Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A sunburnt country

My first thought today when I woke up in Sydney was “I slept in, I’m late”.

My second was “oh, and the apocalypse is here”.

There was an enormous dust storm last night and Sydney was blanketed in a thick red cloud of dust. It’s faded to a sullen yellow glow now, but at seven this morning the rising suns rays hitting the dust obliquely turned the city amber and red, like all the city was the outback glowing in the dawn. There are some great shots of it here.

The million dollar views of Darling Harbour look out now on an outback dust-storm. Exasperated staff sweep tracks of red dirt from the floor and furnishings of shops and restaurants. Billboards look sepia through the fog, like relics of another time and place. The cars in the city are coated in grime, the corner offices of the financial district smeared with a film of dust.

You forget how big, how dry this country is. You forget most of the cities cling to the sea, cowering away from the vast hot red and yellow plains of the centre. We live in our lovely lush Harbour City, and we catch the ferries across the bay and picnic in the big green parks and pour clean water in abundance into our glasses and our gardens and our pools and forget just how dry Australia is.

I grew up in Ireland, the Emerald Isle. A place so green that my Australian boyfriend commented when he saw it it looked hallucinogenic. An island of mild weather, of drizzle and fog and gentle spring rains making the landscape lush. Ireland is, for all the damp, very beautiful. I have always thought so.

It’s odd then that this morning’s choking dust reminds me of a very famous Australian poem – My Country by Dorothea Mackellar. “I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.”

I’ve worked inland. At the tail end of a seven year drought, I worked a few hundred miles from the coast in New South Wales; where the dry earth cracks like crazy paving and there is nothing but dead grass in the fields. I worked with a farmer who had sold all his stock but the last two of his cattle, crushed by the relentless drought and the cost of feeding them. We were told to take a minute’s shower; any more and we could drain the rain water tank and it was a long drive to refill if we need to get the expensive additional water.

I’ve spoken to families clinging to hang on to their homes, when the rain has failed for the seventh year running, and vets who moved away from their lifelong jobs when the last of the lifestock in the area had gone. Living in the Australian outback is not easy.

But, in its severe way, it is beautiful. Just after dawn the early morning changes from the chill of the cloudless night to the soaring heat of the day, the wind carrying the scent of eucalyptus in the air and dust kicked up by every step. The sunsets are amazing; the red dust reflecting a thousand vibrant shades of blue and purple and pink, the earth radiating heat as the gorged red sun sinks below the horizon.

And that, that is a few hundred miles in. It’s not even close to the baking heart of this country, where the red sand stretches for thousands of miles, where countless explorers vanished for all eternity and an empty gas tank and a water tank could be a death sentence.

Today everyone in Sydney, no matter how much they have pay to insulate and distance themselves from the Australian outback, has had it come to them. At the beginning of the summer, Sydney has thrown us a glowing outback dawn.

Other people may grimace and grizzle about how much it will cost to clean the windows, the floor, the carpets. But to me today’s red and dusty dawn is a reminder of the stark beauty of the Australian landscape, and that is has been too long since I’ve seen it.

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