The disappearing river reappeared. Nature, the magician, bows and the crowd roars. How did she do it? What’s the trick? No-one knows.
Imagine a camp placed high on the banks of a glinting channel, just as it curves around an oxbow lake-like bend. Bream slide silkily beneath the lily pads with half-open white petals, hippo yawn widely to the skies, and there is a constant flow of animals coming to drink. In half an hour, one might see impala, waterbuck, giraffe, kudu, lechwe, warthog, vervet monkeys and baboons, not to mention mile after mile of tons (literally) of elephant.
Except when the water isn’t there.
Because that is the magic trick of the Savute, a place renowned in the annals of bush stories of southern Africa as the “Disappearing River.” This was the place that a multitude of birds and animals relied on for their daily water needs – when, inexplicably, the Savute Channel began to shrink. Some blame geology and others the weather, but slowly, inexorably, the place formerly known as a channel became infamous for its scenes of desperate hippo, fish flapping futilely in drying-up mud puddles, and animals fighting for the last drop of liquid.
And then, nothing. The grasses grew over the riverbed and the animals had to move on to find water elsewhere. What was once a river became grassland, a place of pasture for grazing herbivores on their way to find water further away – that is, until Wilderness decided to put up a camp there, along with a borehole pump to draw up water for a small pan next to a log-pile hide.
That little pump changed things again. Instead of having to walk weary miles to the Linyanti River or seasonal pans, plains game of all kinds could drink at the new oasis. Elephants would troop down, ears flapping, feet kicking up dust, to quench their almost immeasurable thirst in front – and around and behind – Wilderness guests who sat surrounded by logs to watch and be part of the spectacle.
And then, just as Savute’s tragic story had become part of a hazy memory, it all changed again. A tectonic plate moved, or a water table rose, or something else happened which we humans have yet to discover, and the Savute crept back. You could actually watch as it inched forward across the dry ground – indeed, it was quite a sight to see a tiny trickle hesitantly yet firmly picking its way through the dry grass stems, followed by bemused humans (some of us removing shoes and socks to dip a toe in the fabled waters), and ultimately by animals.
In a few weeks, the Savute was back, and now it looks as if it never left. Punctuated by hippo and lechwe, it winds its way along its new yet well-worn bed, attracting throngs of life once more. A pride of lions waits lazily at the water’s edge, sure in the knowledge that something will come down for a drink. Herds of buffalo numbering some 200 in each, and elephant in their hordes are tuned to this length of life. As long as it’s there, they need not fear.
But for how long? That is the element of Savute, the feeling of fleetingness that lurks beneath the life-filled surface. It’s a river so blatantly ephemeral, if not fickle, that it sums up the transience of time, the temporality of nature. It reminds us that this is the essence of survival: to seize the day, for today, with its blue waters bending reeds, rippling around a hippo head and splashing against an elephant thigh, is all we have.
Written by Ilana Stein
Photographed by Mike Myers