The weather. A topic of conversation that is had daily, all over the world and Londolozi is no different. In fact, we are in an industry that is directly influenced by it every day. Animal’s behaviour and their level of activity correlates strongly to temperature. We also need no reminding that rainfall plays a major role in the overall health of the landscape we get to enjoy on a daily basis. While monitoring the daily weather changes can be quite entertaining, it has been fascinating to watch the long term climate changes during my last few years here in the Lowveld.
Geography was one of my favourite subjects at school and somewhere in that coursework, we covered the phenomenon of El Nino and la Nina, the yin and yang of a natural climate event that cycles across the globe roughly every decade. Back then, it was all buried deep in my textbook but only recently I have begun to witness its influence on our country first hand.
Arriving at Londolozi in early 2018, the last remnants of the 2015 – 2017 drought were still clearly visible. Despite it being the end of summer (our rainy season), the land was not nearly as lush and green as I had expected it to be. Seasoned rangers that had been working at the lodge prior to the drought showed us images of what looked like the Garden of Eden; lush green fields of wildflowers, heavily flowing riverbeds and densely vegetated, even impenetrable thicket lines. A land of plenty. What happened? Why had things changed so drastically? Was it global warming? I wasn’t quite sure.
Then, one cold winters evening, while having a whiskey in the Varty boma with long-time former ranger Sandros Sihlangu, who is a man of few words, things started to fall into place. I brought up the weather with Sandros and tried to get an idea of what he thought had caused the changes I described above. His response was simple; “It happens”, he said, gesturing with his hand in an up and down waving motion, “the rains will come and bring floods and make the land thick and green but only for a couple of years. Then it slowly goes away, things get dry and everyone panics and calls it a drought. But the rains, they always come back.” This account was through pure observation by Sandros who had grown up and worked in this area. But it took me back to my geography classroom at school and prompted some further reading into El Nino and la Nina.
Interestingly, this weather phenomenon originates on the other side of the world, in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean but ends up affecting weather patterns across the globe. Details of what actually goes on can be quite scientific and drawn out so I’ll try to summarize it as best I can.
Under neutral conditions, there is a dominant trade wind that blows west over the Pacific Ocean (and around the whole planet for that matter). This wind has an effect on the ocean’s temperatures causing the upper level of warmer water to be pushed west with the winds from the Americas, towards Asia. The warm water is replaced by ‘upwelling’ cold water from the depths. This state of equilibrium is broken on a cyclical basis by El Nino and la Nina. El Nino refers to the period when the dominant westerly winds weaken and the ocean temperatures level out across the Pacific. La Nina on the other hand is when these winds strengthen, pushing even more warm water towards Asia, causing greater upwelling in the eastern Pacific.
Amongst other things, these varying ocean temperatures have a huge effect on rainfall, not just in the Americas and Asia but across the world, and they affect each region differently. Here in South Africa though we know El Nino to bring warm, dry conditions while la Nina brings with it cooler and wetter weather. While they do exist on a cyclical basis, their patterns are still rather unpredictable.
As put by the National Ocean Service (USA) website; “Episodes of el Nino and la Nina typically last nine to twelve months, but can sometimes last for years. El Nino and la Nina events occur every two to seven years, on average, but they don’t occur on a regular schedule.”
The drought that was experienced across parts of the country between 2014 and 2017 saw the Western Cape declare a critical water crisis while here at Londolozi, the land was left parched and baron. But these seem to just be mere memories now as we sit watching the Sand River bursting its banks. Sandros’s prediction in the Varty boma that evening four years ago seems to be holding true.