Day Eight: Meerkat Adventures and Swartberg Pass
As the alarm went off this morning at 4 AM I thought to myself, I hope these meerkats are worth waking up at this ungodly hour…. We drove to the meeting point in the dark and followed a small train of cars with their lights through a plot of farmland. Meerkat Adventures is an interesting concept. This farmer´s land is apparently the only place in the world where you are almost guaranteed to watch the animals in their natural habitat. The business concept is pretty simple. Tourists come and sit around a meerkat burrow hoping to see the family emerge at sunrise while they warm up for the day. However, there are a few problems to that scenario: 1) there are few meerkat families on the property and only one used to the presence of humans 2) There are hundreds of burrows that they can spend the night in.
Meerkat Adventures solves this problem by tracking the animals in the evening to see what burrow they go in to spend the night. While in the burrow they sleep and they don´t awake until the sun comes out in the morning. They need the sun´s warmth in order to be able to move around and eat. After the meerkats are done warming up (this takes about 15 minutes) then they head off into the grass and won´t be seen again because they are so small, shy, and well-camoflaged.
We arrived at the field in time to see a beautiful sunrise while we had our tea and coffee and around 5:30 AM we marched to the burrow where our guide thought he had seen the meerkats enter the night before. The ten of us pulled out our lawn chairs that we were given and set them around the burrow. The group might have to sit there for a long time for the meerkats to come out, or, even more embarrassing, the tourists could all be sitting around the wrong hole. In that case, the other assistants go running around the field trying to spot the meerkats. Well, the sun had been up for about 30 minutes and we still hadn’t seen anything, so our guide started running like a crazy person to try and find the animals. He instructed us to stay put. About five minutes later one meerkat emerged from the burrow and stood on his tippy-toes pointing his stomach towards the sun. After a few minutes, another emerged from the hole, then another, then another. Meerkats are very shy animals but apparently this family is used to hearing human voices so we were allowed to talk. We were not, however, allowed to make fast movements because this might alarm them and cause them to hide.
The highlight of the event was when the baby meerkat came out and started to play around with the others. He was so cute!!!
I also loved how all the animals stood in a line and stuck their stomachs out to greet the sun, kind of like the Care Bear Stare. They don´t call them sun worshippers for nothing! The whole event lasted about 20 minutes and then the meerkats disappeared into the brush. Even with all that hassle, though, I definitely thought it was worth it. We returned to the hotel and Jon and I immediately went back to sleep for a few hours.
When we woke up again, Pepe took us on a drive through the Swartberg Pass, a winding through the mountains that is considered an engineering marvel. The drive was pretty intense and I´m glad I wasn´t driving.
We stopped in the cute town of Prins Albert for lunch at the historic Victoria hotel. We had some homemade ginger beer and tapas and headed on our way back to Oudtshoorn through a different pass and stopped at a beautiful waterfall on the way back called Rust en Vrede. We had to take a little path up the mountain a bit and found a great system of natural pools created by the waterfall. We cooled off in the water (super COLD) and basked in the sunlight on the rocks list before heading back to the hotel.
We capped off our day with a great meal at the best restaurant in Oudtshoorn, (according to Lonely Planet…) Jemima´s. Even though we were a little sick of eating rich food all the time, Jon loved his mussels in creamy white wine and garlic sauce and I enjoyed my steak. It was a delightful meal.