Surviving severe weather: A Bushveld farmgirl’s account

Much like this little girl, I once stood on a verandah overlooking the Selati River and waited for the rain to stop.

When I first heard about the new cyclone set to hit Mpumalanga and Limpopo, I immediately thought back to the floods of 2000 and 2001 and other natural disasters I experienced growing up near Phalaborwa in the Bushveld.

In 2000, Cyclone Eline caused the worst floods in Mozambique since 1951, killing around 150 people and thousands of cattle and destroying 250 000 ha of crop fields. In South Africa, the Limpopo River reached its highest level in 15 years. At least 21 people died, 80 000 people were left homeless and damage of millions of rand was recorded in the Limpopo Province.

That’s according to statistics. I remember the dramatic footage of helicopters saving Mozambicans from trees, people spending days clutching to branches in the hope that they’ll survive the rising, turbulent waters.

Closer to home (among the game farms in the Phalaborwa area), the flood meant that the low-water bridge connecting our house to civilisation had been destroyed.

We had to wait until the worst of the flooding had subsided, then had to wade ankle-deep in mud to the rubberduck boat that would carry us across the river.

My mom had to navigate the boat around branches and other dangerous debris, the boat’s motor fighting against the raging current, to get us safely on the opposite bank.

Thanks to the farmers’ early warning system, my dad would have crossed the low-water bridge to park a vehicle on a safe spot near our boat’s landing spot at the first mention of floods. The neighbours on the other side of the river would have been alerted in case the river flooded while my brother and I were at school.

In one instance we had to spend the night, because river levels were dangerously high. I remember sitting on their verandah overlooking the Selati River, with the levels about 3 to 4 metres higher, and watching felled trees and huge branches floating past in front of me.

A bridge between us and town were washed away and my parents had to arrange another way for my brother and I to travel the 30 km to school. This included catching a bus at a small town 28km away in the early morning hours for over an hour’s drive and wading through knee-deep water next to the broken bridge to the tannie waiting on the other side.

Another thing I’ll always vividly remember is walking out of the house the morning after the cyclone had hit and finding the lawn covered in broken branches.

Several sheets of corrugated iron roofing had been ripped off nearby buildings and a few had been wrapped around nearby orange trees.

These experiences have given me a healthy respect for the power of nature and taught me how to handle a variety of crisis situations. When you’re facing something extreme, you go with instinct. You try to make the best of the situation, get to a place (both mentally and physically) where you feel safe, take stock of the damages and then start to rebuild.

And you pray. Which is something I tend to do whenever the weather takes a turn for the worse and probably always will.

Read more Editor’s Notes:

Retha Nel

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