ a bit longer.

    The Lazuli don't show any inclination to return to their burrow yet. We observe several pup feeds, more raised guard (still no clue what catches their attention), and lots of very spread out foraging. Gini should do pup focals (take note of what each of the five pups is doing at intervals of 10 minutes), but despite their built-in location signal (the begging calls) they're difficult to even find in the tall grass, let alone see what they are doing, and who's in their vicinity!

    Eventually they start foraging in lower grass, but by the time the sun sets, Wollow is the only Lazuli sitting next to their sleeping burrow. And he remains alone for some more time. The other meerkats start coming home one by one, but still can't make up their minds and sometimes leave again for one more beetle or scorpion. Rufus bids a farewell to me, by climbing on my shoulder and rubbing his fur (NOT his scent mark gland!) against my cheek. It is almost dark by the time the last meerkat disappears in the burrow. It's Tailbase. But not Tailbase Prieska, the experienced yearling, but Tailbase SammyJo, the cheeky pup.

    We return to the farm, and we go over to Tim's house, since he and Dafila have returned from their two-days trip to Kgalagadi Park. They haven't seen meerkats there they always check for their old groups, even after they stopped research at the park, in 1998. Yet they've seen fairly large herds of springbok something I'm looking forward to, since we'll be in the Kgalagadi too, soon. Tim was lucky to see a honey badger. No predators though. But another surprise: Dafila and Tim present me with an exceptional painting by Dafila, of three Pied Babblers foraging in the shade!!! WWWOOOOWWW!!!!! I can hardly give words to my joy about this birthday present! We probably can't fit the frame into our luggage, but it will get a special place at home...

    The four of us have dinner back at the farmhouse, and this is the time Melissa and Valentino come back from their Upington trip. They had to run several shopping errands, including the shopping for each volunteer. Each volunteer writes them a shopping list and adds the money, and the staff at Pick'n'Pay in Upington will prepare a bag for each person according to his or her list, with the change. It feels like Christmas, with anyone unwrapping their goodies... All of us have my birthday cake a bit later. I should do a little speech, but in a way it doesn't yet feel like a goodbye, so I'll leave it with a thank you and enjoy your cake...


    It is time for goodbye now. And it has to be very early in the morning, obviously, since the volunteers and students have to go out to the field. So we're over at the farm at 6:15 to shake hands... I hope to see some of them again at a next visit; chances are always good, with volunteers occasionally returning as PhD students. Rob's term will probably be over whenever I visit again; Megan and Christèle however will have ample time to take over from him until he leaves in June.

    On the way back to Gannavlakte, JJ helps change the first tyre of the day: it's not on our car though, but Kate's. Back at Gannavlakte, we pack our stuff and get ready to leave. We finally find time for a hello and goodbye to Linda Hollén; she's been a PhD student in the Zurich team, and is now living in Bristol, with her partner Andy (a babbler researcher), and their little son Tomas. It's great to finally meet the three of them they'll head out to meet the Kung Fu today. Kleintjie was one of Linda's main focal animals when she was a pup, so Linda very much looks forward to seeing her again, even though her work is more related to birds now. Tomas will get a chance to observe meerkats for the first time, albeit under heavy supervision, since no one knows how both parties react to this encounter. The babblers seem to be fine with kids, as Kito, Mandy Ridley's boy, occasionally goes out with his mother to visit them. I'm curious what Linda will tell about Tomas and Kleintjie and her crew.

    The last goodbye is to Irene and Melissa I very much liked staying with Melissa as our host, and think she did a very good job, with a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge. Wish you a great stay, Melissa, and good luck and a good time with the Earthwatchers, and maybe with another Friends visit!!!

    It's now the start of the second part of our trip, JJ and I alone. Less meerkats (not none though, so meerkat lovers, read on!), more antelope, and definitely more big cats, hyenas, jackals and raptors!!!! We'll be staying in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP): first five nights in the Eastern Mabuasehube section (located in Botswana, reservation email: dwnp (at) gov.bw) with its remote campsites at large salt pans, and game that is less accustomed to cars but with the bonus that once you see animals, they're yours to enjoy, alone... After that we'll head west, to the South African section of the park. We'll stay in two Wilderness Camps in the Auob riverbed, and finally end up with two nights in a new, Bushmen-owned lodge at the Southwestern border of the park.

    We leave Gannavlakte to the East, but turn on a small dirt road towards the tiny border post of Middleputz after a few km. Crossing the border is easy and the staff is very courteous, but it still takes 45 minutes for both border posts.

    The road following the Molopo River is okay for most of the drive until the town of Tshabong, though erosion due to overgrazing seems to have increased, even after the recent good rains. There's quite some road construction going on, and the way into Tshabong is hard to find, but eventually we find the bank (open until 15:30 on weekdays, and nicely air-conditioned) and the petrol station (diesel: 5.49 pula per litre). With a car full of provisions for our trip, we don't need to hunt for beer again, like last time... So after a brief stop, we embark on the 110 km road to Mabuasehube. After 45 km on the fairly good gravel road, the car starts doing funny noises. Another flat tyre a gaping tear in the side of it. This must have been the result on driving for 100 or so metres with the flat tire, but it was definitely not the reason for its deflation. No wonder, its profile is so low that is must have done a fair amount of distance; it's beyond repair. At least the jack works fine. But this is so annoying at 1:30 pm and with still 100 km to go!!! JJ changes it to the even worse spare tire. And the rear right one also seems to continue loosing pressure, if only so slightly. Now down to five less-than-optimal tyres, and with some 1000 km of sand and camelthorns ahead, we decide to return to Tshabong.

    We find a tyre shop pretty quickly, Rupee Botswana Ltd. Kgalagadi Auto Spares just at the entrance back to Tshabong. They can sell us the right type of tyre, for the price of 1500 pula (approx. 200 $), which is an okay price compared to what we'd pay at home. It still stings though, to have to pay for a replacement for the crappy tyres provided by the rental agency. They can't mount it though since their machinery is broken, but direct us to another shop, Webb's Motors Ltd. who put it on, and also fix the rear left tyre which, submersed in water, sends up a thin line of bubbles. A tiny hole, but not the thing to start a journey through the Kgalagadi with. It's again in the side of the tyre... The mechanic still can plug it, and it will hold tight for the remainder of our trip.

    We embark on the trip to Mabuasehube for the second time, having lost more than two hours. Damn, I would have liked to arrive in Mabuasehube in time for a nice sundowner!!!!

    The mechanic tells us that the road construction towards Mabua has progressed further in the past years. His measure is probably different than ours, since to our knowledge they've only extended the gravel road for about 2 km since our trip in September 2007. So this means 60 km of very deep sand until we reach the gate, and then some 30 km more in the park and it's 4:15 pm now. JJ deflates the tyres to approx. 1.6 bars to increase traction on the sand. The first part after the gravel road ends is the worst, the trenches created by meandering trucks are sometimes knee-deep, and the sand is really soft. JJ engages 4WD for the first stretch, but the road eventually gets much better, after a kilometre or two. We soon reach the border of the park, designated only by a sign, but no fence the road is actually the border. We also encounter the occasional steenbok or gemsbok.

    The park warden at Mabua gate is very kind and helpful; we settle bureaucracy in 5 minutes, and are off to the park. The first animals we encounter are meerkats. After spending a week with them, my subconscious must be trained enough to react with a reflex-like Meerkats! shout within moments, to low shapes with tails raised, scurrying over the track. And so it is, but these guys, far from being habituated, run for the distance of approx. 100 m before they pause, go on guard, and watch us.

    Other than that we see springbok, but not much else until we reach the Mabuasehube pan that gave this park section its name. Strangely enough, all campsites seem occupied, and there is none with the name KTMAP03, as written on our reservation/permit. Well, we settle on something that must be KTMAP02, next to a bunch of South Africans with their entire household on wheels. KTMAP01 is definitely the one campsite to choose, as it has the best view. KTMAP04 is also okay (it's the one we had last time), but 02 and 03 are just too close to each other. It doesn't matter too much though because it is dark anyway. We unpack, get our roof tent ready, and have a first braai. Kalahari, here we come!


