When it Turns Cold in Joburg

It’s that time of year again in Joburg.

Whining time.

And I’m glad to say it’s not just us expats who whine incessantly for two months. No, it is the Joburgers themselves who seem to suffer from collective amnesia every year, when predictably at the beginning of June it turns freezing cold and everyone is shocked how this is possible. I guess we can be forgiven when you consider that the weather is beautiful and warm, nonstop, the other ten months of the year. I swear to you I packed the mosquito nets away less than two weeks ago. It was summer, and now it’s winter. And it will be summer again by September.

As my fellow blogger 2Summers so eloquently observed, it is not actually the biting cold that’s the problem during a Joburg winter. After all, it only goes down to about freezing or a few degrees below during the night, and warms up to 15 or even 20 degrees Celsius most days. Not bad, most of my overseas friends will say, particularly those in Wisconsin.

The problem with a Joburg winter is the lack of heat. From around 5:00 in the afternoon until 7:30 in the morning.

cold winter in joburg

My new best friend these days.

You guys in Wisconsin, you know those autumn afternoons when the wind is howling outside and you are sitting in your cozy easy chair in shorts, surrounded by a cloud of central heating bliss? Well, here in Joburg, the wind is howling both outside AND inside the house. Because double-paned (and precisely fitted) windows are an alien concept here in South Africa, along with central heating. And don’t get my started on our underfloor “heating.” I might as well take three $100 bills directly and make a fire from them for all the warmth we get from our underfloor heating. You most definitely won’t be sitting anywhere in shorts in a Joburg winter, especially after sunset. Instead, you will take the principle of layering to new heights.

Jabulani seems to be the one most affected at our house. After sunset, you’ll only ever see him walking around draped in his down comforter. To get ready for school, he has a procedure: Long pajama pants under his school pants, jersey (sweater) under his blazer, scarf wrapped around his face and tucked into the top of his blazer (no wonder the buttons never stay on for more than 2 days with all this bulk underneath), soft polar fleece beanie on his head and scratchy school uniform beanie over that to conform with the dress code. It is bundled in such a way that he staggers, stiffly, to school.

The transformation by the time he returns is always as stunning as it is predictable. Shorts and t-shirt and barefoot, without a care in the world, excess clothing accessories stuffed into a smelly gym bag and forgotten until the next morning, when it starts all over again.

Eskom, our utility company, subjects us to load-shedding. We subject ourselves to clothes-shedding. In inverse proportionality to the load-shedding, basically.

cold winter in joburg

Typical load I’ve shed by 10:00 a.m.

You know how the Incas were sun worshippers? Well, I totally get that. They also lived high up in the mountains where it was dry with lots of sunshine. Just like the Highveld. Their lives revolved around the sun, and so does mine. Every morning I cannot wait for the sun to come up and warm the house, especially the one warm corner with my black easy chair. The perfect spot for having my tea and reading my Kindle and thawing out my hands. The days where there is cloud cover (I admit, there are usually only about two of them all winter) are absolute agony. Those are the days I want to crawl back into bed. Or spend right in front of my best friend, the gas heater.

In the mornings and at dinner time, huge fights ensue at our house over who gets the seat next to the gas heater. One incentive to get up early and claim the first spot, at least. If I wheel it into the kitchen while I’m cooking, I will soon find company in the form of bodies standing right in front of the heater eating their yoghurt, blocking any potentially warming rays from ever reaching me. And this is on the good days when we actually have gas for that heater. It’s been a good year for gas, compared to last, but I wouldn’t really know because I stocked up on bottles in March, just like I said I would.

cold winter in joburg
My sun-worshipping chair. Except I often have to share it with sun-worshipping Maus

There is more that I don’t like about a Joburg winter.

