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Jo'Burg Days: The Laingsburg Disaster

...I travelled on the first passenger train service back to Johannesburg, and when we reached Laingsburg it was difficult to believe the evidence of our eyes. It looked as if an atomic bomb had exploded over the town. Huge gullies had been eroded for miles along the banks of the river, enormous trees were piled higgeldy-piggeldly like matchsticks and there was devastation everywhere. It was heartbreaking....

Barbara Durlacher recalls a day in 1981 when heavy rains washed away a village in the Karroo.

To read more of Barbara’s varied and ever-interesting articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/

Unusually, for this time of year, it’s been cold and wet here in JHB over the past week as this is late-spring in South Africa and the beginning of what is usually a long hot summer. The unexpectedly cool and wet weather has been particularly noticeable, following as it does, several weeks of exceptionally high temperatures in September and October when, instead of flinging open the windows and doors to let the fresh air in, we’ve closed blinds, windows and doors to keep the heat out.

After a couple of hours spent in a hot automobile on crowded roads filled with impatient drivers, sun glinting off the tarmac, paintwork reflecting every kilojoule of heat with scorching rays crisping slowly, the blessed relief of returning home to a quiet, cool interior cannot be exaggerated.

Now, since the beginning of November, the early summer rains have arrived and the country has been inundated. The meteorological people tell us there is an exceptionally strong “cut-off low” over the middle of the country and to add insult to injury, during the previous 24-hours over 300 mm of rain has been registered in the Western Cape, causing rivers to burst their banks, dams to overflow and farmlands to be inundated.

The last time something similar occurred was in January 1981, when a freak low pressure system swept in from the Southern Oceans and within 24-hours caused the disastrous “Laingsburg Disaster” when a small semi-desert village in the Karroo was washed away. Normal rainfall for this arid area is usually about 150mm per year and summers are extremely hot and dry with temperatures exceeding 30◦ C, so when about 200mm of rain are dumped in 24 hrs the effects can be catastrophic.

The last Saturday in January is eagerly anticipated as the high-point of the Cape racing calendar when the Cape Metropolitan Handicap [now known as the J & B Met] is run and January 26th 1981 was no exception, with fashionable dress designers and socialites busy for months prior to the vent getting outfits together for the annual fashion promenade when two and four legged lovelies to show off their best points. It’s is a day for fun, fashion and flights of fancy, placing bets on the favourite and the wearing of suitable and sometimes weirdly unsuitable clothes to knock out the eyes of other race-goers.

The morning of 26th January 1981 dawned cold and windy and by 11am it was raining hard. After anxious consultation, the Course Stewards decided to cancel the race as the going was too soft. By midnight the rain was torrential. It continued all night and throughout the next day, although as the storm moved inland the force of the rain eased to a trickle in Cape Town, but the freak “black sou-easter” became a torrent in the Karroo which within a matter of hours put an entire town under water with only the roofs of the houses visible.

Rail and road access and bridges were washed away and one hundred and four people were drowned, and their bodies never recovered. Only 21 buildings were left standing, and the town was isolated from the outside world for two weeks, and all services were suspended.

On a personal note, I’d returned on 3rd January from ten years in the UK and had visited Cape Town from Johannesburg to catch up with friends and relatives. My return journey by train had been booked weeks previously and I was due to leave on Monday 28th January. Then came the flood, and my travel agent contacted me urgently to say that all train services had been cancelled and I would have to wait in Cape Town for rail services to be restored.

Two weeks later I travelled on the first passenger train service back to Johannesburg, and when we reached Laingsburg it was difficult to believe the evidence of our eyes. It looked as if an atomic bomb had exploded over the town. Huge gullies had been eroded for miles along the banks of the river, enormous trees were piled higgeldy-piggeldly like matchsticks and there was devastation everywhere. It was heartbreaking. Today, if the television reports are to be believed, the disaster is about to be repeated and hundreds of flooded homes have been evacuated, villages are cut off and communities isolated and several families have been helicoptered to safety.

Natural cycles or global warming. Who knows?

In Johannesburg we do not have a damp climate like the UK. Instead we suffer from periodic severe droughts and long periods of high temperatures with bright blue skies and sunny days. Most of our winters are like this, clear skies at night when temperatures can drop quickly to below zero Centigrade - occasionally as low as -12C - with cold, clear crisp mornings - to quite warm at midday with the temperatures rising to around 20C - but by 4pm it's getting cold again, and then it’s time to pile on the coats and jerseys, switch on the heaters and close doors and windows to get the rooms cosy. Having said this, I must qualify it by saying that regular as clock-work every year on Guy Fawkes night, we have a really cold spell with overcast skies and misty rain spoiling the Hindu festivals of Deepavali and Diwali and the out-dated English affection of celebrating the traitorous efforts of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament!

As JHB and the Highveld fall in the summer rainfall area, from October to March our climate is much less predictable, with sudden rainstorms accompanied by tremendous thunder and lightning, which, until the scientists managed to find a solution, caused havoc with interruptions to radio transmissions in former years. Clear radio reception was almost impossible during these intense lightning storms. Technical advances eliminated the radio problems, but satellite tv transmissions are frequently disrupted when there is particularly heavy electrical activity.

I love the excitement of the storms, with great cumuli nimbus sailing, "stately as galleons" to disappeare over the eastern horizon and dump their moisture over the Lowveld and Mocambique where the climate is hot, humid and fertile. Back in JHB we have cool, clear nights after the day's rain, and in summer everything grows and blooms energetically with sub-tropical and tropical vegetation and mingles happily with deciduous trees and flowers from the northern hemisphere.

Usually, our rains start around 20th October, but this year they arrived early and have continued almost unbroken. This is unusual and nobody seems to know what the next few months will bring, whether there'll be more rain [good for the farmers and their crops] or less [can be catastrophic] as then all the maize which the farmers planted during the few rainy weeks will die without irrigation, when the country will be forced to import maize for stock food and the ethnic population.

As it is, South Africa 'imports' water at great expense from Lesotho after building the enormous Katse Dam - actually a huge artificial wall between two mountains, which dams several small rivers for 35 miles back into the mountains. Concurrent with construction of the dam, tunnels were bored into the mountains dividing SA from Lesotho and when completed gravitational flow ensured that a steady 1000 cu/secs an hour of pristine mountain water emptied into the small Ash River. From there it flows 250 kms into the Vaal Dam about 30 miles to the south of JHB. Suitably purified the water is then distributed to households and industry all over the Reef. If it were not for the "Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme" as it is called, Johannesburg [Gauteng] would have run out of potable water on the Reef in early 1980s and industry and housing development would have been prevented from developing.

The building of the dam was a neat solution to two different problems in the two countries. Before the dam was built, thousands of Lesotho men worked on the gold mines remitting their wages back to their country. The construction of the Katse Dam coincided with the closing of many of the older mines. Now the royalties paid by South Africa for the water it receives have gone some way to replacing the wages lost from the mines.

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