Late July and Table Mountain sits steaming in mid-winter cloud. Grey, grumpy Atlantic weather is dumping rain on Cape Town and snow on the higher mountains of the interior. Cold, wet and cloudy, this time in the southern hemisphere is labelled ‘winter’ but if anything we should be calling this period ‘spring’, in the sense of how we understand the terms.
Spring is, after all, when flowers bloom, birds breed and animals feed after the cruel conditions of winter – right? But all that is happening right now in the mountains around Cape Town: many fynbos plants are in full flower; male sunbirds and sugarbirds fill the air with territorial songs, and baboons forage for blossoming bulbs and berries.
Winter: a time of death? On the contrary, this is when the fynbos comes alive.
Delivering seventy percent of the south-western Cape’s annual rainfall, the winter months break the annual summer drought. And I use the word drought unreservedly. From November to April each year, the plants and animals of Table Mountain and the rest of the south-western Cape endure a period of little to no rain plus high temperatures and almost constant sunny, windy weather.
Think of the Cape’s late summer and autumn as a conventional winter: if you’re a plant, this is not a time to be growing. The fynbos duly shuts down at this time, patiently waiting for the winter rains which also announce a merciful drop in temperature and an end to summer’s enervating winds.
But when it gets growing, it’s quick. The first rains hit and within days there are signs of new growth. The green leaves of various iris, orchid and hyacinth species begin to poke up through the sand, journeying upwards from an underground bulb. Several proteas – the sugarbush and wagon tree for example – come into flower now. They have co-evolved with fynbos birds like the Cape sugarbird which breed in winter to ensure their young are ready to take to the wing when summer’s fire season comes around again. The nectar-rich proteas provide the food; the sugarbirds take care of pollination.
Such a sudden abundance of new growth doesn’t go unnoticed. Grassy coastal flats at the Cape of Good Hope Reserve are now covered in antelope – the lugubrious-looking bontebok and the mighty, thick-necked eland, all with their heads down and grazing on new winter grass. A warm winter’s day may entice tortoises out of their hiding places to feed on zingy-fresh sorrel leaves, once used to ward off scurvy in the days of sailing ships.
Mountain streams are in full flow in winter, filling up wetlands and adding the pleasant sounds of waterfalls and frogs to the mix. The landscape keeps changing colour too. Dull-coloured mountainsides suddenly turn luminous yellow as conebushes – a type of protea again – comes in to flower; other areas that were burnt in a summer fire are now covered in a green blanket of seedlings. The winter rains are exactly what the traumatised post-fire fynbos has been waiting for and the results are explosive – flowers and greenery everywhere.
And considering that Cape Town’s winter weather can also deliver long periods of warm, dry and sunny weather, the only downside to this season is that it isn’t winter every day of the year.