The smell of the rain

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Intrigued by accounts of a secret migration, Laura Griffith-Jones heads to Botswana’s Chobe floodplains and the Boteti River to be dazzled by zebra

HR_Richard-de-Toit_RdT_21A gigantic slurping awakens me from my contemplation — not so dissimilar to the noise of a plughole greedily sucking dirty dishwater into oblivion — and I glance around sharply. An elephant is standing a couple of hundred yards away, glugging the contents of my plunge pool. Once finished, she slowly and silently plods to the next room along to empty theirs.

“This happens all the time”, laughs Cathy Rann, Ngoma Safari Lodge’s relief manager, more amused than vexed. “There’s nothing you can do other than wait for them to move on and deal with the destruction then.” As if on cue, the great pachyderm snaps off a few branches unapologetically, chews them distastefully and spits them out, before lumbering down the vertiginous slope to a pitiful waterhole beneath the lodge. Once there, she takes deep swigs of the cool water. Soon others arrive; one by one they pause by each plunge pool to check for dregs, cross the burnt-umber lands to the dwindling lagoon where, with relief, they spray their vast, sunbaked bodies with the cool mud and slurp thirstily.

Nearby, the Chobe River trickles by lethargically, and beyond it Namibia’s straw-yellow Caprivi Strip stretches out to where the horizon meets a darkening sky painted with apricot brushstrokes. The ground is so dry that it feels as if a single match might ignite the entire landscape. “Suicide month,” Cathy says, as we sit in deckchairs, taking in the magnificent views from the decking. It is October in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the hottest month of the year, and despite my ice-cold G&T, small droplets are beading on my forehead. At this time of year daytime temperatures hover around 40°C. Vegetation has dried up, and most natural pools have evaporated, so animals congregate around the only remaining water sources. Desperation hangs heavy on the air, like a bad smell. But if you can tolerate the relentless heat, wildlife viewing is superlative now on the banks of the Chobe.

The park is home to an impressive 17,000 elephants, 850 giraffe, 2300 impala and the same number of buffalo, according to last year’s dry-season aerial survey, but I am here to see the Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga), a subspecies of the plains zebra. These animals are often overlooked by safari-goers, but to watch them charge across parched lands, hooves thundering, black-and-white streaks a blur and dust rising in clouds, is awe-inspiring. No wonder a group of zebra is known as a ‘zeal’ or a ‘dazzle’.

But there is more to them than their beauty: they are nomads; they migrate. And I had heard word of a newly discovered zebra migration in Botswana, the longest in Africa. Elephants Without Borders (EWB) aims to provide meaningful data to conservationists on the ecology of species for which there is currently limited information. There are several ancient migration routes in Botswana. In the past, studies have shown them moving from the Ntwetwe Pan of the Makgadikgadi to the Boteti River and back, as well as to the Okavango Delta and back. But none were documented going as far north as the Chobe floodplains.

EWB’s recent satellite telemetry programme has proven that some zebra trek all the way from Chobe to Nxai Pan, and even as far as the Boteti River. “Before this discovery, people knew that there were many zebra on the floodplains in the dry season and then many at Nxai Pan in the wet season, but it wasn’t recognised that they were the same zebra,” EWB’s Robert Sutcliffe had told me, over a steaming cup of sugary tea at Coffee Buzz cafe in Kasane. “We deployed satellite collars on zebra in 2012 to map their routes. Observing the zebra remotely with the satellite GPS is very exciting. The movements are very dramatic, with the zebra covering up to 30km a day. It is fascinating to observe them on the floodplains and then meet up with them again 250km south at Nxai Pan.”

Seasons are fundamental to all mammal migrations. When the rains stop, the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans transform from a utopian land into a desolate, salt-crusted wasteland, so animals are forced to trudge for miles to reach fresh grazing and water. When the rains come, the barren pans flood, exploding with life. Thousands of flamingos and pelicans assemble, verdant grasslands sprout, and the animals return. This, of course, is not dissimilar to East Africa’s Great Migration — but do not expect to see herds stampeding across the plains and traversing the Mara River in a crazy flirtation with death, with crocs snapping hungrily at their hooves.

