Growing tired of the cold? Think warmly of S. Africa


January 27, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When last we did a weather check from here, the Atlantic coast was in the grip of the Dog Days, temperatures over 100, humidity almost matching that.

It was winter here then.

Lately, word has drifted over the equator of Arctic air making the temperatures in the East plunge to record lows.

Well, as fans of the tilt in the Earth's rotation have guessed, it's summertime down here. They don't have air conditioning many places, either, but they don't need it.

Not that it doesn't get hot. The African sun is still up in the sky, made all that closer by Johannesburg's 6,000-foot elevation. As the temperature heads into the 80s, the strength of that sun can be sapping.

It's downright hot. Think about this. You sweat. You breathe hard. You wipe your brow. You're hot. Remember?

But the heat comes from the sun, not the air. So inside it tends to stay pretty comfortable. And with the altitude, the heat dissipates quickly when the sun disappears. Even on the hottest jTC days, a light blanket is called for at night.

Summertime here also means the rainy season. It doesn't rain at all during the winter. Not a drop. The dominant color in all directions -- except those with irrigation systems -- is brown.

Indeed, that's been the dominant color in all seasons recently as southern Africa has suffered through a drought of anywhere from one to 10 years depending on your specific locale.

But, in many places, including Johannesburg, that drought has broken this year. A couple of times, that has actually meant sustained rain over several days.

For the most part, though, it means spectacular, beautiful, awesome, brutal thunderstorms that rumble through almost every afternoon.

Indeed, the daily forecast is pretty much the same one you get in late summer in the Southeast of the United States -- hot and humid with a chance of afternoon and evening thunderstorms. Except you take out the humid part. And it's really not that hot. You get the picture.

Sometimes you'll only hear the thunder in the distance, or up close, but never actually see a drop. Other times, you'll be in a drenching, ankle-deep, hail-on-the-roof, light show of a storm, and a half-mile away it will be dusty and dry.

For South Africa, the crucial thing is that the weather pattern that supplies this consistent rain has re-established itself after an absence of several years. El Nino, that Pacific current, gets the blame for the drought, as it does for most weather anomalies these days.

Indeed, so fearsome was this drought that when it rains almost everyone talks about the beautiful, glorious weather. There are regular reports on the levels of reservoirs.

To give you a picture of how dry it was, many man-made lakes were down to 10 percent to 15 percent of capacity. They get up to 30 percent and people are excited, even though docks built for boats are still hundreds of yards from water.

Indeed, so parched was the ground that it took many weeks of rain before water started flowing into the reservoirs with any real volume. The weather types here are reluctant to say that the drought is over. One rainy season does not make up for the many dry years. But they are talking about a record corn harvest. And the devastated sugar cane crop in Natal is growing nicely.

It could be argued that the rain is a very important factor in the success of the new government that will be picked in the country's first non-racial elections April 27.

Partly that's because new governments always get credit for a good economy. If the agricultural segment can once again become an asset, instead of drought relief programs draining the treasury, that will greatly improve the country's fiscal condition.

But beyond that, consider that the country's white farmers are among the most conservative group in the country, those most likely to resist a new black government. But a good crop means they will be too busy harvesting in April and May to cause much trouble.

Many say a good performance by the country's rugby team, a passion of the Afrikaners, will also help.

But rugby's a winter game. Now it's cricket season. The players wear these big floppy hats to keep the sun off. Because it's hot. Remember? Heat. Something that can come out of the sky, not just a radiator.

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