When we met Kate that afternoon for tea before our evening game drive, the skies were gray and there was the rumble of thunder. Ironically, we asked Kate about storms and lightning in the area and discussed the weather in general. She told us about the floods they'd had in the last couple of years, something that was quite an unusual occurrence. When we set off in the vehicle the rumbling was quite clear and you could see some lightning activity off to one side of us. It wasn't socked in and it wasn't raining. So Kate headed off in the opposite direction from the storm which also appeared to be passing by and moving fairly quickly. As we drove along, the lightning activity intensified producing some spectacular cloud to ground strikes. It also seemed to be shifting around and coming from more directions. Still no rain. The clouds were quite dramatic.
Admittedly I was getting a little nervous. I'm not fond of being out in lightning storms and kept thinking of some fairly recent Lightning Safety training that had been circulated at my work where field personnel are often out in remote areas where they could be exposed to storms. When we reached Londolozi's airstrip it was getting pretty dramatic. Now The storm activity seems to be in most directions not just on one side. Life was sitting in the tracker's seat as usual and I think he saw some rain coming from behind because we stopped so he could jump down and fetch the ponchos for us from the back of the vehicle. Just as he handed them out it began to come down. I was desperately trying to get a large poncho over me with all speed when I was surprised to see a very large piece of hail land at my feet in the Land Rover. The next thing I know it was pelting down with large marble sized hail – we're talking pieces an inch wide. It was quite surreal. I had a moment of realization that we couldn't avoid this, there was no place to go. As I hunkered down in the seat, hugging my camera bag to me beneath the poncho, and trying to hold it out like a tarp so the hail wouldn't hit me directly, I wondered how Kate was able to withstand it without a poncho. In a moment she had backed us up under a tree to get some shelter, but it didn't help much. My disbelief at what was happening continued as there seemed no end in sight. Very soon Kate must have realized we had to get out of there and she began to drive. I could barely peek out of my shelter between yelps as the hail pelted my back, head, shoulder, any body parts facing up. I have no idea how she actually managed to drive in all that. You couldn't see the road. I felt like a turtle since I had pulled my head out of the hood of the poncho and retreated to as low and small a position as I could manage. We drove for a bit, enduring this onslaught with lightning and thunder all around. When I felt the vehicle stop I looked out to see where we were. The way ahead was blocked by fallen tree branches, but it appeared we weren't too far from camp as I could see some buildings. Kate said to get out and we grabbed our stuff and clambered off the vehicle and hurried as fast as we could toward the buildings which turned out to be the staff quarters. Before we got to any sort of shelter we were wading through shin deep water and avoiding fallen branches. We stopped briefly in an open area under a sheltering roof to catch our breath. At this point it was raining but the hail was gone. After a few minutes we jogged a bit further and found ourselves at Varty Camp. There were leaves scattered everywhere forming a carpet over everything. Fences, trees and branches had come down. Guests from various camps were gathering on the deck at Varty and being tended to by the staff. Dry towels, blankets, drinks (including brandy!) were handed out. First aid was administered. Kate went off to see how the rest of her rangers were fairing and to make sure everyone was getting in safely. Life was quite shaken by the whole episode. He had a few knots on his head from the hail and we later realized he had likely never seen hail in his life. To him, there must have been white rocks falling from the sky. Hail is a rare occurrence in that area, and certainly hail that size and in that volume had never been seen by most of the people who call Londolozi home. There were piles of hail which had drifted in spots to eight inches deep. Some guests had bruising from the hail, there were a few cuts and scrapes, and surely some camera equipment had been ruined, but all in all we came through it ok. The rain had stopped and as we looked out from the deck to the Sand river, we could see a group of Banded Mongoose had come out to investigate or perhaps to find a drier spot.
Soon Kate returned and led us back along the pathways past the Granite Suites and Founders Camp to our own Pioneer Camp. Along the way there were staff already out sweeping away the leaves that littered everything and clearing the branches blocking the way. Sadly we saw a whole bed of large aloe plants that were simply shredded, but closer to Pioneer Camp they weren't so damaged. Just as happens in Colorado, the damage was very localized. In Pioneer Camp we found Graeme sweeping leaves off the deck and were informed that Allan and Loraine's cottage had sustained some flooding. Ours was mercifully spared. After changing into some dry clothes, inspecting the bruises which would later bloom into a leopard-like pattern on part of my back, and getting our bearings, we went back to Pioneer's main deck for a drink. In all, from the time we got in the vehicle to the time we were back at Varty Camp assessing the damage, no more than 20 minutes could have passed. It was a violent but brief, freakish weather episode. One thing that really impressed me was the response at Londolozi. In no time the paths were clear and the damage was being repaired. I was amazed at the army of people clearing up debris and the way the staff were able to quickly adapt to our changed schedule. The next day Kate told us a special meeting was held and they had purchased special weather radios that would keep them apprised of weather happening in their close vicinity, like they might have for an airport. That evening, Kate joined us for drinks and dinner and we ate together with Allan and Loraine as well. We enjoyed hearing about her life at Londolozi and about the Ranger and Tracker training programs they have. There were good stories all around. As we went off to bed, the thunder and lightning had returned and rumbled in the distance for several hours in the night, but we were snug in our suite, unlike the animals in the bush.