and it begins

Adelaide, November. I arrive in the middle of the most severe November heatwave since records began. It’s not that hot when I arrive: only in the mid-thirties.

I move between a severely air-conditioned office and a severely air-conditioned hotel room, hardly noticing the relentless heat. A small army of volunteers in the meeting room below work through three shifts, calling the elderly and vulnerable, checking they are OK and giving them advice about surviving the heat.

The emergency services are called with alarming regularity: we save quite a few lives in the space of ten days, summoning ambulances and police to those whom we fail to contact. It is tedious but rewarding work.

In the evening I stroll through quiet city streets, enjoying the coolness of temperatures down in the low thirties. Christmas street signs still seem out of place to my northern hemisphere head: colourful lamp-post signs of baubles, candy canes and wrapping ribbon seem a little tame but there is no point in twinkling lights when we are approaching the longest day of the year. The odd storefront Christmas tree adds colour but I miss the darkness of Grafton Street turned to Christmas magic by red fairy lights and Georgian garlands.

Rigoni’s is one of my favourite places to eat Italian. I sit at the restaurant bar sipping a local GSM red, until the bar tender confesses she has poured a cabernet sauvignon by accident. Never mind. My bruschetta tastes good until I find one, then a second, human hair amongst the tomatoes. My dish is graciously swept away and replaced quickly, but no apology. A quiet top-up of the incorrect wine in my glass is appreciated as a gesture.

As I walk back to my hotel the beach volleyball place is buzzing. Dozens of people play competitively on the man-made city beach in the fading light, despite the heat. These South Australians are tough.

A day later the fires begin. Many regions across three states are at catastrophic fire danger levels. Temperatures soar into the mid-forties in Adelaide. I sit with my colleagues watching the fire service website and waiting. Every fifteen minutes the radio wails an old-fashioned but attention-grabbing siren. The announcer reads out the fire warnings for the Yorke peninsula. A scrub fire is heading towards a small town and people have been warned to activate their fire plan. Across the south-east of Australia, Red Cross volunteers are on high alert.

In South Australia we turn our focus away from the fire momentarily to watch the dry lightning approaching from the west, threatening more scrub fires where they hit land. Can this be only November? And yet it only seems weeks ago that the last fire season finally ended.

At the airport I sit and wait for my flight, hoping the dry lightning will not delay me. The powerful air-conditioning in the Qantas lounge does not work within a few metres of the plate-glass windows overlooking the tarmac. I sit at a rare empty seat and swelter. The cool change is coming, they swear. I watch a fellow traveller, a youngish man who is not as carefully coiffed and manicured and fashion-obsessed as many city men here. He is very well dressed but there is the air of a young fogey about him, an independence of style, a touch of dishevelment. I have a wave of homesickness for London.

A change of plane and four hours later, I touch down in Melbourne. The air is blessedly cool and smells of India. Must be all the jasmine in the air. Let’s see what the weekend brings.

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