So you get the point that I am totally in lurve with Cape Town right? Well, I decided to get out of the city to get a little balance, and I knew a couple of months ago that I might have a chance to see Meerkat Manor in real life!
If you’ve ever seen the show, you know that there was no question I was going to do this if I had a chance. So, I packed some gear into my daypack for the two days we would spend out in Oudtshoorn. To give you some perspective, there were several trips heading out to safaris all over so. africa, there were opportunities as diverse as safari on 4×4 quad bikes, trips out to Kruger National Park, people were flying over waterfalls and driving to the highest bungee jump in the world, etc. There was lots to chose from and lots of people to satiate your adrenaline craving with.
Fortunately for me, only 7 other people were dying to get out to see the meerkats and the ostrich farm that would serve as our home base for the trip. At this point in the round the world journey, I needed the quiet, relative calm and the low people density of this side trip. I was overstimulated, overcaffeinated, overextended, etc. All in good ways, but definitely losing touch with reality with so much to see, do, hear, taste and smell.
The trip out to Oudtshoorn was about 4.5 hours and we had an 18 passenger van for 8 of us, which allowed us all to stretch out and occupy our own space. Within 20 minutes everyone had iPod earphones shoved in their ears or books out, tilted just so in the sunlight. I set my playlist and watched the amazingly green countryside fly by to the sounds of Corrine Bailey Rae, Jack Johnson, and Sade (the remixes). We passed the winelands, the mountains, streams and rivers and we drove and drove and drove some more. We made a pit stop for food, bladder breaks, and I picked up the local trashy paper and a samosa, both for less than $1 US (and EVERYBODY including our driver got caught reading my trashy paper at some point).
We made it out to the ostrich farm where we’d be staying and I was dazzled by how serene, beautifully laid out and artfully conceived the place was. This is what you see in glossy travel magazines made for people who travel Africa with MONEY! We ate all of our meals under a palapa roof – open on 3 sides, with good music, lots of wine and the firepit nearby, while gazing out over alfalfa fields (part of the diet of the ostrichs) and the pool.
The first day we headed out to Cango Wildlife Ranch and oohed and ahhed over all of the creatures being rehabilitated or protected from dangerous conditions in the wild. We spent hours wandering around. I enjoyed the birds,Â bats, this crazy looking thing, lots of baby crocs, big crocs, lemurs, meerkats, and the BIG BOYS! Lions, white lions and I got to pet baby cheetahs and got to have a huge boa constrictor around my neck until she got too antsy and wouldn’t stay still. A day of many firsts. (Hi Dad!)
We checked into our cabins on the ostrich farm and the woodcraftsmanship of these things is amazing. Each cabin has two rooms, a kitchen area, living room and back deck overlooking a small lake teeming with birdlife. After an amazing dinner of ostrich lasagna, red wine, white wine, salad, squash soup and erudite discussions about politics, class and international relations, I conked out. I woke up at 3am to the sounds of a mamma cow and her calf moo-ing their hearts out to the full moon-I got up and looked out the window because they sounded awful close, and damn if they weren’t right under the window!. If that wasn’t bad enough, every frog, cricket and racket making insect on the lake had some kind of general assembly going on. Fortunately 4 months traveling around Mexico has me immune to this nonsense and I promptly fell asleep again, only to wake at 4:45am to get out to the meerkat site before first light.
*oooh, I forgot to mention that I talked my way into the kitchen for a peek behind the scenes!Â
Unfortunately, I woke up with the first signs of an upper respiratory ebola virus (my diagnosis and terminology-I don’t really have ebola), that I knew was not going to be pretty. Some tea soothed my throat but nothing was going to stop me from tossing my cameras, water, bandana, headlamp and snacks into my pack and trampling everyone else to get out to the site.
We drove and drove and drove some more, then crossed some scary mud holes, crossed into a locked ranch property and drove and drove some more. We finally were camped out in front of the meerkat’s burrow by 6am where we used binoculars to scan the landscape as first light dawned. We saw spring bok, water bok and lots of birds. By 7:30am the meerkats STILL hadn’t woken up and I was like, damn…they have more sense than we do. I pointed out that basically we had driven 300 miles to wake up and sit outside someone’s bedroom window and wait for them to get up so we could follow them around all day. Yes, I am very funny to myself. So witty, so clever. Wait, why am I single?
Our guide was none other than Grant, the Meerkat Manor dude! He has built a relationship with this group of meerkats as well as others over several years. They don’t view him as a meerkat, and they are not tame, he has them conditioned to view him as another large animal that is harmless, thus they have accepted him and they mark his shoes and tolerate his presence. This dude got us within mere inches of the meerkats. When the first little head popped up out of the burrow, 14 more followed within the next 5 minutes or so. It was the most adorable thing you can imagine.
We were coached not to make sudden noise, sudden movements and to be still if they looked directly at us until we passed their security test. Which we did eventually and then we spent the most nerdtastic morning following them all around their territory. We were literally in the middle of their group and they weaved in and out and between us as they searched for food, stood guard and the babies wrestled. Grant taught us all about this fascinating animal as we walked, I fell in love with their sense of community, their matriarchal structure and their cute little two legged sentry stance.
By and large we two legged beasties cried “uncle” and headed back to the farm for a breakfast of scrambled ostrich eggs and cheese, toast, bacon, yogurt, cereal and juice where we all talked non-stop about what we’d seen. Everyone envied the porcupine quill that I’d found (amazingly beautiful!) and I succumbed to the fatigue of my UREV (upper respiratory ebola virus) with visions of meerkats occupying my dreams.