Sufferin Succotash

Kath Heiman — 17 December 2020
Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Kath looks at what makes her stronger during a Sweltering Summer Scorcher.

My first memory of Australia is imprinted as though it happened yesterday. Arriving in Perth on 6 January 1978, our family had made the epic decision to leave the British Isles, where my forebears can claim over 500 years of traceable history, to set up a new life ‘Down Under’. 

As the Boeing 747 winged its way into Perth International Airport, I strained to see my new homeland through the port-hole window. With my brother elbowing me out of the way from the window seat, my efforts were unsuccessful. Which made what happened next all the more surprising.

Once the jet had shut-down its engines, the fasten seat belt sign was turned off and the doors opened. At which point, the cabin immediately filled with a burst of hot air that left most of the plane’s occupants gasping for breath. No, we weren’t in the midst of an aircraft emergency. This was Australia, and it was a heatwave with a week of temperatures over forty degrees.

As we exited the plane to walk to the terminal, the heat radiated off the tarmac like hot coals, and clouds of bushflies jostled for entry to our nostrils, eyes and mouths. We stumbled into the relative comfort of the arrivals lounge and wondered what the hell just happened. 

During the next week, we hibernated indoors — curtains closed — with Dad venturing out periodically to replenish our supplies of cold drinks. And in the evenings, as the temperatures began to lower with the arrival of the Freemantle Doctor, we’d walk to King’s Park and look out from the ridge overlooking the Swan River and the city. As I stood there, I realised that I was in a remarkably special place like none I’d ever seen before. The question was whether my body could ever adapt to enjoy the place as much as my mind wanted it to. 

Keeping cool in Australia has remained a challenge, but it’s one that I remain happy to face. The reality is, if we plan to travel in the outdoors, at some point we’re going to find ourselves uncomfortable. In summer, blazing dry hot days can drain us to the core in the outback. Elsewhere, rampant humidity can leave our bodies looking like we’ve just stepped out of a Scandinavian sauna. Meanwhile, desert nights see temperatures plummet leaving us frigid if we’re poorly prepared. 

For many people, the answer is to fit their rigs with air conditioning units to guarantee an escape from the volatile conditions. But (if you pardon the pun), I’m not a great fan. For me, experiencing the changing climactic conditions around us is a key part of an overland experience. Rather than avoiding discomfort entirely, our family’s objective when we plan time away on the road is to moderate the extremes of climate so that we remain connected with our environment while keeping safe and healthy. And this attitude operates at a number of levels.

It starts when we plan where to travel to when the temperatures begin to rise, and the monsoon season looms. Why challenge Mother Nature by heading inland or up north when it will inevitably place us in the midst of the country’s most hostile conditions? With a ten-year-old daughter on-board, and a continent that’s nearly 8 million kilometres in size, there are plenty of other places to explore. A camp set-up by an alpine stream in the height of summer is just about the most appealing prospect that I can imagine. 

Dealing with summertime conditions also means beginning our acclimatisation efforts before we leave home. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve resisted the temptation to install air conditioning in our house. As the temperatures begin to rise, our bodies start to build-up their heat tolerance, bit by bit — little by little. And the summertime practises we adopt around the house also prepare us well for time on the road. Whether it’s reducing our activity during the heat of the day or practising good routines of shuttering windows against the sun’s rays, and ventilating the house in the evening, doing the same things in our camper becomes second nature and it can make a huge difference to our comfort levels. 

I’m not sure that my European genes, my white skin and blue eyes, will ever allow me to fully acclimatise to Australia’s widely varying temperature conditions. But I don’t mind. There’s an old saying that “if you’re suffering a bit, you know you’re alive”. And there’s nowhere on earth that makes me feel as alive as a campsite, surrounded by nature, somewhere — back of nowhere — in this great brown land. 


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