Storm-chaser seeks beauty in drama

It is a sweltering day in the once sleepy mountain town of ­Lydenburg. In the distance, clouds are gathering and by mid-afternoon a gentle breeze has started bending the branches of the jacaranda trees. Sipping on a Coke, Des Jacobs thinks there might be a storm, but probably not.

And he would know – he woke up early in the morning and checked the television weather. Every hour since then he has been checking the Weather SA website, tracking the storms moving across the country.

"I have a friend at Jo'burg airport and a pilot in Nelspruit who SMS me to tell me when storms are rolling in from their side," he said. His sister lives in White River, in the opposite direction, and keeps him updated from there. But the storms hardly ever come from that side, at least not those that sprout forks of lightning or the thunderous ones.

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These are the storms he chases. And perched on top of the Drakensberg range, with rolling hills going in every direction, Lydenburg (renamed Mashishing) is a magnet for storms. "The good ones come from the Jo'burg side and they take about four hours to reach here, so I have ample warning," Jacobs said.

With the anticipation building all day, he finds it hard to focus on doing other things – he is a professional photographer and his bread-and-butter is every other kind of photography. Chasing and photographing storms is his obsession, but it is not an obsession that can feed a family.

When the storms do arrive, he jumps in his battered Ford bakkie and races up the hill that sits right on the edge of town. Chasing the bakkie and the Sharks rugby sticker on its tailgate is a hard task. From here he can take photos of the old town, which sits at the bottom of a long valley, and of the storms rolling in.

"This is the easiest place to take photos of the town; people like to have a photo of a place that they can recognise," he said while setting up his camera on a tripod. But a bit further up the road is the perfect place.

It is the start of the Long Tom Pass, named after the giant cannon the Boers dragged up its winding road while firing at the pursuing British forces. From here Jacobs can take photos of storms rolling along the edge of the escarpment and on a clear day some say you can see all the way to Nelspruit and Maputo.

Unlucky timing
"I take more chances than a normal man. Most people go inside to hide when the lightning comes, but I try get to where the storm is happening," he said.

But today he is out of luck. The horizon might be covered in a grey mass with forks of lightning flickering along its length, but it veers wide.

Normally, storms give him joy once a week during the summer months. And local people are quick to share their tales of the truly spectacular storm that happened the week before. For outsiders this is a tale of unlucky timing, but Jacobs waits every day for a storm to arrive.

"I taught myself photography and started professionally seven years ago and with storms two years ago," he said. That was about the same time he moved back to his childhood home of Lydenburg.

Since then, he has been going out every weekend at 3am. "That's when the family is going to be sleeping in, so I don't need to be there when the sun rises," he said. Instead, he wanders around the mountains and farms in the hope of the perfect sunrise photograph. It is a calming time, in contrast with storm-chasing.

"Diesel is expensive these days so I'm not going to just drive off, but when I know there's a storm out there I can drive up to 100km chasing it," Jacobs said.

This leads to him hammering down dirt roads and acquainting himself with local farmers to gain access to their land in a hurry. His aim is to get ahead of a storm, so that he can catch it thundering towards him. The photographs themselves are easy to take. "People think storm photographs are hard, but they are really easy once you are in place," he said.

The key is to mount his camera on a tripod and then set his exposure (the amount of time the shutter is open) for up to a minute. This captures every bit of light that appears in the night sky. As a result, his photos can contain as many as a dozen flashes of lightning. "It can be really deceptive. You think the lightning is really close because of the camera, but when you look up it's kilometres away," he said.

Crazy courage
Although Jacobs gets out of the way when the storm arrives – "it's stupid to sit around in the rain" – he has had near-misses. "The closest lightning was when I stopped at a farm gate to open it and drive away from the storm. There was a huge klap about 300m away. That was close. So, yes, sometimes it gets scary," he said with a wry smile.

"Another time I was at the top of this hill with just a cellphone tower to keep me company. And the storm was coming straight at me; it was great for a photo. But then I thought that we were perfect targets and if anything hit that tower it would also hit me, so I got out of there fast. I was really scared," he said.

This sometimes crazy courage, despite being tempered with good common sense, has left him without competition. "The local photographers are all scared. I went to the local group we have and one of my pictures was on display. People asked me about it and how I got the picture, but they all said 'no ways' when I asked if they were keen on storm photography," he said.

But it is something his 11-year-old daughter is interested in. She already sneaks off with his old cameras to take photographs and he hopes to teach her how to be a professional.

"I didn't have that kind of help and I want her to [have it], and at least she has the right kind of equipment," he said. He recalled how he used to go to the Kruger National Park with his wife and put binoculars in front of his camera to try to get pictures of animals that were far away. "My wife laughed at me, but she knows I love this."

And although his storm photographs are not yet a big seller, Jacobs is seeing a steady growth in demand from tourists. But he would do it even if it was not profitable.

"It's really like a drug. In the beginning, you tentatively have a little bit and think you can control it. But before you know it you are addicted. It's the excitement; you can't get it anywhere else," he said.

With the night showing nothing but the twinkling of Lydenburg's lights, Jacobs packs his camera away and heads home for supper. It is going to be a long summer and there will be other nights to chase storms.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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