Travelling through Australia’s parched interior in 1828 in search of a mythical “inland sea”, the British explorer Charles Sturt paused by the Darling River, in north-western New South Wales. The area, he wrote, was “unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man”. One can imagine him suppressing a shudder.
Sturt was wrong: within a few decades, the town of Bourke had sprung up and become a bustling river port, with paddle-steamers ferrying wool to market from the sprawling sheep stations on the surrounding plains. But he was right about the harsh environment – and locals may be pondering the wisdom of his words this weekend as they struggle to cope with temperatures of over 48C (119F).
Australia is in the grip of its worst heatwave on record, with a vast chunk of the continent baked by a “dome” of hot air that shows no sign of moving. The scorching heat, along with high winds, has fuelled bushfires which were still burning across five states and territories yesterday, including Tasmania, where they have already destroyed more than 200 properties.
The country’s all-time high of 50.7C – recorded in the South Australian township of Oodnadatta in 1960 – has yet to be surpassed, but a clutch of Outback towns have come within a whisker. Bourke, which has been roasting since November, reached 48.5C yesterday. Residents are accustomed to hot weather – after all, the desert is on their doorstep – but the ferocity of the current spell has blindsided them.
Yesterday Bourke’s dusty, broad streets – wide enough for the camel trains which used to transport bales of wool into town to turn around – were practically deserted. The heat was overpowering: so dense that you could almost cut it, so intense you could feel your skin burning as soon as you stepped outside. Even in the shade I felt as if I was standing next to an open furnace.
The town’s public swimming pool was full to bursting, and a few brave souls plunged into the muddy Darling to cool off. Nearly everyone else stayed home, curtains drawn, emerging only to hurry between air-conditioned houses, shops and cars. Some petrol stations had to switch off their pumps because the heat was vaporising the fuel in underground tanks. On the roads, the tarmac bubbled and lifted.
“We’re used to the heat, but this is extreme,” admitted Lillian Simpson, who runs the Bourke Riverside Motel with her husband, Roy.
Their cattle dog-cross was panting in the shade. “He doesn’t want to do guard duty on days like this,” she said. “He wants to be indoors under the air-conditioner.”
Bourke, which lies 500 miles north-west of Sydney and is home to about 3,000 people, one-third of them Aboriginal, services the district’s cattle stations and irrigated cotton industry. With its frontier spirit and rich history, the town occupies a place at the heart of the Australian rural myth.
“To know Bourke is to know Australia,” wrote Henry Lawson, the celebrated bush poet, after visiting in 1892. Australians like to think that it was in places such as Bourke that a distinctive national character was forged, embodied in the shearers and cattle drovers who roamed the interior in the 19th century. They were tough, independent, resilient men (they were all men) who valued their mates – “mateship” was supposedly born in the Outback. Their modern-day descendants display similar traits. You need to be tough to live in such an inhospitable, remote spot: Bourke is a four- hour drive from the nearest airport, along a roadkill-dotted highway that cuts through a suburnt landscape of red earth and coolabah trees.
“Back o’ Bourke” – beyond Bourke – is an Australian colloquialism that means the middle of nowhere. And the town has always had blistering summers (along with freezing winters). Thirty-five men, women and children died in a punishing heatwave in the 1890s; they lie buried in the cemetery, along with two policemen who were shot dead by a barman said to have been driven mad by the heat.
“1972 we had the last roaster,” said Marilyn Reed, leaning over the counter in Bourke’s police station, where she works as an administrative assistant. “It was when I first came to town and I've never forgotten it. It was 121 degrees (Fahrenheit) for 10 days straight and 99 at night. I dragged my bed outside, it was that hot.
“There was no aircon in those days. We used to wet a sheet in cold water in the bathtub, wring it out and then sleep under it. It was the only way we could survive. During the day people would just go and sit in the river, up to their necks. And when you walked in the road – I never wore shoes in those days – the tar would stick to your feet.”
While every home has air-conditioning now, the locals are just as robust. In the Port of Bourke pub on Friday night, I met Dale Barker, who after finishing his eight-hour shift as a heavy machinery operator with Bourke Shire Council had gone out and sheared 30 sheep, to earn some extra cash. It was 45C in the shade that day. Sheep shearing is one of the most physically demanding activities known to man.
The heatwave follows three consecutive years of floods. Before that, Bourke suffered an eight-year drought. The Outback is like that. No wonder most Australians cling to the coast. But people like Robbie Olsen, a groundsman at the Back O’Bourke Exhibition Centre, would not live anywhere else.
“I love the place,” he said. “I grew up here, my kids grew up here and they’ve all gone away, but I’m still here.”
For Australia, what distinguishes this heatwave from previous hot spells is its duration and geographical spread. Karl Braganza, head of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology, says it conforms to a pattern of more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
“We’re also seeing an extended bushfire season which starts earlier and ends later,” he adds.
In a report last week for the federal government’s Climate Commission, Professor David Karoly, an eminent climate scientist, wrote that there was in Australia “clear evidence of an increasing trend in hot extremes, reductions in cold extremes and… more frequent extreme fire danger days.”
Prof Karoly said: “Climate scientists have been talking about these increases for more than 20 years in Australia. We are now seeing exactly what was predicted more than 20 years ago.” Bourke has escaped the bushfire threat this year, so far at least. But across New South Wales firefighters are still battling more than 90 blazes, several of which are advancing on towns. Fires are also burning in Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, while the major fire that ravaged south-east Tasmania last weekend is still not under control. And, just for good measure, a tropical cyclone is hovering off the Western Australian coast.
Given the scale of the fires, and the “catastrophic” conditions, it seems astonishing that no one has died, or been seriously injured. Experts point to improved planning and alerts in the wake of the Black Saturday disaster which killed 173 people in Victoria in 2009, as well as sheer good luck.
In Tasmania, the fires mainly affected coastal towns where people could escape by boat.
Reflecting on the lethal mix last week of high temperatures, strong winds and heavy fuel on the ground in New South Wales, one climate scientist told the Independent on Sunday: “We were just damn lucky we didn’t have an inferno. But we’re not out of the woods yet.”