Last weekend (23 and 24 June), Johannesburg had its first spell of really cold weather. The past few years our winters have been reasonably mild, so really cold is quite a rare event (worthy of a blog post at any rate). My benchmarks for cold date back to 1980, 1981 and 1984 when I spent time in Lohathla as a national serviceman. The military always seems to choose the worst conceivable places to use for training. The first place we were at during “2nd phase” was at a dump called “Duncan” which is close to Jan Kemp Dorp. We were there in mid winter and totally inadequately prepared for the extreme cold. I recall being at the shooting range where our water Bedford froze, and our water bottles were really ice packs that only started thawing in the afternoons.
Lohathla was in a league of its own though. We did a battlegroup there in June 1981, and having just spent 5 months on the border were really shocked by the cold. Fortunately the powers that be were reasonable lax about our uniforms so we were allowed civvy jackets to keep out the cold. It is however one of the coldest 3 weeks I have spent in years. In 1984, as part of “Ops Thunder Chariot” we froze once again. August and Lohathla are freezing, and trying to muster the courage to get out of the sleeping bag was very difficult. .
Yet snow always evaded me until 2000 when I was in the USA on an extended trip. And that was when I wrote this piece:
My First Snow.
“In Johannesburg snow is the exception rather than the rule, as long as I have known it has only snowed twice… in the early 60’s (I was only about 2 or 3 years old) and again in 1981 and I was in South West Africa at the time. My trip to the USA would occur in Fall and chances are snow would happen at least once when I got there. The day I landed it was supposed to snow but nothing happened. In fact, we had many snow warnings between October and the day I started this page and they never produced. The closest we got were light flurries which never left any sort of coating at all. However, if you want to know what the weather is going to be like in Ohio, the locals advise you to wait 5 minutes. A complex weather system developed this week and on the 13th of December it finally snowed.
I Usually I stick my nose through the blinds to see what shade of grey it is outside, and on this particular morning it was rapidly turning white outside. Small flakes were falling steadily, blanketing everything in a carpet of cotton wool. The pure whiteness was undisturbed by footprints or tyre treads. The grass was buried and everything achieved a kind of uniform smoothness. The silence was awesome, there was no pitter-patter which you get with rain, and when I looked upwards all I could see were small puffs of white fluttering haphazardly downwards. A few fell on my coat and I examined them in fascination, tiny fragile crystalline shapes which quickly turned to small specks of water as I watched. The cars gained new shapes, slowly disappearing into vague white car like shapes. It was not really cold, in fact I remembered those debates back home in winter about whether it was too cold for snow or did snow need warmth. It was irrelevant to me because I was awestruck
I scooped some up in my hand, disturbing the pristine carpet of snow on the sidewalk. It was chilly but compressed into a small ball of ice, very similar to the compressed hail I often collected and stuck in the fridge back home. I was aching to build some sort of snowperson, but I guess it is not quite the sort of thing somebody my age does without having a small child helping. I took tentative steps into the snow, curious as to how it feels to walk on. It crunched under my boots but was not really slippery, flakes stuck to them but these shook off easily. I went indoors shortly after, my footprints marring the pristine surfaces.
Every now and then I was looking through the window, watching to see if my disturbances had disappeared, they were slowly being buried even as I watched.
It was expected that rain would create havoc later that night but it only drizzled so not much happened and when I woke up the next day the snow was over. However, the remnants remained behind. A coating of ice lay over everything, the soft covering had frozen into sheets of ice. Cars were still buried, but instead of being able to brush the ice off, it would have to be chipped, melted, and broken off. Every edge had icicles hanging from them and our car doors were difficult to open because of the ice. I expected that the roads would be easy to walk on, but I was wrong, they were treacherous, slippery with ice and slush. The safest place seemed to be to walk along the grass which was covered in frozen snow which broke under my weight. I gingerly walked along, testing to see if I was likely to slip and land in an undignified tangle of legs and arms. As I grew in confidence so I was able to venture further away, crunching along as I went. Every now and then a suspicious patch of ice would hide a hole or puddle of slush. I needed to be very careful out here, just now I would end up on my rear end. When I got home later that evening, the trees glistened in the twinkling lights which dotted the homes when I live. It was stunning, my first snow had come and gone and no matter how bad the after effects were I still enjoyed what I had seen. Now, if only it will stay away till Christmas… because I am also dreaming of a white Christmas.”
I seems to recall it did not snow on Christmas, but the snow that we had didn’t melt either, so I did have some modicum of a “White Christmas”.
A few weeks later I was in New York and again that is another of my benchmarks for cold. I recall a large puddle of water that was outside the place where we were, it was roughly 8 inches deep and did not thaw in all the time that I spent there. It was also frozen enough so that it could support the weight of a U-Haul truck! On my last jaunt to Milwaukee I was in time to see the snow starting to melt, but there were still piles of it all over the place, and the river was still frozen solid.
My verdict? Snow is really nice to see or experience, but heaven help us if it snows in Johannesburg.
© DRW 2012-2021. Images recreated 25/03/2016