The dust, for one thing. I suppose it’s nice that it doesn’t rain from May to October and that the sun faithfully warms you for 9 hours of the day, but that also means that the entire countryside turns to dust. All of which, I am telling you, decides to settle on my patio table. To make matters worse, this is also the exact time of year South Africans decide to burn their grass. As soon as the weather turns dry and the grass along with it, people decide it’s time to put the torch to vast swaths of land. I’ve heard many theories about why this is, ranging from “makes it grow better come spring time” to “makes it easier to spot bad guys from hiding in the grass along the road.” During our first winter, when I first caught that acrid whiff of smoke in our bedroom, I was quite alarmed as to what could possibly be burning in our house. Everything you touch has that smell. Often you’ll see what looks like a blade of grass landing on the cushion next to you, except when you move to pick it off, it turns to ashes, leaving a very unsightly gray smudge.So if you’re a budding Joburg expat, don’t even think of getting any white cushions for your patio furniture, I’m telling you right now.

cold winter in joburg
Dirty rag from wiping the patio table. Lovely, huh? And repeated daily…

And I’ve mentioned the load shedding. Of course that also happens in winter, because that’s when people use the most electricity. We have a little device called “Eddi” in our house, courtesy of Eskom, and it occasionally gives off an alarming beep and instructs us to turn off lights (or else!). So far no forced turn-offs for us, but the neighborhood across the street has had power outages the last few days, due to the substation not being able to keep up. So when that happens you’re already freezing, but now you also have to do your shivering in the dark. It’s as if Joburg is determined to make us all go to bed early. I do wonder if anyone has ever tracked the birth rates, say in March.

Quite apart from making you freeze, the cold in our house has other annoying effects. Like your butter being hard as a rock, both inside the fridge and out. How, I ask you, am I supposed to soften it for my chocolate chip cookie recipe which I’ve had to use three times this week because, yikes, birthday season has started again? And it’s a pity since winter is indeed the ideal time to do all your Christmas baking, what with the spot next to your oven probably being the warmest of the house. Forget doing it in December, when it is so hot all your cookies immediately stick together unless you freeze them right away.

On the plus side, the garbage doesn’t smell in my kitchen these days. Although that could be due to the fact that my nose is constantly dripping from the cold.

The one place I love to be in winter is my car. Central heating at its finest, controls cranked to high. It feels so good to have hot air gushing at you when you are hot-air deprived during a Joburg winter. I’m almost tempted some days to take my computer into the car for a spell so I can feel like typing  properly.

We’ve also resorted to some more old-fashioned remedies. I mean, when was the last time you used a hot water bottle? I think for me that was in 1973. Well, I am proud to say that our family is now outfitted with three brand-new (color coded) water bottles that the kids take to bed with them (and to other places, I might add, even school). This of course has been met with a lot of disdain by Noisette, who can go off on a tirade at the mere mention of an electric blanket, and god forbid I leave the heat on high in HIS car after using it.

water bottles are a must during a cold winter in joburg
Our new water bottle collection. We got the basic functional model, not the pretty stuffed- in-a-teddy-bear-model that I’ve seen kids at school tote around. Because school is also freezing.

This concludes my annual whining marathon, thank you for listening.As an afterthought, I should mention that a Joburg winter still beats many a European summer, if we’re completely honest. Can’t top the amount of sunshine we get.

And I suppose the one good side effect of shivering through the next ten weeks is that all of us living in South Affrica can feel quite virtuous about our contribution to the environment. I mean, can you believe how small our 6-person carbon footprint is here in South Africa compared to the U.S.? The country using a quarter of the entire world’s energy all on its own? No air conditioning, practically no heat, at times no car either because of supply problems and strikes… But the emphasis is on feelingvirtuous. The Germans have a saying about making virtue from necessity, and it’s true.

If you gave us central heating and enough power plants to supply the electricity for it, all our virtue would go flying out the window in five seconds, along with that first satisfying “whoosh” when you turn on the heat.


Older posts on Winter in Joburg:

Winter has Arrived in Joburg
Fuel Shortage in Joburg
I’ve Got Gas!
300 Bucks for Warm Feet

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