Domoina: the power of unleashed nature by Valerie Poore
The news reports were bad. Domoina had made landfall and at our farm in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, we felt the winds that would cause such devastating change in the eastern part of KwaZulu Natal, the province where we’d made our home.
It was January 1984, and the east coast of Mozambique was the destination of choice for this violent tropical storm. Broadcasters announced the flooding and wreckage in sombre tones, declaring Domoina to be one of those ‘once-in-a-hundred-years’ cyclones. Mozambique and Swaziland were the worst hit, but severe damage and flooding continued much further south, as far as Durban, as well as for some distance inland. Rainfall of unprecedented amounts swelled rivers to bursting point, washed bridges away and swept villages and people into the raging torrents of water flowing down to the ocean.
We listened to the news in silence. Words seemed inadequate.
I say listened, because at that time, we lived off the grid—not by choice, but because mains electricity hadn’t yet reached the remote farm on which my husband and I rented a garden cottage. We had no generator either, so lights were oil lamps; cooking and water heating were from bottled gas. As for television, that wasn’t an option. We had radio, though, and this was our lifeline to the world.
But words over the airways, however sombre, didn’t prepare us for the reality.
Domoina made no physical impact on us personally as we were too far from its path to suffer anything other than the ‘after winds’. Our home wasn’t damaged and we weren’t cut off from the world. Towns, villages and farms to the north, and especially those closer to the coast, weren’t so fortunate. Even when some distance from the rivers, the inundated land prevented access to main roads and routes.
“How will you get to visit your clients. Weren’t you supposed to go to Swaziland this week?” I asked my husband a week after the storm had officially burnt itself out.
“Yes, I’ll have to try. They’ll be wanting support after all they’ve been through. I need to see what they’re up against in Mbabane. I’d like to go to the Vryheid office too. It’s in one of the worst hit areas.”
My husband was the regional manager of the parts department for a major German automotive company. It was his job to visit clients, check on their supplies, audit their systems and generally coach or train their departmental staff. In many ways, he was a kind of mother hen to the dealers in the region and they depended on his visits to help them with problems or issues. Given that this was in the days before the internet, when all we had in South Africa were dodgy phone lines (vulnerable to both weather and theft) and post that made snails look like the Duracell bunny, his was an essential service.
“Can I come with you? It would do me good to get away, ” I asked. I was worried about him travelling alone and since our small daughters were staying with friends for a few days, it would be a perfect opportunity. I’d been with him on his trips before, so it wasn’t an unusual request.
“Sure. Just remember I’ll be working, so you’ll be on your own.”
“That’s okay. I like exploring new places, as you know.”
And so we left our mountain haven to drive to Swaziland. Knowing many of the bridges on the normal, and usually best, N2 coastal route had been washed away, we had to take a detour to reach Mbabane, the capital of this small, land-locked independent kingdom, now known officially as Eswatini.
We drove up through the beautiful Natal Midlands via Ladysmith of Boer War fame, then north to Ermelo before taking the road east into Swaziland. It was a stunning drive, the scenery of rolling hills stretching fold on fold into the distance being of fairy-tale beauty. There was little to no sign of Domoina’s wrath here, and I revelled in the road trip as I absorbed the magnificence of my adopted country displayed to perfection under the brilliant African sky.
Mbabane was colourful and lively, but the roads into the town were treacherous with mud from the heavy rains. Much of the flood water had receded by now, but the city had been cut off from the south-east of the country and many roads were still impassable.
The Swazi capital is in a hot, steamy, semi-tropical area and our overnight stay was punctuated, or rather punctured, by mosquitos the size of small bats. I opened the cupboard doors in our hotel room and out they flocked, eager for new blood—ours. I’d been taught early on that the best way to avoid catching malaria was not to get bitten instead of taking anti-malaria tablets, a course of which needed both planning and a strong stomach. Many of my friends had felt very unwell after taking them, so we’d decided not to bother and to invest in plenty of ‘mozzie cream’ as we called the liquid mosquito repellent.
