First Rain

Yesterday, everything changed quite dramatically. Saturday and Sunday, elephants remained near Banzena in the daytime. This made for good photo potential, although the elephants never came to water in the good light of morning or evening. They waited until the sun was high overhead before coming to cool off and drink. Sunday afternoon, around 3 o'clock, I was at camp preparing to go back into the field when I saw the mountain of dust coming from the east. Most of my equipment was already in watertight cases, so I had a couple of minutes to photograph the approaching storm. This time the dust was followed by rain. Banzena was sandblasted for 15-20 minutes. Then it was pressure washed. The fierce wind almost tore the door off my little room as I tucked inside to make sure my gear was secure. I had to tie it closed with cord to keep it from breaking its hinges. By then the rain had begun and the ensuing darkness rendered the adobe chamber a blind cave. I located my headlamp so I could search for the Nikon FM I was planning to take out into the rain. It was then that I saw the silhouette of a serpent slithering under the doorway toward my feet. It was also seeking shelter from the storm. But in a space just 5 feet wide my typically passive treatment of such animals gave way to a different set of instincts, and I reached back for the 4-foot long Tuareg sword I had bought in Tombouctou. The chief of Banzena later acknowledged that a bite from the headless animal could be lethal and gave thanks for what I had done. I grabbed my old camera and headed out into the weather, seeking a picture of the pivotal event. This was the first major rain since the previous summer. After spending some time with the local people, who were scurrying to secure their huts and protect their children, I turned to the bush where I had photographed elephants that morning. It had been raining for less than 20 minutes when I came across their tracks headed south away from the lake. Rainfall had triggered a near instant response and all of the elephants dispersed south, now free from their dependence on the marsh. I ran south following the tracks for a while, but the elephants had already entered the forest of Tabarac-Barac. Back at camp we loaded the vehicle and went looking to intercept the large group we knew had been hanging around the eastern marsh. When we crested the adjacent dune, they were already lined up in the distance, more than 100 elephants single file, starting their exodus to the southern forest. Unfortunately, the wind was coming from the same direction as the light, so we could not approach closer than a kilometer in the vehicle. I set out on foot and was able to get close enough to make some useful pictures. The elephants were orange with fresh mud and seemed quite happy. In one hour, their environment had been transformed from hostile to hospitable, as shallow pools of cool water now covered the previously parched landscape. If the rains continue during the next week, this first move south could be the start of the annual migration, which will lead the elephants to the southern fringes of the Gourma and into Burkina Faso.View new photography at www.carltonward.com