The sun is just beginning to light up the eerily white Makgadikgadi salt flats when I make like a mound. It’s quiet—deafeningly so—until I hear a series of squeaks coming from behind me. The meerkats are awake and slowly emerging from their underground den. Suddenly, a self-appointed sentinel looks up at me with tiny spectacled eyes before climbing up my body—all the way to the top of my head, where he stands guard.
My only movement comes in the form of a smile, one I can’t wipe from my face for the rest of the morning. I traveled to Jack’s Camp in this remote stretch of the Kalahari Desert to see meerkats up close, and here I am watching the sunrise with one on my head.
Even though Jack’s is sublime—think Hemingway’s Africa plus the sumptuous textiles that would’ve adorned the tent of a traveling maharajah—I doubt many first-time safari-goers end up in the barren land encircling camp. They’re in the Serengeti, Maasai Mara, or Kruger National Park spotting the big five. There are no rhinos here. No Cape buffalo. And I don’t think I’ll see any leopards. This place is all about meerkats—the energetic little carnivores made famous by Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor.
According to safari outfitter Ker & Downey, Jack’s Camp and its nearby siblings—San Camp and Camp Kalahari—are the only places in the world where wild meerkats use travelers for lookout points (like termite mounds, we offer heightened vantage points for spotting predators).
The meerkats living near camp became habituated to humans 13 years ago when researchers from Cambridge and Cape Town Universities came to Jack’s to study meerkat behavior. They never envisioned a mutually beneficial relationship with the vocal creatures, but the ingenious meerkats hopped aboard, paving the way for the unique experience I enjoyed during a recent trip to Botswana.