Suricates enjoying a game of boules. The notion might just about be credible on TV back home, as part of that long-running ad campaign for a UK price comparison website featuring a clan of movie-loving meerkats. Two-for-one tickets for a classic French cinema season anyone? But meerkats enjoying a game of boules in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP), southern Africa’s legendary Kalahari wilderness area, we’re kidding right?
No seriously, when you’ve been following an inquisitive, forever-on-the-move, mob of 18 photogenic meerkats around camp for several days you learn that nothing should surprise you. The sports-loving meerkats are denning regularly in one of the KTP’s tourist rest-camps, coming and going as they please.
One minute they’re dashing out into the reserve through the perimeter fence to forage, the next they’re scuttling across the border onto the Namibian farmlands beyond the park for a change of scene. No park permits or passports required. They have the run of the place and you’re never quite sure when they’ll turn up next. Predicting where they’ll pop up is quite a challenge.
But while we’re tailing them and waiting patiently for the best photographic light in which to photograph them their antics provide us with a constant source of entertainment.
Other tourists can’t get enough of them either, or certainly that’s the case for the first few days following their arrival at camp.
After that the novelty wears off a bit and everyone begins to treat them as part of the furniture. The feeling’s mutual. The clan’s equally curious about anyone, or anything, new on the block, but in the end we humans, and all our attendant clobber, barely make it onto a meerkat’s radar.
We’re useful only for the extra vantage point our stuff can offer a passing meerkat sentry (and for the odd ball game, of course).
This disregard is a huge boon to us as photographers because it means we can approach closer than usual (amazingly close when wielding a wide angle lens if you go carefully and behave as though you’re one of the mob). It also means we can exploit intimate low angles on eye-level with these engaging subjects without affecting their natural behavior – something that would never be possible when photographing their cousins living deeper in the park where you’re confined to your vehicle.
It’s not just us photographers that reap the benefits from these shared living arrangements. There’s an upside for the meerkats too. It’s much safer having itinerant human strangers for neighbours compared to the predators that threaten clan members’ survival out there in the reserve. Plus, there’s the bonus of occasional scraps of food, particularly welcome in leaner times, from visitors breaking South Africa national park rules to feed them titbits from the table or braai (BBQ). Perhaps because we humans seldom serve up big fat scorpions, or the grubs the meerkats are constantly busy digging up about the place, the mob thankfully hasn’t become too reliant on visitor handouts so far. But they have certainly become habituated.
We first met the gang two years ago (see our earlier blog). The group was smaller then and quite a bit shyer but just like this year the alpha female was pregnant (meerkats tend to breed in the summer months) and there were a couple of comical youngsters in tow. Last year, although we visited the Kalahari at the same time, we only crossed paths with them very briefly, despite checking their den spots every evening following our game drive just in case they came back to pose for our cameras a second time around.
Call us sad if you want to, but if you’d spent any time with these guys you’d also get attached. And, let’s face it, the potential for a saleable photo story was so appealing, we were happy to delay that first cold beer at sundown for the slim chance of some nice images – and hearing their welcome incessant chattering once again.
So you can imagine our sweet surprise when there they were again this year, right outside the door of our chalet, as if ready to welcome us, just as soon as we opened it to head off on our very first afternoon game drive. Double takes all round.
The chance to follow an habituated group of suricates on foot in the golden hours was too good to pass up, so once again we found ourselves abandoning that drive and many subsequent evening drives to follow them. And on days when we knew they had definitely denned in camp the night before, we made a point of returning after morning drives by 6.50am in the mornings to photograph them too.
Six-fifty being the precise time the meerkats popped out of the burrow each morning, regular as clockwork, to warm up in the early sunshine.
It’s no trouble putting the time in like this when you have a fabulous and fascinating bunch of busy characters that never fails to perform for your camera.
The ton of sand that gets into every bodily crevice when you’re lying prone on the thorn-strewn ground in anticipation of your picture is nothing when your lens is trained on a meerkat beautifully silhouetted against a swoosh of golden dust that’s obligingly being dug up in just the right spot by one of his campadres.
Keeping constant tabs on this hyperactive mob so we could maximise opportunities with them in the better light when it came was a full-time job, but meant we had the pleasure of spending many an hour following them round as they ran amok in camp through the late afternoon; whether they were stopping to check all’s well from the top of various signposts or grabbing a quick sip of water in the shade on the campsite.
Wildlife photography is as much about the connection with your subject in the run-up to a picture as it is about that ‘decisive moment’ when the shutter button’s clicked.
And if that means being a meerkat’s shadow from the moment it’s chocolate-coloured snout emerges from the burrow at 6.50am to the moment its chocolate-tipped tails disappears down into its den for the night, then bring it on as that’s definitely no hardship.
Being in and amongst them, trailing all around the camp and back after the very last one of them, and them not caring a fig about us ‘coming with’ was a huge highlight on our recent trip. You just can’t put a value on experiences like that – pictures or no…