News that the Savute Channel has all but dried up again has brought a lot of memories flooding back. I’d only been working there for three months when the event no-one thought they’d ever see again, and which had been debated endlessly in the watering holes of Maun, finally happened: the Savute Channel reached Savuti Camp, some 18 km from its source at Zibidianja Lagoon.
Of course we’d had quite a bit of warning. Probably freed by some sort of seismic slippage along the Linyanti faultline, the Channel had begun to flow some months earlier, creeping its way towards us and slowly reclaiming its old bed, like a university student home for the holidays. Everyone told us it couldn’t happen, that it would only advance a few kilometres and then retreat. The precise length in these assertions gradually stretched as we headed into winter.
For almost 30 years, what had been the Channel had been instead a ribbon of grassland savannah twisting through northern Botswana and into the Chobe National Park. Its disappearance in the early 1980s had been documented as the story of the ‘stolen river’ but now here it was, making its way back again. The Savute Channel is described as ‘erratic’ – throughout its recorded history it has dried up several times, and there is no fixed pattern.
Thirsty for more information, we interrogated every Wilderness Air pilot who overnighted and prevailed on them to get GPS points for us of the leading edge of the water.
In camp, life otherwise continued much as normal. The golden habitat of the dry channel bed continued to be the preserve of zebra and wildebeest, and a night drive along it was still one of the best ways to spot small predators.
The log pile hide and its waterhole remained a focal point for elephant activity, although as the waters crept closer, elephants (fickle things) started to drink from there instead.
As July got colder, we grew bolder, and would drive out to the tip of the channel to see how far away it still was. At this point we estimated that it was advancing at a rate of about 100 m per day. We even had some of our morning meetings at the closest point with water, much to the exasperation of Khutsi, our head chef who had brunch to prepare (and who would observe, from years of boiling pots, that watched water does little).
It was possible to see from camp just where the channel had reached each day, by looking for the small flock of storks that accompanied it. In a supreme example of instant adaptation, marabou and yellow-billed storks strode through the grass, keeping pace with the water and stabbing at all the unfortunate creatures driven to the surface when the water flooded their holes and burrows.
Just two days before the water finally reached Savuti, we’d had to duck into the logpile hide for cover from a herd of elephants we’d bumped into while out walking. We retreated to camp and amused ourselves making a flood gauge out of a piece of old pipe, and nailing it to one of the uprights supporting the deck. Not something anyone had ever thought to install before!
We decided that nothing other than an ‘old Wilderness’ celebration was called for when the trickle of water finally reached us. It was August 2nd, 2008. That evening, for sundowners, we handed out glasses of champagne and encouraged all the guests to take off their shoes and socks and paddle in the water, which was ankle deep at most. It was a fantastic evening, and we all had a real sense of quite literally feeling history in the making.
The next morning, daylight revealed that the water had not only advanced beyond Savuti Camp, but had filled the bed from bank to bank. The water was back!
It’s hard to imagine a more radical transformation in a landscape (except, of course, the disappearance of a river as has happened this year). It was astonishing to see how quickly new species colonised the area. Water birds came first of course, then small crocodiles, and eventually hippo.
It was quite a surreal experience – in a camp that once reverberated to the nocturnal trumpeting of thirsty elephants – to be lulled to sleep by the contented chuckling of hippos, who had been gifted a whole new playground.
The local wildlife had to adapt too, and perhaps the most compelling example of this were the wild dogs. Several times we watched them lose their dinner as desperate impala and kudu charged through the shallow waters to escape up the opposite bank. For the antelope, running the reptilian gauntlet in the water was preferable to being torn apart at its edge. Wild dog are famously wary of crossing water that might contain crocodiles, and they were left frustrated and thwarted on the far bank.
After about a month of this though, you could almost see the penny drop. The dogs must have reasoned that if the antelope always got across (which they did) then there couldn’t be too many big crocodiles in the water (there weren’t) and so they chased their prey into the channel and we witnessed a number of spectacular hunts that ended kills in the water.
The resurgent Savute Channel waters meanwhile continued to press on to the Savute Marsh, which they reached of course in time, and the debate changed from would the waters arrive, to how long would they stay?
Human nature being what it is, we were overly concerned with firsts – first fish caught, first swim, first vehicle stuck (no prizes for guessing who scooped that accolade, as the water rushed into each pan and depression beyond the camp).
The water also changed the guest experience completely, and we were soon able to offer fishing from the fire deck. Anyone living at Savuti now, and who cares to walk out into the dry channel bed, may notice the glint of dozens of lost lures festooning the previously submerged leadwood logs.
This incarnation of the Savute Channel has lasted not quite eight years, but the experience of being there and watching it flow again will be remembered for a lifetime. From Savuti Camp I eventually moved to Vumbura Plains and fell in love all over again. Just after I arrived we had the highest Okavango inundation in living memory. Twice (2010 and 2011). And after that they sent me to the Republic of Congo, which even I couldn’t make any wetter.
For another trip back in time, read Mike Myers post: The Savute - Then and Now