The Rain Reigns

by Goliath Safaris • 20 November 2012

From Goliath Safaris - Nov 2012

Omnipresent thoughts of rain reign supreme in Mana at the moment. The heat is stifling, staggering and in many cases stupefying, and the arrival of the rain is fervently anticipated by the dry and parched earth, the new leaves on the dehydrated trees, the irritated feathers on the breathless birds and by every sense available to every starving mammal. Their dry throats, their itchy fur, their weeping eyes and scratchy beaks can now sense that it's not far off.

Gusting winds from the north east are the first messengers of this good news. In response, the rain trees immediately cover the floodplain with a welcoming carpet of tiny purple flowers and the coucals commence their aqua rain calls. Dark lavender clouds gather over the escarpment across the river, and after a tumultuous greeting, converge into a deep violet brooding mass of condensed moisture and pent-up energy, which within minutes generates crisp shards of lightning that electrify and illuminate the dark sky before flashing back down to earth to a thunderous applause. The dust that swirls between the trees takes on a lilac hue and everything's now a different shade of purple. Deep purple is the colour of an African thunderstorm and it makes our hearts smile and our shoulders relax. Man and animal alike, we know the treasure that is soon to come............ the inimitable and incomparable scent of the first rains.

The initial raindrops that splash heavily onto the arid floodplain unleash a unique and exquisite scent that can never be adequately explained or described. It's a scent that sets free in all of us, whether man, monkey or mongoose, a primal sense of well-being and comfort that once felt, can never be forgotten.  It smells of leaf litter, of minerals and nutrients, of decomposed animal bones, of unpolluted water and pure earth. It smells of paradise, of health, of happiness and good things to come. And most importantly, it brings with it utter relief for the fauna and flora of Mana.

Twenty twelve has been a hard year for the inhabitants of the floodplain, with a less than average seasonal rainfall contributing to the early drying up of the pans inland. This however has made for great game-viewing as the animals from deep in the Jesse and as far up as the escarpment have been forced onto the floodplain in their search for fresh water. Herds of statuesque sable and the occasional solitary duiker have crept into the Wilderness Area whilst groups of shy nyala bulls drink daily at Long Pool. The buffalo herds came down to the river early and in smaller numbers, and the hippos reversed the pattern and walked tens of kilometres each night back inland in search of groundcover. This season may be the driest in many years and grass is nowhere to be seen, but the albidas have not let the animals down with their plethora of protein-rich pods. The trees are still laden with them and the wind, together with the help of the big elephant bulls and fractious baboons, has helped scatter them on the ground below.

Against all odds nature has looked after it's own, and the animals have survived another dry and dusty season.

In terms of success, the lions have risen to the top of the pile this year. The two Backstreet Boy males have kept any pretenders to the throne at bay, and have managed to keep the Spice Girls and the five sub-adults and two cubs safely under their paws. Despite early altercations with the males of the Wilderness Area, they have managed a few externals to visit the Chiruwe lionesses and may even be the father of their two cubs. The Spice Girls have raised only two cubs between them but the Nyamepi pride now measures a healthy thirteen, a far cry from the scraggly group that they were a few years ago.

Speaking of scraggly, we are very happy to report that Granny (pictured above right), at aged nearly fifteen is still going strong. Between her and her daughter they have raised her little grandson Bertie into a healthy sub adult, this despite continual persecution from hyaenas and the Nyamepi pride who seem intent on harming him, despite the fact that they are family. Even Stretch, who has observed this pride for many many years, cannot explain this strange phenomenon. The Backstreet Boys have fathered all of these cubs and Granny is the matriarch of the pride, but they will neither accept nor help the hapless trio. It's heartbreaking to watch them try to survive on their own but this is nature and therefore not always understood by we humans, the lesser of all species. Anthropomorphism aside, we, as always, salute Granny and we cannot imagine a season without her.

Whilst on the subject of family dynamics, the wild dogs of Mana continue to be very successful and we hope that this status will continue. They haven't been seen as often this year as they constantly move around seeking quieter areas of the floodplain now that all of their pups are free-ranging. The healthy number of lions roaming around may also be contributing to their elusiveness. The Ellis Robbins gang numbers in the high twenties and the Chiruwe pack has managed to raise three of their original seven pups. Long may their success and non-harassment continue as Mana is one of the few remaining areas with healthy packs of wild dog.

Without doubt, the carnivores that we have most enjoyed spotting this season have been the leopards. The big male behind camp pads quietly past the tents each night, long after the snoring has begun, but the female who overlaps his territory is not as shy, often dropping by early in the evening or first thing in the morning. The prize for affability though must surely go to the photo-genetic and friendly little female from Mucheni. She'll happily pose for a photo shoot and gazes down at us with a mixture of feline curiosity and bemusement.

On the elephant front, Big Vic is still the grand old boy of the floodplain whilst JD continues on his delinquent path. Recently they treated us to a jousting match of stamina and strength in front of camp, with The Big Vic seeing off his younger contender without much trouble. The clashing together of tonnes of muscle and hundreds of pounds of ivory was a spectacle to behold and such a treat for us.  Boswell and Fred still have no challengers when it comes to getting up on their back legs and Stumpy Tail has finally had her calf, nearly three years after Stretch declared her heavily pregnant!

Little calves are tottering around all over the floodplain and are extremely vulnerable in these hot and dry times as they have vast distances to cover with the breeding herds, and of course there is the ever present threat of the male lions.  Fortune has smiled upon the small pockets of breeding herds though, as the extreme dryness of the season and the accompanying heavy winds have caused aged fig and albida trees to fall over or be uprooted, the latest victim being the enormous fig behind Mucheni 2. The ear-splitting sound of breaking boughs and the resultant crashing down onto the floodplain literally brings the elephants running and it's not uncommon to see over fifty of them enjoying the tasty new foliage and bark that is normally unavailable to them. Fresh food on tap in October for an animal that needs to consume an average of 150kg a day is a real treat. With inefficient stomachs, they only digest 40% of their meals, and so they must spend most of their day feeding, thus allowing little time for rest.  When they do, the calves huddle under their mother's legs for shade or lay down for short periods in order to conserve their strength for their walk down to the water. They'll never wander further than a few metres from her for the first two years whilst they suckle, and hence most survive these early stages of vulnerability. Having a cheeky elephant cow as a mother also certainly helps; she'll ferociously protect her progeny and those of her sisters, for life.

Finally on the birding front, our feathers are fluffed up with pleasure. We've crept up to a motionless Narina Trogan in the croton, been awed by the curve and skill of an avocet's bill at Long Pool and been dazzled by the colours of a new colony of Carmines in camp. Ponderous pelicans have dropped in for a rest and the Fish Eagle pair in front of camp has caught more fish than the guests. The Black-throated Wattle-eyes and Giant Kingfishers are territorially hysterical by day and the Pels Fishing Owl calls deeply from the forest at Gwaya at night. The African Skimmers fly low over the river at dusk whilst the Ground Hornbills begin their drumming way before dawn. Overhead the Open-bills and Marabous soar, and the kites and hawks hover above the wading herons and egrets. The jacanas dance over the lilies, the stilts stick to the edges, the ruffs and bitterns hide from the squabbling Egyptian Geese and it all keeps us twittering and twitching with delight.

See you all next season for another dose of Mana's magic!

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