June 8, 2011

Winter has Arrived in Joburg

Blown over by the wind
I'm writing this as the wind is howling outside (actually, it is also howling inside; South African houses aren't built very well). A very unusual occurrence in Johannesburg this time of year. Usually winters are cool but with calm and clear skies, and it never rains in Joburg during the winter. Then again, ever since we've moved here, we've been told that something or other about the weather is unusual this year.

In any case, it's been pretty cold for about two weeks, which is in keeping with the official South African winter months of June and July. It dropped below freezing during the nights, which has sent me on frenzied errands to Builder's Warehouse to buy frost sheeting and mulch for my bougainvilleas.

Bougainvilleas don't handle frost very well

Actually, it was a typical African shopping experience. I come into the store and make my way to the gardening section. I can't find mulch and no one is there, so I make my way back to the entrance to ask for help. After three people tell me that no, they don't have mulch (I have learned better than to listen to the first person), I find one who says yes, we just got some in. He shows me where it is, which is about a half a mile across the parking lot in some obscure corner I would never in a million years have found. Just pay for it, and then drive your car here, we'll load it for you, he tells me. Do I need a part number, I ask him. No, they'll know at the till what it is. So I trek back, through the entrance of the store, back to the other side and the checkout line. The cashier scans my two other items, but when I tell her I want mulch, 3 bags at 30 dm, she looks at me like I'm from another planet. M-U-L-C-H, I tell her helpfully. She still doesn't know and informs we that I'll have to show her. I grind my teeth, but there is nothing to be done. Together we march back across the parking lot to find the mulch, once again. Ah, mulch, she exclaims. The first gentleman who showed it to me is still there and berates her in rapid Zulu of which I understand nothing but the angry sound of it somehow mollifies me. Then he orders one of the parking attendants (the ones that always obscure your view by standing right behind your car and waving you out of your parking space) to wait right here and help me load my car when I come back. But of course  he has business to attend to and R2 pieces to earn while I undertake the fourth parking lot crossing to pay for the mulch, and when I finally get back, no one is to be seen. I'm sure back home I would have just left it at that and loaded the darn bags myself, but I'm not about to pay the parking attendant for his useless signaling maneuver, which he'll be sure to magically appear for, if he doesn't at least do the loading for me. So I put my fingers in my mouth and let loose an ear-piercing whistle, which does indeed produce the desired help. All in all another 5-minute errand that took 45.

You can see the morning frost on our deck

So I covered all the finicky plants (bougainvillea, birds of paradise, and some kind of obscure tree the name of which I don't know but which had already almost died last year) in white frost sheeting. Our yard looks as if Halloween is imminent, with white ghost-like figures swaying in what by now sounds like gale force winds. We'll see if my job - I mainly used a stapler - holds up.

Our frost-sheeting ghosts

My other errand was to buy a heater. I think I might have told you in my Moving Checklist to look for a house with under floor heating. Let me rephrase that: If your company is paying for the electricity, look for a house with under-floor heating. Otherwise, you might as well not have it, because using it will cost you a fortune. Last year, our electric bill tripled in the winter, and I still felt cold. Instead, we are now using this brilliant gas heater that a friend who moved to Singapore - definitely won't need a heater there - was selling:

It moves around on wheels and has its own gas bottle. I turn it on every morning when the kids come down for breakfast. It is very warm and toasty. We really just need it for that half hour, because after that the house gets heated up by the sun (except on a day like today when there is no sun).

In the evenings we mostly go to be early, like everyone in South Africa seems to be doing. Sometimes we use the gas fireplace when we're watching TV, which is also very warm and toasty. But the cat doesn't seem to have gotten that message. As a result, she is now wearing curly whiskers and trailing a singed smell. But what can you expect from a cat named Mouse?

The hazards of a winter in Joburg and a fire in the chimney

Mouse used to have straight (and slightly longer) whiskers
Did I say it never rains in Joburg in the winter? Well, this wind turned into a full-fledged thunderstorm that raged all night. In the middle of June! At least the temperature had actually gone up a bit, so we didn't get any snow in Joburg. Not yet.

Rare June rain in Johannesburg


Brenda said...


I stumbled across your blog a few months ago when searching on google for patio and outdoor furniture in Johannesburg. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading a non-South African's perspective on Johannesburg and SA.

We're South Africans who've been living abroad for the past 7 years (on and off for the first 2 years and then permanently away for the last 5) in London, Houston, Copenhagen and Stockholm. We returned to SA in December and the move back has, by far, been the hardest adjustment and transition we've yet had to make...maybe it's easier to find your feet when you're expecting it to be a challenge; coming home was not the breeze we were expecting it to be.

So much has changed in just those few years, and we're living in a part of Johannesburg that we never have before. In order to settle in we've needed to pretend that we've moved to a completely new country and city. We miss our international friends and their "different" view of the world and the people in it, so reading your blog has been wonderful - strange as it may seem, it's made us feel more at home.

SO finally I get around to commenting on one of your blogs...

House construction in SA is horrific! I seem to think it used to be much better - never as good with insulation and heating/cooling as in Europe and North America, but certainly better than nowadays. In the last number of years, despite how exhorbitant building costs have become, the quality of construction has declined dramatically with building contractors cutting corners more and more in an effort to cut costs while maximising their profits. One would think that, with the shortage of electricity, there would be a greater drive toward better insulation (or maybe I should say "having any insulation at all"). Well, thank goodness for those gas heaters!

Having been away for a while, we've missed out on the weird winters, but we've heard from friends about the crazy weather that Johannesburg has had for the last few years. The storm on Tuesday night is not like anything I've ever experienced in Johannesburg before, even in summer. Those strong winds are more typical of the Cape. All I could think about was our poor lost ex-Danish kitty who has been missing for the last 2 weeks (for whom we have put a "Lost" ad in the latest Fourways Review). Right now I'd be happy with a cat with no whiskers, smelling like a sewer!

