Cold Weather, Astonishing Sky

The winter’s first cold front took hold of Joburg this weekend. The sky is bright and clear and a constant, bone-chilling wind is blowing. The current temperature, at 11:39 a.m., is 7° C (45° F). The predicted low tonight is 0° C.

During the months of June and July, Joburgers whine about the cold. We whine constantly and without shame. We sleep more because our beds are the only places we can achieve a modicum of warmth, huddled under duvets in flannel pajamas, sweaters, and two pairs of socks. We don’t go out after dark unless it is absolutely necessary. We wear gloves indoors. We shiver and curse.

Even the Melville Cat has surrendered to the cold. He’s hardly left the couch all weekend, and hasn’t brought me a single dead rat. Probably because the rats are hibernating.

Like everyone else in Joburg, Smokey is depressed about the weather change.

I know what you northerners are thinking — that two years in Africa have turned me into a cold-weather wimp. I used to think like you. Jon would complain to me about the Joburg cold and I would say, “Come on, 40° is nothing. Come to D.C. in February sometime, then you’ll feel what REAL winter is like.”

Then I moved here. I arrived on the 6th of August, at the end of Joburg’s winter. I learned quickly.

August 10, 2010. My first cold night in Jozi.

You see, it’s not really the cold that’s the problem here. It’s the heat. Or lack thereof. South African houses aren’t heated. The words “heat pump” and “thermostat” mean nothing to the average Joburger. Neither do the words “storm window” or “double-glazing”.

For those of you living in the American Northeast: To get a sense of what winter feels like here, imagine the first cold day of autumn. A cold front has just blown in. You come home after work to a cold, dark house. It’s freezing inside, so you scurry around shutting windows, and then you switch on the thermostat. You hear a satisfying whoosh of air. You sit down, shivering, and wait to warm up.

Now imagine that same scenario, except you aren’t able to shut the windows and there is no thermostat to turn on. All you can do is plug in the “panel heater” — a one-meter-square metal panel affixed to the wall, which emits such a scant amount of warmth that it’s almost laughable. You can turn on your electric space heater or your portable gas heater, but those are temporary fixes. You’ll have to turn them off again before you go to sleep. So you shiver, curse, put on all the clothes you own, and go to bed.

Now imagine living this way, day-in day-out, for two-and-a-half months. That’s winter in Joburg.

There is one redeeming thing about the first Jozi cold front of the year: the sky. The last two evenings — as the freezing temperatures blew in on the backs of scattered clouds — we’ve been treated to glorious sunsets. I took a few photos from my back yard on Friday evening.

I’m not a meteorologist so I won’t try to explain what is happening with these clouds. I just know they are really really beautiful, and the weather they brought with them is really really cold.

Pink sky and pink magnolias. For some reason, the magnolia tree at the Lucky 5 Star likes to bloom in winter. The tree is hemispherically challenged.

The sky was most dramatic 20 minutes after the sun set (which happens at about 5:30 this time of year). A few minutes later it was pitch-dark and cold.

At least we have pretty sunsets to look at in winter, and at least Joburg winters are short. The weather is spectacular for nine-and-a-half months a year — it’s worth ten weeks of relative misery. And then there is the most redeeming feature of winter in Joburg: It never rains, and it’s almost always sunny. The afternoons are even warm sometimes. And it doesn’t snow.

One must try to think positively at times like this.

A plea to my friends back home: This summer, as you sweat and complain about the D.C. heat and humidity, please think warm thoughts for me. I’ll be huddling next to my pathetic panel heater, shivering and cursing, praying for mid-August to come quickly.

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  • Reply jackie hulme June 10, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I think all of us togs yesterday were trying to kiss the skies …. with our cameras … this cold is wicked … your photo series are lovely. I tried again yesterday by diepsloot – was a tad nervous to pull over … and then one I got around the corner near the N14 – I had missed all the drama … but Im sure there will be other times

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      I think we’ve all experienced that frustration of missing the perfect sunset moment. But yes, the beauty is that there will always be more.

  • Reply jgkiser June 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Beautiful skies.

    Is there anything worse than a cold Joburg bathroom tile floor on your way to your morning teeth brushing???

