That’s not a nuke test you see in that pic; that’s a typical exquisite cumulonimbus building up in preparation for a storm. Actually, that’s just a small part of the cloud formation – it was all I could squeeze in the frame.
We’ve been seeing quite a few clouds like that one now that Johannesburg’s summer storm season has burst upon us in full force. Allow me to share with you the adventure of a Highveld summer storm…
It usually starts with a blazing hot day in the middle of summer. You’ve barely started work and your skin is already shiny before the clock hits 9 a.m. You’re based in an airconditioned office, though, so at first you don’t notice that the temperature is still rising.
At midday you pop outdoors for your lunch break and wham! the sun fries any part of you it sees. The shade isn’t even a relief anymore. You treat yourself to an ice cream (maybe) because, well, isn’t it just a gorgeous day… but your discomfort sends you back to the artificially cooled office pretty quickly.
By about 2 o’clock you look out the window to observe that huge white clouds are bubbling up into the sky, shining a blinding snowy white in the baking sunshine. The sky is still blue, but a bit of a breeze has picked up, and subconsciously you know what’s coming.
Around 3 p.m. the tension in the air outside has infected everyone. The wind is gusting more strongly now, and the pretty puffs of white have become ominous towers of grey and black. People start hurrying without realising it, just as the birds swirl and dive for shelter. It’s still hot, but you can feel the heat is about to break.
You race to your car the moment work ends, muttering how everyone (else) throws their driver’s licence out the window when the weather turns exciting. Join the queue of traffic and you sense a communal ripple through the hive: people hurrying to fetch their kids from school, wondering if they left the washing on the line, nervous about reaching shelter despite the comfort of their modern cars.
Then suddenly – splat! – a big fat droplet plops on your windshield. Splat! Splat! And whoooshhhhhhh! – the faucet opens full blast. The heat snaps, the visibility is zero, the air is warm and wet. Wiper blades swish and lights barely break through the waterfall as you crawl along on your homeward route.
And the thunder! Rolls and cracks and splits in the sky; lightning snaking out for the nearest hill or high point. A smash of thunder right above you makes you yelp. The heat of your breath mists up your car windows, so on goes the fan, since you can’t crack open a window without getting splattered.
If you’re lucky you might miss the hail this time (or it might miss you). If not, you’ll be stuck in your tin can in stop–go traffic with the hard white stones hammering down on you. Poor pockmarked car.
But the hail, like the heavy rain, doesn’t last that long. Within half an hour it’s over: the shower slows to a patter and the thunder rolls off to the horizon. Finally you make it home in one piece, thankful that you remembered to unplug all your valuable electronic goods the night before…
The great thing about Jo’burg’s summer rain is that it’s not like the stifling muggy humidity of Durban, where the warm Indian Ocean smothers the coast in low grey cloud blanket that traps the moist heat. Nor do we have the hot, persistent winds of Cape Town’s summer or the endless drizzle of their winter. No.
Jozi’s storms are electric and dramatic! They build up and blow up and often do damage… and then just as suddenly the clouds fall flat and float away, leaving behind sparkling sunshine and rainbows.
The world smells fresh and clean. The warm wet roads are left steaming after the downpour. Leaves and petals and bits of debris have been blasted against walls and windows, but the foliage that’s still intact twinkles with a thousand raindrops. The heat is gone and so is the tension of those enormous clouds. All the dirt of city life is washed away, and the evening draws to a close with the songs of crickets and frogs filling the air.