    I get up at 6:15 am while it is still pretty dark, but the pan is already busy with a grumpy gemsbok and loads of springbok. In the distance I can see a big herd of little dots, springbok grazing, approx. 80 animals. And there's a single wildebeest. It is cool, but not cold. The sun rises and taints the sour grass red. A pack of four jackals visits, less than 20 m away from me, while they scavenge for food around the campsite. Gradually the other campsites come alive, and JJ gets up. And with him the resident ground squirrels. They are very interested in our breakfast, and try to climb JJ whenever they can to get to his bread. There's a resident francolin, and a swarm of little red-heads (red-headed finches?) drinking from the shower. No resident yellow mongoose here. We leave around 9:30, towards our next campsite, at Lesholoago. On the way we start to explore tracks on the road, because Bushlore provided a guidebook on Tracks and Traces of local wildlife. The largest paw prints we find clearly show claws, and we identify them as a hyena's.

    Lesholoago is approx. 10 km away, and has only two campsites, one at each side. We booked KTLES02, the eastern one, which also has a shower. On the way there we meet our neighbours who tell us about the huge male lion they just saw near our water tank. We only find his tracks, later on our campsite. Just as we arrive, a kori bustard flies off. There are more kori, several secretary birds, again a single wildebeest, and two springbok.

    We spend the hottest part of the day in the shade of the large camelthorn, with a ground squirrel buggering us for food. Again it is the largest female who is most daring. I must admit I don't know a lot about their social structure. We decide to call her Aisha, after our cat who is as incessant in begging for food as her. Suddenly, the other squirrels give a wheezing, then a gurgling call, and Aisha hides with them in their burrow under the campsite's shade. We just experienced a ground squirrel predator alarm, because we now see a lappet-faced vulture and two eagles circling over the pan. They land at the waterhole that is about 100 m away from the campsite, but due to the high grass it takes us a while until we can identify them as bateleur eagles, courtesy to the bird book provided by Bushlore as part of our car gear. Wonderful beasts! Their heads are a bit too large for their body size, but their colours are striking, black, maroon, grey and fire red claws and beaks. A third one joins them, a juvenile. It seems to be their territory, as they return after flying off for a while. Secretary birds also circle; an impressive sight too, and a bit more elegant than the kori. We also see ostriches in the pan, but other than that it remains quiet.

    Around 3 pm we leave for a sunset drive, passing a tawny eagle at our waterhole, to several pans in the far northwest of the Mabuasehube section. Their names are Mokgalo, Malatso, and the tongue-twisting Mogobewathihangwe. They are smaller, but greener than the pans to the South and East. We see several gemsbok, and as always disturb the odd korhaan male who then circles his territory, uttering a hideous call. There are no campsites at these pans; the next campsite is at Khiding pan, a 43 km round course from Mabuasehube pan. Khiding pan is more spectacular: green as the Northern pans, but with much more game: wildebeest, ostriches, springbok, plenty of gemsbok, and a group of 11 red haartebeest. They are marvelous creatures, and I've never seen a group as large as this. They slowly move away from the plain, until they disappear in the bush. At Mabuasehube pan, we only see two jackals in the pan, no one else, also no people as it seems. But the sunset atmosphere is great. On the way to our own campsite we almost run into a flock of guinea fowls the only ones on the entire trip! Near the pan we also encounter two steenbok. They mate for life, and when you see one, the other is usually not far. This time it is exceptional since they don't bounce away at the first sight of a vehicle. Later we see two jackals from very close up. Are they also less timid? We enjoy our gin and tonics from our campsite, observing the resident wildebeest and springbok, one male each, with a concerto of barking geckos.


    27 Lesholoago to Mpayathutlwa


    I get up at dawn, in time to observe a standoff between the resident wildebeest male and a single red haartebeest that obviously wishes to enter the pan. It seems to me that each pan is owned by a single cranky wildebeest, and he doesn't like company other than his one or two springbok companions. The haartebeest retreats, wallows in the dust, and leaves. On a tree nearby perches a Lanner falcon, still busy with his morning toilette.

    Finally Franky, the local red-billed francolin, is also awake. They are not very reliable, but very effective alarm clocks, so JJ gets up soon. During breakfast, in the still balmy morning light, we see a brown hyena trot to the water hole, have a drink, and retreat to the bush at the edge of the pan. I've never seen a brown hyena up so late, and it feels very peaceful to observe here especially after the ruckus of Franky before. Ravens and five yellow-billed hornbills soon join us. The latter are in a belligerent mood, but they at least don't beg.

    We take the longer way to our next campsite, via Monamodi pans. On the way we see steenbok, ostrich, a kori bustard nearby, and a herd of springbok in one of the Monamodi pans. Our destination for the day is Mpayathutlwa pan (no, I still can't pronounce it, but at least I remember it). We saw masses of vultures when we were here in 2007, but now it's only a single lappet-faced vulture, and he soon takes off. A group of springbok is packed in the shade of a camelthorn, and a few ostriches and gemsbok graze in the pan. Other than that, this large pan seems deserted. We spend the midday in the shade of our campsite, KTMPA01, again with a shower. Unfortunately the solar shower provided by Bushlore leaks, so no warm shower. Doesn't really matter, with the temperature around 35C.

    Around 4 pm we leave for a short drive to Khiding pan, since it was so beautiful yesterday. As usual the way through the dunes, between the pans, is rather empty, game-wise; we only see a jackal just as we leave, and the occasional steenbok and kori bustard. The pan though is again busy: A herd of wildebeest gathers under the single tree next to the circular road, so we eventually have to shoo them away so that we can finally proceed, which is not at all appreciated. They don't move far though, and we get time to observe a mother suckling her calf. Apart from the wildebeest, there are plenty of gemsbok, springbok and a few ostriches grazing in the pan. No haartebeest though. Back at the campsite, the jackal again crosses our way he must have searched our campsite while we were away.

    Back to our pan, we see that a large herd of springbok is grazing on the slopes leading up to the pan, and jackals are circling. The water hole is empty though. The last time we were here there were lions around, even if we didn't see them. Our campsite hosts a few raven, and another couple of Frankies. One of them perfectly poses against the setting sun, on the shower pole. Splendid pose. Our braai is already well in the making when we're also visited by two scrub hares. Much less timid than when approached by a vehicle, they hop around our campsite, but eventually leave.


    28 Mpayathutlwa to Bosobogolo


    JJ wakes me up around 4 am. There are lions roaring in the distance. It is always hard to tell how far away they are their calls can carry up to 5-8 km, depending on weather and landscape conditions. We fall back to sleep. When my alarm clock goes off at 6:15, I can only see a few springbok dots scattered on the pan. I wander around the campsite for a bit, considering returning to the warmth of the tent, and have another look through the binoculars. I can make out a number of small moving brown spots, in the middle of the pan, but it takes a few minutes until it is light enough before I'm sure that they're lions at a kill!!!! It's hard to count them at low light. There's a darker spot a bit away looks like a vulture, but isn't it too early for vultures? Anyway, JJ has to get out of bed; lions are definitely a good reason. We quickly start to pack up our gear, and fold the roof tent so that we can follow them in case they start moving that's the downside of how we travel, you always have to pack up everything before you can leave.

    Just at sunrise they start moving away from the site, and there comes motion in the black spot: it's the lion pride's patriarch, with his signature black male of a Kalahari lion! The male chases off a pack of jackals, and then starts trotting away in the direction of the water hole, crossing the pan in front of us. There are many more lionesses, and cubs, but it's still not light enough to find out who is who. However, they definitely move in our direction... Packing our gear gets a new dimension: we wouldn't want to be having our breakfast when a pride of lions walks through our camp! The springbok that had used this safer side of the pan to graze start moving away.

    The lions come nearer, and we finally count three lionesses and seven cubs of various sizes. The lionesses follow a pretty straight path towards our camp, but the young are chasing each other around. One after the other they disappear in the denser vegetation of the pan's border barely 300 m from us! Everything packed, we hop into the car and slowly drive towards the second campsite, as we guess that this is the direction they're heading. We can't see them though, and return. Only to see the last tip of a lion's tail disappear down the road, next to our campsite. Based on their tracks, they walked straight through the campsite to our shower, but found no water there, so decided to head down the road to the water hole.

