Meerkats and aardvark...

Tswalu, in South Africa, is well known for its more unusual animals and we were there to try and photograph meerkats and aardvark. Theoretically, seeing and photographing the meerkats would be easy as there was a habituated group called the Jacob’s dune group being studied a couple of miles from the lodge. However, we had no sooner got into the jeep at 5.30 a.m. than the researcher radioed that the meerkats had risen even earlier and disappeared. Mission aborted!

 Four meerkats emerging from their den in the ground
Meerkats emerging from their den. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

Two days later we set off again, but even earlier! This time we were lucky. A meerkat was already on lookout duty and several of the group were warming themselves in the early morning sun. Being habituated to the presence of humans, they took little notice as we approached to within a few metres to photograph them. After fifteen minutes the meerkats suddenly ran off with tails straight up in the air. They were foraging and we quickly followed. Their feeding was fascinating to watch. Sand flew in all directions as they dug and when a grub or tasty titbit was found, little squeaks of excitement and pleasure followed. Lying next to them, getting decent photos was straightforward. Eventually they moved off into deeper bush, still waving their tails in the air for the rest to follow.

That left the aardvark. With its long, pig like snout, rabbit type ears, and an almost kangaroo type tail, it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. But could we find one? Several of the other guests had spotted them, mainly at dusk, but we just didn’t seem to be in the right place at the right time.

A meerkat on the lookout, while others forage on the ground
Meerkat on the lookout, while others forage. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

The last afternoon drive arrived. For hours we drove around prime aardvark areas and checked termite mounds. Nothing! Disheartened, we began to drive the last couple of miles back to the lodge in the deepening gloom. Bingo! An aardvark was rooting thirty metres from the vehicle. We were out of the vehicle in a flash and running as quietly as we could, thinking it was fortunate that the area lacked big cat predators. However, it did cross my mind that I hoped that none of the common puff adders were around having a snooze. Hearing us, the aardvark began to trot off.

It appeared to be trotting parallel to a sandy road. If the aardvark decided to cross it would be the perfect place to photograph it without the perpetual problem of long, Kalahari grass masking the body. The guide hared off after it, hoping to move it towards the road. I took off in a straight line towards the road, hoping that my guide, acting like a demented sheepdog, was doing a good “fetch”.

Aardvark emerges from the long grass to cross the road
Aardvark crossing the road. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

Reaching the road first it was a case of checking flashgun and settings. There would be only seconds to get a couple of shots whilst it hopefully crossed the road near where I was sprawled. Sure enough, the aardvark obliged. It trotted out of the tall grass and ambled across the track right in front of me. Two shots later it climbed the bank and moved back into the long grass. Moments later, the gasping guide emerged onto the road. To our amazement, the aardvark had found an active termite nest and was starting to dig the termites out. More photos were taken although many were ruined by the long and moving grass.

Back at the lodge, the guide looked at my photos of the aardvark. His own shots were littered with grass stalks and obscured eyes whilst I had a few shots, including the two crossing the road, that were just great. His comments were unprintable at the unfairness of it all, especially as he’d chased the aardvark towards me. As we laughed and I bought him a beer in consolation, I just couldn’t resist thinking of tv’s Alexsandr Orlov and just had to comment that getting the photos of the meerkats and aardvark, for once, had been relatively “Simples!”