Accepting Extremes – Namibia is a country of extremes. Extreme beauty, extreme adaptations, and extreme weather. Right now, nowhere are these extremes being felt more intensely than in Namibia’s north-west.
Thinking hot, dry, dusty? Think again. It is raining, pouring, flooding, with rising waters closing lodges and schools. From small, localised storms that will bring a flush of green to the otherwise-arid landscape to deluges of water pouring from the sky, flowing into catchment areas and colliding to bring the area’s ephemeral rivers down in mighty floods, this is rain that is felt overhead and rain that falls hundreds of kilometres away that is nature’s way of reminding us who is in control.
Wilderness Safaris Namibia closed its camp at Serra Cafema in mid-January 2018, and immediately started to rebuild the camp to a new design and at new heights so that the camp wouldn’t be impacted by the force of floodwaters similar to those that had raged through camp in 2008 and 2011. Building was ahead of schedule, with foundations being laid and trucks full of thatching grass, poles, cement and other building materials on their way north. Given the logistics, the building was apace and improbably, there seemed to be a cushion in the time to completion and the arrival of the first guests. The builders were in control and on target for a mid-June opening…
February saw the start of the rainy season, with messages radioed down from the north-west that some of the ephemeral rivers were flowing. In March, guests at Wilderness Safaris Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp watched in awe as waters snaked down the previously dry-as-a-bone Hoanib River.
By April, widespread rains throughout southern Angola, Namibia and Botswana were changing the landscape. The researchers of Desert Lion Conservation project reported widespread flooding – and that six of the area’s nine ephemeral rivers were in flood. On April 4th, the headwaters in the Huab River had broken through a sand barrier and reached the sea.
Those trucks laden with building supplies and destined for Serra Cafema weren’t going anywhere. There was no way to safely cross a series of flowing rivers and travel north to the Kunene River and Namibia’s border with Angola.
But even if they could have advanced, and as familiar as Namibians are with these annual floods, the drivers of these trucks would have found a very different scene at Serra Cafema than the one they had left a few weeks before. The Kunene River was raging. The sluice gates at Ruacana Dam, 260 kilometres upstream from Serra Cafema, had been opened, not once, but twice, pushing through two forceful tides of water and raising the level at the camp by over two metres in the space of a few hours.
The camp’s new foundations were holding firm but Serra Cafema, normally an oasis against the heat and aridity of north-western Namibia, now existed in isolation, surrounded by water with no way for the builders to reach it, and no way to continue work. The builders – including several members of the local Himba community who are joint venture partners in the camp and all of whom had worked so hard in anticipation of welcoming guests back to their land – now had to face the hard fact that they were no longer ahead of schedule, and that the time required for the island to dry out until it was safe for the workers to continue, was going to cause a major setback to the planned opening date.
In Namibia, every year we watch the skies, hoping that the rains will come and avert another year of drought. This year, our hopes have been met, and, yes, in the extreme.
On the one hand, there are people digging camping chairs out of the mud, picking up the pieces of their camps, trucks laden with building materials stuck on the south side of a flowing river. Bookings have been changed, reservations deferred. Namibians feel these losses with disappointment, but on the other hand, nature also provides us with perspective: We know that for the landscape and those who survive on the land, the rains have changed everything for the better.
Once the waters subside, pools will be recharged, allowing elephants and other animals who range these ephemeral rivers to drink and then dig for water for many months, perhaps even until next year’s rains.
Black rhino populations that were hit first by poaching and then by drought will have a better chance at recovery.
With grazing abundant, springbok will drop their lambs and the plains will come alive with pronking and the honking calls of new-born life.
Groups of semi-nomadic Himba may return to areas of grazing they abandoned years ago, at a time when the drought hit hard, and with them come their cattle, goats, sheep and the wildlife that will feast, at least temporarily, on the flush of green grass that carpets the mountains and plains.
These are extremes that we can live with.
Written by By Ginger Mauney