October in the Kalahari is for watching your step…

The meerkats’ justified skittishness has rubbed off, and left me with a wariness of anything that weighs more than me, of which there are plenty – but now that the days are hotting up, it’s just as necessary to keep an eye on where you’re putting your feet. Rob and I walked past the same bush dozens of time in Sequoia territory last week before we heard the tell-tale deflating-football sound of a puff adder coiled menacingly at the base. It raised a lazy head at one of the young males who ventured too close, but we wouldn’t have had such a warning as we walked through the vegetation to follow the group. Closer to home, the first scorpion of the summer to be found in the house was swiftly dispatched in the bathroom with a flip flop before it could climb into someone’s bed – the most common cause of stings, a sloppily made bed with sheets touching the floor!

Watching my step is now important for happier reasons – the plucky little pups that dart around following the adult females that I’m following in the hope of getting fed a juicy grub. The pups at Pandora are obsessed with shoes, and play-forage around my heels as I record observations on their mother, and if I sit down, there’s soon investigation of my hems, laces, and pockets. They are still the size of my palm, though getting heavier by the day – but still delicate enough to cause me severe panic every time I put my foot down near where I hear their squawking begging calls.

Today looking at where I was putting my feet gave me a reminder of what a special place this is. I was at Lazuli with Lydia, who took some pretty stones from the riverbed to her geologist sister last time she went home. More than just attractive pebbles, this is apparently some of the oldest bedrock in the world, washed here from who knows where by the Kuruman River that was flowing through this land before there was language to call it that. Washed smooth by water and dust, they are a fitting reminder of the two elements that make the Kalahari truly extraordinary – the ancientness of the landscape, and the time that has shaped it, brought these stones downstream and left them in the dry dust – and the transience of these elemental forces, as well as the landscape itself, everything shifting millimetre by millimetre, Sandy Hill moving glacially with the constant winds. I pocketed a few to take home in the hope that such a souvenir, brought here after millions of years of which I am here for less than one, would always remind me in future of an important lesson the Kalahari has taught me – smallness.



I haven’t written much lately, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that nothing’s been going on. We are now in the peak lactation period, with seven of my groups now suckling rambunctious and adorable pups. My count of allolactators has swelled to four – not as many as I’d hoped for, but a reasonable number. And, soon-to-be eight dominant lactators are also providing data more generally on the costs of lactation. All in all this is a very pleasant time of year here. Though temperatures have soared (despite now being in a cold snap that has bewildered the meerkats and made fishing out packed-away duvets a necessity) the heat is not yet uncomfortable, and the multitude of cute little faces at the burrow in the morning and evening is an easy reminder of what a fabulous study species we work on – not just because the pups are lovely, but especially because being able to be so close to them is a sign of the level of habituation we have achieved over the last 20 years of work at the KMP. To be able to sit with and handle young with the total trust of the group is very special, and very rare in wild populations. I remember nothing but fun and delight from the last time I was here of the latter stages of the pre-weaning period, when pups grow bold and start to venture out with the group, as they begin to do now. Being privy to their spurts of growth and character is an unrivalled joy.

As much fun as the meerkats provide, work goes on around the fun, and the work grows wearying indeed. Six days a week of rising at 5 has left me tired to the bone, and no matter how early I go to bed, I never seem to catch up on rest. But this time the Kalahari isn’t just demanding physical toughness – the responsibility of running my own project with many hurdles to overcome is a strain that faces all field biologists, and it requires mental fortitude, resourcefulness, and a dose of good luck. I’m not short on problems – from equipment breakages, to fighting for field time on the rota, and working around some big experiments going on out here. My assistant left today, six weeks earlier than planned, and though a contingency plan has fallen into place, I’m never free of the anxiety of potential time lost or wasted when I didn’t foresee this turn of events. There are many hammy allegories I could make and parallels I could draw with the tough heat of the desert, how it moulds its landscape through fire, which blooms against all the odds… instead I’ll just say, wish me luck for this second part of my field season: one more month to go.

I should stop philosophizing and detail what a day out here is actually like.

To start with, field o’clock is determined by the time the earliest meerkat group rises, which at the moment means being in the cars, on the roads, or in the dunes by 6am – or more precisely, it means getting up when my mood is as dark as the sky, gulping coffee, and forgetting at least one piece of kit as I head out. Data collection for the morning means mindlessly traipsing after individual female meerkats for half an hour at a time, recording every behaviour. So much for the glamourous PhD life – there’s a lot of moving, and a lot of scrabbling, and needless to say this is not a torrent of emotion. By the time we return to the farmhouse, the heat is stern and heavy, and we entertain ourselves in and around it until it’s time for our evening session.

Mostly out of boredom I have joined a group of girls who work out in the late morning. Amanda brought with her a set of DVDs that promise to get us “ripped in 90 days”, and so I find myself every day at around 11:30 almost certainly ripping something, if not at least my dignity, to shreds.

“I know you’re strong!” says the impossibly tanned and unsweaty trainer.

“Screw you,” we chorus through gritted teeth as we jump lunge and sumo squat.

“Look at Sally! Sally has perfect form!”

To a man we hate Sally, her perfect form, and her rock-hard abs. We’ve sworn a sisterly oath to cease rippage just before we lose our tits and become boring girls like Sally. So far I don’t think we’re in any danger.

At the moment my other free hours are further eaten up by a more cerebral exercise – revising a manuscript according to comments I received back a couple of weeks ago. I can’t be the first person to blog about the angst of manuscript revisions, so I’ll just say this – my reviewer was THOROUGH, and I swing between extreme gratefulness that someone took so much time to make comments that will improve my paper immensely, and blood-chilling horror every time I turn a page and find yet another comment requiring yet another analysis. Guh. Publication and glory surely to follow.

Now that the days are so long, and the heat so constraining, midday walks or outdoor activities are replaced by napping. A two hour nap every day and I am living the dream. Desert-induced heat dreams are revealing. I dream about babies. I dream about sandy nipples.  (I should specify that I dream exclusively about meerkats.)

But during the day, I daydream about autumn in the UK. October is my favourite month. On Jesus Green the leaves will be starting to fall on the banks of the Cam, and when morning temperatures here soar above 30 degrees I daydream of my old walk to work across Lammas Land, gentle British cows emerging from the frosty mist that bear little resemblance to the heavy-headed eland I meet on my way to the farmhouse. This special place is wearying, but the moments of beauty I always refer to are now common, thanks to these little guys. Their delicacy is touching, and inspiring. What clever evolution, to make such survivors in a place like this.