Despite being in the middle of a water crisis, the Cape Town area got a few millimeters of rain relief this week with the arrival of some rare thunderstorms to the area. I’d been watching the model runs for a few weeks, and they had repeatedly shown some interesting developments into the third week of February. An upper trough was bringing down tropical moisture to the Cape Town area, and while temperatures remained in the 30s, the moisture meant that the environment became conducive to thunderstorm development.
The action started late on Monday night when a few storms moved in from the north-west. Having seen the radar images a few hours earlier, I decided to get my camera battery charged and my SD card cleared. By 8pm things were starting to look good, so I messaged a friend and suggested that I pick them up and we head out to try and photograph the storm. I started the evening at the top of Irene road, looking down over the Strand area, though the lightning was more to the north, so we repositioned towards Raithby, just passed Steynsrust in Somerset West. From this vantage point, we managed to get some visuals on the lightning to the north-west and spent the next several hours photographing the few opportunities that we were given.
The storms were still far in the distance and even with a 50mm lens there was fairly heavy cropping required. The action did pick up a little bit towards the end of the night at around midnight, but never quite got close enough to get proper photographic opportunities.
Round 2 – 13 February
The next day started off with a blue sky and rocketing temperatures. The air was filled with the thick moist humidity that one expects with thunderstorms. However, due to the lack of clouds we would require quite a drastic change in weather for the forecast to hold true. Conditions were conducive, and so I made sure to once again charge the camera battery and bring my camera bag to work just in case something were to pop off while I’m in the office.
By lunch time there were the first signs of convection on the horizon. Some small cumulus began to develop near Klipheuwel, which later grew into towering cumulus. The development of these clouds showed that the environment was looking good and that we may see some developing into cumulonimbus and bringing us some more exciting weather.
Around 16:00, the skies over Cape Town turned dark as a strong storm cell moved in and brought with it some unique and beautiful cloud bases, along with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, heavy rain falls and even large hail. Hail in the Cape tends to occur in the winter months and is usually small, and unrelated to tropical thunderstorm activity. Hail from these thunderstorms occurs when there is massive uplift within the storm, something that the Cape rarely sees.
I headed straight from work to Sir Lowry’s Pass lookout, after debating with myself where the best location would be to set up. In hindsight, it was a fairly decent spot to be as I got to watch the storm roll in. Things started fairly slowly, and it was no easy task to capture the lightning in the light of late afternoon. I was having to shoot continuously, stopping down to F25 to reduce light, and increase shutter speed. I took more than 400 photos before ending up with a few that I was happy with.
The storm cell brought with it rain, a fair bit of it too. So I had to reposition myself and head back down the pass towards my home. On route home, I encountered some rather large hail mixed in with the heavy rains, with lightning still frequently striking in all directions.
Going Back Out There
There was a period of a lull for a few hours, before the storms once again showed up on radar to the west and north-west, and were moving in towards our direction. I again asked my friend if they wanted to join, and picked them up on route. Similarly to the day before, we headed out towards Raithby area. A massive thunderstorm was located near Stellenbosch and we wanted to get on the back side of the storm, as these isolated cells can be very picturesque. We were both in awe as we drove up behind the storm, a massive structure with inflow leading into a large cumulonimbus cloud. It’s very rare for Cape Town to get these kinds of isolated storm cells. The storm was both dropping lightning regularly, and also large hail for residents of Stellenbosch.
We spent a fair bit of time photographing the storm as the sun set behind us. Though we weren’t completely done yet…
It was then off to Strand beach, where another storm cell was situated just over the ocean. Shooting beaches can be fun, but also not offer much in terms of a foreground. Luckily the tide was low and the thin layer of ocean water on the sand provided a nice opportunity to use the reflection. I also made a mad dash to the fence area of the beach, an area that is appealing for photographers even without lightning around — however, I really wanted to get some shots with lightning bolts in the frame. Which I finally managed to do.
The final hour of shooting was then done just above my home, with a view over the Strand and towards Cape Town. The lightning was further away, but was also providing some amazing light shows!