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The truth behind our heat plague

'Heat Plague', By Chris Johnston'The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran.' So begins Albert Camus' famous 1948 novel The Plague (La Peste). Allowing for a couple of small adjustments — '2008' for '194-' and 'Adelaide' for 'Oran' — a similar chronicle might unfold for most of the month of March.

The first signs were small and too familiar to be taken as precursors of anything unusual. February had been hot and relentlessly dry, but that's not unusual in these parts. Combined with the continuing drought, the long, bright, burning days bleeding their gusty northerlies and smouldering sunsets into early March made a mockery of the crisp, leaf-turning autumns of other years. On 3 March the temperature in Adelaide rose to 35.4; on the following day, Tuesday, to 35.7 and on the Wednesday to 37.9. This bland yet faintly sinister progression was like the dead rat that Camus' Dr Bernard Rieux notices in the hallway of his apartment one ordinary morning: uncommon yet not wholly abnormal. And surely not indicative of a plague.

On the Thursday and Friday, as Adelaide Festival Writers' Week crowds — the biggest ever recorded — gamely flocked to the tents in the Pioneer Women's Garden, the huge blue overarch of the sky whitened with heat and the thermometer went through 38 and 39, just missed 40 on Saturday, but made it on Sunday and stuck there on Monday, the eighth successive day over 35 degrees.

In the city, light streaked like tracer fire off shiny cars and the air shimmered round diesel-clunking buses. Cold draughts fell out of the doorways of shops and department stores, footpaths baked, older cars boiled, supermarkets had air conditioning so low their trolley-shoving customers were threatened with cryogenic suspension. Caught in the open, raked by the fire-throated northerly, pedestrians sought even the slim shade of a lamp post while they waited for the green light.

Further north, as the weather forecasters say, our normal routine of watering the plants in the heat became converted into a Dunkirk effort to save them from extinction. Salty bore water, 26 buckets and long snaking hoses were the preoccupations of our days and the monsters of our dreams in the hot, moony nights. Lorikeets balanced on the sprinklers to drink from the flick-flick of spray while magisterial magpies, too dignified for such display, harvested the droplets on blades of grass and leaves.

As the heat ground on, the kangaroos came to scare the birds away from trickling water, and the hand-clapping, whistling and shouted obscenities which usually scared them off, now, in the thick clamminess of the incandescent evenings and with the heat wave ten days old, simply moved them to look up briefly, as if vaguely wondering who it was that was trespassing on their land.

Saplings sagged, leaves took on a brown insignia around their edges, the lemon-scented gums fought bravely on, leaning with the hot wind, smartening up as the sun sank at last and water arrived in buckets to puddle around their roots. Unless watched vigilantly and duly rescued, tomatoes, chillies and pomegranates burned and blistered like fair skin.

Whether in city or countryside, we were prisoners of the heat: it dictated our movements, made fitful our sleeping, clamped on our thoughts, withering them. Between the desire and the action fell not the shadow but the sunburst from the furnace.

In The Plague, as the crisis grows, the people of Oran are imprisoned: the town gates are shut and locked. In Adelaide and the South Australian countryside the plague of heat was just as confining. The nation looked on as the implacable weather of the driest state became the running news story and an impermeable dome of temperature sealed off the land of the Croweaters.

People wilted too. 'Sandy', arriving with 2000 gallons of town water for our domestic tank, was philosophical. 'People're getting very touchy,' he said with a sardonic smile, once the water was pumping. Among his many tasks and ventures, Sandy drives the school bus and does a shuttle service for tourists and locals visiting wineries, especially those needing a designated driver. 'Saw a bloke the other day getting abused from arsehole to breakfast time by his missus outside the pub. Very entertaining there for a while. But I reckon it was the heat that got to them, y'see.'

That same day, I saw a minor problem about a label erupt into a spectacular row at the supermarket check-out. I reckon it was the heat that got to them, too.

Fifteen days it lasted, ending with a flourish of 39 and then 40.5. A plague of heat. Camus' plague was a metaphor for the Second World War German occupation of France. Our plague is no metaphor; it's a truth — the truth of the planet's advancing impatience with its reckless colonisers.


Clean Up Our Climate

Mark Watson's Earth Summit at Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road: the life and times of the MCG.





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Existing comments

Thanks ES, and thanks Brian Matthews for a beautiful bit of writing.

Joe Castley | 26 March 2008  

Thanks ES, and thanks Brian Matthews for a beautiful bit of writing.

john | 08 April 2008  

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