Storm lashes Addo Elephant Park
How much rain is too much?
It rained hard enough on Sunday to flatten long sections of the Armstrong fencing that keeps elephants and other wildlife from escaping the Nyathi Section of the Addo Elephant Park (AEP). Rangers and workers laboured until one am to repair fences that that had collapsed near the Mimosa railway station.
In some stretches of the elephant-proof fencing, the ground was too water-logged to re-erect the fence properly, so rangers had to remain in place throughout the night to make sure that none of the animals wandered out.
The day after the floods, I visited the AEP and saw teams still hard at work repairing the fencing.
The R342 regional road and the Ngqura railway line run parallel to each other as they separate the Main Section of the AEP from the exclusive Nyathi Section.
Further down the road toward the little town of Paterson, I came across an even more impressive display of the incredible power of a flash flood. Locals report that 100 mm (about four inches) of rain fell in two hours. The waters appeared to have dislodged parts of the railway line and caused a train with many ore-carrying wagons to derail.
Transnet, the railway company that operates the stupefyingly long trains on that line, has been tight-lipped about the accident. There is nothing in the media about it and the company has ignored my email request for more information.
I saw a video of the aftermath of the accident on social media on Sunday and when I drove past the scene on Monday afternoon it was still very chaotic. I estimated that around 30 railway trucks had been derailed causing them to spill ore on both sides of the track. It looked as if a giant child had thrown a giant tantrum and flung his train-set into a mud puddle.
There were dozens of vehicles parked on either side of the normally quiet highway. I am sure that officials, engineers and workers were trying to devise ways of restoring the line to operations. I considered interviewing some of the official looking people strutting about, but it was really obvious what had happened and after a day’s intense driving, I did not have the strength to go through with it.
Damage from the flood was serious but it appears that there was no loss of life nor critical injury. Ayesha Cantor put it succinctly, “The damage can be fixed, however, one is helpless in the face of drought”.
As a confirmed Addo Addict, I was extremely grateful for the rain that was revitalising the parched veld. After a day in the park, everything was invariably covered in a layer of fine dust.
Of course, we have our agenda concerning the well-being of the wildlife, but thousands of farmers, gardeners and water engineers in the region are arguably even more grateful.
Many years of drought have decimated vegetation in the AEP, but wildlife is still relatively healthy. Park management has always been conscious of how much the animals need to drink so it always makes sure that there is enough water in artificial waterholes spread around the park.
Animals (especially large herds of elephants) converge on these artificial waterholes and graze on everything that thinks it might want to grow in the area. Sometimes it looks like a proverbial moonscape surrounding waterholes.
Water is piped into some of the waterholes, but others are simply left to dry out. Park management has even put up Heath-Robinson electric cages above waterholes that are supposed to prevent elephants from drinking.
Worst weather for game-viewing
When I went to the AEP on Monday I was perfectly aware that it was not a good day for game-viewing. It had been raining on and off for about two days so I knew there was water all over. Animals could drink wherever they wanted and did not have to risk going out in to the open to drink at some exposed waterhole.
There were absolutely no animals at the waterholes that usually guarantee exciting sightings. The go-to drinking places: Peasland, Rooidam, Ngulube, Domkrag and Marion Baree were all full of water but absolutely no animals. They were even very few birds about.
It was one of my worst days at the park in terms of game-viewing: two elephants, a single buffalo bull, two male and three female kudus, a handful of warthogs and no predators whatsoever. There were however, plenty of zebras and red hartebeest.
In terms of admiring replenished waterholes and revitalised vegetation it was one of the best days – and that is what I went for – I wanted to see the rejuvenating effects of the heavy rains.
I was particularly pleased with Gwarrie Pan – a wonderful drinking spot that churns up a black mud to disguise elephants. It had dried up almost completely as a result of the protracted drought.
In the coming weeks, I am sure bushes will flourish and flowers will pop up everywhere – as usual, I can’t wait to go back to the park.
Best weather for game-viewing
In the last few years, hot dry weather has been great for game-viewing – not so great for thirsty animals.
Lions usually hang out at the Ngulube waterhole or the water trough near the dried up Arizona Dam. They like these spots because lions sometimes get thirsty too, but more important than that, other (prey) animals need to drink too.
When it’s blisteringly hot, elephants take over all the waterholes they can. It is amazing to see how many elephants can splash around in one small puddle. Except when a large bull decides to throw his weight around, elephants politely wait for each other to have a turn and they are very careful not to injure young calves who often lie down in the mud between the legs of a whole herd of their elders.
I am sure there will be plenty of hot days in the coming months where I will be able to enjoy watching elephants cavorting around in the muddy waters of Hapoor Dam.
The rains of course did not stop at the boundaries of the AEP. There were very welcome downpours over much of the Eastern Cape, including Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) and my hometown of Makhanda. One of the main reservoirs that supplies water to the town, Settlers’ Dam, was been at less than five percent full for more than a year.
Other dams and waterholes in the many private reserves in the area have also been dry as the region struggles to recover from seven years of below average rainfall.
Sue Maclennan reports on the SmilingSouth web site that although Makhanda had 60mm of rain over three days, the town is still short of water. She noted that one resident had recorded 49mm in only 35 minutes on Sunday.
A farmer to the west of Makhanda, Richard Moss, said that “ . . . the Kariega river is flowing for the first time since March 2015… which is beautiful.”
He said optimistically, “I think we can say the drought has broken, although we need a little more to fill the dams on the Kariega.”
Dale Howarth, Director of Pumba Private Game Reserve about 25kms outside Makhanda, was positive but more cautious.
“We got some lovely rain,” said Howarth. “Got 102mm for November and 90mm over the weekend, which got the water running. All our small stock dams are full and our two big lakes about half. The grass and veld is starting to recover nicely.”
But Howarth, who is the chairperson of the local agricultural association, said while good progress had been made, it was “a little bit early to say the drought is broken”.
My conclusion is that although we have had good rains, there is still a serious shortage of water in large parts of the Eastern Cape. However, I am expecting the rains to transform the AEP and other game reserves in the area into much brighter looking areas.