Surviving a Red Centre heatwave

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook


How camping the Red Centre offpeak almost sent Cookie over the edge.

Surviving a Red Centre heatwave
Water provided the Cooks' only respite from the heat.

I’m sitting here in lovely, sunny Sydney writing this in 40°C heat. It seems like it’s been over 40 for weeks. Anyone who wants to argue about global warming can come to my place and have the discussion.

Forty degrees! You’ve got to be kidding! And it was nearly 46°C a couple of days ago. That’s more than 115° in the old measure. I sat down all day: all the elastic in my underwear went saggy and it was most distressing. I was on a chair, but on days like this I would have preferred to be sitting in the fridge. From the veranda, I watched two birds using a pot holder to pull a worm out of the ground.

There can be advantages to camping in this sort of weather, though. A few weeks back, we were north of Sydney on the bank of a river. The temperature hovered in the high 30s but whenever the heat got the better of us, we just wandered over to the river and sort of fell into the water and sat there till our skin went wrinkly. At least we were out of the heat. We even saved on gas by cooking eggs with bacon on frying pan out in the sun.

But I wouldn’t want to be camped anywhere away from water. This sort of heat can be dangerous – not least if you step into a caravan with the air-conditioning full bore. Let me tell you, it can be severe. Step out of near-40°C heat into a (relatively) small box cooled to less than 20°C and your heart can stop. Although refreshing at first, it soon becomes uncomfortable, and then stepping back out into reality can result in your whole metabolism shutting down.

Many years ago, we were talked into postponing a planned trip to the Red Centre with friends. I should have known better – well, I do now – but we were innocents then and were happy to go along with the request, setting off in late October. It was cool enough when we left home, south to Victoria and then west to Adelaide to pick up with our travelling companions, but it got very, very hot very quickly as we headed north from there.

By the time we reached the Flinders Ranges it was so hot. We hadn’t had a shower or a wash for about three days – which only compounded things – so we braved kilometres in the back breaking conditions for the giving waters at Narrina Springs, where took off all our clothes and just lay in that lovely, cool water for an hour or two. Aaaaaaah!

That was absolutely refreshing – physiologically as well as from an antibacterial stand point –but the north still beckoned, and as the weeks passed, we got hotter (and dirtier) and soon returned to the noxious fly attractants we had been before. By the time we got to Tennant Creek in the Territory, it was mid-November and scorching. This was before we owned a camper trailer, and we were sleeping each night in a tent.

We waited with cold beers until after sunset to pitch the tent, and then went for a swim in the campground’s pool – leaving an unpleasant murky ring around the tiling – before heading to the local RSL for dinner. It, at least, was air-conditioned. After hanging about at the club for as long as possible we headed out into what seemed like stepping back into an oven, or out of an over-air-conditioned caravan. We drove back to the campground and had another swim then some time after midnight headed for the tent. You didn’t have to towel off. Simply the 40m walk to the tent dried you off.

On the way there my ever-observant wife commented that all of the tents in the campground did not have a fly on top, which we thought was odd. There was no way we were even going to think about digging out the sleeping bags, so we just lay on the air beds and tried to get to sleep. This proved utterly impossible, and we just lay there oozing sweat and feeling impossibly uncomfortable.

After half an hour of this we decided that it might be better if we lay on wet towels to cool ourselves off. This at least disguised the layer of sweat between us and the airbeds but did not resolve our inability to sleep. It was then that we realised why all the other tents we’d seen had no flies – they had the minimal number of layers between the occupants and the outside world and, as with most small tents, an open mesh peak to let the heat out. Not that there could possibly be any more heat inside than out.

However, if everyone else was doing it, we had to give it a shot, so we clambered out and removed the fly and shoved it into the car. It made no difference that we could see other than giving us a clear view of the stars above our tent.

Desperate to get to sleep and avoid turning into an oozing pool of goop, we let the air out of our mattress and reinflated it to cool it down, reasoning that the external air at sunset had to have been hotter than it was at 2am.

That, not surprisingly, didn’t work either, but we were at the stage of clutching at straws and were willing to try anything. After what seemed like ages, we went out, found a tap, soaked two large swimming towels, went back to bed, and just laid the dripping towels on top of us.

I don’t think it made any real difference and it was probably exhaustion that got to us in the end. We had driven up from Alice Springs the day before and been on the go from just after dawn and were completely tuckered out. Somewhere after this final tactical move, we both fell asleep and awoke, feeling dumb and still tired, with the sun beating down on the thin layer of nylon and mesh over our heads – but we only had a few hundred kilometres to go that day, on to Banka Banka station on the highway north of town so we wearily packed up and bid goodbye to Tennant Creek.

We didn’t bid goodbye to the heat, though. At Banka Banka, we were far enough north to see regular falls of pre-monsoonal rain, and while the humidity was high enough to sprout hydroponic vegetables on any absorbent surface, we could at least get to sleep, though that was probably due more to exhaustion than anything else.

I expected but did not see any signs of heat rash, beriberi, tsetse flies, West Nile virus, ebola or malaria. The car started each day, only small patches of the asphalt had melted and we arrived at home safely, if a few kilos lighter. Mad dogs and Englishmen? Crazy campers and summer is more like it. Take my advice and stay away from the tropics and heat waves when camping. Your sanity could depend on it.

Check out the full feature in issue #112 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.