    It's a procession of 10 lions of varying ages, down the road. We follow them in due distance, but they're not the least bothered by us. One female usually leads the group, one brings up the rear, and the third, looking older, wanders ahead and left of us, in the grass. And a melée of young lions in between. Three of them seem younger than the others, but it's hard to tell. Their bellies are bulging; you can see them wobble from one side to the other and back while the animals walk. We couldn't see what it was that they killed at night, but it must have been a large animal, feeding the male, three females and the seven young. The young are curious, but their mothers make sure that they don't approach us. There are times when some of them just lay on the road, only to resume their walk after a few minutes. The oldest-looking female seems a bit strained when getting up; her left fore and hind legs have wounds, and she limps only so slightly. Maybe she was the one to make the kill, and was wounded?

    They at last take a shortcut to the water hole, and soon all of them are lapping water. The backs of the lionesses are often arched, with their hind legs up. The cubs just lay flat to drink. They don't like to drink on their own, there's a constant scurrying to get as near as possible to one of the lionesses. It doesn't look though as if they chose one specific lioness, indicating which cubs belong to which mother.

    They keep scanning us, and the surroundings, and after about ten minutes, they start walking towards and past us, uphill. The first lioness almost brushes our car with her fur; JJ could easily scratch her back. He doesn't, however. The young also venture closer to our vehicle. Some of the lions use the road, while others wander through the high grass. Only the lioness is visible, and only the irregular motion of the grass blades indicates the cubs' positions. Turning our car at the deserted water station, we watch them go. Suddenly JJ mentions that there's someone standing on the road. At first glimpse he believes it's a human, but it is the male lion, standing tall like Lion King! Checking the photos afterwards, he must have been resting on the road for a while, one that leg of the road triangle where didn't drive to get to the water hole. He is simply enormously huge, and has a wonderful furry black mane.

    The females and young don't actually head in his direction, but rather steer to his right, into the hills. We slowly drive up the road. The male comes closer as if to greet us, and lays down, to extensively lick his mane, paws and clean his face, like our kitties. His mane is black only in the throat and neck region, and there is a stripe of dark mane on the top of his head. Around the eyes and in his whiskers region it is blonde, as in non-Kalahari lions. A yawn reveals his canines. Impressive. But he still lets the ladies hunt... After a while he raises, and slowly trots away, the last of his pride to disappear in the bush. Meanwhile, the jackals have their feast at the kill.

    Almost two hours have passed since I first spotted the lions at the site of their kill in the middle of the pan. No other cars, no other humans contended with us to get the best position to view the pride. The privilege of being in Mabuasehube, at the end of the world. It was a privilege indeed, to spend time with this pride. As a non-native English speaker, I wonder if the word pride, as for a group of lions, has its root in the emotion of pride, of being proud...

    Back at our campsite, we finally have breakfast. I explore the spoor the lions left the large paw prints of the mothers are up to 15 cm in diameter, whereas the cubs' are only about 7-10 cm.

    Animal life in the pan visibly relaxes, with the lions gone. As if a pride of lions before breakfast was not enough, we see haartebeest grazing. And suddenly a brown hyena jogs into the picture, and makes her way to the waterhole. Shortly before 9 am, in broad daylight. She probably had her share of the kill, and now goes to quench her thirst, leaving it to the jackals. We must have missed her while watching the lions. A brown hyena by itself would be an amazing sight, but even more so after the lions...

    Around 10 am we leave the campsite, and drive around the pan, towards South. The lion kill is now obscured by dozens of vultures. Even from our new vantage point they're too far away to let us identify all of the vultures, or the type of kill. Only later, in flight, we see that it's a majority of white-backed vultures, and a few lappet-faced. The usual setup: The lappet-faced are larger, and have the most powerful beaks, tearing open skins, tendons, and dislocating bones. The white-backed vultures, the most common, then finish off with what is left, before the hyenas come again to crack open the bones with their strong jaws, to get the marrow.

    We arrive at the southernmost pan, Bosobogolo pan, just after noon, and install ourselves. There's a small group of springbok males. The view from our campsite, KTBOS01, to the nearer surroundings is mostly obscured by shrubs, but occasionally one of the springbok passes through the opening where the camp access road leads down to the circular road first timidly, but then more relaxed. They don't leave the shade of their favourite tree for long, in the midday heat, even when I walk down the road, within approx. 50 m of them. Other than that, there's a group of ground squirrels, but they are not as daring as their conspecifics in the Northern pans. I still prepare a bird water station, with one of the bowls, but none are interested.

    I stroll around the campsite to see what traces are in the sand. No big cats, but I can find the telltale conical holes meerkats make when probing the sand for prey near the surface. There are quite fresh deep holes too, so there must have been meerkats in the area, recently. We also see a few birds, but even they are quiet in the midday heat.

    We leave for a drive around the pan around 4 pm. In the distance I can see two large herbivores, and only when we come nearer we see they're female kudus. They're the first we see on this trip. There seems to be some water left in a knee-deep trench, which probably drew them to the open pan. They were much more abundant during our September 2007 visit maybe they don't want to leave the cover of the bushes as long as there is good grazing everywhere?

    We also visit the second campsite, unoccupied. It has what must be termed a commanding view of the pan, over a slope of grass with barely any shrubs. It is further away from the pan though. On the way on we catch a glimpse of meerkats running on the road, but they immediately disappear in the high grass. Their tolerance of vehicles is much lower than of the meerkats at the farm, fortunately.

    Back at the campsite, we start getting ready for the sundowner. Suddenly JJ calls me over, excited: there is a meerkat sunning on the squirrel burrow just below the campsite! This is approx. 20 m from where we stand, and he doesn't dash away! It must be an older male, guessing from his face and the lowered position of his family jewels. Soon he is joined by what must be the dominant female, who is clearly pregnant but still has suckle marks. Eventually we identify 6 adults (with another pregnant female) or subadults, 3 juveniles and JJ even discovers 5 tiny tiny pups partly hidden by foliage! They are smaller than even the Elveera pups we saw, so I guess they've only emerged from their birth burrow a few days earlier. Maybe they were being babysat the whole day, but the babysitter was careful enough to not let them run around amongst us? They are still very inquisitive and playful, sweet critters. The juveniles seem the most interested in us though, as they keep doing the head-bobbing exercise I got to know from the farm's meerkats, indicating curiosity about something far enough to not be considered dangerous. Or do they just envy our gins and tonics, or nuts and raisins? The adults also cast glances in our direction, but go on with their own sundowner routines, even as we move a bit closer, to approx. 10 m from the nearest meerkat. The meerkats sun themselves, groom and rest for an hour and twenty minutes, before the dominant female is the last one down. I name her Tina Sparkle, in memory of a KMP meerkat, the last one of the Hoax group, who was last seen moving fast towards the Botswana border in December 2007, probably in the company of wild animals. I name "Tina Sparkle's" group here the Bosobogolo group, after the site.

    What a day: a pride of 11 lions, a brown hyena in broad daylight, vultures at a kill, and last but not least a wild but fairly habituated meerkat group with mini pups for sundowner...

    It's not the last we see though. We have only just extinguished the light and crawled into the tent when JJ hears a shuffling, scratching noise, followed by someone drinking water at the bird station. We open the zipper and use our weak head torches. The green eye reflections are not difficult to identify. It's two spotted hyenas looking for leftovers! The one investigating the remainder of our fire is barely 5 m away from us. He or she looks up to us briefly, but then again sniffs the still hot embers. Nothing edible available though... After five minutes they leave. Later at night, JJ hears them again, behind our tent, where his hammock is. Havoc with hammock.



    The hammock is punctured, the next morning, but still fully usable. The water bowl is missing, but I find it a few steps away in the bushes. It bears teeth marks. There are hyena tracks all over the camp; don't know how many paid a visit.

