OnSafari: So Dry

OnSafari: So Dry

I have to constantly remind myself how wonderful – especially for first-timers – the dry season seems. To me it’s worse than the worst ever winter in Chicago; it’s earth challenging its own creation. What I see through the billows of dust are all the battles being lost to survive.

But the battles won are by the cats as they pick off the sick and wounded like turtles. For the cats it’s their heyday. That’s why the visitors love it so.

We were packing up all the lunch stuff on the top of Ngong Rock in the Moru Kopjes. The kids were still terrifying their parents by climbing the boulders. One or two people were taking last-minute pictures at the edge of the giant boulder overlooking the huge Ngong plain that sits just below the Singing Rock and which is about 200 feet above it. The view is fantastic.

I should have felt relaxed. Climate change is cruel here but when it isn’t cruel it’s unusually wonderful. That’s climate change, right? Extremes. So it’s supposed to be dry and dusty and ugly.

But here in the Moru some sudden cloudbursts had reversed for however short a time the cruelties of the dry season. More rain in two hours than the wet season’s normal two days.

We skidded through mud, forded little rivers, spent at least a couple hours on a rip-roaring four-wheel drive off-road roller coaster trying to cross a korongo (ditch) that would normally be dry. It was a blast!

The white moon flowers and tissue flowers had rebloomed! Fields and fields of them covered the plains just south of Seronera. Even the wild eggplant which should be dead to the earth in dust waiting for December was pushing out its iconic purple flowers with their tiny little yellow stamen.

The wildebeest were going nuts! We saw one file of 200 traveling south, one west, one east and other virtually all over the place. They had no idea where to go! But they were happy as larks prancing and jumping around just like Peter Mathiesen said, “Racing around the veld as if to dash their itchy brain on the rock.”

So I was folding up the one lunch table and 11-year old Emmett was behind me and several of my guys were putting the last of the glasses and silverware in the case. Suddenly, a low tonal rush of wind covered all the other bird sounds of the veld like darkness over noon.

Total silence in the middle of an African wilderness at High Noon is about the scariest thing imaginable.

I didn’t even think. Adrenalin fear twisted me around quickly enough to see the massive rush of wind push over the leaves and even some branches of a giant Ficus tree that had struggled to grow on the edge of our lunch-stop kopjes. The terror of the leaves smashing into each other was a sound that ended as quickly as it began.

Then silence, again.

Emmett looked scared and I realized he saw my face.

“Dust devil,” I tried to say plainly. “This is how they start.”

A moment later the twirling began and leaves and a paper napkin and other things started to whirl around just in front of us.

The guys and I instinctively started to grab everything. When a dust devil starts on you everything sucks away like up the center of a tornado. But moments later it moved off the rock onto the plains. We were OK.

The Maasai believe when this happens the spirits of the ancestors are portaled back to earth. They come for all sorts of reasons, to infect newborns with good spirit, to extract the remaining spirit from the dead, to knock sense into the stupid.

I’m still thinking about what they were doing with me. With my obsession with the horror of the dry season, perhaps it was something about that.

We moved south. The green disappeared. At Naabi Hill we climbed for an overlook of miles and miles of Serengeti from all sides. Where we were headed was total light brown, dozens of dust devils rising in its hazy cloudless sky. The high dust trails from rovers tagged the tourists traveling hither and yon and the whole horizon was filled with dust trails like fumes off oil rigs.

We arrived Ndutu in the southwest Serengeti, and despite really weird short drizzles over the last week, not a drop of water could be seen on the road. No flowers. Bird song was concentrated around the lodge’s bird bath and it had to be filled with 5 liters of water 4 times daily. It’s a wonderful site as the dozens of Fischer’s lovebirds flock to it, but the air was sucking up water like a vacuum cleaner.

At night in my bed it was still as tomb. When normally there would be zebra barking and lion grunting and jackal screaming, the only regular sound was the watchman’s thick rubber boot grating on the stone path.

Once maybe twice I heard a distant mournful whoop of a hyaena. It’s supposed to be dry, but not dry like this. Where did all the powerful, strong animals that have lived through decades of dry season go? The folks at the lodge said it was something they hadn’t seen before.

Climate change is mischievous in the parts of the world untouched by irrigation and weather control, much less prediction. It may have rained more than normal according to the newfangled gauges, but my goodness it’s then drier than anyone has ever seen. The animals tell us that.

What we see is often not what we should look for. I think that’s what the Maasai winds were telling me.