Kalahari meerkats having a ball playing boules

Playtime in camp. The curious meerkat mob join in an impromptu game of boules. Simples!

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?

Young meerkat getting into the game if not quite getting to grips with the rules

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.

The meerkats have the run of the camp – you’re never sure where they’ll be rushing next

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.

These guys are everywhere. Foraging for food in the sand while checking the coast’s clear

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.

A young tourist is fascinated by his new neighbours on arrival at camp
Soon the whole family’s fixated on them as they’re welcomed by the nosey suricates

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.

Tourists and meerkats soon lose interest in each other

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.

With wild meerkats this habituated we can get ultra close with our wide angle lenses

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.

The meerkats are warming up on the campsite soon after getting up at 6.50am sharp!

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.

Getting attached. Our alpha female with a youngster

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.

We’d follow meerkats all afternoon for the chance of backlit shots like this

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.

The camp’s quiet at sunrise – everyone’s out on a drive

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.

 

 

Keeping tabs on the clan was a full-time job at times

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.

‘Looks like I’m okay to rest here while the gang catch up’

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.

 

The gang stops for a drink on a hot afternoon before dashing off again with us in tow

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.

It’s all about putting the time in with subjects – the more you invest the more you get out

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.

Capturing the spirit of this on-the-go species as they rush around camp

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…

We followed the guys as they left the burrow each day and headed for the campsite

 

Loft-style living for the wild’s high-flyers

 

Nests are constantly extended by residents until large sections drop off
Nests are constantly extended by residents and bits drop of

It’s not unusual when you’re travelling through another country to marvel, and take a bit of a nosey, at some of the unusual and different homes you pass along the way. There are some fine examples in the arid Northern Cape en route to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and  a few weeks ago, on our way back from the national park on our latest South  Africa visit, we stopped off to take some photographs of several remarkable high-rise homes that merited attention.

The massive ‘penthouse suites’ in question were the distinctive communal nests of colonies of tiny birds  known as sociable weavers. The nests look like clumsy haystacks that have somehow ended up on the top of telegraph poles lining the road. In the absence of nearby trees the birds make use of these handy man-made structures to construct their remarkable nests. Marvels of engineering, the nests have multiple chambers inside housing up to 500 birds and can keep their occupants cosy in the Kalahari’s cold semi-desert winters and cool when temperatures rise to more than 40 degrees in the summer.

Our picture story about these fantastic  bird houses was picked up by several news outlets earlier this month and you can see more of our images of their crazy nests via this link to one of the pieces in the Mail Online.