    The pan looks deserted at first sight, but with the binoculars I spot four moving dots at the far end of the pan. Only the maximum digital focus of the camera reveals brown creatures with a lower back. Spotted or brown hyenas, two adults with two young. They are moving. Based on what I know about their biology, brown hyenas are mostly solitary. Mothers bring their cubs to a communal den where they are hiding together, provided with food by the entire social group. They're only supposed to meet at those dens, or at lion kills, which make up a large part of their diet. Other than that, they communicate with sounds, and above all with scent-markings. Spotted hyenas rather live in well-organised hierarchical groups, so maybe they're the ones who visited us at night. Well, one never knows what a hyena is up to anyway.

    We get our breakfast ready in order for the Bosobogolo Meerkat Sunrise Breakfast Show. The first head pops up at 6:39 it's the guy I think is the dominant male. Tina Sparkle follows soon, sunning her round tummy. Shes got a scar between her left eye and mouth easy to recognise her. The other adults get up and sun themselves too; they're not in close enough range for us to hear their sunning calls. There are no begging calls either, until 7:08 when the five pups emerge. They tumble around, stretch, yawn, and start a half-hearted, and very uncoordinated, play-fight. It's then time for their breakfast, and the five of them constantly fight for the best position at mommy's belly. Irrespective of whether it is on the head of a littermate... After more than half an hour, they detach themselves, venturing out around the burrow. Meanwhile, we have our own breakfast. Truly a Meerkat Sunrise Breakfast Show. Not even the KMP has this on offer :-)

    Around 7:40, the first adults seem to start foraging. They intend to cross the access road to the campsite, but only Tina Sparkle is daring enough, and she comes within 5 m of me, showing off her belly. Not sure if the others are sure enough about us. They're comfortable with us standing there, about 15 m away, but they stop or dash as soon as we are walking. It's like with the habituation of KMP meerkats: It is comparably easy to habituate wild meerkats to the level that they're comfortable with observers while at the burrow, but they don't tolerate being followed. I wonder whether the pups will forage with the group, or if they will stay at the burrow, with a babysitter.

    They forage and play around the burrow while I do dishes, the pups chasing each other from one burrow entrance to another. Sometimes they flatten out on the sand, in sunny patches their siesta pose, but maybe it is rather to get some warmth from the sand. Over time, they retreat a bit, but are still visible foraging and sunning between the blackthorn bushes. We're leaving around 9:00, and they're still there I wonder if they don't go much further or if it just is because of us. We'll never know, but I hope Tina Sparkle's Bosobogolo group, and the five pups, make it.

    We leave Bosobogolo to the West, towards Matopi. The 160 km to the South African Nossob valley could be driven in a day, but the Botswana park authorities insist that tourists spend one night in between, in one of the two Matopi campsites - no problem with me, it would be a bad idea to rush. On the way we meet three cars. The last of them holds four young people, and only after a while we find out that they're Swiss, and South Africans living in Switzerland. They intend to spend two days in Mabuasehube, but return via the Wilderness Trail connecting Mabua and Nossob on a more northern route. In theory, it requires two vehicles for that route, but according to the staff at Two Rivers, it doesn't matter too much as long as the general weather conditions are okay. I hope to hear back from them some time, how it was...

    Like last time, the drive to Matopi KTMOT01 is eventless, but through spectacular bushveld. We encounter a few kori, steenbok and gemsbok, before we reach the large Shepherd's tree with the Camping Site sign. There are no other facilities than this sign and shade. And there are vultures circling a kilometre or two away. They seem to fly over to us to check us out, but leave again once they see we're still moving.

    We spend a lazy afternoon at the camp, since there are no other options. We see two red-billed francolins (why the heck is the species called red-billed? Several francolins are red-billed, but only the red-billed are yellow-goggled), and after sunset a cacophony of barking geckos starts off. We see a little steenbok foraging near our camp, at dusk. And we're joined by countless huge colourful moths that drink moisture from our cucumbers and beer cans.


    30-Mar: Matopi to Urikaruus


    We both get up at six, in order to leave early. The drive from Matopi to our next destination, the Urikaruus Wilderness Camp in Auob valley, is one of the longest of our trips, with 220 km. Plus we remember there was a lot of game on that same drive, last time.

    Indeed we see a lot of game above all a group of four bat-eared foxes. Only their ears give them away, backlit in the golden morning light, in the high grass. They stay put for a few minutes before they saunter away. Bat-eared foxes are among my favourites, and the two couples are the only ones we see on the entire trip. We also observe a steenbok ewe suckling her young, and two meerkats sunning at their burrow, amongst loads of gemsbok and several ostriches.

    Soon after Matopi, the landscape gets more undulating; the countless parallel red Kalahari dunes are most prominent in the Southwest of the Kalahari. The road is sandy, but good. Once it gets warmer, the game gets scarcer, but we still stop for pictures of plants. I first discover tsama melons and gemsbok cucumbers, the staple water sources for animals, and formerly for bushmen, in the dry season. The roadsides are also dotted with yellow devil thorn and pink cattail. It looks picturesque.

    We reach the Nossob valley at 10:15, and like last time, it is quite a letdown after the drive through the dunes. We see the occasional wildebeest or springbok rest in the shade of a camelthorn, but this is it. It's too hot. We reach Nossob rest camp, where we check in for Urikaruus, our lodge for tonight. I briefly pay a visit to the hide; there are three black storks and countless little birds that are chased away by a sweeping falcon on a regular basis. A single wildebeest comes to visit. Without any other business in Nossob, we leave for the south. With us comes our permit containing a long list of fines for misbehaviour in the park. Speeding is amongst them. We quickly notice the evenly spaced Pale-Chanting Goshawks perched along the road. Our theory is that they conspire with the traffic police, to report speeding and other breaks of the rules. The rules definitely make sense though too many cars drive faster than the 50 km/h.

    The trench-like road along Nossob riverbed is not extremely appealing, and we see more traffic within the first fifteen minutes than what we have seen in five days in Mabuasehube. The dune road that brings us to the Auob riverbed, where our lodge is located, is even worse: It's a white gravel road highway cut through very sparsely forested dunes. There are water holes, and we see the occasional gemsbok, but this is it.

    Urikaruus is pleasant; four log cabins are arranged looking out to the water hole in the Auob riverbed. A group of cattle egrets sit in a tree. The tourism assistant introduces us to our unit, No. 3 (which seems to be the one with the most direct view of the water hole). It consists of a lower kitchen cabin, and a higher bedroom/bathroom cabin, all built on raised platforms. There are beds, and gas-operated boiler and fridge, and solar-operated lamps but laptop or cameras have to be re-charged at the assistant's building. Wilderness Camps are the upmarket accommodation provided by SANparks, costing roughly ten times more than a simple campsite in one of the large camps. They offer much better value though than the large camps where you're allocated your 5 by 5 m of space to pitch your tent, amongst screaming kids and unfriendly campers bringing their entire households. We're lucky that our Swiss Francs have a much higher buying power now that the Rand is so weak.

    I spend the afternoon typing, and observing the wildlife at the water hole. There isn't a lot of it. The usual cranky wildebeest, the resident springbok. A bachelor group of springboks intends to visit the water hole, but the resident starts a fight with them, and they walk on. So much for the mammals. The birds are more fun: There are plenty of Namaqua doves, spending the afternoon flying to the water hole to drink and back to the tree next to our cabin. The fun part is contributed by a couple of lanner falcons at least three of them, one a juvenile who sky-dive the doves, making them scatter with furiously excited voices, to single out a bird to hunt. Once one of the falcons hits a dove that rose not quickly enough. The impact of his talons alone makes the dove do a backstroke in the water hole. After several fruitless attempts, one of the falcons succeeds in fishing the dove from the water. I don't know if it's the hunter, as the two other falcons chase the lucky one, under load protest. Meanwhile, the doves are absolutely silent. Do they mourn their group member? With the falcons gone, the only bird chatter comes from a whydah and a red-headed finch. But the doves soon forget, and return to the water hole. So do the falcons.

