Of Polar Bears and Meerkats

Blog door: Juanita Volker

Partner van Talisman travel design

Juanita Volker is a guiding student at Tswalu, where she is shadowing the guides and is responsible for the meerkat habituation. This means that she spends many hours with the meerkats, so that they can get used to people. Our guests are then able to get up close to the meerkats without frightening them off.

In this blog she writes about her experience at Tswalu, and how she used to live and work on an icebreaker in the Arctic.

Juanita Volker geniet volop van haar bijzondere stageplaats bij Tswalu
Juanita Volker geniet volop van haar bijzondere stageplaats bij Tswalu

The calmness of the semi desert turned out to be quite an adjustment and a challenge for me. I had been living on board a small 146 metre icebreaker, an expedition ship focusing on both Polar Regions. As an adrenalin seeking naturalist, this was right up my ally.

We would set sail with the wind behind us, or sometimes with the wind hitting us astern or from the side. All my belongings (which I had forgotten to secure) would be flying out of my cabin into the corridor. I would sleep on the floor to avoid being flung out of bed, and not shower for days because the water wouldn’t flow downwards. We explored the remotest places, climbed the tallest mountain in the Arctic, enjoyed an adrenalin pumping encounter with a polar bear just 50 meters away while on foot.

The giant icebergs floating next to you make the ship seem like a dinky toy boat in a kid’s bath. I lived with 24 hours of daylight; hiked with the emperor penguins, and survived a polar plunge. The best memories I carry with me are lying under millions of stars, feeling the greatness of the ocean, and encountering all those wonderfully adapted animals.

Now here I am, sitting cross-legged on the magnificent soft orange sand of Tswalu Kalahari. The thorn of a camel thorn tree is poking me gently in my behind. Tiny black ants are crawling over my arm and two very annoying flies buzzing around. The sun is so bright that I double check the top of my cap to see where I put my shades only to realise I am already wearing them. My legs are orange from the sand. Luckily I still have half a bottle of frozen water.

There is not a breath of air. Around me are a group of meerkats foraging for the day. The alpha female has just had five adorable pups. They are with a babysitter, waiting at Hideaway Burrow. Suddenly a young sub-adult meerkat of four months comes up to my shoe. He looks up at me with his gorgeous big eyes. He wants shade and lies down next to me. Eagle-spread on the sand, he rests for a few minutes.

I am totally surrounded by the vastness of the Kalahari. It hits me then how incredibly privileged I am to experience this unique encounter. To have a blue wildebeest bull moan at me because I am on his path to the watering hole. To know that somewhere beyond those black thorn thickets south of me lies a relaxed desert black rhinoceros and her nine month old calf, waiting for the cooler evening breeze to settle in.

Above a camel thorn tree, just 20 metres away, the beautiful soul piercing eyes of a giraffe are peering inquisitively down on me. He slowly takes a step towards me, and I decide it would be safer to stand up and move a few feet back. The air is so still that I almost jump a metre high as a warthog snorts, and out dart the rest of her cute little piglets, fresh from their nap in a huge old aardvark burrow. Just their tail tuffs are seen bobbing in the tall grass as they hurry away.

Kudu, springbok, gemsbok, and the rare sable and roan antelope are but a few of my everyday visitors. Not to mention all the creepy crawlies, the shy nocturnals and the great Kalahari predators.

As sunset beckons I hurry back to the burrow with the meerkats. It’s another brilliant and intense African red-orange sunset. The last of the sociable weavers fly home overhead and the black-backed jackals sound their calls in the distance. I say goodnight to my dear furry friends as they head down the burrow for the night. The barking geckos are active and I can hear them all around me, though I have yet to see one.

As I drive home in my Land Rover I can’t help thinking how awesome my life is. I pass a herd of Hartmann’s mountain zebras making their way down the mountain, lit up by the full moon. I am living the dream! Life in the bush has been a beautiful journey of self discovery, of finding balance and harmony. Tswalu Kalahari is a wonderful place to increase wildlife knowledge and appreciation for all creatures big and small. A great place of habituation – where there is a relationship between people and wildlife based on respect and trust built up over a period of time. Above all else I have gained a huge sense of awe for the world we live in.

Tonight is the perfect evening for a camp fire and a glass of Amarula. Perhaps some tales of polar bears climbing icebergs, meerkats climbing trees, hair-raising lion charges, or the enormous spider that only visits after dark. Oh, and that flat tyre on a stormy, moonless night somewhere out there in the bush….

Beware. This life is addictive.

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