South Africa is rightly proud of its animal kingdom. The rand (South African money) features big game animals on all its various banknotes - the rhinoceros, the elephant, the lion, the buffalo, and the leopard. The Big Five, as they're called by big-game hunters, are the focus of most every African safari.
But the two weeks I spent in South Africa this spring happened to fall outside of the safari season, so I have no sightings to report of any of the Big Five. But what I missed out on in scale, I more than made up for in animal novelty. I'm talking about dozens of meerkats on the prairie, penguins on the beach, and baboons on the highways - all living in the wild but all also close enough for me to touch ... if I dared, which I wisely didn't.
In addition to these encounters with my own personal Big Three (baboon, meerkat, and penguin), I was lucky enough to also spot turtles the size of manhole covers lumbering through the brush, mountain-goat type creatures high in the Swartberg Pass, hundreds of ostriches being raised on farms, and countless unusual birds flitting everywhere. Without even trying, I got a great sense of just how exotic and plentiful the animal world of South Africa is, even without the big game animals.
Here's a representative sampling of photos of my Big Three - the meerkat, the baboon, and the penguin.
We had to get up at 4 in the morning in order to meet our guide in time for a pre-dawn hike into desert prairie land near the town of Oudtshoorn. An extended family of meerkats, about 20 strong, including a trio of newborns, live together in a series of underground burrows. We had to be there before the sun rose to watch the meerkats' morning ritual.
First, a single meerkat pops his head out, to check for the first sign of sun.
A little later, a few more meerkats brave the chilly exposure but they soon all huddle around each other to stay warm.
We humans are bundled up too.
Gradually, more and more meerkats stand on their hind legs to await the sun.
Then BLAM, the sun hits them all with full force. They stand at attention, the better to soak up the warm rays.
Like father, like son? All meerkats must learn to stand on their hind legs in order to better survey their surroundings for predators. They have binocular-like vision but they need to literally extend themselves to see over the brush.
While most of the adults spend the day foraging for food, some must stay behind to babysit the youngsters.
We'd only been in South Africa a couple of hours when we drove by a highway sign: Beware of Baboons. We had a good laugh and continued on our merry way, at about 70 miles an hour. Then as we drove around a blind corner in the mountains, we suddenly had to swerve and brake. A dozen baboons had appeared out of nowhere - some were sitting on top of the guard rail screeching, others were scampering back and forth on the roadway, and still others perched on rocks jutting out of the side of the mountain, peering down at us quizzically. We were so caught of guard by this, none of us thought of taking a picture. But the next time this happened, about a week later on a completely different stretch of road, we were ready.
You can't help but realize just how far south SOUTH Africa really is when you come across a full blown colony of penguins. These jackass penguins, yes, that's their name, live on a stretch of the Cape (of Good Hope) Peninsula called Boulders Beach. They number about 3000 and can wander freely about this now protected natural environment.