A hot world

When we arrived in Upington, waiting for the multitude of town trip tasks to be completed, I got chatting to an elderly man outside Pick ‘n Pay as best as my Afrikaans could carry me. A sad case – he was a vagrant of sorts, but had not always been – his face lit up when I said I was going to the Kalahari, and he told me he’d farmed there, until, after too many harsh dry seasons, he’d been unable to afford a borehole. Another dry season finished him, and the dark leather of his skin seemed to attest to his beating at the hands of this unforgiving land. Nevertheless he spoke of it as if talking of some magical place.

“Dit is my wereld,” he said, before adding, “maar dit is ‘n warm wereld.”

At the time this assertion seemed like a pointless statement, but now that summer’s heat is starting to insinuate itself into the long afternoons, I remember of old that this is indeed another world, where it’s impossible to imagine borders, or cities, or anything but endless veld. And its heat defines it, shapes it, and lays down the daily routines that after all, we are here to follow. The feeling of sweat on your clothes becomes so normal it’s no longer repellent. Chocolate ordered from town arrives in the shape of whatever tin it melted around. Moisturising is like pissing on a bonfire. Those who say that South Africa is tamed and civilised, let them come to the Kalahari, this wilderness kingdom of fire.

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I never thought I’d be quizzing people over the radio about the sandiness of nipples.

Then again, I never foresaw that I’d spend months and months chasing meerkats around the desert. (Or, for that matter, that I’d come to be known as “No Mercy MacLeod” on the football pitch after scoring a header into a metre by half metre goal and taking out two defenders, one of whom was so badly injured that she had to miss the next day in the field… but that’s another story). I suppose life in the Kalahari is inherently full of surprises.

As this last week has certainly been. Driving to Uberkatz a few days ago, someone mentioned to me that they’d seen the group earlier, minus the dominant female. My mooted suggestion that she could be giving birth was greeted with horror, fresh from the memory of Diana’s dramatic abortion of her pups last week. When I got to the burrow and found them all to be below ground mid-afternoon, my suspicion was proved almost certainly correct – and Tina’s weight loss the next day confirmed. Litter number one! The next evening I was with Pandora, and once again, the dominant female was below – and what a treat to see Toblerone emerge, sleek and placid, with the suckle marks on her belly of some strong and healthy pups. Even better news for me, the oldest subordinate female at Pandora has also started lactating, so she is the first allolactator of my study, and I’m looking forward to investigating whether her foraging strategies or cooperative investments change, using the data I’m collecting now.

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To complete a week of surprises, a couple of nights ago it began to rain – a heavy, thunderous rain that battered my tin roof from midnight to morning. Clichés of renewal and rebirth don’t seem so clichéd here in the Kalahari. As well as washing clean what little foliage we have, it’s prompted the trees to seize their moments and put forth new leaves, and tiny delicate flowers have bloomed amidst the dead grass and on the bare sand – the prettiest surprise of all.

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Arrival in the Kalahari

There are a lot of things about the Kalahari that are unusual and extraordinary. One of its many wonders are moonrises, the moon coming up blood-red and huge on the horizon; and this was my greeting on Monday night as we rattled from Upington to the Meerkat Project in darkness. Welcome back to one of the most magical places on earth!

It was no secret that by the end of July I was nervous to return, and reluctant to leave the UK. So it has been a wonderful surprise to find myself easily assimilated into the new group here, enjoying my days in the field, and feeling very much at home. From my desk in my room I can see dunes, thorn trees, and the unmistakable Kalahari sky – a deep blue, dotted with cartoon clouds. My assistant Leena and I have had only a short time in the field, and I have little to report so far except that I am re-acquainting myself with the meerkats and the protocols, and hitting the ground running as far as work is concerned with a renewed sense of purpose. It’s going well!

Things happen fast in the Kalahari. The seasons swiftly progress – already summer is crackling into being. The sun rises and sets with a speed that is wearying in our dawn-led mornings, and alarming in the night, the light giving way to a dead black. Yesterday a dominant female unexpectedly gave birth, and within minutes had eaten all four of her premature pups. Nothing is treated with sensitivity here – not even time.

Settling in at the Kalahari Meerkat Project also happens fast. I’ve been here before and I know, quite literally, the lay of the land. How to step out of my door in the morning and know from the wind and the heat of the air what the day’s weather will bring. Our landmarks here are different, and I know them too – gates, riverbeds, dams, electricity lines that sparsely criss-cross the dunes, the dunes themselves. The Kalahari remains full of surprises though, and though every day with the meerkats follows the same reassuring pattern, no two days are the same. Yesterday we were sand-blasted by strong winds that had them dancing in unrest. Today’s chill morning had us all shivering at the burrow unusually late.

Despite never quite knowing what tomorrow will bring, my data collection is going well. Already we have collected over thirty hours of focal data on subordinate females that will go toward providing the baseline information on their “normal” behaviours, against which I will compare their foraging strategies and investment in cooperative behaviours during the period in which they are allolactating. Apart from the unfortunate abortion of the four pups, none of the dominant females have yet given birth, so I’m not certain yet which of the females I’m following (some 35 individuals) will undertake to allolactate for the dominant pups. Yet another uncertainty in the Kalahari, that can only be solved by time.