The raging river that swept through the Klein Karoo on Tuesday was a result of torrential rains and rescue workers have been forced to temporarily abandon their search for an ambulance driver in Montagu.
About 58.8ml fell in 24 hours in the Montagu area while in Swellendam 72.8ml in the same period, Weather SA reported. Melting snow ran south off the Swartberg range and helped swell the flooded rivers.
In the Western Cape, 31 schools were closed on Tuesday, mainly because pupils couldn’t get to school due to snowfall.
And 10 hours after being sent to an accident the female driver of an ambulance that washed off Montagu’s Kogmanskloof bridge into the river was still missing. A a rescue team from provincial EMS suspended its search for her.
The driver, believed to have been the only occupant of the vehicle, sent a distress call to provincial EMS’s communication centre in Worcester at 5.30am on Tuesday.
The ambulance left the road just a few hundred metres after Montagu, just before the famed “hole-in-the-wall” in Kogmanskloof, which the river skirts on its way down towards Ashton and then the Breede River.
Elsewhere, snow fell not only in the Cape’s highest peaks, such as the Matroosberge, Wemmershoek and Hottentots-Holland ranges, but across large parts of the country.
The N3 at Van Reenen’s Pass, between Harrismith and the Tugela toll plaza, was closed for a second time on Tuesday because of snow, the N3 Toll Concession Limited reported. It was briefly reopened just before noon, after being closed in the morning due to the treacherous driving conditions associated with the winter flurry.
Other roads in KwaZulu-Natal were reopened on Tuesday afternoon, including the N2 between Harding and Kokstad, the R617 between Swartberg Underberg and the P609 Matatiele, Road Traffic Inspectorate spokesperson Zinhle Mngomezulu said.
Earlier, about 200 trucks were held up at Tugela toll plaza. Light motor vehicles had to be diverted towards Newcastle.
Arrive Alive spokesman Tshepo Machaea said a number of roads in the Eastern Cape had been closed because of significant snowfall.
These included the R61 between Graaff-Reinet and Cradock, the N9 between Graaff-Reinet and Middelburg, the R58 in the region of Barkly East, and the R68 between Barkly East and Lady Grey.
Snow even fell in central Joburg early on Tuesday afternoon. Heavy snowfalls also caused the closure of several border posts between SA and Lesotho, the National Border Operational Committee said on Tuesday.
“The Qacha’s Nek and Caledonspoort border posts were closed. Both posts will remain closed until further notice,” said spokesman William Mpye.
In Montagu a member of the rescue crew had to be pulled to safety after a desperate attempt to reach the ambulance before it disappeared, said Dr Wayne Smith, EMS’s head of disaster medicine.
Braving treacherous conditions overhead, an AMS rescue helicopter from Oudtshoorn scoured the river searching for the missing vehicle.
“An aerial search will be resumed at first light in the morning,” said Vennesa Horn, of AMS.
Smit said: “We are not yet releasing the name (of the driver) and are communicating with her parents. The situation is very sensitive at the moment.”
The ambulance had left Montagu as is usual at around 5am. It is a trip done once a day, and forms part of the HealthNet transport service which takes patients from rural areas to health facilities.
By Tuesday evening two of the three main access routes into Montagu, to Barrydale and Ashton, remained blocked by rivers. Residents in Montagu south could get access to the main town via a newly completed footbridge. The new bridge had been built after floods in 2008 had washed away an earlier structure. It was completed in April.
“I’m so thankful,” said Susan Hall, who was born in Montagu 74 years ago. “We could never have expected how soon this bridge will become so useful. Now at least people can get water and food across to where we live.”
Hall’s memory of floods in Montagu dates back for decades. In a 1981 flood, the “worst one” in her memory, Hall’s sister lost her son-in-law and her grandchild. “This is relatively tame compared to the water I’ve seen coming down here before,” said Hall, standing on the spot from where her relatives were washed away in a car three decades ago.
Throughout on Tuesday, phones at the Montagu-Ashton Tourism Office were ringing of the hook, said office manager Anne-Marie Coetzee.
“It’s mostly people phoning to see whether they should cancel accommodation bookings in the area for the long weekend,” she said. “I have been advising everyone not to panic prematurely.” - Cape Argus