Floods January 2013

It's been a while since our last blog - mainly because our entries were beginning to resemble the work of a frustrated amateur weather reporter,  and I was getting tired of looking at the blue sky, day after day, wondering when, or IF, it would ever rain again! (My apologies to those readers who live in the UK, Nederlands and France, where I believe the sun has barely shone for 12 months and spring is very, very late now). 

Sure, we had early rains in October last year (after nearly 18 months of drought) that naturally had us prematurely jumping up and down in glee that the rainy season had finally arrived.  Even a drizzle at that stage would have elicited great whoops of joy!  By mid November there was little sign of any good October's rain had done:  still no grass, a few scorched weeds.  The few showers that followed were scattered on Sentinel, though in some places heavy, but none satisfied me that the drought was over.  December was dry.  By early January the vegetative growth of the previous two months crackled under my feet and one's steps were followed by little puffs of red dust as one walked.  So January would be dry too.  Resignation had set in.

I stopped weather-watching. I couldn't bear the disappointment!  Besides, there were more important things going on in my life.  Both my sons were entering university , the one for his second year in Game Ranch Management at Tshwane University of Technology, and the other entering Rhodes for the first time.  Both were looking for digs.  Digby was due for sinus surgery in January, and there was a lot of organising to do.  In camp, our Belgian friends made way for our English friends, who made way for the Tour de Tuli Cycle event recce team.  Life was busy.

In the meantime, dear old family friends, Dr Colin Didcott and his wife Linda, had been wanting to visit for ages,  so when the calendar opened up briefly, I said: "It's dry here. Sentinel is looking terrible! (Well, not as great as usual!)  Come anyway!" 

The summer heat was unbearable for the first few days of their stay.  Stiffling, hot, not a breath of wind....Would it ever end, this heat?  In the evenings while we swam in the pool and sipped our icey gin and tonics,  thunderstorms in the far off distance lit the evening horizon - too far to hear, creating silent shows of light in distant clouds at the bottom of the sky  like the little puffs of dust.

Over the week, the thunder storms drew closer, until one dusky evening, the winds blew up, and sand lifted off the dry river bed in waves and drove headlong at us through the bending trees on the bank, sending doves scattering from their perches.  A storm was on its way.  Digby and I woke to  the ear-shattering clatter of hard rain on our tin roof in the early hours of the morning. Thereafter it rained, and it rained and it rained.  No water had flowed down the Limpopo as yet, but we could hear the angry roar of the Phai River to the north of us as the sleepless night turned into day. By 8am the staff had not arrived - a sure sign that the Phai was in flood and the bridge impassable from the village on the other side. 

Adam and Tarquin were first out to inspect the river.   An hour or so behind them, the Didcotts and we arrived at the main road to see their Land Rover parked on an island of  compressed sand in the middle of it, brown muddy water flowing past on both sides towards the bridge further down; the two brothers in the distance, wading chest deep  through gushing waters that had broken the bank and were flowing in a huge milky brown sheet across the bush before us.  My heart leapt at the sight!  So much water!  So deep!

The boys thankfully retreated towards their vehicle, but we, still curious, stupidly forged ahead across the road and down the shortcut track that leads to the river crossing to camp. Still 200 meters off the bank we came around a bend in the road and saw before us the same sheet of water, at least a meter deep, surging across the track ahead.  Digby hesitated and in that instant the clawing, gelatinous black mud beneath us swallowed the Land Rover to its axles. 

The weather report suggested that more heavy rain was expected in the next day or two, and as Digby was due in hospital a few days later, we thought it wise to get off the farm while we could.  Adam left to go back to Pretoria, and Digby and I headed south with the Didcotts. Only Tarquin remained on the farm.

Three days later, Digby was in hospital under anaesthetic, and I was in Johannesburg having lunch with my former boss and her husband when the first call came in from Nottingham, our neighbours to the east: "It's been raining for two days.  The Limpopo is bank to bank.  A big dam has burst upstream in Botswana and a great wall of water is heading our way down the Shashi River and into the Limpopo.  The authorities have told us to evacuate!  We've been given 24 hours to move everything to higher ground!" 

Tarquin!  He's home alone!  Will his phone work? Is there power?  Will I be able to warn him? I apologetically abandoned lunch and left messages on Facebook for my teenage son.  "TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY! Move everything upstairs, or up a hill and then move out! Don't sleep at home!"

More calls: the South African farmer across the river, a friend's concerned daughter....

Well, as everyone knows by now, the dam didn't burst, and there was no wall of water - at least  not on our side of the river!  Tarquin spent the whole afternoon and next morning moving - everything.  He was so tired the next night that he went to bed as normal, but with his hand hanging over the edge of his bed, "just in case the water came up!" 

Sadly for them, our poor South African neighbours were flooded out of their homes,  they and their workers were evacuated by helicopter; wildlife, cattle and donkeys drowned by the hundreds; fields and orchards went under water, 15,000 crocodiles washed into the Limpopo from a crocodile farm upstream, and many of the safari camps in the Tuli Block of Botswana flooded out. 

Tarquin watched the water rise onto the lawn and wrap around trees on the bank.  He waited for the wall of water that never came.  He followed great big trees, one after the other,  glide past the house in the river's turbulance, and the helicopters whop-whop-whop back and forth on the other side.  He took photos, and swam in the water on the lawn.  Then the water subsided.  Still bank to bank, still surging, but safe.

We'd not seen such water levels in the Limpopo before, not even during Cyclone Eline in 2001!  The new pool cracked, and the roads and topsoil washed away.  But we got off lightly. 

Now Sentinel is green again.  A luscious, long-lasting luminous green.  The game is abundant, and wildflowers are everywhere.