One of the many wonders of nature is it’s ability to amaze and inspire us in even the strangest of places in the wilderness. This nerve wracking morning game drive with my father was mother nature’s lesson that anything is possible. Having a glimmer of hope in even the darkest of doubt could change the entire outcome.
On this November morning we found ourselves driving down the Letaba river road-heading towards the famous Letaba bridge. This central area is one of our most favorite destinations in the park-and a road that holds many precious memories for my family and I. In South-Africa we get our heavy rain storms in the summer months- being a November morning- we were in the heart of our rainy season. Driving down the river road we were witnessing the sun rising after an intense storm from the night before. The continuous heavy rain during the night caused the Letaba river to rise tremendously and gave it an aggressive flow. It rose suddenly, sweeping away trees, branches and debris. We were amazed at the water levels and shocked at the change of landscape in just one evening. When we pulled up to one of the small loops to observe the river a small herd of stranded impala caught our attention. Right in the middle of this gushing river was a small island of river sand-slowly getting smaller and smaller with the water closing in on it. In the middle of the shrinking sandbar was the herd of terrified impala. This soon caused immense panic for the onlookers as the two sides of raging river streams on either side of this island were closing in quick. I remember thinking and wondering to myself- how on earth did this happen? How did these impalas not run away or move off before the river had closed up around them. More than 15m of violent river current on either side separated the little herd from the safety of the shore.
With the speed that this river was moving down-the small island they were standing on turned into a small patch of sand. It was getting very clear that the impalas knew this was a very dangerous situation for them to be in. I remember seeing them pacing left to right in a way that reflected someone constructing a plan or a strategy- they were planning a route to get them safely to the shore line. I tried to remain hopeful in the beginning – I hoped that maybe the island was elevated enough that there would still be a small patch of sand high enough for the impala to stand on. As the strength of the flow of water increased and the size of trees flowing down the river got bigger- I realized my hope for that island remaining was not likely to happen. The impalas fate seemed sealed, all hope seemed lost. It was a gut-wrenching realization that these frightened impalas will soon be flushed away. We had a moment of sincere sadness for these animals – being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I even spoke about perhaps leaving the sighting – to not witness these helpless antelope drowning in front of our eyes. It felt cruel – just watching from afar- with so little we could do to help them. A person looking in from the outside may ask why somebody couldn’t be called in to help. The policy in many cases involving something like this is simply to let nature take its course. The only situations where an animal can ethically be helped or rescued by people is if it can be justified that the reason the animal needs help in the first place is as a result of something humans have done, for example an animal being trapped in a snare or hit by a car. This was not the case today. I secretly wished I had a small boat- though I do not know how cooperative 8 impalas would be when asked to get in a boat with me – but I would have liked to have tried. Unfortunately I had no boat anyway and this was once again- a performance of mother nature and her strength and abilities.
What would these impala do? It became clear in their frantic pacing on the small island – that they knew they had to act soon. I remember seeing them line up in what seemed to have been directed by the dominant impala. In the lead he plunged into the flowing river-with the remaining 7 following one-by-one behind him. It happened so quickly and with no warning. These 8 animals made a decision- they were now all fighting for their survival in the hopes to make it to the shore. I can only imagine the fear in their hearts when they took that first leap- but they knew they had to. It was move-or be moved. Watching all 8 impalas flow down the river gave both emotions of extreme fear and intense anxiety. I quickly started my car to keep track of them as they were swept down the river. As I frantically got the car started, a large crocodile nearby caught my attention as he slipped into the water from his basking spot. I’m sure he was trying to take advantage of the opportunity for an easy meal.
My father and I drove until we couldn’t see the impalas trying to stay afloat anymore. We stopped at a spot where we believed the impalas would have reached the bank if they had made it out further down. We waited in eager anticipation to see if even one of them had survived the roaring waters of the swollen Letaba river. Just as we thought our brave impala heroes were certainly swallowed by the murky water of the river-or worse, turned to crocodile breakfast- we saw hope. To the left side of the road walking up from the river was a very wet and exhausted looking impala, and behind him 7 other impalas followed. They walked up calmly in a line and crossed the road in front of us. We cheered with excitement. They all made it!
The courage of these impalas and the brave act of leaping into the unknown would stay with me. What a lesson on survival. When all doors seem closed, and all options are exhausted- they taught me- it’s still not over till it’s over.