Pietermaritzburg and Port Shepstone feature prominently in the Harding family history. Both places appear in our personal Births, Marriages and Deaths columns. We also have a rather macabre sub-column of near misses involving both locations.
My paternal grandfather was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1901. Years later the family moved to southern Natal where they farmed at the top of Oribi Gorge. My father, Cedric, was born in Port Shepstone in 1937 and so was I almost twenty-five years later. Over the years we left the farm and moved progressively closer before settling in Pietermaritzburg in 1972 where both my grandparents died and my daughter, Kimberley, was born in 1992. My parents have now retired back to the greater Port Shepstone area. Farm life in the ‘Thirties, ‘Forties and ‘Fifties has provided plenty of stories of adventure and camaraderie. I also grew up aware of an event in 1956 that could have left my grandmother both a widow and childless in the flash of an eye, and me less than a twinkle in that of my father.
An afternoon thunderstorm over the Gorge had cleared and the sky was once again brilliant blue. My father was preparing a bath in one of the rondavels that comprised the homestead. My grandfather was in one of the nearby buildings. Unnoticed the storm doubled back and, out of a seemingly blue sky, a freak streak of lightning struck the home. Both men were thrown across the respective rooms but were grateful to survive, albeit it bruised and badly shaken. A telephone in another room melted.
Despite this, I have always loved storms. Only a few years ago I commented to friends that the storm we were experiencing was so magnificent that I wished I could sit on the roof and conduct it like an orchestra. (I sometimes have an unfortunate turn of phrase, but equally delight in punnery). It was instantly pointed out to me that I would stand a very good chance of being a conductor were I to sit on the roof in that downpour.
Fast forward sixty years from the storm on the Gorge to 16 March 2016, an evening that saw heavy flooding in several suburbs around Pietermaritzburg. (I remember the date in relation to the Ides of March). My daughter was planning to go out at half past six. I had been expecting to join her but a rather dramatic tooth extraction had left me with an unhappy head and I was groaning peacefully to myself on the bed when the heavens opened. Not wanting Kimberley to spend the evening in wet clothes, I got up and went to open the gate – under a tall syringa tree – with an umbrella as I figured having to stand under the tree would negate any risks posed by the umbrella, while the storm swirled around us. As it happened, the heavy metal gate was not responsible for the imminent head-banging. Within a minute or two I was back inside but by then wind was howling through an open window in my bedroom and I went to close it before returning to bed. What followed lasted a few seconds but is etched in slow motion and the finest detail on my mind.
The cottage pane window frame is made of steel and the catches are stiff. With both hands on the frame, time and sound suddenly seemed to abate and I looked up almost vertically but slightly towards Ashburton. A silver grey cylindrical tunnel opened overhead, stretching to infinity, and I experienced an overwhelming certainty that I was in deep trouble. I remember thinking that I had to get the window shut before the lightning struck – and then it sounded like an express train hurtling back down the tunnel before hitting storeys below ground level. I remember a double reverberation. By then only my right hand was still holding the brass window catch but the ground next to an apple tree about six metres from me as well as the bedroom wall seemed to jump about half a metre, three times in quick succession. In retrospect it obviously couldn’t have been the building or the ground moving but it certainly looked like it while I was being tossed around. I don’t remember the electricity tripping but both TVs and decoders in the two neighbouring homes were completely destroyed in the strike that hit our roof directly.
I stepped back from the window (despite being shaken around I hadn’t lost my footing) and my right arm felt like it was exploding. In the dark I forced my left arm around, almost expecting to feel no right arm. As I did so a strong hissing caused me to take another step back and look up as a bright light the size of a tennis ball travelled from the top right side of the window frame, rippled around the panes, before reaching the left side where I had been standing and dispersing down the wall into the ground, faded by then to a dull blue trickle of light. The ball was so intensely white that I know no word to describe it ; ‘neon’ is completely inadequate. The edges were frilled like the last vestiges of a wave rippling ashore, equally brilliant blue and yellow.
I managed to send Kimberley a text message and found a wooden spoon to reset the distribution board. There was perverse satisfaction in hearing that Kimberley told the friends who accompanied her home that my message was serious because there were spelling mistakes.
Apparently I was a more natural chalk white when they found me and within half an hour bruises started coming through on my upper arm where, I was told, the electrical charge exited. When I thought to check a day or two later, I had managed to shut the window one notch short of fully-closed but the outside of the frame was scorched black and that section of the roof is slightly buckled. The doctor who saw me the following day expected further bruising but that didn’t materialise. I was spared damage to my heart as it was my right side that was affected. The only lasting consequences are stiffness in the two fingers that were in contact with the window frame when the ground shook. Some days are better than others and time will tell if they recover more fully. An unexplained low-grade temperature I’d had for years has completely disappeared.
The coming storm season will reveal whether I still enjoy storms ; at the moment my feelings range from ambivalence to apprehension. What I find remarkable is that I have become the third consecutive generation to have a brush with one of the greatest forces known to mankind and survive to tell the story.