An (unscheduled) early morning disturbance meant my 5.30am wake-up call was not received with joy. But I had a pre-arranged rendezvous with meerkats that morning which I was certainly not going to miss…
The crisp early morning air of the Oudtshoorn semi-desert soon wakened my senses and a small group of us were shortly on our way to view these intriguing creatures just 20 minutes down the road from my overnight stay at a charming guest house set on an ostrich farm just outside Oudtshoorn.
Devey, our guide, was quiet, unassuming and extremely knowledgeable about all things meerkat. He runs a conservation research project, and his morning and evening daily visits to this patch of 2km squared land where these wild but habituated meerkats roam gives us some insight into his profound understanding of this type of mongoose.
My concern on this particular morning as the sun rose over the mountains in the distance? What if these meerkats proved a no-show? The scenery was spectacular but I was getting a little chilly and not convinced I wanted to spend the next two hours sitting in a fold-up chair staring intently at the fauna ahead. Devey seemed unphased by their non-appearance though; he said they sometimes liked to have a bit of a lie-in and – as there was a definite nip in the air – could I really blame them?
Soon however, one by one, meerkat after meerkat emerged as if by magic out of a tiny hole in the ground. My first reaction? Very small and
surprisingly rather adorable. In front of me stood a family of mongoose, ten to be precise, each one facing the east, standing on their back feet and resting on their tail, as they soaked up the early morning sun for warmth. They also kept up a continuous predator check in all directions.
I think Devey probably got bored with my constant stream of questions, so fascinating were these tiny animals, but before I had built up a quick symposium of meerkat knowledge.
For example, did you know that – in this area of the eastern cape, their biggest predator is the human, or that they work and travel as a group all day, constantly on the look-out for anything threatening. When it comes to food though, each to their own; absolutely no sharing. (They will bite you if you interfere with their eating – not ideal pet material I would suggest). They also have incredible hearing and eyesight – they could see a plane flying so high in the sky above us that human vision did not allow … handy for identifying incoming UFOs I guess.
The ‘dominant female’ meerkat normally gives birth twice a year to between 5 and 8 babies. Sadly one of the babies from her last birth had been snatched by a Cobra whilst in the den, the second biggest threat to a young meerkat’s existence. I was not very happy to learn that I was at that moment sitting within approximately 10 metres of a cobra, but Devey had won my trust and respect and his lack of concern was contagious.
So if you have plans to head off down Route 69 / The Garden Route, I would recommend you drop in on Devey and the meerkats. Don’t be put off by the adverts! The chance to see these animals as the sun rises amidst such majestic surroundings is really rather special.