Meerkats in the Mist

By Hilary Prendini Toffoli 

Photographs by Hetty Zantman

The British TV documentary series Meerkat Manor was a wildlife soap opera. A best seller. I loved it. The four series depicting the family life and tribal battles of a band of Kalahari meerkats ran over three years, won a host of awards, and entranced viewers in 160 countries.

At the heart of it was a meerkat family known as the Whiskers. It had such a devoted fan base that when the dominant matriarch, Flower, was killed by a Cape cobra while defending her newborn pups, her fans attacked the producers for not having tried to save her—even though it would have meant interfering with nature. They lamented her death in letters, poems and memorial videos on YouTube.

That’s taking things a bit far. But there’s no denying the fascination these iconic little self-possessed mammals hold for us. They appear so ridiculously human. It’s not only their sharp-eyed alertness but also their co-operative community life. Which is why, ever since the shenanigans of Flower and Co appeared on screen, I’ve wanted to get a closer look at a wild meerkat family.

I got the chance recently at a conservation project on the 2 000-hectare De Zeekoe reserve not far from Oudtshoorn. It was a sunrise meerkat tour so we had to rise before dawn, which in my case meant spending the previous night at the De Zeekoe Guest House. No hardship. I had a high-ceilinged room in what was once the farm’s old manor house, big enough to include a glamorous four-poster bed draped in mosquito netting, a slipper bath hidden behind a screen, and a roomy glassed-in shower.  

Nor was the Karoo dinner that night your usual basic bordkos. Served in a spacious dining room with bare brick walls and open roof trusses, it managed to cross a few culinary borders. My springbok carpaccio starter was followed by a spicy ostrich bobotie accompanied by couscous and an Asian-style carrot and ginger salad with peanuts. A nice light malva pudding ended an excellent meal, which—I learned with interest the next morning from the guesthouse owner, Paula Potgieter—was produced under the capable eye of an 18-year-old cook named Lucy Afrika.

The parents of Paula’s husband, Pottie Potgieter, bought the reserve about 50 years ago. Part of it has been developed into a modern cattle and wheat farm, with amenities for paying guests such as canoeing, fishing and horse riding, while the rest—about 800 hectares—has been preserved for the shy wildlife that has always lived there in burrows or dens. Porcupine, aardvark, aardwolf, bat-eared fox, and, of course, the meerkat. 

‘They might look cute but they’re vicious little creatures. Take no nonsense from nobody. Did you ever see the movie,Gremlins? That’s these chaps’ 

Meerkat tours have been on the local agenda for some time. Newest and most popular is Meerkat Adventures run by Devey Glinister, whose website says he has been researching meerkats for several years.

It’s still dark and cold when we drive with Devey plus a small group of people from other guesthouses to a spot near the meerkat burrowing grounds. To warm us, he dishes out coffee and his wife’s homemade rusks. We then hike to the site nearby, carrying our folding chairs, and place ourselves in a semi-circle around the burrows—little mounds of pale, worked earth visible only a few metres away between low, bushy succulents.

We wait. The sun comes up in an overcast sky faintly streaked with coral. “If it rains,” Devey tells us, “the meerkats will stay in their burrows.”

No rain but chilly. They stay in their burrows. We wait. However, our engaging stubble-jawed guide is a showman, and proceeds to entertain us with an informed running commentary about his favourite animal that includes revelations such as, “They have the same diet as the Chinese. If it moves they eat it.” And, “They might look cute but they’re vicious little creatures. Take no nonsense from nobody. Did you ever see the movie, Gremlins? That’s these chaps.”  

