Chasing Lightning In The Cape

Some people may not be aware, but before birding came into my life I was heavily invested in storm chasing and in 2009 I founded the country’s first dedicated storm chasing community website. My active involvement in storm chasing and tracking may have diminished slightly over the years, but you can bet that if there’s a thunderstorm I am going to head out with my camera. Thunderstorms in Cape Town are quite rare, occurring 4 or 5 times a year typically, out of these vast majority are minor events and either associated with winter storms or don’t have much cloud-to-ground lightning associated with them.

Yesterday morning I checked the weather models and noticed a hint of what could be thunderstorm development, which fitted given the humid conditions and cloud moving in (associated with a trough). I put my camera on charge when I got home from work in anticipation, even though these events tend to fall apart and not live up to expectations.

The Sun Sets

At sunset I decided to head down to Strand beach to photograph the sky, however on route I noticed lightning strikes over False Bay and ‘stepped on the gas’. When I arrived at Strand beach there was another photographer already set up on the location I was planning to shoot, also taking photographs of the sky and hoping for some lightning in the frame. As the sun set, it created an unusual bright red glow just on the horizon. The lightning strikes at this time were few and mainly far in the distance, towards Simon’s Town and Cape Point.

Hayward (the other gentleman who was photographing the scene) and myself spent quite some time waiting for the lightning to come closer. The sun sank rapidly as our exposures started increasing in seconds after every few shots.

We managed to get a few shots of the lightning, but I was not liking the strong light on the jetty being caused by the nearby buildings, so we moved down towards Ocean Basket side of the Strand beach. This area was also too lit by the apartments and street lights which littered the warm tropical air. We decided it would be best to head towards either Gordon’s Bay or Kogelbaai. And I got in my car and made haste for popular coastal area of Kogelbaai.

Kogelbaai Lightning Show

The drive towards Kogelbaai was painful, lightning was now occurring several times each minute with strong CG flashes over the ocean. I kept having to restrain myself from pulling over and taking photos and convince myself that Kogelbaai would be better.

Once arriving in Kogelbaai, I was immediately rewarded with lightning occurring almost within my entire field of view. Of course this made it hard to choose where to point the camera, but I opted for the Rooi Els coastline, in order to create a silhouette of the environment, which helps with both contrast and introducing scale to the image. I remained at Kogelbaai for about an hour, using a bulb exposure most of the time in the range of 2 to 3 minutes. This allowed me to capture a good amount of strikes while also bringing in enough light for hints of the foreground elements to become visible.

On my return home, almost 3 hours since I had left for Strand Beach, the lightning was still going strong. But the rain had now come, and so it made photography tricky. Much of the lightning was now masked behind rain curtains or more cloud-to-cloud based.

It was definitely my most successful lightning chase in the Cape Town area, and well worth the drive in order to get a good view point.

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