Leaving the Kalahari

I just had my last session with Sequoia, and it hardly seems real that I’m leaving tomorrow. The last two weeks have been incredible – as challenging, rewarding and exciting as any I’ve spent here. Nature at its best and its worst – on the same day I was lucky enough to see a bat-eared fox in the wild as I walked to Ewoks in the early hours, a rare privelege for any animal lover – and then watched Sancerre abort her entire litter in the evening as Lydia and I could only look on in shock. Life goes on at the meerkat project.

Leaving here is the end of an era for me. It marks the end of my PhD fieldwork, which nudges me not-so-gently into my final year, and write-up time. Already?! I’ve spent a total of 7 months here, a drop in the ocean of Kalahari time, but a significant chunk of my life so far, and I will miss it and all its harsh beauty. It is too big to reflect upon, and too big a part of my life to compartmentalise to just one part. It goes without saying that I’ll remember it forever – one of the landscapes that is simply now a part of me.

I drove back to the farmhouse this morning via Big Dam and the Lazuli flats, and met Marta on the road. I stopped to offer her a lift.

“Was that your last session?” she said. “Wow.”

“Maybe I’ll come back one day,” I said, knowing in my heart that it’s unlikely to be the case.

“Maybe,” she said. “But if not, you will have something else exciting ahead.”

A nice way of looking at it. Perhaps leaving here will be the bigger adventure.

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Last few weeks

We heard of Barack Obama’s victory in the field as the news was passed along our radio line, and it was strange to visualize my trajectory from 4 years ago to here – from sitting on the edge of a seat (and the edge of a new, hopeful era) in a St Andrews common room, to walking a fenceline with a group of meerkats.

I’m coming to the end of my time here, and it’s sad to contemplate saying goodbye to the Kalahari after all this time, for the last time. It always feels like it has more to give me: yesterday Drie took me somewhere I’d never been, a low flat grassland, and in the evening my beloved Sequoia took me back to my favourite spot on the reserve, a burrow on the top of the dunes at Sandy Hill. The meerkat project has been a home for me for a cumulative total of 7 months – the merest blink of an eye in the timeframe of this ancient place, but a significant landmark in my twenties.

I have two weeks left to wind up my data collection, now focused on looking at females in the later stages of lactation and allolactation (when pups are being fed prey items and no longer rely on milk as a primary food source) and once they’ve stopped suckling completely. The females have been slow to stop lactating, so there is still lots to do and collect in my final fortnight. But at this stage I’m hoping just to make it to the finish line! I’ve developed some kind of RSI-type strain in my shoulder as a result of spending 5 hours solidly with my arms locked in one position, holding my PSION data-collecting computer at chest height, which is causing me a lot of pain – that, and I’m just exhausted, tramping through the dunes and now getting up at 4.30am 6 days a week. I can’t stress enough how much I take my hat off to our excellent volunteers who do this for a full year.

I had good news yesterday, ensuring that I’ll leave with a smile – new parentage data shows that Tobermory and the rest of the pups I named in that litter weren’t fathered by Finn McCool, the evil dominant meerkat at that time, but by Bramley, a lovable rover from Frisky and one of my favourite meerkats ever! Tracking Frisky in the afternoon, quite often I’d be joined by Bram returning from a foray, and the two of us would seek the group together. It was a lovely reminder that I’ve got history in these dunes now too, and with this population – and leaving is no hardship with fun memories like that.