There’s nothing like entering the world of a tiny meerkat on a walk across the Kalahari dunes just outside the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa.
So little Fizzle (a portmanteau name combining Fidget and Grizzle, which summed him up perfectly) came walking with us in the dunes. If we crouched down to look at a beetle track, he’d climb onto our knee to get a better look around, or he’d go digging for food in the track we were trying to identify. Since meerkats use their sense of smell to sniff out potential snacks under the soft sand, he’d occasionally dig like a madman with rapid movements of his long-clawed front feet. If he came up empty-handed, he’d glance over his shoulder as if embarrassed, and then scamper off to a new spot, head low, tail trailing, his butt higher than his head in the classic silhouette so characteristic of these little creatures.
Although he was still just a kid he was already catching his own food; the Prof was determined he should learn to fend for himself. If the tracks we saw were anything to judge by, the red dunes where we were walking were full of potential Fizzle meals, from trapdoor and buckspoor spiders to thick-tailed scorpions, dung beetles, cockchafers and armoured crickets. When he found a toktokkie beetle, he battered it a bit with his front claws before giving it a tentative bite. Only then did he bite down hard and deliver a sort of death shake. When he discovered some enormous sugar ants, he was careful to scrape them on the sand a few times before crunching down.
'That helps to wipe off the formic acid they use as a defence mechanism,' the Prof explained. Formic acid burns like hell, so it was obviously a lesson he had learnt the hard way.
If we stopped to talk about a spoor for too long, he’d sit back on his hind legs in a comical kind of 'lazy-sit' posture, slumping on his spine with his tail forward and front paws dangling. But let a bird of prey fly overhead, casting a slow shadow across the dune, and he was up and off in a flash, running for protection at the Prof’s side, pressing close to her leg. When she moved off again, it was as if he was pulled by an invisible string, an irresistible urge to follow and catch up with her before he started exploring again.
Walking in the dunes with someone who knew them as well as the Prof did was like learning to read the Dune Newspaper, interpreting the messages in the tracks left overnight by a springhare, striped polecat, pygmy gerbil, yellow mongoose, bat-eared fox, steenbok or small spotted genet.
We were even lucky enough to see Kalahari dune art in the form of flower-like tracks made by burrowing grasshoppers and dancing lady spiders.
But definitely the best part was spending time with Fizzle and learning about his meerkat world.
[Update 2021: Anne Rasa died in November 2020 but her son has taken over Kalahari Trails and the dune walks continue as before.]
In the Foreword, wildlife researchers and Kalahari boffins Gus and Margie Mills wrote: 'In this collection of superbly written Kalahari cameos and anecdotes, Roxanne takes us on a journey of her experiences through the Kalahari; most of them amusing, others informative and some rather disturbing. For those who have visited the park it will bring back memories ... For those who have not yet had the opportunity to experience it, it will whet the appetite.'