“We’d best bathe in this stuff tonight,” I said, waving the bottle at my husband and pulling a disgusted face.
“Yes, the mozzies are probably even worse after all the rain and floods. Just the conditions they like to breed in.”
“Yuk!” I shuddered at the thought.
We did our best, covering ourselves liberally with the smelly repellent, but neither of us got much sleep that night. It was unbearably hot in the fetid Mbabane night air, and the sound of mosquitos whining around our heads was akin to threats of torture. I didn’t quite get away unscathed, though. One of them found a centimetre of skin I’d missed when slathering myself with chemicals and I had a bite the size of a large coin on my arm in the morning. It was also a livid red and the itch was the worst torture by insect I’d ever experienced. I fervently hoped I wouldn’t get malaria as well.
However, any discomfort I had was rapidly put in that place called ‘Perspective’ when we embarked on our trip back to South Africa.
“I hear the road to Big Bend is open,” my husband said. “I’d really like to try going back that way but I don’t know what the situation is with the bridge. Someone told me they’re using Bailey Bridges and fords where the water’s gone down enough. Big Bend is on the main route back to northern Natal and Vryheid, so I’m hoping there’s somewhere we can cross there.”
In all honesty, I don’t remember much about the road trip to Big Bend other than being saddened by the poverty in Swaziland, a visibly poorer country than its big neighbour. It reminded me of Transkei, which in those days was one of the several independent homelands forced on the African people by the apartheid government. They no longer exist as they were absorbed into South Africa in 1994 under President Mandela’s government. However, Swaziland was, and still is, a kingdom in its own right.
The scenery was lovely and all African. Rolling hills spattered with low, flat acacia trees followed each other towards distant mountains shrouded in mist. It was the stuff of dreams and legends.
However, my first consciousness of the enormity of the wreckage Domoina had caused was when we reached Big Bend. Until that point, we hadn’t seen the flooded areas. In fact, we never got to see them at all, because our journey south ended at the bridge over the Lusutfu River, or rather at the absence of the bridge.
There was no warning, no sign stopping us or telling us we couldn’t proceed further; the road simply came to a jagged end beyond which there was nothing except the river, now running its customary lazy course towards the sea.
The debris on the banks didn’t even suggest a bridge had ever been there at all. It had gone. Vanished. Completely and utterly swept away. Mud covered hectares of the land on each side of the river’s course; uprooted trees lay stranded across it, wrenched from their roots by the immense power of the torrents. It was astonishing the water had gone down so quickly, but what it had left behind was devastation beyond anything I could have foreseen. No radio news reports could have made the impact on me this image did—burning it into my mind and never forgotten. My complaints about Mbabane’s mighty mosquitos were swiftly relegated to insignificance of the lowest order.
Even so, we were spared the worst of the damage. We never saw the drenched lands, drowned villages, homeless people; the tragedy of lives extinguished. But the sight of the gaping wound where a busy road bridge had once been was symbolic enough. I couldn’t bear to think of who or what might have been on it when it was ripped from its foundations by unimaginable tons of water.
“So that was Domoina,” my husband said.
“Hell hath no fury like a river’s wrath,” he went on, without a trace of a smile. “Come on, let’s go back the way we came. I’ll call the Vryheid office and make a special trip to see them. I think they might need some TLC.”
We didn’t say much on our return to Mbabane; we were both lost in our own thoughts. Having only lived in South Africa for just over two years, such destruction by natural forces was new to us both, a horrifying eye-opener; we were more shocked than we could express. Later, on visits to Durban and the north coast, I witnessed more of the catastrophic damage, but it was Big Bend that made the deepest and most long-lasting impression.
In hindsight, I realise it was my first experience of the staggering power of unleashed nature, and it was the event that moulded my thinking in the years to come. Many people have laughed, including me, at my obsessive ‘what if’ tendency to anticipate what might happen in the worst case scenario. But they don’t know it was the aftermath of Domoina’s fury that taught me not only what might happen but what did. It was a lesson learned for life.