    We don't feel like going on a sunset drive, having spent 6 hrs in the car. We miss a pride of lions but we don't mind too much, after our experience at Mpayathutlwa. There are no more mammals visiting the water hole before the sun sets. However, as soon as the last rays are gone, the eight white cattle egrets swoop down to the water hole. And just stand there, evenly spaced. Their reflections are visible in the water now that the wind has gone. They just stand there, like white-clad members of some secretive cult. It's maybe their interpretation of a fun evening at the pub... They return to their tree after about 20 minutes.

    The camp doesn't have a spotlight. But we have our last braai of this trip. And at night I wake up because of a predator in our room. Its a bat that didnt find the way out. Keeping the door open for her lets me realise how cold it is here.


    During breakfast, we observe a group of wildebeest coming to the water hole, and leave the Wilderness Camp. I insist on turning south, despite the fact that our destination for the day, Kalahari Tented Camp, is located Northeast, close to Mata Mata rest camp and the border to Namibia. We won't get to this part of the park again during the soft morning hours, on this trip.

    Turning south proves an excellent idea after just a few minutes. We don't drive fast, but JJ has to hit the brakes because of a lioness sitting on the road. And around her crawl her three baby cubs! They are tiny, probably a sixth of their mother's shoulder height. And they don't yet have full command of their legs, tails and other body parts, it seems. They are fun to watch while they suckle, and boisterously play their baby fights. We stay with them for a while, and only once another vehicle briefly joins us. She's not very bothered by the car driving past her and her offspring, and they remain on the road. After 10 minutes, she urges the cubs up the road's side, and within seconds she's all alone, with only the grass blades moving behind her. She retreats to the shade of a tree. What luck to see her and her babies out in the light. No one else we meet seems to have the same luck, this or the next day.

    As we pass Kamqua and the more southern water holes, we encounter larger and larger herds of springbok and wildebeest some counting 100 or more individuals. They're still grazing, the young occasionally get rid of excess energy by pronking a bit, and the alpha male usually chases one of the females trying to mount her, or bachelor males trying to chase them away. We also observe a kori bustard taking his morning dust bath, allowing us a glimpse of the mass of feathers he has on his neck. They form the most impressive display during courtship dances, according to our bird book. And theres another special thing, special to us: A vehicle covered in stickers, with Italian license plates, driven by a single lady with blonde hair. Both JJ and me recognise her as the same lady we saw in Ethiopia, five months ago, making her way up the Simien Mountains! Its too late to stop, but it would have been great to chat with her, about her experiences between Italy, Ethiopia and here!

    The Auob riverbed turns bleaker by the kilometre. We drive until the Auchterlonie museum. The museum recounts the history of the farmers in the park, at a place where a farm once stood. Before WW1, the South African Union (then British) planned to attack the Germans in Namibia (then called SWA, South West Africa), and bored several waterholes along the Auob riverbed. Farmers had to settle there, to raise cattle for the troupes. Guards from the local community who settled there with their families guarded the water holes. The troupes however used the second route via Rietfontein to assault SWA, so the farms felt in disrepair, since the land just wouldnt nourish a farmer family. The SA government thus decided to turn it to a game park, and gave the white farmers land along the Kuruman. The coloured guards often remained on site.

    The farmhouse itself, built by the Human family, seems renovated and holds a few tools, photos and explanatory tables, but there are surrounding structures that seem original: the black-smiths building, the well dug by hand, the kraal where cattle were kept at night, the well to tan leather, an outside eating place. What strikes me most though is the amount of plates indicating rules on how to behave in this place. Shouldnt it be normal that people switch off the light in a facility like that? That there may be bee activity near a water source in the semi desert? The only plate I didnt find was the one motioning males to sit down for peeing But then I was not in the mens restroom.

    The short path leading to the ruins was interesting to me since it revealed several beautiful flowers, amongst which the wonderfully delicate Yellow Mouse-Whiskers (Cleome angustifolia) with their weird spiky stems.

    We turned back North from here. Saw an ostrich family with four young. Loads of gemsbok. And finally the famed giraffes, near Borehole 14. 11 of them were getting a drink, a laborious task involving a lot of watching out for predators before a giraffe would lower his or her head. Theyre of the splayed-leg drinker kind, not the bent-knee drinker variety. But they probably still get dizzy when they raise their heads too fast.

    We havent seen giraffes in years; the desert-dwelling giraffes of Northwestern Namibia were probably the most recent, in 2005. So we (and other cars) take our time with them. Most fun are two of them, maybe a mother and her smaller calf, as they display a very affectionate neck-wrestling game. They stand parallel to each other, and their necks remember they also just have seven vertebrae in their neck spine lock in around each other, intertwine, but in a very careful and graceful manner. Definitely not the bullfight neck wrestling we had seen in Namibia. It is amazing how flexible their necks are. Mine is less flexible, Id say. They leave the water hole after about 30 minutes. We drive on, and the next thing we see is a giraffe carcass a bit further away, but next to the road. Well, a giraffe is probably the best meal to be had for a large pride of lions, around here. But I think theyre not extremely common, the giraffes

    A bit further on we see a wonderful Black-breasted Snake Eagle perched in a tree. They look somewhat like a smaller copy of a Martial Eagle, but their lack of speckles on their underside, and the bright orange eyes are clear signs. Interesting is also a procession of wildebeest and springbok, in single file each, up the riverbed. No idea why they do this. Isnt it easier for a predator to pick one?

    We reach Mata Mata just before noon, and learn that we can check in at Kalahari Tented Camp directly. Its the closest to Namibia we get though. But we couldnt immigrate there, even if we wanted, because we technically still are in Botswana, not yet having emigrated from there. Mata Mata doesnt have a South African border post, so you have your passport fixed at Twee Rivieren. We pay a short visit to the store, just to see what they offer: dry food, tinned food, drinks (soft and booze), and frozen meat, but no veggies or fruit.

    Kalahari Tented Camp is lovely, on a dune overlooking the riverbed. It has 12 units, each consisting of a sleeping/bath tent and a separate kitchen tent, both with concrete bases. We get No. 7, again with direct view to the waterhole and with Swiss next door. We havent met other nationalities than South Africans and Swiss, on this trip! The cabins are more luxurious than Urikaruus, but it definitely feels less intimate. The small plunge pool is currently out of order, since the machine to clean it doesnt work. Again no power to charge batteries; this has to be done at Mata Mata reception. The lady at the reception also offers us sunset, evening or morning drives (130 ZAR pp), or morning walks (230 ZAR pp, leaving at 6:30, 30 min before sunrise). However, when we want to register for the walk, there is none, and it needs 4 participants at least. The guide obviously comes from Mata Mata, and his indisposed.

    We settle down in our tent. A herd of wildebeest appears on stage, in the riverbed below, in single file. They suddenly stop, confronted with another line of wildebeest approaching from the other side. They overcome their fear and meet each other quite amicably. No stress. Once theyve had their drinks, they graze a bit. I suddenly see a commotion, and laugh out loud when I see the reason: Its ground squirrels chasing the wildebeest!!!

    After a while they all lie down. All? No, one stays standing. It is not clear to me whether he is the appointed guard while the others rest, or if he is just in a bad mood. What is very obvious though is that he wants someone else to get up. He harasses five other wildebeest, one after the other, until each of them gets up. He then goes to the next victim. At no point are all wildebeest resting down I also see a yellow mongoose forage around our tent, but shes less cheeky than her relatives at Nossob camp.

    After 5:00 we leave for a sunset drive. There are clouds, and the soft dappling evening light is gone. The riverbed looks deserted. Other than a few lone springbok, we just see three raptors, perched. The first is a bateleur eagle spectacularly near the road. He or she is preoccupied with tearing a certain twig of a dead tree. We see him/her fly off to a tree down the riverbed, and we see a nest there. The second is a tawny eagle. And the third are two secretary birds near the road, one of them perched in a tree. I think Ive never seen a secretary bird in a tree. Theyre ground-borne or in the air, but not in between. Usually.

    The sun sets in a milky red while were still underway. We still have G&T before dinner. Today is the last self-catering day: We have Aelpler Magrone, a very traditional Swiss dish with maccaroni, potatoes, bacon, onions, milk and lots of strong Swiss cheese. It is a tradition on each self-catering trip!