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      No, there isn’t. I actually wanted to get into the bathroom issue — how horrible it is to have to bathe yourself in the coldest room of the house — in this post, but decided it was dragging on a bit too long.

  • Reply Shahil June 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I did the only sane thing any self respecting joburger should do during this time – I came to Durban for the weekend (and I am off on holiday to the northern hemisphere next weekend!) Been wearing shorts. Hehe. Thanks for the explanation of the cold as its something I never really thought about. Oh well. I think this post does show why things like the twitter blanket drive was the best idea we could have. The cold is unforgiving and it really is great that so many of us have tried, in our tiny little way, to help those that are suffering the most.

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Lucky you to be in Durban this weekend!

  • Reply zimbo64 June 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Having grown up in Africa I was so surprised on my first visit to Europe in winter (we usually go in summer) that I did not need to go to bed with my winter pj’s and socks! The house was warm enough to walk around in shorts! But having said that I did not enjoy the heating in the shops and pealing of layers of clothes! Even if it is cold in Joburg at least the sun is shining! Keep warm xx

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Yeah, sometimes the central heating (as well as central air conditioning) can be a hindrance because you have to keep adjusting to drastically different temperatures. I still miss the ability to get warm though.

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish June 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Southern Cal is somewhat similar — we have glazed windows, especially in the desert, but people don’t realize how cold it can get in the desert when the sun goes down. Sand doesn’t hold the day’s heat, and we pile on the sweaters.

    Beautiful pictures. I wonder, would ice crystals have something to do with it?

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm

      It’s possible…I also think it has something to do with all the smoke in the atmosphere.

      I can see how the desert would be similar. Joburg is in the highveld, which us actually a desert-like environment in many ways, especially in winter when it’s so dry.

  • Reply Jenna June 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Oooh, I feel you. Jurg and I are huddled inside around our heater with beanies and mittens on as I type this. Central heating needs to catch on asap. I’m debating going to the gym, but I just can’t fathom leaving the warmth of my blankets and getting into a freezing car!

    Stay warm!


    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm

      Haha, you too 🙂

    • Reply Sine June 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      Oh but Jenna, the car is my favorite place when it’s cold, because I can crank the heat and it feels just like central heating!

  • Reply buckwheatsrisk June 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    i think reading this made me cold and i need to put extra clothes on and climb into bed…lol it’s not cold here!

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 7:03 pm

      Ha! Where are you?

      • Reply buckwheatsrisk June 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm

        Northern Alberta. I haven’t been here for a winter yet,but i am told it gets to -50. summer here had been mostly beautiful and comfortable in the mid 20’s

        • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm

          Ooooh, boy. That will be an interesting winter!

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather June 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Oh man, this post brings back memories, of the winter I spent without heat. Good luck in winter and may you stay warm and toasty!

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      Where did you spend a winter without heat?

  • Reply chuckv88 June 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    I love the very BLUE skies in winter on the Highveld. Get yourself a halogen heater from P’nP for R69 (if not cheaper) and you’re kinda sorted if you stick to one room. Otherwise, you’ll freeze. Lekker post!

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 9:22 pm

      I’ve never heard of a halogen heater. Must investigate!

  • Reply Lilly Loompa June 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    I was lucky to escape the cold weather this weekend as I am in sunny and warm Nelspruit, in Mpumalanga. And I was made aware of the cold front through my friends’ updates on FB & twitter! Anyhow…I agree with you about houses not being insulated and people not even thinking about it! In my line of work, I always try to convince owners to think about these things when building…but money & costs are always the excuse. Tomorrow I head back to cold Jozi…I actually enjoy the winters there…a refreshing change to the rainy winters of cape town!
    PS: Beautiful pics!

    • Reply 2summers June 10, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks! Lucky you to be in Nelspruit. I hear it’s going up to 14 tomorrow. Woo-hoo!