“Unlike other migrations, the zebra do not all move en masse,” says Robert. “They travel in smaller groups, with some families leaving earlier and others later. The migration is heavily dependent on rainfall, and the low rainfall (due to El Niño) this year could affect the migration significantly.”

In theory, between May and November you should see zebra congregating on the Chobe floodplains, along the lush banks of its permanent river. But here I am, in mid-October, looking out at a sun-drenched landscape under marmalade-orange skies — and not a zebra in sight, nothing but a bunch of cantankerous elephants using their trunks as water pistols. So where are they? Perhaps they have smelt rain in the air?

The next day, we go for an early-morning game drive. It is glorious to be out in the bush again, bumping along dusty tracks — an exemplary ‘African massage’ — through semi-desert terrain towards the river. Our guide, Johane, points out kudu peering at us from behind woolly caper bushes, listless giraffe chewing the thorny upper branches of acacia trees, vibrant lilac-breasted rollers flitting away as we pass and guineafowl forlornly pecking for grubs in the dust.

At last an incredible vista opens up before us: the Chobe River, a lifeline for so many creatures in these unforgiving months. Compared to the rest of the park, this is an oasis. Marabou storks (one of the Ugly Five) stand in the shallows, red-billed teal paddle and Egyptian geese soar overhead in cobalt skies. Caramel-brown impala line the Namibian bank, along with troops of baboons. A long stream of buffalo plods towards the river, a hundred at least, and thousands of daisy-like white specks cover the golden floodplains: “Zebra,” says Johane. And there they were, at last, dazzling in the sunlight, and enjoying their winter holiday in the north. It was strange to think that in just a few weeks, many would trek 250km south to the Nxai Pan.

A few days later I am being buffeted around in a sweltering six-seater Cessna, soaring above the extraordinary Okavango Delta en route to another of the zebras’ favourite winter haunts: the Boteti River, bordering Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Robert Sutcliffe had told me that most of the collared zebras’ journey ended at Nxai Pan, but some continued to the Boteti. “The extension of this migration down to the Boteti has only been recorded in one family, so we do not yet know how many move to the river, although this indicates a good possibility that more do,” he says. “It is assumed that the majority of the zebra found on the Boteti move there from the Makgadikgadi, another key migration route.”

Once again I find myself sipping a sundowner and contemplating zebra. This time, we’re purring along in a boat on the Boteti, not far from the charming Meno A Kwena. I’m hypnotised by the zing of my G&T, the soporific song of birds chirruping and the glorious sight of elephant bulls wading in the shallows, tearing off succulent reeds as they go. As the sun lowers in the pale sky, lilies begin to close for nightfall and little water-boatmen skim across the glassy surface creating ripples. Dead camelthorn trees are reflected in the mirror-like water, picturesque but eerie. I ask why they are in the middle of the river. “There was no water here between 1993 and 2008, so trees grew in the dry riverbed,” explains our guide, Kabelo. “This river is fed by the rains in Angola,” he continues. “If there is no rain in Angola, it stops. It has a cycle of 30 years. Many people and animals died, but this is the circle of life.”

Further evidence of the previously dry river is the cable-wire strung between semi-submerged wooden posts, a section of the 240-mile-long fence, which runs along the river bordering the west of the park. The fence is part of a network built by the government to limit the spread of disease from wildlife to livestock, to stop human encroachment on the park, and to protect local communities’ cattle from predators. In part, it has solved these problems; but today the electricity doesn’t work with the return of the river, marauding elephants have crushed sections and herders continue to take their livestock inside the park for better grazing. In particular, the fence has been disastrous for migratory wildlife, which travels west during the seasonal drought each year (March to October) in search of water and grazing. In 2004, before the fence was even completed, about a hundred zebra died in a single month from stress, dehydration and exhaustion as their route had been blocked. In one tragic week in 2005, some 250 perished. Carcasses were found lining the barrier. “We were still removing dead animals from around the waterhole as the grass grew around them,” says David Dugmore, the former owner of Meno A Kwena. The catastrophe virtually obliterated Botswana’s wildebeest population.