    The wildebeest are the first ones around, just after 7:00 am. We observe them during breakfast, but then pack and leave for Mata Mata. The reason is that weve got an appointment today, and I dont remember when it is. Well be picked up at Kamqua parking site by someone from !Xaus Lodge, but I dont know when. The guys at Mata Mata reception are very helpful, even though the radio doesnt work, and the telephone barely. After half an hour we have the info we need: that we have to be there at noon. Id actually prefer to be on a game drive to waiting here. Yet theres a small exhibition on the Kalahari, and on the owls. And in the end this waiting here will be our luck

    Driving South, we again see large herds of springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest. And two giant eagle owls. To be honest we didnt see them, we just saw a car stopping there. The two owls are ready for a lazy day, and their pink eyelids are rarely open. Beauties, yet difficult to photograph, in the dappled shade of their tree!

    We continue our drive more or less with another car with a family of four, as we show each other our sightings. A lone kudu cow. A puff adder in the middle of the road. Splendid kori bustards. And finally the cheetah.

    Yes, the cheetah. The only time weve seen a wild cheetah before was in January 2005, in Krueger National Park. For about two seconds. Also here, we wouldnt have spotted her (or maybe him), if no car had been parked there they had seen her walking here from Borehole 14. The first glimpse is a pair of ears under a camelthorn. Not very spectacular. And we are pretty sure that this is it for her day when she gets up to look for a better tree. I dont care what better tree means to her as long as she keeps moving A cheetah in broad daylight! Were speechless!

    The cheetah moves about 100 m before she finds a better tree, and gets down. Only a few minutes later two wildebeest bulls come trailing up in the middle of the riverbed straight towards her, downwind. Her tummy looks pretty empty, so she probably wouldnt mind a wildebeest walking into her Only 20 m to go But then the bull walking in front gets wind of her, jumps up with all four, and rushes back to his colleague. They stand dumbfolded for a minute, before they decide to make a detour over the dunes, instead of the direct way in the riverbed. The cheetah decides to take a nap instead, and we drive on after 20 minutes.

    She wears a radio collar, so shes probably part of the cheetah population that is being studied by the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project. Drs. Gus and Margie Mills follow the cheetahs in KTP in a five-year study to learn more about their demographics, feeding ecology, land tenure system, mating system and reproductive success, threats and mortality. Their goal is to set up a management plan with the park authorities to ensure the KTP will remain a home to cheetahs. Based on the various sources online, it might be Elena we saw, but without her son Anton - they even have their own forum, it seems! He must have left mummy only recently

    A bit further downriver we see a herd of very nervous springbok, and only later we learn that there were lions in this area the day before. So maybe the cheetah didnt feel like walking further. Our luck!

    Getting nearer to Kamqua, we see our lioness of the day before again, with a carpark around her. Shes still in the same spot as we left her, next to the road (26 00 49 S, 20 23 01 E in case you want to check if shes still there). The only things we see are her ears and eyes, and plenty of grass movement around her. So the cubs are there, just not visible!

    We arrive at Kamqua shortly after 11:00 and hang around in the shade, chatting with the family who drove with us for the past two hours and enjoying the cookies their mother made! We also observe the raven; they make strange gurgling noises, like water gurgling down the drain. The parking site is unfenced, so the toilet building is fortified with bars, against the lions.

    Arné, one of the hosts at !Xaus Lodge, arrives in an open safari vehicle around noon; she will lead us to the Lodge. The 30 kilometres drive will take about one hour, over 90 dunes. Access to the access track is only for guests of the lodge. You can drive in with your own vehicle as long as it is a 4WD (a 2WD works too, if you drive carefully, e.g. when your car rental agency rents you a 2WD telling you its a 4WD), but there is shaded parking available for those who prefer to be picked up. The drive is beautiful it feels much more like the Kalahari than the SANpark dune highways between Nossob and Auob valley. One dune is a bit steeper than the others, and JJ doesnt accelerate enough so he needs a 2nd try.

    We arrive at the lodge and are greeted by Piet the host, Torsten and Matt the guides, and the staff all of them women from the Mier community, to whom the lodge partly belongs. But more to that later !Xaus (the !X is a Nama language click sound pronounced like somewhere in between ts and k) is the Nama word for Heart, since the lodge is located at a remotely heart-shaped salt pan. 14 wooden chalets are set on a dune overlooking the pan. This will be our home for the next two nights, and the last part of our trip. Its the only luxury accommodation in the park, the only one that is not self-catering. Their brochure claims that its a place to experience, not merely observe. The lodges setting and atmosphere are well in line with that

    There are other guests: a family with a 11-year old girl from Pretoria, a Cape Townian couple, and a German couple. We join them for lunch lunch is a strange concept after a week in the bush. Its hearty South African fare, and we dig in as if we hadnt eaten for a while. Arné then introduces us to the lodge and our chalet. Two real beds with white linen, a hot shower (very salty-soapy water, but my parched skin likes it a lot), light, a fan and power plugs (the generator runs at fixed times each day, enough to charge all my gadgets), and a carefully selected décor. No velvet and plush, luckily

    At 15:00 we join the others for an afternoon drive to the dunes. Piet steers the safari vehicle, and Toppi is our tracker. Toppi is a Khomani bushman in his fourties who part-time works as a tracker, for !Xaus and other places. Hes dressed in a traditional loin-cloth made of springbok hide, and walks bare-foot. His only other device is a walking stick. It looks strange to see him take place in the tracker seat on the hood of the vehicle. The drive doesnt go to specific places, its more about what we see on our way: A few gemsbok and ostriches, and occasionally pale-chanting goshawks, drongos, korhaans. Most of them are very shy, compared to their conspecifics in the Auob and Nossob valleys that dont even bother to move away when a vehicle approaches. There are lots of grey camelthorn bushes, but not many exceed 2 metres of height. The few larger camelthorns always host a sociable weaver nest they have to make use of each opportunity that persents itsself, here. We stop after a while since the sourgrass seeds are clogging the radiator of our vehicle. Toppis walking stick comes handy to remove what must be millions of seeds. Our way on is through almost pristine duneveld Piet got the approval of the Park authorities to extend a track to create a circular route. He had driven the track about a month ago, but with the recent rains and the waist-high grass it often needs Toppis tracking skills to find the two slight dents in the sea of grass where the track should be. It will need a few more rounds to make this a visible track But Bushman tracking gets an entirely new meaning now.

    Piet abruptly stops a bit later hes spotted a caracal (a shy, lynx or bobcat type predator). Unfortunately he disappears into the bush after most of us (excluding me) only got a glimpse or two. But its the first time Piet saw a caracal here, in the one and a half years he lived here. A bit later we stop near a high dune, for some cold water and a view over the dune sea. I wonder how this looks in the dry season. Now its a sea of green, but it will turn red-and-yellow very soon The top of the dune also hosts a Communal Nest Spider web an apartment block for several generations of spiders, with metre-long silk threads, or rather ropes. They dont hunt humans though.

    A bit later we return to a farm track along a fence beyond is the 10 km wide stretch of land where the bushmen are allowed to hunt, about once a year. We return to the lodge via another pan, with a windmill. There are four pans in one row, called the Loretta pans. This pan still holds water after the recent rains. We see two jackals foraging and resting in the pan. A third creature appears at the far end of the pan, several hundred metres from us. The first excitement Its a lion! gives way to even greater excitement as soon as the binoculars come out: Its a warthog!. Again a first, for Piet! I wonder what this warthog does here, somehow I dont associate warthogs with such a duneveld habitat. We havent seen one in Kgalagadi except for a brief glimpse, in Mabuasehube in September 2007.

    The sun sets in many rosy clouds. The night in the chalet is stiffling hot the architect didnt consider aeration well enough. And sensitive individuals might feel disturbed by the hooting of barn owls nesting in most chalets. But I like them

    We get up just before 6 am, for our morning dune walk one of the reasons why we came here! Theres a light drizzle outside rain in the Kalahari is still new to us! We have tea and rusks in the mess tent, and the drizzle stops eventually.

