S. Africa aglow with summer Fields of green: While Maryland seems mired in arctic gloom, South Africans are enjoying a particularly good summer. A 10-year drought has ended, the jacarandas are in marvelous bloom and wild animals are panting in the shade.

Sun Journal

February 01, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The grass spreads out like a small green lake whose surface is entirely still.

A bright, warm sun shines down on the thousands of people who surround the immaculate lawn. The sound of bat against ball echoes around the grounds. A runner runs. A fielder dives. The thousands cheer.

It's not some dream from which you must awake to face snow or sleet or icy sidewalks. It is the reality of the Southern Hemisphere basking in summertime warmth and brightness.

There is, of course, a catch. The thousands of spectators do not gather around a baseball diamond, but a cricket oval. It is not the Orioles against the Yankees they watch, but South Africa against England.

It will have to do. The weather is not as sultry or dominating as a North American August. The pace is more leisurely. The English cricket team is not present for a three-day or three-week road trip; it showed up in November and left just last week. And the crowd-pleasing, quick games in cricket require, including the break for tea, eight hours or so. The major matches, the "tests," require five days.

Short spring

Summer and its pleasures arrive rather suddenly in the highveld of South Africa, the mile-high plateau where Johannesburg, Pretoria and most of the country's population are situated. Nature seems to rush from winter to summer with barely a stop for spring.

Indeed, ignoring the laws of nature that say summer begins on Dec. 21 -- the day winter begins north of the equator -- governments decree that summer begins Dec. 1.

That's when the sun gets high enough to display powers that are all the more impressive at high altitude. The air may be cool but a few minutes in sunshine heats you to the boiling point.

The prelude to the season is the blooming of the jacaranda trees, stunning robes of purple that cover the landscape with subtle intensity, as if an impressionist painted the land with a fauvist palate. The jacaranda have flourished so well that they are now a trademark of South African cities. But with sunshine in such abundance here, almost anything will grow.

Almost any flower or tree seen in Maryland grows here, too. Some of the deciduous trees appear to be confused by the lack of a hard winter freeze and shed their leaves at unpredictable intervals. The limiting factor is not sun. It is not the soil. The problem is water.

A lack of water has been an issue on and off for centuries and especially during these last 10 years of certifiable drought.

At the beginning of summer -- the rainy season -- things had reached crisis proportions. The Vaal reservoir, which serves Johannesburg, was down to 14 percent of its capacity.

Water restrictions were adopted, including punitive fines for exceeding usage quotas. That didn't seem to bother many residents of Johannesburg's plush northern suburbs where the sprinklers continued to run overtime.

The property owners presumably pay the fines with the same nonchalance they pay the speeding tickets they collect driving their BMWs at 100 miles an hour.

Drought ends

Then, rather suddenly, everything changed. Rain came down as it has not for years. By the end of December, the Vaal reservoir was full; the sluice gates at the reservoir's dam were opened for the first time since 1987 and drew thousands of spectators.

No matter how many barbecues -- called "braais" -- are affected or how many cricket matches have to be canceled (two of the five "tests" against England were called because of rain), few people complain. Indeed, the usual way of speaking of "rain" is to precede it with the adjective "lovely."

That might seem odd since rain often arrives via huge thunderstorms that dump tremendous amounts of water in short spans of time. In December, a flash flood near the city of Pietermaritzburg killed 150 people and left hundreds more homeless.

Last month, 6 inches fell in two hours over parts of Pretoria, causing extensive damage. But everyone seems to recognize that whatever the problems accompanying it, the rain is needed.

The local calendar of events wouldn't make sense in the Northern Hemisphere. Christmas and New Year's are summer holidays to be spent at the beach. January is when Johannesburg's rush-hour drivers seem to be their most aggressive. The start of February means that two months of hot weather remain.

In the highveld, the days will bring a comfortable dry heat, the evenings a coolness only dreamt of during a summer in Maryland.

But the lowveld, deprived of altitude and coastal breezes, is more familiar; it has humidity and temperatures approaching 100 degrees. As early as December, the animals in Kruger National game park -- in the lowveld -- begin seeking the shade of trees.

Weather from south

There will be the months of thunderheads and warm breezes from the north, and then the rains will begin to taper off. Weather will start coming from the south, the direction of Antarctica. Instead of cool at night, it will be cold. In the townships, people will gather around coal stoves; in the suburbs, around electric radiators.

Without the rain -- almost none will fall for six months -- the landscape will turn brown. Thousands of people will gather at other fields of green. But that will be in a faraway place, the Northern Hemisphere.

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