It is that time of year again. Things have slowed down as the heat and hardship intensify, writes Samantha du Toit. The river is usually low towards the end of the dry season, but this year it has dried up completely for the first time in living memory.
Over the last week, the trickle that was meandering past the camp has slowly retreated in front of our eyes. As troubling as this is, it has also brought a plethora of life to our doorstep, showing us just how vital water is to the area. Sitting in the shade by the river trying to stay cool in the stifling heat of the day, we have come to recognise the regular visitors searching for where the trickle runs out.
The baboons of course are always around, quieter than usual, perhaps choosing to focus on water and food rather than squabbling. A little family of warthogs comes every day with two little piglets. Seyia, our daughter, asks if they might be Squeaks’ family, the abandoned piglet who came in to our lives for a short time in January. Most likely, I reply.
The loudest visitors come in the smallest sizes. Although each tiny qualea bird may not be heard by itself, the thousands that are flocking together by the trickle and chattering away create such a noise it can be almost deafening. The bushes sag under the flocks’ weight and the birds look like pouring water as they fly down to the river to drink. The guinea fowl come to drink in large chaotic groups, chirping and running around in all directions. They are often joined by our resident herd of impala and take turns to startle each other.
Each evening as the day gets cooler, we walk up the dry river to see where the river now stops, our feet crunching through the sand. The colobus monkeys stare down at us from the tops of the fig trees and the fish eagle flies ahead of us looking for the biggest pools of water. Sometimes we see herds of zebra coming to drink. Cautious but thirsty they don’t stay long. We also see the women collecting water and the goats and cattle coming to drink. The women and children have taken to digging holes in the sand and waiting for sand-filtered water to fill the hole, before taking a cup and laboriously scooping it into their water containers. Some people living downriver are walking several hours to find water with their livestock, and the distance increases every day.
As night falls we then wait for the largest animals to appear. Every few days we see a lone hippo making her way upriver. In fifteen years of living here, I have never actually seen a hippo until now, although we have known they are around. As the moon comes up, we start to see the large shuffling shadows of the elephants, sometimes thirty at a time, quietly and cautiously making their way up stream. One voice or one flash of a torch and they bunch up, turn around and retreat. Throughout the night they dig and explore up and down the river, leaving large footprints in the sand.
Prayers for rain are starting today we hear. The Maasai women are due to be walking down the river bed any time now, splashing blessings of milk and singing. We join them in hoping that the weather predictions are wrong and that soon there will be water flowing again and life will become easier again for everyone and everything.
Samantha du Toit is a wildlife conservationist, working with SORALO, a Maasai land trust. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.