After about half an hour a sleepy-eyed meerkat pops its head out of a hole, looks around and then disappears. “He’s the weatherman,” says Devey. “All these holes are connected so even though they might go to bed on the far side of the burrow they can pop out wherever they like in the morning. This particular burrow system could be anything from 100 to 200 years old. There haven’t been many extensions to the system in the five years I’ve known this family. ”

Another meerkat comes out and remains there, seemingly on its toes, staring at us curiously, neat front paws resting daintily next to each other on its chest, long tail supporting it on the ground. “They can stand like that all day,” says Devey. “It’s like having your own bar stool. The reason you don’t scare them is because I spent months habituating this family to my voice so they would be comfortable having you around. But I never fed them or touched them. So they won’t come begging for food.”

The meerkat vanishes.

“That was the dominant female. She’s the only one allowed to have babies. She even kills her daughter’s babies. Instead, her daughter has to help raise her mother’s babies. Mating season starts in May/June. The babies are born in August, and by sundown the next day she’ll be pregnant again. Three batches of babies a year, born blind and without a full coat of fur. They stay underground and have mentors for the first four or five months, teaching them everything they need to know to survive. Like how to eat scorpions and so on. The poison in the sting is full of protein.”

Someone asks if the meerkat is related to the mongoose.

“Meerkats are members of the mongoose family but they’re far more sociable,” he says. “They rely on one another in these hostile conditions. They have a lot of enemies—birds of prey, snakes, nocturnal civets and jackals. They always have a sentry standing guard.”

Someone else with a foreign accent asks Devey how long we’re going to have to sit here in the cold, waiting. “Ideally, if I could, I’d control their movements for you,” he says somewhat wearily. “Look, very soon hunger will drive them out. Right now they’ll be hugging each other in the burrows staying warm, then they’ll come and find food. They lose a lot of their body weight at night so they have to come out soon and forage.”

Sure enough, out pops another little pointed face, the thick black outlines round its eyes giving it a surprisingly knowing look as it gazes curiously at this group of aliens surrounding its burrow. Unfazed, it lets out a soft chirruping sound. “She’s giving them the all clear now,” says Devey. Before we know it several meerkats have appeared out of holes all over the place. They stand there checking out the scene and scanning the sky all around them, dappled backs blending in with the foliage.

Some of them start digging busily around the burrows, tossing the earth around with feverish movements.

“They’re cleaning house, getting rid of faeces and so on. That burrowing instinct means they will dig up your carpets, sofas, furniture, which is why they don’t make good pets. Also, they’re very smelly.”

Eventually about 10 of them of various sizes are moving about from burrow to burrow, smaller ones rolling around with each other, scratching and scrapping. One of the older ones opens its mouth wide and gives the kids a mouthful—“Eh! Eh!”—then stands there playing sentry.

Finally they begin to move away one by one. Now that the sun is up, it’s evidently time to start foraging further afield. Devey suggests we follow them for a bit. Soon, however, they’ve all vanished into the bush looking for crickets, worms, birds’ eggs, spiders, small snakes and mice. A meerkat family on the hunt.

In spite of the long, cold wait they haven’t been a disappointment. They were just as I imagined. Inquisitive, smart, adventurous, cute. Also obsessive, single-minded, big-mouthed. Complex creatures. Almost human. It’s been a treat to get close to them.

Need to Know
Meerkat Adventures take place daily at sunrise, and cost R450 per person for De Zeekoe guests and R550 per person for everyone else. No children under 10. Booking essential. Email.deveyg@meerkatadventures.co.za. Tel. 084-772-9678.

At the De Zeekoe Guesthouse a De Luxe Room with breakfast is R950 per person sharing. Standard rooms with breakfast are R470 per person sharing. Email. info@dezeekoe.co.za.

Art on Track
If you’re out and about in the Klein Karoo this August, don’t miss the Klein Karoo Klassique—the very popular classic music festival in the town of Oudtshoorn. During this time, the Arts Committee of Calitzdorp presents Art on Track as an extension to the established Arts Route 62 gallery meander. The showcase includes an array of arts and crafts exhibitions, displays and demonstrations from local and South African guest artists.

10 & 11 August from 10am-4pm at the Calitzdorp Railway Station. R10 per person. Call 083-285-4751.