The dry season is definitely over in all of East Africa, the rains have been heavier than usual almost everywhere, the plains are spectacularly green and even here half a world away I can hear the veld sighing relief.
From Nairobi to Dar, the Serengeti to the Mara, Samburu to Tsavo, rain is falling and sometimes although not surprisingly now with the vengeance of global warming.
An incredible 2″ of rain fell in only 3 hours recently on what may be my favorite lodge in all of Africa, Ndutu in the Serengeti! The torrent was just reported by the owner, Aadje Geertsema, and bodes extremely well for upcoming Serengeti safaris.
The start of the rains, the certainty that they will continue and aren’t just a flash in the pan, is one of the most important moments of the entire year in East Africa. Yes, relief, but a certain kind of relief, the kind that unstops all the energies and ideas that you were holding back for fear of a drought.
“After about the third downpour a few weeks ago, the trees, bushes, and grasses shed their thick layers of brown dust and showed their true lush green beauty,” writes a missionary working on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“The rains have come to the desert!” a volunteer nurse in Kenya’s north writes recently. “Rain brings life. Camels can drink, produce milk, and move again.”
I remember my first year in Africa, 1972. We arrived at the start of Kenya’s mini dry season, the end of its “short rains.”
Note most of East Africa has only a single, long rainy season the first half of the year, but in areas north and east of Nairobi where it rains less, the “February lull” in the long rainy season becomes distinctly a dry season that splits the first half of the year into two seasons: The Short Rains (Nov-Jan) and the Long Rains (Mar-Jun).
So, naturally, I thought this was how Africa was supposed to be: hot, dry and dusty! We hadn’t been working too long before the “Long Rains” came, so the contrast hadn’t much time to rivet my soul one way or the other.
But then the Long Rains stopped, as they do throughout all of East Africa, in June sometime, and at first you don’t think much about it. In fact, it’s so welcomed that you don’t have to continually wipe mud off your shoes before stepping inside and that the trek into the market isn’t a slipslide affair.
Moreover, the end of the Short Rains prompts the sea of grasses and gargantuan bushes to flower and seed, so it’s a strikingly beautiful time. In many places in the Serengeti the bright yellow bidens bidens – a smaller, thinner version of the American dandelion that is more like an aster – covers the plains for miles and miles.
But the welcome end to the mud season and the fields of beautiful flowers doesn’t last very long, and by the end of June the veld is brown, dry and dusty … everywhere. It’s cool in June, cold in July but then by August Mother Nature starts to fidget and grumble. The heat grows quickly. Anything in the road ditches that had found bits of water to grow beautiful wilts and dies.
In the great plains game parks predation reaches its peak and the predators grow fat and sassy. But the rest of the game begins what seems like an interminable struggle to live. Wildebeest like chickadees here at home in late fall foraging the last of the thistle before the frost, race useless from place to place, a glint of green grass in their peripheral version prompting some hope.
Many of the ungulates grow so thin you can see their ribs. Forest creatures do better, because the forest never totally browns out. It’s on the great plains, like the Serengeti, where the bitter reality of no rain cuts so harsh.
And over time, as the game increased and man increased next to it, new struggles developed.
“Eventually the grazing pressures increases,” Aadje explains. Maasai herders and their cows and cattle “clash with lions.” Lions kill their stock; they kill lions. “I suppose these incidents have taken place over many years in the past.” Aadje reflects, “and I am always much relieved for all parties when the first rains arrive.”
As Aadje waits anxiously at the end of the dry season for the rain clouds to form and the Maasai and their herds to leave, I would rest on a termite mound behind our house staring at the sky as if that would create clouds out of a blazeningly pale blue wash bereft of a single speck of anything but the underside of a relentless sun.
Even the birds it seemed had stopped flying. No wind, no breeze, just hot. And then, just when you were about to give up any hope and were certain a drought had begun, I would wake in the mornings to the surprisingly melodious cursing of farmers as they whipped their oxen to pull old plows through rock-hardened soil. They knew.
And then, “The rains have come, anyone got a spare ark?” writes British volunteer Dan Jones of the torrents that fell as if on cue onto Nairobi last week. And Nairobi’s “horrendous traffic gets worse,” power outages increase, football stadiums become swimming pools.
Oh, those poor city folk!
But on the veld, the Maasai return to their traditional grazing grounds, the great herds come into Ndutu and the lions feed on them. Baby impala and wildebeest and gazelle and zebra appear and frolic in the puddles.
The rains have come. Nature is reset.