The Climate

The climate in a nutshell: Put on sunscreen!

Sunday was the first day of full sun and clear blue skies. Coming from a sun-starved Kansas winter, we were eager to spend it playing in the pool (a luxury we’ve  never had until now). We put on plenty of sunscreen, but it wasn’t enough. Impatience – the only one without a rash guard – looked pretty red that evening, but the others had gotten some too, like on the back of their legs, where I normally don’t bother with sunscreen.

Part of it can be blamed on the rather dry and cool climate, which makes for cold water and an even colder feeling when you step out, so that one tends to want to lie flat in the sun to warm up. I put rash guards (or whatever they call it here) on my never-ending shopping list, and vowed to do a better job from now on. I also found out you have to put sunscreen on the kids before school in the morning. They have two breaks where they go outside, and especially Sunshine looked pretty red at the end of the day. That’s why they make them wear hats. The rule is, so Felix informed me, “no hat no play.” So you can sit in the full sun without your hat, but you don’t get to play. I guess that is supposed to be an incentive for kids to wear their hats?

Apparently, the summer has been very rainy this year. In fact, with just a little bit more rainfall this year will go into the record books as the rainiest ever in South Africa. But normally December and January are very hot. It’s March now, which by my calculations is the equivalent of September, so we’re approaching fall. I’m sure that would be called autumn. I’m working on a vocabulary list. But whatever the season is called, it is one of perfect weather. Very crisp in the morning, grass full of dew, which makes the walk uphill to school very pleasant, and very warm in the afternoons so that you appreciate being able to go downhill. Except that by then your uncomfortable black dress shoes are not feeling so great, so you might want to take them off and walk barefoot.

Another note on sunscreen: We have learned that even putting on rash guards – or swim shirts as I have now found out they’re called – will not prevent sunburn. The sun somehow goes right through the fabric. They help, like sunscreen does, but are not enough. You actually have to put sunscreen on first, then your swim shirt, and, preferably, a hat, like those they wear in Australia, and then you can go swimming. The best idea is probably to limit time in the sun between 10:00 and 2:00, but with the weather being so beautiful here that is very hard to do!

In more professional terms, Johannesburg has a “subtropical highland climate.” December and January are the hottest months, with an average high of 26 C (79 F), which is not all hat hot if you remember that there is almost no humidity, and the coldest months are June and July with average highs of 16 C (61). Winter, so we’re told, is actually the dry season, so that it supposedly never rains from May until September. But the average low during winter is only 4 C (39 F) which makes for very cold mornings and evenings. Since most houses here (as in Australia and England) aren’t well equipped for cold temperatures, be prepared to be freezing when you get up. And it’s best to put “under floor heating in all rooms” on your house hunting checklist.

In terms of travelling, I’ve been asked what the best time of year for a visit would be. Since you can’t very well come to South Africa without going on a safari for a chance to at least glimpse the Big Five (I’ll be talking about safaris in more detail once we’ve gathered more information), the best time to visit are the winter months, May to August. Little rainfall means that animals converge around waterholes and the lower brush (as compared to the rainy season) is ideal for wildlife viewing. Just makes sure you pack warm layers for when you’re rising at the crack of dawn, which is often the best time to go on a bush tour. Another reason to favor winter over summer is that the threat of malaria is much lower in the winter. South Africa is mostly malaria free, especially Johannesburg and surroundings, but some areas like Kruger Park and KwaZulu Natal are high risk malaria areas, and some other spots are considered intermediate risk, where use of anti-malarial drugs is only recommended in the summer months (October-May). It’s a good idea to specifically research the malaria risk areas prior to your trip.

Also see: Johannesburg Climate