    !Xaus Lodge is not the place to go to see loads of wildlife; I think it appeals more to people looking for the quiet and small aspects of Kalahari life. Our morning dune walk will introduce us to some of the less obvious inhabitants of the Kalahari. We are led by Matt (a 21-year old Briton who is here on his first assignment after guide school yet hes very knowledgeable, and specialising in insects), and Elvis (a quiet 19-year old bushman who started his engagement as an employed tracker at the lodge just a day ago yet he grew up around here and knows the ins and outs). We walk in single file through the high grass. Here is the list of what Elvis and Matt show us:

    Gemsbok cucumbers: spiky round cucumbers that are an important source of water to humans and animals. Elvis lets us try the juice extracted from a dug out, skinned and squeezed root: extremely bitter, but probably still thirst-quenching if you are desperate for water.
    Armoured ground crickets: splendid colourful little buggers, also spiky. Spikyness is a common Kalahari feature.
    Lion poop, and a corresponding gemsbok carcass just around the bush. It is a few weeks old, but not much more than horns, a few bones and a bit of the hide are left. Maggots all over. The lions can be heard around here, but are very rarely seen.
    Burrows of Damara Mole Rats: Social mole rats living in burrows, feeding on bulbs. A favourite research subject, often compared to the meerkats, since they live in highly hierarchical groups led by a queen with her offspring helping to raise more offspring. Watch a little documentation here.
    Oog-pister beetle (Anthia spp.): Translated as eye-pisser beetle, they spray a pungent acid to any molestor we take care not to molest it.
    African monarch butterfly (Danaus chryssipus): one of the most frequent butterflies in the Kalahari (as long as there are flowers). They are toxic to predators.
    Jackal spoor on the farm road.
    Thunderbolt flower (Sesamum triphyllum, a.k.a. wild sesame): Seeds are edible and rich in oil. Leaves mixed with oil are said to be an aphrodisiac, and roots burnt and mixed with vaseline a remedy against snake bites.
    Catstail/katstert flower (Hermbstaedtia fleckii): one of the most frequent and obivous flowers after good rains.
    Scale insects being harvested by ants.
    Suuring (probably an oxalis/sorrel species): the leaves are sour-tasting like oxalis and refreshing said to be appetite-inducing.
    Kori bustard spoor.
    Shepherds tree root: The tree is only about 2-3 metres high but part of its root was unearthened by the wind. Its up to 20 cm in diameter, and about 5 metres long.
    Mold beetle: a beetle with a sticky surface, thus covered in sand, i.e. moving sand.
    Duinriet or dune bushman grass (Stipagrostis amabilis): an endemic hard tufted grass typically growing on the crest of dunes. Fixes the dunes due to long roots. Can be used to thatch roofs. Also spiky, of course.
    Mating tok tokkie beetles.
    Bokspoor spider nest: The nest has the form and size of steenbok spoor. The spider is located in the middle of two lobes formed by silk mats covered with sand.
    Brown hyena dung with a gemsbok leg next to it. Brown hyenas often take parts of their prey into a cache and eat it later. This is probably from the gemsbok lion kill, some 500 m away.
    Scorpion holes.
    Garden orb web spider: The large colourful female and small inconspicuous male sit in the same nest, with the typical zig-zag silk pattern. Of course this Kalahari inhabitant is also more spiky than other orb web spiders
    Ground wasp looking like a giant ant.
    A grasshopper.
    Drie Doring (Three Thorn, Rhigozum trichotomum): used by the bushmen against stomach problems (chew leaves and spit them out) and to make arrow shafts.
    Huge caterpillars on blackthorn bushes. Are they maybe the caterpillars leading to the moths that are so abundant now?
    Bloublom (Striga gesnerioides): Pretty lilac plant with purple stem and foliage. Parasites other plant roots, so it has no chlorophyll itsself.

    We pass by the bushmen village and return to the lodge after a 2 hrs walk, just ready for breakfast again luxury after breakfast in the bush I try to take pictures of the red-headed finches who use the little plank in the plunge pool to get a sip of water. Unfortunately it takes them 10 minutes, on average, after being disturbed until they feel brave enough again to come to the plank. And it takes an average of 9 minutes between people passing by.

    Later in the morning we meet Piet for a talk about the bushmen weve seen their village during the walk, and will visit them a bit later to buy some of their crafts. Piets talk is highly interesting sorry about interrupting him so often with questions. He starts with the history of the bushmen, they being a very ancient race of Homo sapiens in habits, culture and genetics. He goes on to the more recent history, with black tribes and later white settlers fighting and killing them.

    The lodge is the result of what is usually referred to as a landslide land claim by a group of the local Khomani bushmen and Mier Khoi (a very simplified definition for Khoi: bushmen who turned pastoralists before the arrival of black Bantu tribes) communities. They had lived in these lands before the national park was proclaimed in the 1931; the South African apartheid government finally expelled them from the land of their ancestors in 1974; a bit later the bushmen were formally declared extinct, since they were supposed to be too westernised to co-exist with wildlife game was more precious to the government than their fellow humans. Forced to live in shanty conditions on the edge of their own land too small to hunt, the Khomani clan of the Bushmen initiated a fight to regain control of their ancestral lands. On 21st March 1999, at a ceremony in the Kalahari Desert, 300 of the world's remaining Bushmen were granted 125,000 acres of land by the new South African government. A documentation about this claim titled Regopstaans Dream is available on Youtube.

    The communities now own land outside of the park where they are allowed to farm or hunt and gather if they want, and land in the park; the land in the park is on the concession that they cant live there permanently, and can only hunt in a designated area, and only rarely. The lodge was built around 2005, but stood empty for almost two years several local investors didnt want to have anything to do with bushmen, an old prejudice. It opened under the current management in December 2007. The lodge's proceeds are split amongst the three stakeholders: the Mier, the Khomani and SANParks. It is up to each community how to distribute the money. Part of it goes into a school in Upington where children with a bushmen heritage learn the language of their ancestors.

    Bushmen traditionally have no concept of ownership, and no leadership structure. Decisions were based on who knows best about a subject. They had no leaders to lead them to war, and no weapons to kill humans even the blacks and whites who slaughtered them. They live inherently peaceful, with only few rules and little aggression.

    Piet says that whenever something troubles him, he visits the bushmen living at the lodge, and troubles will become less important. Theres usually a group of 10 or 15 bushmen staying there, in the staff quarters. Its like a rota system, since Piet learnt that the bushmen dont like to stay in the same place for long. They then return to their relatives in Andriesvale or Welkom, south of the park entrance, and others come to !Xaus for a while, as they like. He provides a modest sustenance to them, in addition to lodging and food. No alcohol though while theyre at the lodge. Theres the little bushmen village, a ten minutes walk from the lodge. The resident bushmen usually spend their days there, some creating crafts, some talking, some resting. Some in western clothes, some in traditional attire. Its up to them, and Piet says they usually like coming here. Some, like Toppi or Elvis, occasionally work as trackers; Elvis has now started a permanent position.

    Matt takes us to the bushmen village before noon. We walk via the pan flat red mud with white salt crusts, from close up. At the village, a small number of wooden huts, about ten people sit around a potjie (cooking cauldron on the fire) in the shade of a tree, or nearby under thatched roofs. Theres a clothes-line hung with crafts, mostly necklaces and mobiles. We greet Toppi, and some of the others introduced themselves. One younger man is named Hannibal, but the other names are difficult to understand and even more difficult to pronounce. They speak Afrikaans amongst each other, but sometimes the older generation changes to their old language, with lots of clicks. Piet told us that it is supposed to have evolved as a hunters language, often imitating natural sounds so that game wont flee. Toppi is amongst the elders, but he and Hannibal also talk to us most since they speak some English. One woman must be in her sixties, and the girl is maybe 13 to 15. Some wear springbok loinclothes, other western apparel. Most of them are engaged in a craft-making activity: the old lady bores holes in camelthorn and other seeds; a middle-aged woman prepares pellets from ostrich shell; several men burn drawings in pieces of wood or bone, with skewers heated in the embers simple designs catching the essence of a hunter (why dont they represent heads?) and its prey, or of a gemsbok in just the right details; Toppi is busy de-rinding a twig that will become a bow. Another woman prepares threads from leather stripes. An elderly man cuts twigs of various wood is he the healer Piet mentioned who still knows many of the plants of old?

