Cape Doctor causes side effects

The seasonal gale-force winds heralding the turn to winter have caused widespread damage across the Western Cape. Fortunately, it means fire season is over. Now we await the floods

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Apr 9, 2024

Cape Doctor causes side effects

In the Cape, we do not have the gentle rhythmic cycle of the seasons known to the temperate zones of Europe, nor the lazy sweltering fluctuations of the tropics. We have two seasons: fire season, and flood season.

Their arrivals appear in a sudden shift, heralded by two days of powerful gale-force winds, spinning off from the arrival of a massive low-pressure system.

The strong South-Easter that blows through to announce the changing of the seasons is known as the “Cape Doctor”, but considering the damage it causes, it seems more like chemo or a bone saw than a course of digestive aids.

Winds reaching up to 150km/hr pulled through the Cape Winelands, Somerset West, and the Overberg on Sunday, while Stellenbosch airfield recorded winds at a stunning 303km/hr.

This year’s winter herald winds caused significant damage in Stellenbosch, with reports of solar panels and gutters strewn across the streets. Residents describe the experience as traumatic, with the sound of the wind resembling low-flying airplanes. The storm also damaged the new Horti Demo Centre at the University of Stellenbosch and led to the closure of some streets due to fallen oak trees.

The Western Cape is in a transition period for agriculture, with grapes harvested and other fruits like stonefruit, pomegranates, and topfruit nearly ready. Some late plums were blown off, and there are reports of damage to citrus orchards around Paarl. However, towns like Grabouw and Ceres were mostly unscathed.

The Port of Cape Town has been closed since Thursday due to high winds, impacting operations and container stacking. Despite the storm, Ceres apple growers consider themselves lucky as the area was not as severely affected as other regions like Helderberg and Stellenbosch, which suffered significant damage to their orchards.

In the Cape Winelands, (the triangle between Stellenbosch, Tulbagh and Montagu) the District Municipality reported happily that Sunday's rain helped contain multiple fires in the region, marking the likely end of the fire season that has been one of the worst in recent years, costing around R20 million in emergency services as arson and human negligence destroyed farmland and shackland alike for several months.

The rainfall, which began late in the afternoon and continued through the night, aided in containing the fire on Paarl Rock. Despite a flare-up near Rhebokskloof, containment efforts were successful. The fire at Drakenstein Correctional Services was also effectively contained. Other areas like Simonsberg, Pniel, and Papegaaiberg in Stellenbosch are also contained, with monitoring and mop-up operations in progress.

But before the rains stopped them, the final flames of summer claimed several major landmarks.

Blaauwklippen Manor House, part of one of Stellenbosch's oldest wine farms, was destroyed by a fire fueled by the gale-force winds, which started at a neighboring farm and spread to the Manor House, Jonkershuis, and the Cathedral.

Six firefighting teams, including Blaauwklippen's Disaster Management team and others from neighboring farms, responded swiftly. Despite the loss of heritage landmarks, no lives were lost, and all personnel were safely evacuated. The Cape Winelands District Municipality also sent firefighting teams to assist. Blaauwklippen, established in 1682, has historic buildings including the Jonkershuis from 1720, the Manor House from 1789, and the Cathedral built in 2018.

In Cape Town, fires displaced over 1,500 residents in Kayamandi, while gale-force winds blew a fire through Glencairn, destroying several properties and damaging others. Firefighters and rescue services worked to contain the blaze, but had to evacuate residents, not only due to the fire, but also due to rockfalls.

Trees were uprooted, branches strewn across roads, but a bright spark in the Drakenstein Municipality removed a particularly vulnerable row of old bluegums outside Wellington a week before the winds struck, leaving the road to the Bainskloof pass mercifully free of stoppages, except for an overturned truck near the tunnel entrance.

Cape Town's parks and recreations department, on the other hand, was swamped with 108 after-hours, tree-related emergency calls, exceeding the 76 incidents handled during the same event last year, though not as numerous as the winds that brought summer in September 2023, when nearly 150 incidents were recorded. Most calls came from the city bowl, southern suburbs, and Helderberg basin. Unfortunately, a security guard was killed in Paarl when a tree fell on him during patrols. Residents are urged to report tree emergencies to the City's emergency communication center.

The South African Weather Service issued a level 9 storm warning for parts of the Cape Winelands and Overberg districts, and the provincial government urged residents to exercise caution and not take unnecessary risks on the road. Schools in affected areas were closed, and train services on the Fish Hoek and Stellenbosch lines were suspended due to debris on tracks and electrical wires.

Other areas, including Bloemfontein, Aliwal North, Kimberley, and Vryburg, faced severe thunderstorms and disruptive rain, leading to road closures and accidents. The City of Cape Town and various NGOs are coordinating relief efforts for those affected by the storms and fires.

The appropriately named Western Cape Premier Alan Winde finally has a more complimentary occasion for his name, and has urged residents to exercise caution, and schools in affected regions will remain closed on Monday, with the situation to be reassessed for Tuesday.

In the Free State, sloppy seconds caused heavy rain and hail storms, flooding roads and residential areas in Kroonstad and Maokeng. The extent of the damage is still being determined, and residents are advised to avoid low-lying areas and bridges.

Let us hope this flood season will be kinder than the Doctor that prescribed it - though judging by the lapsed maintenance of bridges and stormwater channels in Drakenstein, and the sheer density of illegal settlements in the flood plains, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

more articles by this author