Talking about the weather was the sine qua non of mediocrity in my punkish youth. My friends and I talked about the theatre, books and music. Suburban Sydney, where we lived, was very hot in the summer. There was no air conditioning except in the shopping mall, where I roamed the air-conditioned shops and walkways with keen adolescent interest. I took make-up seriously. I loved the counters of samples of lipstick, perfumes and mascara. I especially liked the little pots of sparkly eye-shadow.
Today, happily at home in the desert, talking about the weather is essential. Earlier today, it was 41 degrees Celcius —106 on the old Fahrenheit scale. A dessicating wind brought smoke. We woke with parched throats. The bleached blue sky had feathery clouds very high up — cirrostratus. “Strange that there can be ice crystals up there, when it’s so hot on the ground,” I thought. The hot wind made for great clothes drying. “By the time you peg out the last piece of clothing the first ones you put up are dry,” said C. We hung out some loads together to minimize our exposure to the sere heat. Even so, C had to correct some of my peg arrangements. “I want to get as much of this done as we can,” she said. “I think there might be a storm today.”
I could see no sign of rain. Neither of us could see any of the smoke we’d smelled earlier, either. A column of red dust climbed like a red smudge — like the vermillion some Indian women put in the parting of their hair — over on the horizon. “Remember how those big red dust winds can come with wild storms?” C asked. I remembered. “Lots of thunder and lightning,” I said. A couple of years ago such weather led to days of fierce bush fires. We spent many nights watching the flames, taller than camels, travelling across the desert horizon, unstoppable.
We were hanging out the fourth load of washing when a halo appeared around the sun. It was one of the most dramatic I’ve seen: huge, dark as a very bad bruise. The circle around the white sun looked solid purple-grey; its edges opalescent. A pot of cosmic eye shadow.
By the afternoon the wind was blowing faster and stronger. Various metallic pieces attached to the roof and sides of the house made themselves known, clanging and crashing as if the house was becoming animated. I went out into the dusty, baked yard and gathered some bits of plastic and paper that were blowing around. A mouse had made a nest while we were away. The little mouse was dead, probably from the heat. After ten minutes outside I needed half an hour recovering inside. You could get dehydrated just breathing.
We’d seen weather like this in other parts of Australia. Last Christmas and New Year we were in the Pilbara, the hottest part of the country. The Pilbara, in central Western Australia, has spectacularly beautiful gorges, sculpted by thunderous water. Each gorge is unique. One has looping and spiralling patterns of purple, white and red stone. Another very deep gorge is chocolate-coloured stone with milky turquoise water far below. One of the most remarkable of the Pilbara gorges is Wonmunna, where the tall rock walls around a sweet waterhole are completely covered by incised figures of animals and spirit beings, spirals and patterns, dating back tens of thousands of years.
When we were there last summer, the Pilbara was unusually hot, with many consecutive days in the high 40’s. The pavements were baking stones. When that hot wind blew, even the lizards retreated to the shade. The finches crammed together on a flexible collection of twigs you could call a tree. Perhaps they tried to use their tiny bodies to shelter each other. The galahs (pink and grey cockatoos) did the same, crowding the branches. Even their robust bodies needed protection. We saw a galah blown by the wind, unable to reach the tree, smashed to inertness in the dust.
Karijini National Park protects some of the Pilbara region’s spectacular gorges, as well as providing a refuge for some of the unique life forms of the area. However, the park itself has been divided into two to provide a corridor for mining in the middle. And far from the National Park, just 40 minutes drive from the mining town, the waterhole surrounded by rock carvings is not marked for people to visit. If you google Wonmunna, there is no reference to the millennia of art, learning and healing there. It is nothing but a miner’s project now. They will smash it all up.
The tourist information centre of Karijini National Park shows a few Aboriginal people looking very happy about the deal to divide the park and mine it. A couple of families probably felt well-paid. But many of the Traditional Owners of mined areas cannot bear to go to their country anymore. It would be like looking at the remains of your tortured mother.
The hot, dry wind blows outside my house through the night. The electricity we burn to live here at this time of year is still generated by fuel dug out of the ground. Although I love this place, I feel as if I am in the right place at the wrong time.
In the evening C said, "Is that rain?"
"No," I replied. But then I heard it, pounding on the roof. I ran out of the door. "It's really raining," I called, suddenly alive and alert to the noise. But in the front of the house the dust was dry. I came back in. "I couldn't feel any rain," I said dejectedly. "It must've only rained on the roof," said C. Verga, it's called -- when the rain comes part-way down to the earth but evaporates before it reaches the ground. Our spindly bougainvillea looks betrayed.