A Year in the Kalahari

Helen Johnson and her Meerkat - Sexy
Helen and her crazy meerkat – Sexy

Remoteness, like many things in life, is perhaps only a relative measure, writes Zoologist Helen Johnson who has just returned from a year in Africa.

Imagine a small reserve in the dry dunes and scrubland of the southern Kalahari Desert. There is no radio or television reception. No newspaper deliveries. During a year’s stay at the reserve one can expect about four excursions away from the site, most of which will be no further than the 3 hour drive to the nearest town. Relative to the daily bustle of city life this is way, way off the grid.

My time in the Kalahari was spent on a research project studying the behaviour of meerkats, a small mongoose, as portrayed by Timonin the Lion King.

(Discovery Channel – Wild Discovery: Meerkats – A Kalahari Saga – buy it from Amazon UK

Meerkats,Cohorts of the Kalahari – VHS – buy it from Amazon US)

In a year spent with fellow zoologists at the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa, one’s pace of life alters and so does perception of what’s important. Our work dictated that we follow natures cycles, rising just before dawn to be with the meerkats as they emerged from their sleeping burrows; retiring to the shade of the farmhouse during the heat of the Kalahari midday sun; and rejoining the meerkats for their evening forage, staying with them until they had all disappeared below ground for the cold desert night. As the rains and winds swept across the desert the meerkat’s daily routine adapted, and consequently so did ours.

Surprisingly as your pace of life slows to this remote existence you in fact become more productive. Everything that can be used and repaired is, imagination is tweaked by the need to provide entertainment, and every waking second seems filled with work or play. So the days pass slowly, and filled to the brim with activities, and yet looking back the time seems to have flown by.

When away from the hustle and bustle of modern day life one can’t help but reflect. Living so closely to nature one realises just how unimportant we really are whether we are there to watch or not nature continues in its awe-inspiring cycles. Similarly one returns to the human world to find the same manmade rhythms in place. There are the same disheartening headlines about wars still raging, alongside those concerning the latest events in celebrities life’s. Friends are still working away at their jobs and life continues.

So what can a year in the Kalahari dunes do for a person? It offers the opportunity to step back from the here and now of the day to day pressures of modern life. Gives one time to admire the grandeur of nature and realise that life goes on no matter what. So it is certainly worth stepping back to enjoy it.

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