    The crafts are designed from natural materials like wood, seeds, leather and horn. We ask several questions regarding the materials used, and Toppi or Hannibal then ask the person who created the item. I buy a bracelet for my brothers baby to be born, and the old woman shortens it for me. Furthermore, we buy a mobile with weather-worn pieces of wood, camelthorn pods and thorns and ostrich shells, and several necklaces for JJs niece and nephew. One has the tiny hoof of a baby springbok as a pendant, another one the tip of a springbok horn. The prices vary between 10 and 50 Rand not much for us considering our buying power and the price for the lodge, but it can buy more around here. All proceeds go to the creator of a piece, and theres also detailed book-keeping about the items that are sold in the lodges curio shop.

    The people are friendly to us, Id love to chat with them a bit longer. But the questions that come to my mind are maybe not polite to ask: Do they like doing what they do? Is their life much different when theyre back at Andriesvale? How do they see their future, and the future of their children? Due to the language barrier it is difficult to have a longer conversation. Afrikaans would help so much here! It would be interesting to spend more time with them, together with an interpreter join the women when they gather veldkost; or talk to the healer who knows so much about plant uses, a subject that interests me so much? Piet might consider engagements of this sort, but for the time being Ill have to stick with books. Sadly, theyre often books of times long gone. Even if theyve been written only 30 years ago

    The visit is very relaxed, and we leave just as their lunch is ready. Our lunch is ready too. We have a lazy afternoon before heading out for a sunset drive with night drive, just after 5 pm. We drive to the windmill pan no warthog around this time and on to a dune at the opposite end of the Heart pan at which the lodge is located; its about 1 km away. We have our last G&T its the last evening in the Kalahari for us, after all. The sunset is spectacular because of impressive clouds and approaching thunderbolts. Just as the sun sets, two jackals chase each other just some 50 m away from us.

    A bit later we return to the car, and start our night drive: a spotted eagle owl; more jackals; a scrub hare; an African wild cat first on the road and then hidden in the grass (the first and only one on this trip, unfortunately); and last but not least a zorilla (striped pole cat looking like a crossing between a squirrel and a skunk) and a nightjar. Its the first time I see a zorilla in the wild. The funny little guy uses the road to travel, and scurries in front of our car for at least 300 m. We return around 7:30 pm, and enjoy a great dinner and the company of the other guests.

    I decide to go for another morning walk. Piet guides Nick, another guest, and me, alone as Elvis oversleeps. We drive to the dunes east of the pan, near a beacon. Here again the list of what we see its about grasses, mostly ☺

    A gemsbok: amazingly relaxed even as we get out of the car and start walking.
    A sand bush: the work of termites; they cover a small bush in sand and then eat the bush inside the cover safe from predation and sunlight.
    More tsama melons and gemsbok cucumbers.
    Spider-wisp or Cat-whiskers or African cabbage flower (Cleome gynandra): a relative of the Mouse-Whiskers flower we saw at Auchterlonie museum, often to be found near pans. Young plants can be cooked like spinach, as a relish to porridge, or seeds as a mustard substitute.
    Kalahari sour grass (Schmidtia kalahariensis): Weve seen so much of this in the past three weeks, so its about time to have a closer look. The duneveld actually seemed covered in sour grass. This here is still flowering, no seeds yet. The grass has glandular hair that exsude an acidic substance when the seeds ripen. This sweet-sour smelling substance sticks to everything, making seeds cling to anyone passing by (and it will need a brush and detergent to remove the glue-with-dirt from my shoes, and laundry to get the smell out of my trousers). It irritates the skin of my legs, and gums of animals that graze the grass. However, after a few weeks the show is over, and the animals graze it, not as a favourite grass though. This is the reason why the Kalahari is red dunes most of the year, and not red dunes covered in dry sour grass.
    Ooisuurgras (Brachiaria glomerata): Another type of sour grass, with clustered seedheads along the axis its still flowering so I dont know if it also exsudes acid.
    More large blackthorn caterpillars, including a cocoon.
    A steenbok, also quite relaxed.
    Tall bushman grass (Stipagrostis ciliata), Small bushman grass (Stipagrostis obtusa), and Silky bushman grass (Stipagrostis uniplumis): Very typical grasses in the Kalahari, and palatable to many grazers; silky is used as a thatching grass, by bushmen. Desert truffles (called naba by the bushmen) can be found in May on some stipagrostis grasses roots if the rains are good. Piet has never had them, but theyre considered a delicacy raw or roasted. The stipagrostis feathery plumes are one of my most favourite backdrops for animal pictures, especially in the morning or evening light, as it shines silver or gold.
    A kori bustard in flight: Piet can answer my question regarding their weight. The males weigh 12-18 kg, even though Torsten (the other guide) once weighed a large individual at 23 kg! The females are lighter, up to 8 kg.
    A bushmans stone tool: the only stone on a bare patch of sand. It has been clipped, maybe to obtain arrowheads.
    Four haartebeest and two more gemsbok: Again they observe us from a distance, but dont run. Its maybe better to walk than drive here, if you want to see animals!

    We return to the lodge for breakfast around 8:30. Around 10:00 JJ and I have to say goodbye, as we have to drive back to Upington today. We liked our stay at the lodge very much. Its indeed a place to experience. A place of Kalahari undertones, a reading the Kalahari between the lines.

    The drive to Twee Rivieren, the park entrance, takes about 2 hrs; we dont stop often. People driving up are still excited by the lioness dozing at the far end of the riverbed, partially hidden from vegetation and against the glaring light. They will have better lion sightings than this, and certainly we did! A few springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest. This is it, goodbye Kgalagadi, well come back!!!

    We first have to emigrate from Botswana, which can be done at Two Rivers, the Botswana border post at Twee Rivieren. Technically speaking were still in Botswana until now, due to the Transfrontier Park nature of the Kgalagadi. Then comes immigration to South Africa. Both customs officers are friendly, and quick. On the way South we stop at Kalahari Supermarket in Askham, for me to buy a copy of Flowering plants of the Kalahari dunes by Noel van Rooyen, which helped me to identify most plants in this diary and gallery. Other than that we drive on to Upington without a stop, and arrive around 16:30. Weve booked a room at Greenfield Gardens guesthouse, with our friend Abel whose hospitality I enjoyed during my first trip to the Kalahari. Even little Patsy is still here, the miniature pinscher. She didnt grow much beyond the puppy stage 4 years ago, and is still pure energy! She doesnt like to pose on my head tough, no sentinel. Its good to see both of them again!

    The only thing that doesnt work as planned it the returning of our rental car. The guy from Bushlore doesnt turn up at the appointed time, and only when JJ calls their Joburg office an hour later he learns that the driver will only arrive tomorrow, by plane. It is comfortable for us to keep our car and return it at the airport. But its not what I call attentive service.

    We have our farewell dinner at About Restaurant on Markstraat 67, near PicknPay (phone: 054 332 43 29, email: info (at) aboutdining.co.za). Its excellent cuisine, some international, some South African dishes but with a twist. The wine list is quite long. The staff is young, friendly and helpful. A great end to our holidays!

    The shortest chapter of my diary.

    Get up, get ready. Go and buy dried fruit and spiced corn at the Dried Fruit Store near the Upington donkey memorial. Get to the airport 2 hrs ahead of departure and hang around in the drab lounge (theyre refurbishing it). Fly to Cape Town, with a nice view of Table Mountain and Lions Head. Try to check in the luggage, but the check-in will only open around 4:15 pm (Upington is no international airport, has no customs facilities and therefore can't check baggage through). Were stuck with our luggage and cant drive into Cape Town for a drink and snack, as planned. Wait wait wait until the plane departs at 8:15 pm. Arrive in London Heathrow on time. Wait wait wait again until our flight to Zurich departs at 9:40. Arrive in Zurich on time.

    Several highlights though: Our luggage makes it on the same plane as us. The weather is a balmy 15C, and the day gets warmer spring has come here! And our cats still recognise us and are obviously pleased to see us again! What luxury!!!

    But: Kalahari, well come again!


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