“Drought” is a negative word, with many negative connotations. Lack of rain, water shortages, poor grazing, crop failure… the list goes on.
As many are aware, this El Niño year has turned global weather on its head, with flooding in some areas and extended droughts in others. South Africa experienced its driest year since records were first kept (1904, if I remember correctly), and this has had huge impact across the sub-continent. The bush did not go unscathed, and following on from a poor rainy season over the Summer of 2014-2015, the Lowveld was ill-prepared for the blazing Summer skies it experienced over the last few months. While Londolozi typically receives around 550mm of rain a year, two seasons ago only 350mm fell and this year only around 100mm had fallen by late February, a time when the rainy season is coming to a close.
Thankfully, come late February, we were blessed with a number of downpours that transformed the bleak landscape we had gotten so used to into the verdant green that we generally associate with this time of the year. Everyone was happy, the general game flocked back in to take advantage of the lush new grazing, and photographs that previously had been dominated by dull browns and sparse, sandy vistas now had a whole kaleidoscope of greens and colour in them.
Grass grew, termites emerged, the Sand River came down strongly.
It was only after all the change had occurred that one was fully able to appreciate just how bleak things had been, and how much of an effect the drought had had on all spheres of life out here, from the smallest creatures to the biggest.
Birds had been unable to build their nests because of the lack of grass, so the bustling weaver colonies around the big waterholes remained unoccupied. Very few leaves meant very few bugs to eat them, and without their food supply a lot of the migrant birds departed early for northern climes. Buffalo were looking particularly skinny, and the poor warthogs, whose digestive tracts are probably the least efficient out here, were forced to feed from early morning well into the evening in order to keep their nutrition intake at an adequate level.
But driving around, basking in the radiance of the new-look Londolozi, it struck me that the drought did, in fact, have one or two things going for it.
I’m not going to go into why it was of ecological benefit, weeding out the sick and the weak and creating a stronger gene-pool, etc., etc. You can read about that stuff elsewhere. No, my reasons for missing the drought are purely my own, but I’m sure a number of guides in the area will sympathise with what I’m talking about, so here goes:
- Hay fever
An absolute nightmare in summer. If you suffer from hay fever as I do, then surely a drive through the lesser-used parts of Londolozi are some sort of private hell when the grass is at its longest! Roads that have not been driven for weeks have grass growing higher than the bonnet of the car, and you can literally see little pollen explosions bursting above the bull-bar to drift back into you, causing a runny nose and itchy eyes that you rub raw within minutes! I will literally go through three packs of tissues in a morning through blowing my nose, and although I know you can take antihistamine tablets to combat hay fever, I invariably forget each morning and curse myself when I’m five minutes out of camp and the inevitable symptoms start. So yes I’m happy the grass is growing again and the grazers have nice food to eat once more, but the dry period we’ve just emerged from was, as far as hay fever was concerned, a far happier time for me.
2. Road Hazards
Millipedes and Dung Beetles. Along comes the rain and out come these two little creatures, in their thousands! The millipedes subsist mainly on damp and decaying vegetation while the dung beetles need…well…dung. Both are only really active after the Summer rains, so whereas during the drought one could drive the Londolozi roads almost with impunity, now once more the dirt tracks have become our own special version of dodgem cars. You will be driving along chatting with your guests when out of the corner of your eye you spot a small black shape or round dung ball with attending beetle, which necessitates a sudden swerve, most likely sending the tracker flying off his seat, cameras crashing onto the floor, and in all likelihood a hastily muttered then covered up expletive. Needless to say, time spent scanning the surrounding bush for animals has definitely been curtailed thanks to the re-emergence of these little critters.
A few days ago, Garrett Fitzpatrick and I went out by ourselves to track the Mhangeni pride. Full of confidence and swagger, we didn’t figure it would be too tough to track a number of lions through relatively sandy terrain. Recent rains had left beautiful patterns on the soil, and the waving lines seemed to indicate a softness to the ground. Not so. Sand that was nice and yielding just after the last downpour had now been baked to a similar consistency to brick. The big felines had walked through an area which under normal circumstances would have offered up nice clear tracks, but now presented a situation that was so difficult to follow through that Garrett and I were high-fiving each other after following the tracks for only about 100m. Too be frank, any real tracker would have probably had no difficulty staying on the trail, but with the rain washing away the dust layer, and the combination of sun and moisture being akin to sending the earth through a kiln, tracking is suddenly an occupation only for those who really know what they’re doing. During the drought, I could at least put on the pretence of being able to track something. Now I’m forced to leave it to the guys in the big leagues. Annoying.
4. I Can’t Spot Things Anymore
With a serious lack of ground cover and minimal leaves on the trees during the drought, the playing fields were slightly levelled when it came to spotting things out in the bush. Along similar lines to easier tracking conditions , so too did the rangers have a chance at spotting something before the eagle-eyed trackers while the bush was open. It doesn’t happen often, I can tell you. Visibility was at a maximum, and one didn’t need superhuman powers of sight to spot a lion at 200 metres. Now that the plant life has erupted once more though, things have swung heavily back in favour of the men perched on the bonnet, and while us mere mortals probe the bushes desperately seeking a single rosette of a leopard hidden in the dense canopy of a Jackalberry, it’s business as usual for the like of Mike Sithole, Lucky Shabangu, Euce Madonsela and the rest as they prove themselves time and time again to be amongst the best in the business, finding the predators that people come from all over the world to see.
5. Tougher to Subliminally Suggest a Gin and Tonic
If anyone has ever watched Derren Brown doing his thing, you’d know just how effective the powers of suggestion and mental direction can be. Brown is no magician, yet performs amazing feats through subtle manipulation and the power of the mind.
Now as one can imagine, a dry and parched landscape is conducive to making one thirsty. By simply touching on the state of the bush, the dryness, and general lack of moisture (the same thing repeated many times in slightly different wording), it is quite a simple thing to awake a thirst in the guests, and the suggestion of anything even vaguely resembling a Gin and Tonic will be greeted with rapturous applause and an immediate descent upon the coolerbox.
Ok whether there’s a drought or not is actually a moot point, as a Gin and Tonic is always welcomed out here and whether it’s pouring with rain or the sun is blazing, a G&T on safari is pretty much the quintessential drink.
Those are just a few reasons off the top of my head.
In all seriousness I’m thrilled the drought has broken. Life is burgeoning once more and the bush is looking fantastic. The aesthetic appeal of the Lowveld at this time of year cannot be overstated, and over the next month I’m sure you’ll see a marked difference in the colour and vibrancy of the photos featured on the blog.
We could still do with some more rain to push us into the real dry season, so let’s see what happens over the next few weeks…