AS we approach the end of the rainy season, it is becoming increasingly likely that there will be no late reprieve this year. The forecasts are for a continuation of the current conditions – highs of 36-38 degrees every day and no rainfall expected. We have been without a drop of rain since February 16, and the bush is drying out fast now under brassy blue skies more associated with October than March.
On March 25 the river’s flow, measured at the Big Tree, was only 816 cubic meters per second – just 26% of last year’s number of 3 160 meters. Interestingly, the spectacle of seeing the Falls right now is probably at its optimum. There is a broken flow of water across the entire width, and enough spray to drench onlookers in several places. It was announced recently that the annual ceremony of Kuomboka in Barotseland had been cancelled this year because water levels were not high enough to warrant it. The ceremony traditionally takes place in April and marks the moving of the King’s Palace – in a magnificent wooden barge – from low ground to high ground, way upstream of us in Western Zambia.
The irony is that much of the Eastern parts of Zimbabwe have been devastated by too much rain caused by Cyclone Idai, whilst here in the West we are desperate for more rain. Elephants have already started to visit us, much earlier in the year than usual. Small groups of bulls have swum on through to the Zambian shores quite quickly, without spending too much time on the island, but this will change. The Ilala Palm fruits are slowly turning from green to brown but it will still be some time until they start to drop, as I’m sure the elephants are aware.
Since I last wrote, the little island mongoose family has endured more highs and lows. They were seen with two new babies three weeks ago for the first time. We had noticed a change in their foraging habits and schedule, and I had wondered what the cause was. The female had been occupied feeding and guarding her young in their den somewhere on the island. Typically, the babies are taken on their first excursions when they are about a month old. As time goes by, they accompany the adults further and further from the den until they are weaned and adopt normal adult behaviour.
Five days ago, in the late afternoon, some of the staff witnessed yet another fight to the death near their tents. This time, a large Water Monitor had ambushed one of the mongoose babies. There are a great many of these large reptiles on the island and I have often wondered what their main diet was. Africa’s largest lizard, they can attain a length of 2.5 meters. The books say that they will eat whatever they can overpower, including snakes, lizards, crabs, small mammals and crocodile eggs. They are fearsome creatures, capable of inflicting a vicious and very painful bite. Despite the usual spirited resistance from both parents, we are now left with only one baby mongoose.
During the month we have had one sighting of Pel’s Fishing Owl and two good sightings of Western Banded Snake Eagle, one of the special ticks of this region. The island bird list has finally reached 100, with the addition of Spotted Flycatcher, Western Osprey, and Pin-Tailed Whydah. The migrants are starting to leave now.
April and May are my favourite months here. Daytime temperatures start to drop, and the evenings and mornings get a pleasing freshness as we move into autumn. In a normal year, the river reaches its annual peak in early May, but this year will undoubtedly be different. When you live in the middle of a large free-flowing river, it’s so much easier to track the seasons and longer cycles of nature by simply watching the water levels shift up and down.