Friday, April 29, 2005

The Storm Of The Century

Weather is a funny thing these days. The September National Geographic had a large section on climate change that was frightening to read, but it's another thing, entirely, to experience it for yourself and see your environment changing.

Cape Town has been experiencing a drought, which eventually resulted in water restrictions being implemented in October, and then worse ones being implemented in February. Our administration waited until it was too late, instead of implementing a plan years ago. Due to the restrictions we've watched helplessly as gardens have fallen apart and beautiful plants have died, one by one, and we've learnt to save grey water in the oddest places and redirect runoff from all over to try and save our precious gardens and keep our swimming pools filled (about the only places we can go to to escape the heat). It feels as if we're in the middle of a desert, rather than a coastal city with a Mediterranean climate.

A couple of weeks ago, something miraculous happened. I had been feeling it in the air for a while (and logically it was inevitable), but it still always catches you by surprise. We had a thunderstorm. For many places that may not be particularly exciting, but Cape Town rarely has thunderstorms. If we do, they're usually short and not particularly dramatic, and most often will happen in October.

It was a Sunday afternoon. The morning has been unseasonably warm for April, but later I began to feel a chill in the air. It got colder and colder, and eventually darker and darker, too, as grey clouds suddenly amassed in the air.

At 15:00 it started raining big, sporadic drops; some of the biggest drops that I have ever seen.

By 15:05 it was raining hard. Really hard.

By 15:10 it was raining so hard that the gutters, unable to cope, began to overflow and water began to rush down some of our outside walls (thankfully it didn't get inside). It was one of the weirdest things I'd ever seen.

By 15:15 the ground was covered with hail. In my area the stones were quite small, but in other areas some were as large as matchboxes.

By 15:20 the swimming pool had turned from a sparkling blue to a sickly green colour, as rain and muck ran into it.

After about an hour the storm had calmed to more normal soft, soaking rain, but it continued, with only the briefest of breaks here and there, for the next day. It felt like typical August winter weather. In other areas of Cape Town, towards the evening, the storm strengthened again and the houses of a number of people I know were flooded.

Meanwhile, the thunderstorm went on and on. When I went to bed just after midnight it was still going on – brilliant flashes of lightning with thunder that just rolled and rolled, sometimes nearby, sometimes far away. I think the storm eventually calmed in the early hours of the Monday morning. The entire length of the thunderstorm was probably equal to the total number of thunderstorms that we'd experienced in the last ten years here.

About a week later I noticed that plants all over were suddenly springing back to life, with new growth beginning to sprout all over from branches that I thought were long dead. There is a small outdoor food kiosk that I pass every evening as I walk to the car, and it has a little area next to it, marked out with planters than contain lavender plants, where people can sit and eat their lunches. I thought that the poor plants had long since died - they slowly lost all their leaves and then turned brown and began to shrivel – but about a week after the rain some of them suddenly sprung back to life, which was an amazing thing to see.

However, late last week I was reminded that we are still in a drought. I had the opportunity to travel inland (slightly) through a number of farming communities, and while some farms struggle on, a number have just disappeared – there is nothing left but dry, brown earth and the faint marks of tractors and other vehicles. Of the farms that are still going, many have dams that are on the verge of drying up. You can see where the water level usually reaches and it's nowhere near where the water level now is. It seems impossible that the dams could ever have been as full as the original water lines suggest.

Winter is approaching, which will bring wet weather with it, but I suspect that this drought is just the beginning of a permanent shift in our weather. It's quite scary as the population of the city and surrounding areas keeps increasing, but the water is disappearing even though we are right on the coast and many of us see the sea every day as we drive to work, or look through our office windows. But all this water, which is slowly rising due to global warming, is currently useless to us.


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Olympics Are Less Complicated

I'm looking out an office window that overlooks a primary-school playground, killing time while I wait for Nortons to be updated on the Mac that I'm using. A class of very young kids is outside on the half-size netball court with its teacher. The kids have been divided into four groups of about eight people each, and are lined up in four rows to have races to the other end of the court and back, one person per team at a time, in a sort of tag-team event. The teacher says "Go!" and the first kid in the second, third and fourth rows starts running to the other side, as does the first kid in the first row, along with four other kids that had been standing in line behind him. The five kids from the first row run across the court in single file, not breaking their row order, until the teacher stops the race and re-explains how the game is supposed to go.

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Monday, April 04, 2005

A Rare, Perfect Evening

This evening I experienced one of those rare, perfect moments that you cannot plan for, and which always catch you unexpectedly.

I was working late, but had to leave the office briefly to fetch the car, which is parked on the other side of the city (a story for another time), as I wanted to move the car closer to the office before it got dark, as walking the length of the city, for any reason, after dark is not the safest choice to make. The weather has been changing recently; the air has been nippy during the day (especially in the shade), and colder at night. Summer is very definitely on its way out, and winter is approaching. At the moment, however, the start of autumn still brings with it those thrilling moments as the colours change and the environment still seems very much in transition.

As I left the building I stepped out into a warm, windless dusk that is truly rare in Cape Town. It was a huge contrast to the hermetically sealed environment that I had been in for the past nine-and-a-half hours. The temperature was just right, at that warmth that makes you feel comfortable rather than overheated, while the lack of wind was wonderful. Sometimes the wind blows so hard in Cape Town, especially in certain "hot spots", that I have to pause as I'm walking so as not to be blown over. It's even worse on cold days when you feel the icy chill go right through you.

The light was also just right - twilight, before the sun has completely gone down, which seems to hang in the air. In Cape Town this moment is especially rare as we don't have those long, lingering twilights like those in Europe. In fact, it reminded me very much of the first evening I ever spent in Paris. It's one of those beautiful moments during which you wish you were sitting outside at a restaurant enjoying a good, relaxed drink with a great friend, or two, rather than worrying about deadlines and work schedules. I just wish they could last longer here. They would complement the city wonderfully.

During my 12-odd minute walk to the other side of the city, the city felt unnaturally serene, as it was just after the rush-hour bustle of people going home from work, but just before the time when the city's nightlife usually begins. At its loudest I experience only ambient city noise interspersed with pockets of quiet and, visually, soft shadows interspersed with fading light.

I reached the car just as the moment was ending, and drove back to the office enjoying the last bit of light mixing with the artificial lights of the city. By the time I arrived back at the office the magic had almost entirely dissipated and, as I exited the car, I felt the familiar autumn chill in the air once again; a subtle reminder that I had to go back to work.



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