Raindrops in the dust

Wide ele bull in rain


Yesterday it rained in Tsavo. It was the first time in months. It wasn’t a downpour, but was enough to fill the shower bucket an inch or so.
There had been signs. The evening before, we’d seen scorpions out hunting, and a solifugid which ran in manic bursts around the fire. That morning, before dawn, I’d woken to the gentle drone of bees searching out the tiny flowers in the Dobera tree above my tent. It heralded change.
It was mid morning when the fig-tops bent to the first squall. Fly sheets bounced and snapped like sails, then glistened as the rain came – not in fat drops, but driven sheets, from a rushing, cloud-low sky.
Within minutes, activity replaced dry season languor: hornbills started calling, and a pair of brown-veined white butterflies tangoed through the raindrops – taking the hits, but somehow staying airborne. I wondered where they’d come from – a hollow branch perhaps, or had they been furled tight, deep inside a caper bush?

Rain is so sporadic here, that for most animals, the immediate imperative is to find a mate, and get a head-start on raising a family. Be too early though, before the rains set in, and the expected flush of vegetation and insects may never materialize. Too late, and the competition is intense and the predators will have their young to feed. Timing is everything.

As dusk fell and the drops turned to drizzle, a white-tailed paradise flycatcher flew up to snatch termite aylates from the air – we watched until all we could see was its disembodied tail fluttering in the twilight.
I was surprised that the rain hadn’t been enough to get the frogs going – not one had called. High in the branches above the equipment tent, a grey tree frog merely raised his head. He hadn’t moved from his perch all dry season. I like to think he might have stretched a leg, or opened his mouth to drink, but we saw him do neither.

The next morning I drove out, expectant. Rinsed of its ochre dust, Tsavo was palpably sharper and more vibrant.
I’ve always loved the change that rain brings – but, that morning, I felt something was missing. I couldn’t work out what it was, so I ignored it – thinking that, in time, it would reveal itself. I delighted in small detail: a terrapin, woken by the rain, and in search of a waterhole, scuttled along the track. As I passed, it withdrew into the protection of its shell. I was reflecting on how different defensive behaviour might evolve (some urban hedgehogs, when approached by a car, now tend to run instead of roll), but I didn’t need to go far to see the benefits of both. Around the next bend, a tawny eagle stood in the track, crouched over a terrapin. I’ve seen other raptors, especially fish eagles, chip away until they break through the carapace. It looked like the same would eventually happen, but as I braked, the eagle looked up and relaxed its grip, the terrapin’s head and legs shot out, and it dashed away to cover.

As I meandered along the tracks, I looked for signs of change – behaviour or activity that was the direct result of the rain. They were there, but they were subtle. When I drew close to a dark stain on the ochre track, it became animated. What had looked, at a distance, like a patch of damp soil turned out to be a raiding party of ponerine ants, hundreds strong. I’ve always thought that, on the move, they look a disciplined force, armed with powerful stings, always on the lookout for prey. When I stepped out to get down on their level, they sensed the vibrations and immediately went into defensive mode – the column scattered and they rushed around, stridulating loudly, searching for something to sting. I smiled at the sound they made – like a tiny, manic crowd, communicating in high-pitched whispers. I left them in peace.

I stopped next for a tiny leopard tortoise. It had fallen into a shallow wheel rut and couldn’t escape. It was exquisite – a miniature replica of an adult, but only the size of a lime. Its shell had the same pitted and glossy patina. It was still slightly soft, and rounded from months of being curled inside a shell. The underside had an umbilical scar that hadn’t quite closed – it could only have been a few hours old. I moved it to the side of the road – it looked at me briefly, lurched to the left and, seeing no threat, scuttled into cover. I enjoyed the thought that only a day ago, somewhere close by and hidden underground, a clutch of tortoise eggs had hatched. The moisture seeping down would have stimulated them to break out and dig towards the surface. Once started, there would have been no turning back, as they would have been packed head to tail, inside a tunnel, digging in the dark, eyes closed – driven only by instinct. I would have loved to have seen them break through, blinking in the sunlight, trying to assimilate such a colourful new world.

Baby leopard tortoise


I decided to return to camp by a different route. The early morning gloss was starting to fade; that delight that begins anew every day at dawn, that by 8am has started to ebb away, the shadows to shorten…

Already there was a hint of breeze and as the ground warmed and the moisture wicked away, the tiny spatter-craters the rain had made started to collapse and erode. By the end of the day, what little rain had fallen, would be just a memory – the frogs had been right.

