Although I learned to drive in the mid Seventies (we lived out of town), my driver’s license was issued in 1980. About a year later, coming back from Pretoria on the N3 near Estcourt with my parents, I drove through what for thirty years has remained the worst cloud burst I’ve driven in. Visibility was down to a few metres. My dad’s advice was to change down to second gear, stay in the right hand lane and keep moving slowly to avoid cars that had simply stopped in the left lane. That advice has stayed with me over the years and I’ve applied it on a number of occasions, albeit not in such treacherous conditions as yesterday.
We’ve had some appallingly hot days in Pietermaritzburg in recent weeks, not unexpected at this time of year but thoroughly unpleasant. Yesterday was in the upper twenties but not unbearable. When I left the office at about ten to five I chatted for a minute or two to one of the young guys who works below us ; we were both surprised to see a single ominous pitch black cloud over the Edendale valley area. It wasn’t particularly big and my route generally doesn’t take me further south-west than College Road so I joked about having to pass it. However, it has since come back to me a few times that Edward’s last words were to wish me a safe trip home.
Ten minutes later a couple of negligible rain drops hit the windscreen accompanied by the first peals of thunder. Wind had sprung up and I decided to cut through the back of Maritzburg College rather than sit in traffic below it. By this time leaves were being tossed up and the rain was starting in earnest. Not even two hundred metres later it started bucketing down. By the time I reached the University it was obvious from the detritus in the road that this was a mean storm, but alarm bells still hadn’t started ringing. I was anxious to pick up Kimberley as she was waiting for me on the Life Sciences campus under a lot of trees and I wasn’t happy about the possibility of lightning in the area.
As she got in the car the wind picked up even more. We crossed an intersection about a kilometre further on and everything around us disappeared in a blur of rain.
Fortunately the kerb in that area is angled because I put two wheels up it accidentally as I tried to get to a railway bridge about twenty metres ahead. Kimberley had to open her window so I could judge where the edge of the road was. We pulled up under the relative cover of the bridge with a 4×4 immediately behind us as it wasn’t coping in those conditions either. The wind buffeted the car around with thumps that sounded like minor vehicle accidents. After five to ten minutes the weather seemed to have eased up and I pulled off again. We passed very few pedestrians, some of whom made vain attempts to shelter under improvised umbrellas like the advertising board below.
We passed numerous broken and uprooted trees.
My sense of humour was still present when we noticed a lone Witness poster that had withstood the storm when almost everything else was being flailed. I tweeted that photo along with a few others and smiled again when The Witness retweeted it shortly before ten o’clock last evening ; but a lot had transpired in the interim to put a temporary damper on my smile.
We stopped at the traffic lights at CB Downes/Gladys Mzansi (formerly Murray) Road intersection and pulled off behind another 4×4. We did wonder why it was moving so slowly but put it down to traffic in front of him. With no warning at all we found ourselves almost bumper deep in water. This road is well known to television viewers of the Comrades Marathon as the runners come along it once they’ve crested Polly Shortts on the ‘up’ runs. It is well above the water course and if anyone had told me it was flooding I would have been hard-pressed to believe them. I still wasn’t overly worried as I assumed water had run off from the businesses on our right and was crossing to continue down the bank on the left. As the water got deeper I realised this was serious and not of just a few metres’ duration.
There was no oncoming traffic so I was able to move into the middle of the canal/road and prayed that the 4×4 would keep moving and that our car wouldn’t stall. Two cars further ahead pulled off into a petrol station on the right but by then we were about fifty metres from our turn-off so I continued. All in all, we had driven through about twenty-five or more centimetres of water for a good one hundred and twenty metres.
Kimberley took all these photos ; this one was taken looking back at what we were driving in.
The last of these photos was taken as we turned off the main road near Eskom.
Looking at the area on our way in this morning, foliage on the lower side of the road is still bent and buckled from the flow of water about a metre above ground level. I am totally mystified at where such a large volume of water could have come from not far from the top of a hill. Had I been able to see what was ahead of us I doubt very much that I would have chosen to try and pass through, even though we would have had to drive about six kilometres to find an alternative route. It is just as well we hadn’t turned down into the dip in Gladys Mzansi Road as that must have been totally impassable.
A number of huge branches and some small trees at home had snapped right off and water had come into my bedroom through Libby’s window but we escaped relatively lightly. There were branches and other signs of storm damage right through most of Scottsville this morning, although I believe Oak Park and other northern suburbs were bypassed. Ironically our electricity stayed on throughout, while at least parts of Oak Park were in darkness last evening because a car had crashed into a substation.
An earlier blog post spoke of my respect for fire and water and I’ve always wondered at people who drive into flooded rivers and are swept away. Yesterday taught me that water isn’t always found where one expects it and I’ll be a lot more cautious in future.
This incident too comes full circle as it was indirectly a mini-cyclone that lead to our home becoming available in 2010. That can wait for another post.
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Note added on 26 February 2014 :
Today’s Witness reports winds of up to 180 kilometres per hour in the area we were in during the storm, describing it as a “category four storm, with the highest category rating being a five” “which registered 12 on the Beaufort Wind Scale”, “hurricane force winds”.