It began with a deep elephant-rumble; a shuddering that carried through the floor and up the wooden bedposts beside me as I lay sweating on top of my bedcovers, the spinning fan above my head. It’s been a hot summer with Wilderness Safaris in the Delta so far, one of the hottest and driest in many years, according to locals. We have had little spurts of rain, but nothing substantial in any of the areas I have visited so far (Chief’s Island and the western area of the Delta). There have been some almighty thunder and wind storms though! Last night my whole room –which is entirely open to the bush except for a mosquito net – was completely lit up by lighting. I held my breath as branches came crashing onto the deck and roof from the large sycamore fig beside my tent. Please may the whole tree not fall down! I thought. The wind was so fierce that it blew over some tall ornaments in the corner of the room and the lights swung rather unnervingly from the roof. It was utterly brilliant and I loved the thrill of it; breathing in each magnified sound and rejoicing at the drops of rain plopping against the canvas walls and the chorus of cicadas and toads. Yippee! Just what we need! With the rain came a welcome drop in temperature, but it didn’t last for long. The ‘real’ rains it seems are still to come.
During the summer months in the Okavango (November to March) the rains from Angola – giving life to the fan-shaped Delta – subside. Many animals return inland relying on the summer showers to fill up natural pans and turn the vegetation into lush, palatable grasslands. Many animals choose this time of year to raise a family. Impala, for instance, are well known for ‘holding on’, delaying birthing until the first good rains have fallen and then dropping their young ones simultaneously. By ‘flooding the market’, so to speak, they ensure that enough babies survive despite them being much-loved fodder for many predators including leopard, lion and wild dog. Although I’ve noticed the odd wobbly-legged youngster here and there, from what I have observed on game drives, most pregnant impalas are still waiting.
Another very patient creature is the termite. After the first significant downpour, termites send out their winged alates – or future kings and queens – to go forth and build their own mounds while the earth is soft and malleable. This causes an exciting protein-rich food-frenzy for myriad birds and other insect-eating creatures. Yet in the areas of the Delta that I have visited this November, this annual event has yet to unfold.
The drought has brought on some interesting phenomena though. The small amount of remaining water in dried-up pools has resulted in large concentrations of fish, inviting many birds to gather and gorge themselves. I’ve loved sitting at these little pools watching saddle-billed and yellow-billed storks, goliath herons, fish-eagles, pied kingfishers, hamerkops and great white pelicans. The latter are very interesting because many of these dedicated piscivores nest at the Nata River in the Makgadikgadi Pans and make daily journeys of over 600-700 kilometers a day to collect these trapped fish in the Delta. They leave early in the morning and return in the late afternoon to disgorge nourishment for their chicks. I’ve enjoyed watching some less-common species too, such as slaty egrets and wattled cranes, both considered threatened.
Then there are the breeding colonies or heronries where hundreds of birds gather to breed each year. Unfortunately these places are often on islands and not always easy to access for safari-lovers when the water in the Delta’s channels is low. There are 14 major heronries in the Delta where spoonbills, storks, darters and cormorants, among others species, breed together.
Another annual summer event is the arrival of the migrant bird species. African skimmers nest in sandy islands along main river channels and beautiful carmine bee-eaters breed in vertical sand banks. I haven’t seen either of these birds yet but that’s not surprising as they are more common along main rivers such as the Chobe and in the Linyanti areas where there are large sand banks (where I will visit in January). In the meantime I’m loving the trilling bright blue woodland kingfishers around camp and the yellow-billed kites, both from East Africa.
Something else I’ve noticed is the fires. These are peat fires often ignited by lightning or caused by a blockage in a river channel, which slows down the current and causes a patch of reeds to dry out. Methane gas from deep inside the peat creates hot patches resulting in smouldering fires. Interestingly, the nutrients released by these fires encourage the growth of grasses and are an important renewal process.
Along with the animals, trees and all living creatures in Botswana, I can’t wait to see the dry brown bush transformed into lush summer-green. We continue to wait, pray and hope!