Midday heat lies like a thick wool blanket over every living thing; flattening energy, making it difficult to move or think. Animals move slowly deliberately across the scene heading for water because they have to. A kori bustard – shelters under a small candle pod acacia bush in stark silhouette. We snooze at midday and wake soaked in sweat.
We are in the Selinda Reserve, northern Botswana. Yellow grasslands scented with wild sage surround islands of tall trees, and bright blue waterways weave their way along ancient channel beds. Big game country – land of elephants, buffalos, lions, and all the migrant antelope and grazers – safari land.
In the office, staff are betting on when the first rains will fall. On the notice board amongst the orders and rotas, a list of dates – some well past already separating the optimists from the pessimists. An electric fan stirs the turgid air but doesn’t cool. Perspiration runs down every face but the buzz of the safari industry does not allow the pace to stop.
We arrived in camp the evening before after a long drive through thick hot sand from Shakawe. If ever I complain about heat again I shall think of the man that works at the Veterinary Gate – guarding against foot and mouth outbreaks – living in a dome tent miles from anywhere in a sea of baking hot sand and burnt sticks of trees. Two hours after we left Saronga on the Okavango River, we had been heading roughly northeast on an ever diminishing track. The last village a few grass huts, and a bushman family with more small children than visible adults. An old grandmother attempted discipline on two young girls; while her son – wearing a woollen balaclava despite the heat – put us back on the right track.
At the Veterinary Gate the officer in charge climbs out of his dome tent into the midday blast of heat. He brings us an A4 exercise book divided into columns. In this we must write drivers name, date, vehicle registration number, where we are coming from, where we are going to, then a signature which he must endorse with is own signature. Beaded sweat droplets are pouring down his face but he has his uniform overalls on and is there to check if we are carrying any meat or livestock over the fence.
The issue of rain is on everyone’s minds and lips. We tell him that we heard there was rain in Shakawe the night before so perhaps it will arrive here soon. We all look at the wide blue sky and pure white heat of the horizon before shielding our eyes again.
On and on for hours and hours through windy sand tracks – rocking and rolling, lashed by bare branches and sticks. We stop to help a broken down truck. “Can you help – our battery is f.cked” They have been stuck in the sticks for five hours. We dole out cups of water to thirsty people and join in the jubilation when the truck is jump started from our battery.
The heat builds and builds through the night and the next day. By mid afternoon a gentle breeze becomes a wind, gaining strength and whipping up leaves. The white horizon begins to take the form of clouds building. We scarcely dare hope and superstition abounds – if we close the car windows we might chase the rain away.
By evening the scent of rain is on the air, distant thunder rolls as the celestial furniture moving company drops a piano down the stairs. Lightening skitters and dances but we are cautious – this rain storm is not yet ours. By nightfall, the curtains are horizontal – drops hit the roof, increasing to a watery thrumming; waterfalls cascade off the tin roof and make myriad tiny water features on the wooden deck. IT’S RAINING.