And then the rains came

2011-05-25 00:00

SOMETIMES the wind at our camp blows so hard that our old tents creak and strain like a sloop on the high seas, and it feels just right to be reading the boys The Swiss Family Robinson.

While we are not shipwrecked on an island, our exploration camp in the bush has other ingredients of survival in an exotic locale, from the nightly cry of jackal, to washing lines strung between trees.

Once again, we are deliberately living­ outside our comfort zones, with only a toothbrush bag and one towel each, and a few changes of clothes. I only brought one book (Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet) because I know it will take me a long time to read. By some admittedly strange design, we now have a household stored in the Canadian subarctic, another in Pietermaritzburg, while we live in Botswana, in a tent.

A few weeks after our arrival here last year, I woke in the night to the smell of water in the air. At breakfast the geophysicist said that he was also woken by it. We agreed that it smelt different from rain. The next day the Mopane­ woodland was covered in an anticipating green patina. Everyone was impatient for the onset of the rainy season in November, especially the animals. An elephant, on a sortie up from the Tuli Block, mingled with spiny cattle at a watering point. As soon as we spotted it, it melted back into the bush. We kept thinking about the bull elephant with a torn ear and a few days later we returned to walk through the bush, looking for it.

Sadly, we later heard it had been shot by villagers. Botswana has a huge and controversial elephant population­ — the largest in Africa. This population group stands at around 143 000. With each elephant eating between 100 kilograms and 200 kilograms of vegetation a day. It’s no surprise that crop raiding is one of the biggest causes of human-elephant conflict in the region.

In the late afternoon, when Warwick­ is at the drill rig scrutinising stone chips with a hand lens, the boys and I usually take a walk along the dirt road, for as far as we can go. It is sometimes so hot that sweat stings our eyes, attracting small Mopane bees that crawl around our eyes and sometimes up our nose. The only way to decrease the population circling your head is to step out briskly. This is not something you want to do in 43-degree heat.

The other day I mistimed our walk and we only got back when the light was mauve and the guard had already made his campfire beside the rig. Everybody­ had left. Suddenly Warwick­ came bumping along in his pick-up, demanding to know where we’d been. He’d looked everywhere for us.

“We left you an arrow in the road,” we said, “made of sticks.” He said he didn’t do Native-American signage. “We’ll teach you.” He said he thought he’d lost his family in the Botswana bush. “We found hyena pooh,” a whole midden of it.” Unimpressed, he said he thought that one of us had been bitten by a snake.” “We’ll show you the poo ...”

For weeks, flotillas of cloud gathered, dissipating by evening. While far away, the underbellies of clouds were smeary with rain that did not even reach the ground. In the later afternoon­, a cloud would sometimes develop like a giant popcorn kernel in the sky. We’d watch as the lightning inside it made the cloud glow in spasms of cream-soda green. We willed them to curdle to grey, but mostly they didn’t.

Until one evening, when the sky broke open. It started slowly with lots of blurry sound that scratched light across the sky. At supper, grown men giggled at the ferocity of the storm. Some bolts were so bright that it felt as if a parachute flare was descending on us. That night the rain came down hard. Cool for the first time in weeks, we slept well in air that smelt, all at once, of precious books, silky cowhide and beautiful feathers.

With the rains, a profusion of life erupted from underground, in carefully choreographed waves. The first rains were preceded by swarms of dragonflies, after which came the millipedes­, the beetles, the Mopane moths, flying ants and pale drifts of Common Dotted Border butterflies. These were followed closely by mosquitoes, and then flies, lots of flies. And then large long-waisted wasps emerged. At night they gathered under camp lights in menacing dark clumps of up to 200 wasps. We learnt to pass them carefully, occasionally propelled by a large wasp on the back of our shirts.

Wise to the insect season, locals tended to be zipped up in their tents by early evening. Still pottering around with toothbrushes at a late hour, it took us a while to notice that members of the lower food chain attracted members of the upper food chain, like snakes and scorpions. Not great, with medical help an hour away in Francistown.

We were just feeling pleased with how well we’d settled into camp life, we had built up a tolerance for camp food and had even accepted the faint orange stain on our hands and feet, courtesy of the red sand swept in from the Kalahari. This smugness only lasted until we drove into Francistown the day after a storm.

We were quiet as we drove past uprooted trees, mangled billboards and numerous houses with their zinc roofs opened like sardine cans. It was clear that, for months, all that had separated us from nature’s fury had been a couple of lightning rods and aged canvas. The lull in the car lasted until we reflected that that was exactly why we came out here. For an adventure (it’s always prudent to say that word softly).


• Writer Tania Spencer and geologist Warwick Bullen, formerly from Pietermaritzburg, live in the Botswana bush near Francistown with their sons, Gabriel and Thomas.

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