Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Dust in the Wind
Date: November 6, 1994 15:14

11:00 Ansett Flight 179, Adelaide -> Darwin :: 4 NOV 94

On the morning of Halloween, which the Australian's don't celebrate, Coober Pedy sprung a surprise on us: wind, like I haven't seen in some time. A good steady 20 to 30 km/hr blow to make your tent curtsy. The kind that accompanies what they call here 'a cool change'.

It started in the wee hours, flapping the tent fly, bowing the dome like a stiff breath against a soap bubble. Strengthening toward dawn it finally coaxed two sleepy campers from their beleaguered shelter. We packed and showered in haste, wanting nothing more than to escape dry, howling Coober Pedy.

The cold front came from the north pushing Stan toward Port Augusta, our destination-literally blown out of town. But before long that favour was rescinded and the westerly buffeted little Stan and blew tumbleweed, beer cartons and other desert detritus across, and into, our path.

Here, in the arid centre of Australia, where there's wind there soon will be dust and stinging, driven sand. On the horizon a thin grey band became a thick one and then a wall obscuring clouds and contrails. When I noticed that the headlights of all oncoming vehicles were on I began to consider what we were in for.

I'd seen a dust storm once before, during a four-month co-op term in dismal, sparkling Calgary. A colleague and I watched in awe as the roiling grey wave engulfed building after building on its rip down Electric Avenue. And then, with a concussive shock and a rain of pins-and-needles, it got us too . While we cowered in the partial shelter of a bus stop the storm pried flyers from the walls and upset rubbish bins greedily sucking their contents into the maelstrom. It swept up cigarette butts, old newsprint and styrofoam cups. Empty drink cans bounced, clattered and rolled by. And then, quiet. The 3 minute maelstrom passed leaving only tipped bins, debris and a thin coat of dust. Small evidence for such a fierce, if fleeting, whirl.

20:00 Darwin, Northern Territory :: 5 NOV 94

But that brief encounter proved inadequate preparation for what we drove into just 100kms south of dry Coober Pedy. The sky greyed in anticipation and shortly a thick haze of dust palled our vision. And I thought, "Wow! A dust storm!" I thought prematurely for the dust haze thickened and thickened more until a curtain fell into which I steered Stan.

With visibility through the sand-fog collapsing to 100 meters, then 80, then 70 I came to a halt beside the beginnings of a dune stretching across the highway and woke the slumbering Katrin. Slack-jawed, she stared speechlessly into the murk.

"Get the camcorder out", I told her and we drove on into the thick of it. The wind blew perpendicular to the highway and Katrin, on the lee side of the car, could open her window to get clear shots of the storm. However, more than once the driver side provided the best image and then, with Katrin poised and ready, I would open my window, all grimace and squint while she recorded the scene. The sand dashed against cheek and brow until, shot completed, Katrin took the wheel so I could roll and push the window back into place; the strength of the wind forced the window from its channel and it was necessary to guide it back into place while rolling it up.

For nearly 400 kilometers to Port Augusta we made our way through alternately slackening and intensifying sand storms. It was not the wind that slackened but a matter of shifting patterns of geology and flora that might better keep down the sand that the same wind elsewhere so readily lifted. The most intense moments came when crossing dry lake beds where a sea of sand roiled over the salt pan, up-and-over the raised road bed and off again into the uniform grey void.

As we neared Port Augusta, at the head of a deep bay, the driven sand subsided though the fierceness of the wind did not. The next day saw the sand replaced by rain. RAIN!!! The first true soaking since August in Brisbane.

By Adelaide the rains ceased though the relentless wind howled still. After a futile search of the city center for accommodation we agreed that the coast might be better and soon, at Glenelg, found ourselves in a room with an ocean view. Well, a view hidden by the sand encrusted sliding glass doors. I washed the windows but within the hour the view was obscured again.

Outside the surf was up-way up. Beached surfers, unable to paddle out through the breakers, ran down the pier and at the end of it plummeted 8 or so meters into the bucking ocean. We watched them, awed at the frantic madness, while leaning into the rushing air that ricocheted off the luxury Ramada Hotel next to our more modest "holiday flat". Then, warm, secure and candle-lit behind rattling, whistling doors, we ate take-away Thai, watched the evening news and made love.

The next day the wind finally abated. Small dunes obscured the walking paths and grass poked through the thick sand coat that accumulated overnight, reminiscent of Vancouver's Sea Wall after a snow storm. We walked along the beach, collecting perfect little shells scattered among the heaped shards of those crushed by the storm. That the search should be so easy intrigues us both. That unbroken organic lines and patterns seem such magnets for the eye, that we begin the reach for a looping spiral precognitively: we know Quality independent of intellect.

It is three days after that now and, lead by intellect, I am in transit to North America while Katrin drives on from Adelaide to home and friends in Melbourne. When I talk with people about my travels in Australia, I forget that I am not a 'we' anymore but an 'I'.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.
  graphical element Pascal, Pensees