It was when I saw the elephant that I suddenly realized what I’d been missing. The day before, we’d flown to try to find the matriarch we’d last filmed months ago. We’d followed up on the ground, checking each family, but without any luck.
Within a few miles of camp there had been over a hundred elephant, not an exceptional number, but enough for them to be the dominant presence in the landscape. This morning, I’d driven perhaps fifty miles, and not seen one. I couldn’t explain why I hadn’t noticed their absence before.

The elephant was a bull, unmarked and beautifully dark-grey clean. The rain had transformed him. His tusks shone. He stood motionless, the Irima plains behind him, ochre mud drying at his feet. It was as if he had stepped out of his dust-red Tsavo work-clothes, straight into a morning suit.

I stopped to look. I took my time. In his isolation, and his stillness, he seemed unusually significant.
I don’t know whether it was his unexpected colour, the fact that I’d just returned to Tsavo, or that he just returned my gaze, but it produced a surge of appreciation I found almost overwhelming.

After two and a half years of filming and living with elephants, it was as if I was seeing him and his kind through fresh eyes. I felt at once humbled and privileged.

After weeks of being away, it felt like a moment of reconnection to this land and its extraordinary wildlife.

It felt good to be back.


© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



About Mark Deeble

A wildlife filmmaker in Kenya. My home is in Cornwall. My heart is in Africa. I have a tent in Tsavo. I share it all with Vicky. We are working with an amazing team, making a wildlife feature film - www.facebook.com/theelephantmovie
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13 Responses to Raindrops in the dust

  1. This is a really beautiful piece, Mark. Thank you so much for sharing it. I read it several times and each time it transported me to Central and East Africa, but mostly to Zambia where I spent so many years of my life. I have never been to Tsavo, but spent many a Sunday in the Serengeti when my husband was running Buhemba Gold Mine (at the same time as being Mine Superintendent at Williamson Diamonds). I also often visited the Ngorogoro Crater and the exquisite Lake Manyara which we used to fly to in a friend’s Cherokee at weekends.

    My new novel – Shadow of the Flame – has not advanced much in the last month or so, as I have changed publishers, and have been busy preparing all my backlist for republication, updating and changing a few things and adding scenes. As soon as this is finished I will be carrying on. Although I adore elephants – and they are of course the main thrust of this novel – I feel I know very little about them, so reading your beautiful descriptions is very inspiring for me.

    Thank you again. Keep writing!

    Best wishes,

    Sheila Belshaw (Sheila Mary Taylor, Author)

  2. Dr. Rex says:

    Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Love the writing style …. “Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. “

  3. Bill Hayes says:

    A remarkable read, comparable to the best that Attenborough would employ in his BBC films – yet it was completely personal too. I spent a month camping and traveling round Kenya and one afternoon I was walking through some scrub and came upon 3 Elephants just slowly walking along. I was too ignorant of nature at the time to be frightened by the encounter. I still have the photograph (not digital).

  4. Gail Taylor says:

    I’ve missed your ‘writings’ and will be sharing with friends and family who have had the good fortune to visit Africa. I can only dream of going some day. Thank you

  5. Liz says:

    I hope you had a lovely summer in Cornwall, but what a pleasure it is to have you back in camp sharing some of the sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings you experience in Africa. Thanks so much Mark x

  6. bighair63 says:

    Wonderfully descriptive writing. I’ve been to Africa and it brings back memories, I can almost feel the change it brings to the landscape!

  7. Michael Male says:


    The images you create with words are as eloquent, exceptional and evocative as the ones from your camera!

  8. Val Taylor says:

    Loved this. So much exquisite detail. We lived in Zambia during the 80s and 90s but were based in Lusaka and went on a few trips to the bush and Safari camps. However we never had a guide as well informed as you so never knew much beyond the usual tourist stuff. This article shows there is so much more. I was transported reading this so thank you and it’s good to have you back.

  9. Steve Trott says:

    Beautifully written Mark. Tsavo is one of my most special places.Thanks for taking me there for 5 minutes.

  10. I’m glad I went through my followings to see who is still there. I had missed your post when you wrote it. Beautiful imagery, thank you for taking me there!

  11. jisiche says:

    Welcome back Mark..This is a great piece of writing.Always loved the onset of rains in Tsavo and the transformations that came with it!

  12. natureestel says:

    Your work is brilliant!
    It is my dream to be one day in Africa and to see its beauty and its problems myself.

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