Relief - Soaking Rains!

October on Sentinel Ranch is traditionally a “grin-and-bear- it” month: crack-dry, windy and dusty. This year, more than any other in my memory, it has been just that. 


With little rain to speak of for over eleven months, we watched helplessly as the grazing that had carpeted the land from two previous abundant rainy seasons was scorched and disintegrated under the hot 2011-12 summer sun.  The slow progression of the seasons, from summer to autumn to winter seemed to grind to a frustrating, nail-biting halt as we counted the days towards spring and an anxiously anticipated, all-reviving rainy season. 


A number of our life-sustaining perennial springs dried up this year, causing game to concentrate around the few remaining water points where the barren earth and browse around them, in ever-widening circles, were expected to provide to the last. 


A sure sign of pressure on the land are the pale, fibrous scars on numerous once glassy-smooth grand old baobabs where nutrition-stressed elephants have gouged their tusks into the sweet hide-flesh, ripping long strips off with obvious and destructive force.  The baobabs resisted to the end, clung hopelessly and in vain to their smooth grey cloaks where now only pale, sinuous tatters remain. 


All our trees took a beating as elephants were forced to make use of remaining resources proffered in the mopani belts, now broken, stunted and hurt. The lacy crowned commiphoras lie awkwardly sideways, roots exposed and gnawed.  Nearly every tree too large to be pushed down shows evidence of frustrated elephants feeding hungrily on its bark: the weeping boer-bean, the massive winterthorn, the marula. Many have been ring barked. Of those, most, tragically, will die.


Even our beautiful lush forest of malala palms, electrically fenced off to keep the elephants out, has not escaped unscathed.  The handfuls of pachyderms that braved the hot wires wreaked havoc. Anyone who has driven through it these past few months will attest to the tornado-like destruction they have caused:  palms lie trashed in their hundreds - deep, brown and dead on the forest floor, sacrificed to the elephants for their hard, sweet-tart fruit that hung in grape-like bunches on high, and their pineapple-flavoured sap stored deep in their leafy stems. What remained of their greenery at ground level has been chewed to shreds by the buffaloes.


Yes, it has been a long, trying year. 


Three nights ago though, Sentinel received rain.  Good, soaking, life-giving rain.  The rivers and streams flowed. The rushing waters flushed the leaf-scattered beds clean, depositing grey litter and dark wet lines high up on their banks and left glittering, sky-reflecting pools in their depths.


The birds have come alive, and everywhere there is a cacophony of song.  The migrant redchested cuckoo (evidenced by its echoing piet-my-vrou call) has arrived, as have the aerobatic and swooping European swallows over the wheat fields. As I sit at my desk I hear the happy chip-chip-chipping of a blue grey flycatcher, the croaking duet of two tropical boubous, the songs of puffbacks, kurrichane thrushes, blackheaded orioles and orange-breasted shrikes.


Of all the songs in the bush, the loudest of all is a pervasive, eerie, whispering sigh of relief.


The elephants have vanished.  Dispersed and gone.  Even their winding flat-footed silver trails have disappeared in the washed dirt.


Not yet has the land turned green, but one can almost hear it happening.