“If you want to find the meerkats, we must first find The Meerkat Man.” Chaba, our guide and host at Jack’s Camp, shouts back through the Landcruiser, followed by his booming laughter, which never fails to make us grin. It’s an hour before sunrise and we’re heading out into the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park to join the meerkats for their morning walk and hunt.
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After a short traverse between the smaller salt pans, the headlights light up a figure dressed in green overalls and a matching wide-brimmed hat. It’s ‘The Meerkat Man.’ Chaba shouts something in Setswana from the vehicle and they both laugh. The gentleman jumps into the front seat with a large but shy grin, and points Chaba in the direction of the creatures we have come such a long way to see. None of us hear him speak in the thirty-minute drive to the burrow, which, if you think about it, is not an unfitting characteristic for a man whose full time job is to follow a pack of meerkats every day so that they become accustomed to the presence of people.
When we arrive, the dawn sky is an impressive sheet of pink above the flat pale Kalahari sands. It’s cold and dry as we step out of the vehicle. The Meerkat Man walks to a nearby bush and, peering over it, silently points at the ‘Meerkat Manor,’ a small hole under a very modest mound in the flat landscape. The reason for making the burrow there, we’re told, is because they like to use any available high ground as a lookout point in their search for predators or food.
Chaba hunkers down next to us, looking through a gap in the bush with his binoculars pressed to his face. He stays in this position for some time before a triumphant grin spreads across his face. “Your friends are awake,” he says, and hands over the binoculars.
Jack’s Camp is a mesmerising lodge in the middle of the Makgadikgadi Pans. As Chaba says, “Jack’s Camp is one of the only places in the world where the silence is so complete that you can hear the blood circulating through your ears.” The camp was established in the 1960s by a crocodile hunter called Jack Bousfield. While on a trapping expedition, Jack stumbled upon a captivating site in the sprawling pans and set up camp under an acacia tree where today there are now ten safari-style tents for guests in a grove of palms.
The main tent acts as a fascinating local museum with all kinds of skeletons, skulls, taxidermied remains and photos of Jack in his heyday and of his family playing with leopard cubs. The bushmen portraits, old leather furniture and tent canopy add to the colonial and expedition-like feeling. Unique activities Jack’s Camp offers are horse riding and quad biking in the pans, intimate bushmen experiences and walking through the Kalahari with a gang of habituated, but wild, meerkats.
The mother comes out first, scurrying and smelling around the hole like a sniffer dog before she shoots back inside to tell her babies the coast is clear. As the sun peeks its golden rays over the horizon that will shortly heat up the desert, the mother trots back out and stands sentry at the top of the mound as the rest follow her out and immediately start wrestling with each other and rummaging around for insects.
The meerkats are smaller than house cats and as playful as puppies. They fight, jump on each other and then scamper off quickly, into the burrow and back out to jump on the next one. They make strange, almost bird-like noises while one of the meerkats always stands watch. Their wrestling is not just for fun, though, it also helps them warm up before they start hunting. Scorpions are the favourite snack of this adorable desert mammal.
Due to the ongoing habituation programme at Jack’s Camp, the meerkats are completely wild but they are also used to a visitor’s non-threatening presence. “On chilly mornings, you might find a meerkat snuggling up to you for warmth, or in the absence of a termite mound or tree, using your head as a sentry lookout post,” Chaba told us. The role of sentry is vital, the meerkats never know what may be lurking out there in the pans.
The Makgadikgadi is indeed a strange and captivating region, and one of the largest salt pans in the world. Imagine an area the size of Portugal, largely uninhabited by humans. Its flat, featureless terrain seems to stretch to eternity, as it’s not entirely clear where land becomes sky. Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab, Chapman’s Tree, believed to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old and the only landmark for hundreds of miles around.
For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid; and large mammals are generally absent. But during the wet season the landscape transforms. The two largest pans flood (the Makgadikgadi is in fact a series of pans interspersed by sand dunes, rocky islands, and desert terrain) become a powder-blue lake, which attracts wildlife – zebra, giraffe, eland and wildebeest on the grassy plains – and most spectacularly flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens – and sometimes – hundreds of thousands, and the spectacle can be overwhelming.
“Come, we can get closer now,” Chaba tells us. We move in slowly at the beginning, but it quickly becomes apparent that the meerkats are not bothered by us in the slightest. For a while we try following them, but they move so fast that it’s impossible to get a good photo of them from the front. Every time the camera focuses they dart off before the shutter can close. Eventually I start figuring out their general direction and cut ten meters in front of them. I lie on my belly in the hope that one will walk in front of my lens for the perfect shot. This works perfectly and before I know it one has crawled up onto my hip to use me as a vantage point.
We spend the next few hours crawling and rolling around in the sand after the meerkats. Chaba eventually breaks us from our trance with the only thing that would steal our attention from them, food. Covered in sand and thorns, we bid our feisty new friends goodbye and drive off into to a nearby shaded area for a five-star brunch in the desert.