In South Africa we are fairly lucky, in that natural disasters are not commonplace. We don’t have a Tornado Alley equivalent. Earthquakes, although the occasional tremor is felt, do not really have the potential to raze cities south of the Zambezi river, and the nearest active volcano is somewhere in East Africa’s Virunga Mountains.
Floods, however, do occur, and the most notably affected areas tend to be South Africa’s eastern watershed, where the higher rainfall combined with the runoff of the Drakensberg mountains can raise river levels until they are coming down in raging torrents. The year 2000 saw widespread flooding in the the Kruger National Park and Mozambique in particular, and driving through these areas one can still see signs erected to mark the highest levels reached by the flood. Although that was called the “100-year flood”, we barely had to wait a decade before the situation repeated itself, and in January 2012 a succession of tropical cyclones rolling in off the Mozambique Channel brought driving rain which deposited half our annual rainfall almost overnight.
Currently, the reverse is happening, with south Africa experiencing an incredibly dry year. The Sand River actually stopped flowing for awhile, and elephants and baboons, part of the bush’s workforce, were forced to dig for their water, excavating holes in the sand into which clear subterranean water seeped. Other animals were able to benefit from these tiny waterholes, and the riverbed surrounding these mini oases was dotted with the tracks of a multitude of game.
In the immediate aftermath of a flood, especially in a place like Londolozi, it is easy to mislabel what has happened as “destruction”, especially when viewing the huge piles of debris clogging up the riverbed, enormous Fig tress that have been scoured from the riverbank, and perhaps the odd carcass of a buffalo bull who was a bit too slow to vacate the riverbed. What we often fail to appreciate though, is the incredibly fleeting presence we occupy in the timeline of nature. A flood – juts like a drought – is a naturally occurring event that has taken place time and time again over countless millennia, and what it is more than anything, is change. This is not the time nor the place to get into a debate about global warming and the human population’s affect on world weather, I want to confine myself to commenting on what is taking place at the reserve, and what IS happening, is a beautiful transition in the riverbed itself.
The 2012 floods actually aided game-viewing around the river immeasurably, as a lot of clogged up vegetation was swept away and a large stretch of riverbed was opened up, with sandy beaches providing easier access for both vehicles and animals alike. Visibility was obviously increased as well, and whereas before we’d have views of the backs of elephants feeding in the palm thickets, now we suddenly had expansive views of them approaching and entering the river. Photographic opportunities abounded as a result.
The lack of water in the Sand River this season has provided a temporary window in which change can be effected by the plant life. Deposited seeds which were previously washed away by annual inundations have been granted a respite this year, and have established themselves with astonishing rapidity. Where before there were bare sandbanks upon which lions would lie in the evenings, there are now lush green pastures that see waterbuck, bushbuck and nyala spending much time out in the middle of the river, feeding on some of the best vegetation around.
Rain has been falling further to the west in the foothills of the escarpment, and the river level has been fluctuating over the past couple of weeks. The water has been flowing through a couple of clearly defined channels, not yet at a high enough level to spill out and cover the grassy verges. Will it reach a high enough level this season? Doubtful, but as I mentioned earlier, this is not a disaster. It is change. Whilst vegetation cover elsewhere is reduced as a result of the drought, it is flourishing in the riverbed, where access to underground water provides a more fertile environment.
The Sand River has always been one of the lifebloods of the Sabi Sand Reserve, and it seems certain that it will continue to be one as we go forward into the winter, albeit at a far more extreme level.