Somehow the zebra survived, but the fence also changed their migration route for good. “They used to travel all the way from Angola to the Kalahari, but now the fences are in the way so patterns have changed,” says Kabelo, my guide, as we drift serenely along the Boteti. “Nowadays the migration is smaller. In the dry season zebra come here from the saltpans for food and water. In the rains they return.” Fortunately, the government is now planning to relocate the fence in an attempt to re-open old migratory routes.

The following morning we cross the river to reach the park on the opposite bank. Despite the cheering hum of frogs ribbeting and the exhilarating sight of a pied kingfisher dropping like a bullet to snatch a fish, I feel a twinge of sadness. A dead zebra lying on the bank seems to epitomise the struggle animals must endure each year just to stay alive and the ever-continuing conflict between humans and nature. As we drive along a jarring sand track, in the searing October heat of the Makgadikgadi, we discover the fresh remains of a domestic cow, just inside the broken barrier. “Lions,” Kabelo says. Predators here have learnt to use the fence to corner their victims. Common and white-backed vultures spiral above the bleak lunar landscape.

Further inside the park, we spot some lonely giraffe, delicate steenbok skipping off into the short, spiky shrubs and a family of ostriches. I wonder to myself how those miniscule chicks could possibly survive in this impossible heat. For it is scorching now, veering on unbearable. A remote waterhole appears, like a mirage in the desert, where a bachelor herd of elephants are splashing around. The stench of faeces is foul. Putrid. There are too many elephants here for that one dwindling pool. We leave them to splosh and spray, and continue towards the river. In the afternoon heat, I begin to wonder whether there are any zebra here at all.

But at last, something catches my eye on the horizon: a long trail of black-and-white striped beasts, making their way wearily through the wilderness towards the river. They are certainly going somewhere. “They’re moving to the river,” Kabelo says. So we follow them to the bank. And there they are: zeals of zebra in their hundreds, greedily gulping that cool, revitalising water. Some graze on the few remaining grassy patches; others race away from the Jeep, kicking and snapping friskily like young ponies, the sand flying behind them forming a cloud of dust before the setting sun.

So it was true. The zebra were here by the Boteti River, just as they had been there by the Chobe, enjoying their winter sabbatical. “But the rain is heavy in the air. I can smell it,” says Kabelo. So in just a few weeks many would have moved on to the next chapter of their odyssey, returning to the paradise of the pans in summer.

Safari Planner
• Getting there  To reach Chobe National Park, fly with British Airways to Zimbabwe’s new Victoria Falls International Airport. From there, it’s a one-hour drive to the Zimbabwe-Botswana border at Kazungula and another 15 minutes to Chobe’s main gates. Somak Holidays offers two nights at both Africa Albida Tourism’s Victoria Falls Safari Club and its Ngoma Safari Lodge from £2850 per person, including flights and transfers. To reach the Boteti River and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, fly with MACK AIR from Kasane to Maun, from where it’s a one-to-two-hour drive.
• Where to stay  The writer stayed at Africa Albida’s Ngoma Safari Lodge (from US$550 per person, all-inclusive) in Chobe and Meno A Kwena Tented Camp (from US$403 per person, all-inclusive) on the Boteti River. There are various options in both locations to suit every budget.
• Health  Visit your local GP or travel clinic well in advance of your trip to ensure you have had the necessary vaccinations and to get antimalarials.
• When and where to go   Observing the movement of zebra during their annual migration is virtually impossible, as they travel quickly across inhospitable landscapes. Moreover, as with any migration, the movements are entirely dependent on season and rainfall, so it is difficult to ensure you are in the right place at the right time. However, you can plan your trip to coincide with their congregation near permanent water sources in the dry season (April to November). Two of the best places to do this are the Chobe and the Boteti rivers. At this time of year, these areas become a refuge for migratory animals, forced to flee from the barren wilderness of the Nxai and Makgadikgadi saltpans in winter to find grazing and water. Alternatively, go to the pans in summer (November-March), when the rains bring them to life and the zebra return.
• Further reading  Bradt’s Botswana Safari Guide (4th Edition) by Chris McIntyre; elephantswithoutborders.com

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