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TThere is something magical about watching a meerkat greet a new day, and the experience is waiting for you in Western Cape province’s Little Karoo.
Go out before sunrise on De Zeekoe Guest Farm outside Oudtshoorn on Route 62, and you’ll encounter meerkats in a non-invasive way, gaining a real insight into their lives within their natural habitat.
Meerkats hate the cold, so they’re only up once sunlight hits their burrow. By then, you’ll be seated on portable chairs in a semi-circle, and you’ll have had had a full rundown on meerkats and their intriguing lives.
Actually, only one meerkat will come up initially – the sentinel. She’ll face the sun, arms at her side, absorbing heat through her ‘solar panel’ – the dark patch on her belly. You’ll see her head swivelling, her dark eyes moving ceaselessly back and forth. She will study the people, then the surrounding bush, then gaze at the skies, on the lookout for the meerkats’ most feared foes – birds of prey.
Then, one at a time, she will be joined by the others, and as sentinel she’ll give a quiet, regular chirrup, reassuring them that all is well. Zoologists call it ‘the Watchman’s Song’. They will all line up to greet the sun and warm up. Meerkats don’t have much fat at all, so they rely on the sun to rev up their metabolisms, somewhat like reptiles.
This colony of a dozen or so meerkats at De Zeekoe is habituated to humans. So while they won’t necessarily scamper up to you, they won’t run for the hills either, as a normal wild troop would.
After the warm-up, some of the younger meerkats will start to play. The adults will start digging here and there for grubs, and the meerkats will disperse into a loose group (still guarded by the sentinel, still incessantly scanning the horizons and skies).
And you’ll follow them for a while, learning something about a day in the life of a meerkat troop.
When it’s time to go, you’ll leave them to their mad scrabbling and insect hunts, and soon they’ll be all but invisible behind the short Karoo shrubs.
Meerkat encounters are just one of the things to do on Route 62, which meanders through the Little Karoo from Montagu to Humansdorp offering wine tours, ostrich farms, hiking, mountain-biking, 4-wheel drive trails and adventure sports, horse-riding, traditional arts and crafts, museums, historical sites and cultural tours, safaris, angling and even sky-diving.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Cell: +27 (0)84 772 9678
De Zeekoe Guest Farm
Tel: +27 (0)44 272 6721
Cell: +27 (0)82 584 9957
How to get here
The closest airport to Oudtshoorn is George, about 65km away. (George is in the centre of the Garden Route). From George take the N12 north over the mountains through the spectacular Outeniqua Pass. Depending on photographic stops, it will take you under an hour to get to Oudtshoorn.
If you’re coming from Cape Town, it is about a 5-hour drive along the R62. From Port Elizabeth, it’s also just over 5 hours’ drive. Take the N2 westwards and at George, take the N12 north. De Zeekoe is only 8km from the western edge of Oudtshoorn, along the R328 to Mossel Bay.
Best time to visit
You can visit the meerkats any time of year. They rise later in winter (April to September), and they stay underground if it’s raining, which in these parts is also more likely in winter.
Around the area
Popular attractions around Oudtshoorn include the world-famous Cango Caves, the Cango Wildlife Ranch and, of course, ostrich farms.
Tours to do
If you’re staying at De Zeekoe, you can go on a tour of the farm, either towed by a 1958 tractor or on horseback.
Once you’ve parked your car near the meerkat colony, Devey Glinister will guide you on a short walk to the burrow.
Length of stay
The meerkat experience lasts about 3 hours. But there’s so much to do around Oudtshoorn that you could easily spend a few nights here. Also, if the weather is inclement, you may miss the meerkats on the first morning, so perhaps book a stay of at least 2 nights.
What to pack
In summer (October to March), bring a hat – and sunscreen all year round. In winter (April to September) bring your warmest gear, including beanies, gloves and warm socks. Don’t forget your camera.
Where to stay
De Zeekoe has excellent accommodation varying from luxurious to comfortable. Alternately, Oudtshoorn has many options.
What to eat
When in Oudtshoorn, try ostrich meat, which is lean, tasty and low in cholesterol. Karoo lamb, which gets its distinctive flavour from the drought-adapted vegetation that sheep graze on in this region, is also a speciality.
Oudtshoorn hosts the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (‘Little Karoo National Arts Festival’) – a cultural festival celebrating the Afrikaans language – every year in March.
Ostrich meat, ostrich biltong, ostrich feathers, ostrich feather-dusters, and ostrich-egg shells (decorated or plain).