On the Beach

Thursday, 1 September 2011

My first Cape Town Winter, or: Was that it?

 Was that it? 

 Is that all it was?

After all the griping and grousing I heard in the lead-up: “You’ll see!” and “You need to get away from Cape Town in the winter!” and “You won’t know what hit you!”.

Um… was it a bit of rain and slightly shorter days?!

The first of September marks the beginning of spring for us here, thus yesterday was the final day of that dreaded and most terrible Cape Town winter.

Now, I don’t intend to mark the changing of every season and every equinox with a blog but I felt that the end of our first winter here deserved a mention, especially given all the fuss about it.

 Cape Tonians were virtually fleeing for the hills, wide-eyed and full of horror stories as the first of June loomed. At one point, I thought maybe they were all part of some cult that rocked and chanted in their furry boots and knitted scarves as that damn sun insisted on still shining and ignoring their tales of rain, mud and frosty winds.

Rather bizarrely, the Cape Town winter folklore starting flying at me in January- the height of summer. When, by the way, the shops start stocking their winter ranges. I know shops stock next season’s stuff unseasonably early all over the world, but it seems especially ridiculous in 30 degree heat. I went to the shops to buy t-shirts for my little girls and found myself frustrated and sweating at the very sight of woolly knits and tights. I had heat stroke on behalf of my kids just looking at them.

Even so, I was not willing to believe that over a million people could be wrong. Even I was fooled into buying a pair of fur-lined boots (because, of course, I didn’t have enough of those, emigrating from the UK). I am now, at the end of winter, convinced that a hallucinogenic drug is pumped into the water and, over the years it makes you rant like a mad-man about “the rains” and the cold and gives you an entirely skewed body temperature.

Around April (so, the  October equivalent  for you in the northern hemisphere), something changes about the people. It’s like an edict is issued from above and t-shirts are banned and scarves must be worn. Around this time, I remember a couple we know and their kids arrived at our house. She would not have looked out of place in Siberia in the winter and the rest of the family was dressed for a similar climate.  Us, well, um, I think I had jeans and t-shirt on and the doors in the house were open…

I have a very dear friend here who called me as she dropped her daughter off at school, saying we couldn’t possibly meet somewhere outside for coffee as her teeth were chattering from the cold. The temperature was 15 degrees.

Calm down, calm down Cape Tonians.  Yes, of course you sensitive souls, it is cold. But only compared to your summer which is gloriously and blissfully hot, not to mention, (almost) rain free.

Let me tell you how I found the weather: I found autumn to be mostly beautiful, there were some dodgy, rainy and randomly foggy days but there was so much sun and warmth without that searing January heat. And that wretched wind died down which pleased me, so we enjoyed lots of time on the beach. You can definitely feel the change in the seasons, not least because of the non-native trees like the oaks changing colours which makes the drive up to Constantia Nek even more stunning in autumn than in summer, if that is possible.

But back to winter, yes, colder for sure and much more rain. Much less wind and gentler light, the trees are bare, although in the last few weeks or so you can definitely see the blossoms of spring poking through.  On the sunny days (and there are plenty of them- even on the shortest day of the year, there is an average on 8 hours sunlight), you can easily have lunch or coffee outside.

The wonderful thing is, as a friend says, that when the weather’s bad in Cape Town, it won’t be bad for long. Cape Town weather is never passive, it is always doing something:  whether it is sheets of horizontal rain or beautiful, cloudless blue skies.

What got me most about winter, and my dad had warned me of this, was the temperature INSIDE, not outside. The houses are not designed for anything below 20 degrees. So we have had some loft insulation installed and it has made all the difference.

Our investment in heating is unlike a lot of Cape Tonians who insist the winter is so short, that really it’s fine to parade around indoors with 3 layers and a coat for 3 months. I think it’s called embracing the “bringing outside, inside” lifestyle.

This winter my children have been able to play in the garden, go to the beach, go to the park and enjoy everything else that Cape Town has to offer on most days.

But before you mock my enthusiasm, consider where we came from.  During the winters I have had in the UK since my kids were born, we only went outside if we had a doctor’s appointment for one of the 4 of us. The preludes would consist of a half hour coat-wrestle with each of them, with a few tantrums thrown in. At one point, I spent so much time in the doctor’s surgery, I felt it would be more environmentally friendly and time-efficient if I just rented a room there. It was a very convenient location as well with Sainsbury across the road and some lovely little coffee shops and cafes nearby. Location, location, location.

In the UK, I have some lovely friends whom I miss very much living here. I also missed them very much every winter as we did the fever/flu/tonsillitis/gastro relay meaning that eons would pass before we could hobble into one another’s homes, having skidded there on the ice the council had failed to grit (unusual weather, 3 years in a row, PURLEASE!!) to exchange horror stories of  multiple infant/toddler/parent  illness.

The last few winters we lived in the UK it snowed every year. Which is great!! For five minutes. Until the trains stop running, the council stops gritting the roads and Sky News starts reporting food shortages in Central London. I remember it taking 20 minutes to get us all dressed to enjoy the snow, only for my daughter to announce it was too cold and wet and demand to be taken back in. I suspect things would change as they grew older and they would enjoy the snowball fights, snowman building  and inevitable school closures every snowfall brings.

Back to Cape Town and , of course, I concede it is colder and rainier in winter. There are most definitely seasons in Cape Town and I love that. And I am acclimatising. I too, have started wearing knee-high boots where previously Birkenstock sandals would have been the order of the day.

I think another reason for people wearing  different clothes  at different times of year in a city where the annual temperature variation is not as great as in some other places (aside from non-stop marketing from clothing retailers who now seem to have 8 seasons) is actually that people like and need change. The cycle of change is somehow comforting and reassuring. No one likes to stand still. And if you need to mark that change by wearing a polo neck in 19 degrees, well, that’s your prerogative.

Today, admittedly, is a foul day in Cape Town. When the rain abates I can see the trees in my garden looking increasingly and precariously horizontal. Today I have seen people wearing earmuffs and woollen gloves (15 degrees).  

But I know, and all Cape Tonians know, that in 2 days or so it will be glorious again.

OK, maybe that’s  just me.

Cape Tonians will thinks it’s mild.


  1. You should try Durban in the middle of winter - people like you and I and the Gautengers are soaking up the rays on the beach while the Durbanites are huddled around indoor fires - while it is a chilly 23 degrees outside. The Durbanites are a whole lot worse than die hard Cape Townians.

  2. The statement that struck a chord with me is the one about the South Africans not having any heat sources because it isn't cold long enough. This sitting around in the same clothes you wore outside makes no sense to me when a couple of well placed space heaters would do the trick. Diane