Tag Archives: desert-adapted

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

 

Hope drying up for the Namib’s wild horses

The wild horses’ core area is wonderfully photogenic with a rugged appeal

The rugged plains that line the eastern fringes of the Namib desert are a photographer’s paradise – especially when this hauntingly beautiful landscape is bathed in amber light providing just the right backdrop for our subjects – providing we can spot them…

Stunning as these surroundings are, this place is no Eden for the special creatures we’ve come to capture on camera – especially in 2018 after several years of prolonged drought  has put a question mark over their future survival.

The pastel colours of the Namib desert paint the perfect backdrop for pictures

Each year, tourists from across the globe make the journey to this little bit of  nowhere to see the famous wild horses of Garub, southern Namibia. Earlier this year we joined them, hoping to see how they were getting on some 20 years since they galloped across  the southern Africa sabbatical that kickstarted our careers in wildlife photography.

Pitching up we can see at once there’s nothing here for the horses to eat

We weren’t holding out much hope as we reached Aus, the nearest little town which relies on the tourist dollars the horses, and their century-old story, bring in. That’s because the first scan of our surroundings suggests there’s nothing left for them to eat on the plain all around us. We certainly don’t think, if we do find them, they’ll look anything like the fit, prancing silhouettes on the road signs that warn us we’ve finally reached their desert home.

A misty morning at Garub, where the horses often drink, attracts an oryx down too

The Garub waterpoint the horses frequent is marked from the B4 road some 20km west of Aus. It’s best to go there first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon, increasing your chances of seeing and photographing these famous equines and the other local wildlife, like oryx,  it attracts. And that’s where we‘re headed now with some trepidation.

No-one’s exactly sure how the horses came to be here. They are the descendants of escapees from a local stud some 100 years ago, that bred racehorses and work horses in the Namib desert’s diamond rush era, or they’re the former mounts of soldiers stationed in the area in World War 1. Or both.  The certain thing is that they’ve been running wild ever since, free from the service of man, isolated from civilisation and fully adapted to the harsh conditions of this unforgiving habitat. They’re now regarded as a breed apart; the ‘Namibs’.

You can often see the wild horses close to the road. We found them in varying condition

Since October 2015 supplementary food has been provided for them, on a regular basis, by the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation to ensure they don’t starve and get enough roughage following the drought. Between 2014 and the start of this year the area is said to have had little more than 5mm of rain. The feeding strategy has helped the struggling horses considerably, although some old stallions and mares have not responded well and still look in poor condition when we finally get our ‘eye’ in and start spotting them. We sadly don’t see any foals. Their future is uncertain, increasingly prey to hyenas, the struggling population has declined heavily in recent years. Some believe numbers are so low they could soon go extinct.

Capturing the horses in that vast space was compelling. We longed for more time there

In good conditions, when food is plenty, the horses play. When we finally see them, scattered over the plain, there’s clearly no time for leisure activity. They’re busy feeding; heads down the whole while. Well, at least they’ve found something to graze on. A closer look at the seemingly empty landscape reveals a welcome hint of green – small flushes of fresh growth following the rain showers of recent days. Feeling just a little more hopeful for their future we set about framing ‘animal-scapes’; picking out tiny horse shapes that look lost amidst the overwhelming beauty of the Namib-Naukluft reserve.

It’s not just the difficult climatic conditions that cast a shadow over the wild horses’ future. The reserve exists to protect indigenous fauna and flora, yet the horses are incomers, not indigenous ‘game’ – with the inevitable issues that brings. Although research carried out over two decades suggests the horses have no adverse impact on the eco-system, a debate about their preservation is raging. Should the indigenous hyenas that have been picking off the weaker feral horses be managed, or fed themselves elsewhere, as has been happening, to hold them at bay? Should a special sanctuary for the horses be set up? Juggling the cost of their care, weighing the appropriate level of conservation intervention and addressing the valid concerns of the tourism industry is a difficult balancing act. For the moment the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation is desperately fighting to keep the horses in their core area through its targeted feeding.

Mist and mountains make an evocative and atmospheric setting for the horses’ wild spirit

For ourselves, returning to see them after 20 years, we’re surprised at just how much we’re drawn to them.  It would be very sad to see them go after they’ve battled this long to beat the desert’s hardships and have finally found an arrangement with their surroundings.