And finally, re the car guards. I think job creation in SA is quite unique and remarkable - necessity is the mother of invention in a country where the unemployment rate is so high. I remember many years ago, before the car guards were around, that the number of thefts of cars and vehicle contents in shopping centre parking lots was incredibly high! When car guards initially started appearing (very informally at first - an unemployed guy just offering to watch your car and keep it safe, for just a few cents at that time) the reduction of crime was so immediate that their presence was most welcome. Now they're an institution and everyone has forgotten why they were such a hit to begin with. Maybe the car guards of today are also completely oblivious as to the origins of their function. It's a R2 I happily part with.

Apologies for the extremely lengthy comment (almost a blog on its own!!). Good luck with your plants and the frost, and to beautiful Mouse and her singed whiskers. I look forward to your next post (as I have to each before it).


Sine said...

Hi Brenda,

thank you so much for your long comment! I've actually heard similar comments from my South African friends - reading my blog gives them a nice view of their own country. I can understand your struggles moving back after such a long time abroad. When you come to a new country, you're excited and willing to give something new a try, whereas coming home you already know a lot about that country, and not all of it flattering. I imagine moving back to Germany would feel the same for me.

Thanks also for the background on car guards! Indeed, we often forget the origins of something like that, and become complacent now that everything is safe. Knowing what you just said, I'll also part with my R2 more happily. Actually, I hoard my R2 pieces religiously for just that very purpose, but it seems I can never quite keep enough around!

I'm sorry to hear about your cat. We've lost cats before as well and it's always so sad (even though we've all come to believe, with the kids, that they've found a mate somewhere in the forest and live happily ever after:-), I hope she does reappear.

I'm glad you enjoy my blog and thanks again for you comments. Please always feel free to add your perspective!

Madelein said...

I have a few questions about central heating. Please answer if you can :)

Sine said...

Great questions, and I did post a comment there. (with my fingers barely functioning due to cold-induced stiffness):-)

cat said...

Foudn you vis Madelein's. I am an architect and we really design houses here for the 8 months or warm to hot weather and not the 3/4 months of cold. I do find that the wrong orientation of houses is greatly detrimental. Our new building regulations coming into force next month forces correct orientation and better isolation - but not to the standards as would be required in colder countries.

Sine said...

Hi cat, thanks for the comment. I have to say, I really do like my house here and the fact that I don't need to have air conditioning. And I've gotten used to the sand bag to cover the gap under the door in winter. Agree with you, would hate to live in a Southern exposure house right now. I worship the sun as if I was an Inca - or was it the Aztecs? It's almost a little ritual every morning when I pour my tea, open the curtains, and soak up the first few rays of sun...

Jeroen said...

After a year in a 100-year-old house with small windows in Melville - very cold in winter - now we have a home with large sliding doors and windows facing north, which makes all the difference; even when it's around 0 at night it heats up in no time when the sun's out.

By the way, we're eagerly awaiting a blog post about the pipe bridge that's visible in the 4th photo. I was stunned to hear what it was, taking in account it crosses Joburg's wealthiest hood...

Sine said...

Agreed Jeroen, North-facing makes all the difference. But we're still freezing mornings and evenings.

Aha, the $%&# pipe - I should write about that, shouldn't I. In fact, I did elaborate a bit on it way back sometime last year, here is the link: http://joburgexpat.blogspot.com/2010/09/back-home.html

itsonlyp said...

During a moment of nostalgia I decided to check out the weather in Johannesburg (on this day 18-8-2015) and was surprised to see such high temps and cloudy and rainy days this time of year. This is how I stumbled upon your post. Great read. I lived in Jo'burg for 19 years and left in 2002. On the one hand there's no place like it and on the other I could never live there again. One foot in SA and the other in the rest of the world. Unsettling, to say the least. South Africans are hospitable and leap before they look. They invite you into their homes and then suss you out. In other parts of the world it's the other way around. I've lived in three other countries since I left SA and I still feel uprooted. Subconsciously I may be looking for a place and people like in Jo'burg. That said, of course I am also not the same person anymore, so a consciousness shift is what I need, ha ha! Were these pics taken in the north, Bryanston, or further north?

Greetings from NL

Sine said...

Nicola - so sorry to just now reply to your lovely comment - snafu in comments system. I loved hearing your story, shared by so many others no matter where they're from or now live. Living in Joburg definitely has an impact on you one way or another.

To answer your question, these pics were taken North of Bryanston, near Fourways - that area may have not been so developed when you left. Dainfern is a huge expat community, about halfway between Bryanston and the N1, just South of Diepsloot.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I don't normally read the other comments but this post was extra special. Almost like two or three blog posts in one. Cat beat me to it on the architecture; that was my guess but I wasn't so sure. You CAN however find drafty homes pretty much anywhere. Mine in southern Missouri was built in 1982 and it is insanely drafty. We only have minimal insulation because the builder planned this house as a summer vacation home for the lake crowd but SOLD it as a year round residence.

I don't know if I would have had the diligence to protect the plants. If a plant can't survive on its own (except for watering, of course) it will probably die on my watch. Ha!

Sine said...

Glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I have a weakness or plants and will do everything to help them survive, but in general, I agree with you: I think plants need to make it on their own. Which is why I'm not a fan of annuals. Replanting every summer seems insane to me. They must come back on their own. Why would anyone plant annuals when there are also perennials? But Joburg is finicky with those freezing nights, just one night of the year could do in your plants, hence the need to protect. Also if you just replanted and the plants which normally would make it fine are still a bit sensitive and not yet hardened.