Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
You might not grasp the significance of the first photograph in this series that I shot yesterday, but those are rain clouds on the horizon. Rain clouds? Yep, real rain. And believe me when I tell you that's a big deal in this country.
Here in Melbourne, where I live, we've just had the hottest start to autumn in almost a century. A week ago, we were sweltering in unseasonal temperatures of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit. Our lawn, seemingly resistant to every hot dry spell of weather that we've ever had, finally started to succumb. The emerald green sheen disappeared, slowly but inexorably replaced by widening dun patches that were the colour and consistency of hay.
Then we drove to Sydney for Easter (yes, that's why you haven't heard from me in a week) and as we hit the outskirts of Sydney, we could see the difference. They've had lots of rain while we've been parched. Their paddocks were green, as far as the eye could see. As we got into the city, we could see green grass - a rarity in Victoria, our home state.
Then, as we prepared to drive home to Melbourne yesterday, the clouds began to gather as we packed for the journey of almost 1000 kilometres. We were still on the M5 motorway out of Sydney when the rain started and, for what seemed like the first time in months, I actually had to switch on my windscreen wipers. The horizon got darker over the hills we would have to traverse, and I knew the driving conditions were soon going to get a lot tougher.
Before midday, the weather was was so challenging that it was like driving in the gathering gloom of dusk. Not only was I driving with my lights on, I also resorted to a wonderful safety protocol I learnt in England more than twenty years ago. Because the visibility was nearing the critical grey-out stage, I put on my Ray-Bans. If you've never used high-quality dark glasses in smog or bad light, try it and you'll see what I mean. Their lenses bring a touch of definition to a scene that would otherwise be just an undistinguishable meld of various hues of grey.
But I knew that there was a section of the Hume Highway where extensive roadworks were being carried out. I realised I would not have the comfort and security of a dual carriageway all the way home. Sure enough, just as the weather deteriorated further and the rain came down in sheets of torrential fury, I encountered one of those stretches of winding highway where I had oncoming traffic for several kilometres.
The rain was drumming down, turning the soft shoulder into a red river. I could not pull off the highway, because it just wasn't safe to do so. With a long stream of traffic behind me, I dropped my speed from 110 kilometres an hour to 100, then to 90 and then to 80 and finally to 70. But I had no one in front of me; no one's tail lights to follow through the midday gloom.
For about ten kilometres, I had another problem to contend with. The rain was sheeting down with such intensity that it was starting to pool on the highway. I realised that I would soon encounter the problem of aquaplaning, where my own wheels would throw up a wall of water that would threaten my own steering, even for a millisecond or two. Sure enough, this happened about a minute later, and continued for an agonisingly long stretch.
The other problem I had was that every time a truck or a semi-trailer went past me in the opposite direction, it would almost always obliterate my windscreen with its own inevitable wake. At the same time, the murk degenerated to the point where I could barely see the lights of oncoming traffic.
Another critical factor came into the safety equation at this point. Would the creeks beside the highway burst their banks? And if they did, would I be able to see the danger in time?
I've driven more than half a million kilometres in my time, much of it on highways and freeways. And I can say, hand on heart, that I have never driven in conditions as tough as I did yesterday. But after about 45 minutes of being severely tested by the weather, things started to improve - slightly.
By the time we got to Holbrook, just after 2pm, I no longer needed to drive with my headlights on. We sat down to order lunch at the Submarine Cafe and the owner, a familiar friend from many of our interstate drives to Canberra and Sydney, came over to take our order.
Relieved to have come safely through the dangerous weather, I greeted her warmly, asking, "Did the bad weather hit you as well?"
I had (inadvertently) revealed what a city slicker I am.
Bless her. She could have chided me. But she just smiled. "Bad weather," she echoed, looking happily at the storm clouds. "Bad weather? No, here in the bush we reckon any rain is good weather."
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