Ann and Steve Toon reveal the top spots to see suricates in southern Africa
hether you’re eight or you’re 80 on holiday in southern Africa nothing quite compares to the experience of going nose to snout with a beady-eyed meerkat for the first time. Up there with some of the most compelling and characterful creatures on the African continent it’s impossible not to be charmed and amused in equal measure by a species that routinely stands as upright as we do, is forever gazing off into the distance with a glazed expression and that goes about in a big gang, the members of which endlessly chunter to one another as they scamper about.
We’ll grant you meerkats (a member of the mongoose family sometimes known as suricates) don’t punch at quite the same weight as the Big Five, but what they lack in imposing stature and musculature they more than make up for in entertainment value.
If you’re looking to meet up with a meerkat mob on your next visit to Africa, make sure you head in the right direction. Home for a meerkat is not the bushveld, thornbush or riverine habitats of many traditional safari destinations. They’re creatures of the arid lands – typically southern Africa’s desert and semi-desert areas – including the Makgadigadi Pans in Botswana and the Kalahari and Karoo regions of South Africa.
Because they’re an incredibly social species, one of very few carnivore species that hunt in the day-time, and are also relatively easily habituated, meerkats have been studied intensively by researchers for many years in southern Africa.
It’s now possible to visit some of these habituated groups and get incredibly close to wild meerkats on safari; enjoying intimate encounters without impacting adversely on their natural behaviour. There’s also a handful of reserves and camps with their own habituated meerkats you can observe at close quarters, or follow on foot as they forage about, as well as national parks where there’s a strong chance you’ll cross paths with a gregarious gang of meerkats going about their business if you visit for a few days.
Share your camp with meerkats in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This vast cross-boundary game reserve on the borders of South Africa and Botswana may be renowned for its impressive black-maned lions and cheetah hunts, but this semi-desert wilderness is also home to a reasonably plentiful and perky meerkat population.
You’ll find groups of them – usually referred to as mobs or clans – popping up unexpectedly on your game drives along the two dry riverbeds of the Kalahari on which tourist roads there are focused. A number of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park’s resident meerkat colonies have their holes close to these sandy tracks; so keep your eyes peeled – especially just after sunrise when meerkats, diurnal hunters, get up and warm themselves, all in a line, before heading off to forage for insects and scorpions for the day.
You might also be lucky enough to pick them up again in the late afternoon returning home. They will generally socialise and groom around the sleeping burrow at the close of play before going to bed at dusk.
These days there’s even a good chance you’ll share your campsite with a friendly mob of curious meerkats if you spend any time at Mata Mata, a South Africa national park rest camp on the Namibian border in the north-west of the park.
A group of around 20 or so individuals have become completely habituated to tourists here in the last few years – even to the point of setting up home there. Safer in camp from the predators that threaten them out on the reserve, such as jackals and birds of prey, they regularly den in camp and appear to be as fascinated in us as we are in them. At least until the novelty wears off.
If you do cross paths with this engaging mob they’ll be a highlight of your visit. But do resist the temptation to feed them. It interferes with their natural behaviours and is against the rules of the national park.
Mix high society and meerkat society at Tswalu private reserve
The legendary landscape of the Kalahari is ideal habitat for meerkats, but it can be a harsh spot for humans; with searing summers and freezing winter nights. If the rustic accommodation offer of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is not quite your style you can experience the region’s famous desert wildlife, and enjoy magical meerkat moments, in greater comfort at Tswalu’s exclusive, top-end luxury reserve.
Tswalu is well-known for its family-friendly wildlife activities including visits to two habituated meerkat groups. The reserve even has two full-time ‘habituators’ monitoring the groups to ensure the habituation is maintained. You can visit their dens and walk among them as they play and explore around your feet. Visit in their breeding period – the summer months from October to April – for the chance to enjoy the adorable mini-me meerkat babies born at this time of year.
Go walkabout with the meerkats of Makgadigadi Pans
Be warned. Marvelling at meerkats is addictive. If you’re looking for another fix you can add to your growing list of suricate acquaintances by spending time on walkabout with them in Botswana’s Makgadigadi Pans. As at Tswalu, the wild meerkats you’ll meet here are not tame, they’re simply used to humans, having been habituated by someone regularly making close contact with them.
Because they don’t regard humans as a threat they carry on as though we’re not there – although cheeky sentinels will use the nearest look-out that’s available to them to check the coast’s clear, even if that’s the top of your head. You can see the meerkats when staying at Jack’s Camp, San Camp and Camp Kalahari or by going on a half-day trip from Planet Baobab.
Visit the real-life Meerkat Manor at the Kalahari Meerkat Project
And when you’re totally hooked, don’t’ panic. Because you can now make your whole African trip all about meerkat-watching, staying for a week or longer at the home of the long-running Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa’s Northern Cape.
The project started out observing the fascinating co-operative breeding behaviour of meerkats in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in 1993, but has for many years now been based ‘down the road’ at the Kuruman River Reserve. This is the real-life ‘Meerkat Manor’, where the popular British TV series and many other meerkat films have been made.
Each day volunteers assigned to the many wild meerkat groups on the reserve go out and monitor the behaviour of the individual animals in their group; for example weighing them and collecting key data for the lead researchers. During your stay you’ll go out twice daily to spend time with a mob of meerkats as they socialise and go about their business. You can be hands on helping with the research or simply observe the meerkats and enjoy them. Self-catering accommodation is included and profits from your stay after expenses go back into the research.
If you’re not such a fanatic you can always opt for the half-day visits to see and photograph a meerkat group emerge from its sleeping burrow which take place on Sundays and which are hosted by local accommodation providers, Leeupan Guest Farm and the quirky Van Zylsrus Hotel.