The fundamental appeal  of the Garub horses is clear – it’s the romance of wild spirit in a wild terrain. It’s that sense of freedom and co-existence with the environment that speaks to something in all of us.  But now that harmony has been put at risk…

The Namibia Wild Horses Foundation warns visitors against handing out food to help the horses because it draws them away from the feeding points and may not provide the vital nutrition and roughage they need. People wanting to help the horses can contribute to the feeding programme by contacting the Wild Horses Foundation where you can also find out more about the horses.

Where to Stay if You Want To See and Photograph the Horses

If you want to photograph, or simply observe the wild horses, the nearest place to stay  is the wonderfully horse-themed Klein Aus Vista resort on the edge of the rocky Aus mountains. (There’s also accommodation in Aus itself, the nearest ‘town’, including a good hotel where we broke our journey for coffee and cake ).

We made the Klein Aus Vista our base for photographing the desert’s celebrity horses

Klein Aus Vista has a range of accommodation from camping to rustic chalets to the Desert Horse Inn, where the well-appointed suites are served by a ranch-style communal area with a pool and good restaurant. There are walking trails around the resort and amazing night skies overhead. klein-aus-vista.com.

Amazing Spiderman and the White Lady

For those who can’t wait for Andrew Garfield’s next outing as Peter Parker’s superhero alter ego here’s a spine-tingling spiderman tale of our very own…

Say hello to Willem Mutenga, he’s the one calmly holding that rather hairy, huge and deathly-looking white spider and not even batting an eyelid. Willem – who modestly prefers to sport a sweeping ostrich feather in his bush-hat rather than blue tights and a mask – is a guide with Wilderness Safaris, who run game drives on request to look for fascinating dune critters like this from their very chic Little Kulala lodge deep in the dunes of the Namib-Naukluft.

AC91 Willem Mutenga with white lady dancing spider
Willem and friend

Willem is something of an expert when it comes to hunting out Namibia’s dastardly, desert-adapted predators. Earlier in 2013, on assignment for ‘The Daily Bugle’ (or should we say ‘Travel Africa’ magazine), we went out on a secret mission with him into the dunes at sunrise to track down and photograph the infamous and elusive white lady dancing spider in its extremely well-hidden lair.

AAS11 Dancing white lady spider
A dancing white lady spider

Many people drive on by the quieter dunes where such amazing creatures make their home in the rush to get to the ancient Namib desert’s impressive tourist hotspots. But we’re happy today to yomp in sand less-travelled. Here only the sound of dune larks breaks the silence. The wildlife is less disturbed and the myriad tracks, criss-crossing the orange-red sand like fine embroidery, are not made by humans, but by hundreds of hyperactive little critters from miniscule ants to sinuous sidewinding snakes.

AAS07 Burrow of dancing white lady spider
The trap door of a dancing white lady’s lair, surrounded by the footprints of nocturnal comings and goings

While we’re marvelling at these mini-footprints and the perfect circles in the sand drawn by a single, wind-blown blade of grass, ‘Spiderman’ is getting to work finding the nest of a white lady dancing spider for us. When he calls us over to says he’s found one we’re not convinced. We seem to be looking at – well – nothing. Then we spot it too. A small mark in the sand looks just like a child has drawn a tiny sun there. It’s only the size of a coin and easily missed.

Willem uses a blade of grass to delicately lift the ‘coin’ like a little flap – it’s the trapdoor of the spider’s lair. It’s completely round, like a tiny man-hole cover, and disguised by sand grains. It’s a mind-blowing feat of desert architecture. A hinged flap in sand?

AAS14 Dancing white lady spider with silk lining from burrow
Spider with the silk lining from a burrow – we found this one dug up by a jackal

We’re already open-mouthed, but our jaws drop further as Willem announces the resident spider is still at home – huge, white and hairy. They’re supposed to have a mildly venomous bite, but superhero Willem very briefly pops it on his hand for our inspection. The cunning and ghostly white spider cleverly crafts a burrow out of silk that looks for all the world like a knitted purse, or chain-mail, except for the fact that it’s made of sand. It then closes this burrow with a silken trap door forming this secret flap in the sand we’re now excitedly photographing. Who knew?

AT283 Little Kulala lodge
Little Kulala Lodge