  • Reply taxslave June 11, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I forgot how dismal winters are until we visited Cape Town one July and were reminded that if the outside temp is 13 degrees the inside temp is the same. I wondered as I shivered why there is no double glazing in SA – a bizz opp I reckon. The second thing that made me chuckle was that all our friends in SA ask how we survive winter in the British Isles – as you mention we do so very comfortably with well heated and insulated houses:0 Great post, macd me chuckle, thanks for reminding me of winter, in the green Island still waiting for Summer to arrive.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

      Thanks taxslave. Winters here definitely make you tough. I’ve never been to Cape Town in winter but I imagine it’s even worse, with the rain.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough June 11, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Your winters there sound about like the winter we had in Hanoi. Not frigid, but when there’s no heat, it gets cold really quickly. Stay warm, Heather.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Thanks Kathy! I do feel a little bad complaining because outside it’s really not that bad. It’s just the unheated indoors that sucks.

  • Reply Lady Canyonero June 11, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Hi there, I just started following your blog and I’m truly enjoying it. You’re a wonderful photographer and a gifted writer. Looking forward to reading more posts.

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2012 at 8:31 am

      Thanks so much, Lany Canyonero. (Great name, by the way.) Welcome to my blog 🙂

  • Reply Tilly Bud June 11, 2012 at 11:26 am

    This brings back happy memories – not!

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2012 at 11:39 am

      Haha. I had a feeling it would(n’t).

  • Reply Sine June 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Amen to all of that! Very enjoying read, Heather. Makes me realize I haven’t written about the cold yet this year. Maybe had to do with the fact that I missed this coldest of all weekends this year by flying to Germany and back in three days. Where by the way it wasn’t all that much warmer, even though it’s summer there. So, even with all the whining, I’ll take a Joburg winter over pretty much anywhere else. Okay, off to writing a new winter blog post asap…

    • Reply 2summers June 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Haha, yeah, I’ve heard that Europe isn’t have much of a summer yet this year. Believe it or not, I think this is the first time I’ve ever written about the cold here. I guess it was about time — this weekend was definitely a good motivator.

  • Reply Gdog June 12, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Yip, Jozi be chilly in the winter. Few things to bear in mind though:

    1) At least we are keeping it real on the carbon footprint side. We Jozi peeps also find it completely odd that in the Northern Hemisphere people want to bake themselves at 26 degrees inside in the missle of winter. I mean, do you REALLY need to plod around in shorts inside while it is snowing outside and is this sustainable? Shopping in London is like being pasteurised. Freezing outside and baking inside. Take the edge off, harden the f*&ck up a bit.

    2) If your cat is catching mice he might be suffering from a low protein diet. Check out high protein cat food like Orijen or Acana at Canine and Co , Greenside. Cats are mini leopards and are total carnivores and most cat food is carb. You don’t feed lions bread. Just saying.

    3) Best thing ever is an aircon unit. Cheapest best way to heat up a room quickly.

    Only about 90 more sleeps and then it is warn again!

    • Reply 2summers June 12, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Thank you for all the advice. See responses below.

      1) I personally don’t know anyone in the Northern Hemisphere who sets their thermostat to 26 degrees. I used to set mine at about 20. And my guess is that if central heating were prevalent in South Africa, most South Africans would do the same. They would not “harden the f*&ck up” — they would turn on their heat to a reasonable temperature, get warm, and not give a single thought to their carbon footprint.

      2) I actually do feed my cat Acana food from the shop in Greenside. It practically costs more than the food I buy for myself. And I hate the idea of buying pet food in South Africa that is imported from Canada — HUGE carbon footprint! (Just sayin’.) But I do it anyway because I know it’s good for him. He loves it but it does not slow down his hunting in the least. That cat is a natural-born killing machine — much like a leopard, actually. Except he’s not interested in eating the animals he catches, he only wants to kill them.

      3) Why would you use an aircon unit to heat up a room? Doesn’t aircon meant air-conditioning?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Reply Pam June 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I’m a born and bred native Washingtonian (DC) and I’m freezing in Pretoria. it’s the lack of indoor heat coupled with the lack of insulation and drafty homes. I’ve been complaining about the cold the past few weeks so now i know that i’m not crazy and that there are other transplants from DC suffering as well. Anyhow, rumor has it that newer homes may be arriving with some form of insulation….Yipee!

    • Reply 2summers June 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      Hey, thanks for the comment. Nice to hear from another Washingtonian. I don’t think we’re the only ones suffering, either — I feel like the locals complain a lot louder than I do.

      Hey, you’re actually lucky in Pretoria. It’s like 2 or 3 degrees warmer there than in Jozi 🙂

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