The Wild, Wild Wet

Last August, when Eric and I decided to remain in Darwin rather than press on to Indonesia, we weren’t exactly looking forward to the roughly four-month wet season from mid-December through April. Sweltering heat, monsoon rain, fearsome thunderstorms and catastrophic cyclones were on the meteorological menu, during which we would be confined on a 35-foot sailboat, moaning with boredom and driving each other to drink and possibly to murder.

That hasn’t happened, partly because forewarned is forearmed and we had a cunning plan. With Corroboree berthed in a locked marina for maximum cyclone protection, we bought a car and signed up with an online house/pet-sitting registry. Thanks to that website and a fortuitous reference, we have been almost fully booked from 2 October until 26 March. We have luxuriated in air-conditioned comfort, floated in delicious swimming pools, and enjoyed the company of some darling dogs.

At the same time, we sought out volunteer opportunities and lined up projects to keep our hands and brains occupied. Unfortunately, the hospital jobs we worked hard to get were cancelled within a month due to Covid. We still had projects, however—installing refrigeration and an Iridium Go satellite phone on Corroboree, researching and submitting paperwork for Indonesia, practicing guitar and performing weekly at an Open Mic Night for Eric, writing poetry and fiction for me. In addition, we’ve just completed a Beginning Magic class at an adult ed center and can astound you with a few card tricks. We also have been invited to perform our magic scarf act at an animal rescue fundraiser in April. Please don’t let us flub up!


But the biggest surprise is that so far the wet season in Darwin has fallen way short of the horror stories we heard. Though we have indeed been threatened by two cyclones—Seth at Christmas, Anika this past weekend—both skirted us to the west. Nevertheless, people in the NT are right to take cyclones seriously. In the early hours of Christmas Day 1974, a notorious cyclone by the name of Tracy struck Darwin head on. It killed 71 people, injured hundreds more, and demolished 80% of the city. Ten inches of rain fell in 12 hours, and wind gusts reached 135 mph before the anemometer at the airport was destroyed.

Cyclone Tracy, Christmas Day, 1974

My impression is that thunderstorms and lightning also have been fewer and less severe this year than we were led to expect. We’ve witnessed occasional sheet lightning and heard curmudgeonly rumbles, but only once have we been jerked awake at night by a heart-stopping bolt. This is a disappointment, because while I certainly don’t want anyone or anything to be hurt, I love the monstrous booms, terrifying cracks and wicked flashes that electrify the sky when I am safe inside. In days gone by, some bragged that Darwin was the lightning capital of the world. But measurements obtained via modern technology have overturned that claim, and today Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo holds the Guinness World Record for the highest concentration of lightning.

But now to the heart of the wet season, the rain itself. Yes, we have had rain and sometimes by the bucketful, but it is not nonstop. The first half of January featured overcast days but not a lot of precipitation. The second half brought a “monsoonal trough” that slid over the Northern Territory in a NW to SE direction and kept us wet for almost three weeks. Early February caught us off guard with several sunny days; when it did rain, it considerately did so overnight. The rain fell more steadily and heavily in the second half of the month. By the numbers, the average mean rainfall for Darwin in January is 17 inches and we got 13 here at our housesit. The February mean is 14.5 inches and we got 10.5. I can tell you these exact figures because the homeowners asked us to keep track of the precipitation in their rain gauge, a fun science project. (Please note: Aussies measure rainfall in millimeters. I have converted to inches because millimeters, in my opinion, are too ridiculously small to be a useful unit of measurement.)

8.5 millimeters = 0.334646 inches

Of course, the amounts we recorded reflect our immediate location only. Short, intense tropical downpours can drench one neighborhood and merely dampen the next. The upside of the rain is that it refills reservoirs and resuscitates the parched earth. It also dramatically cuts the summer heat. A rainy or overcast day that blocks the sun will drop the temperature from 95 degrees to 86. Believe me, there’s a difference. And if your housesit happens to be on a hillside that catches every pleasant breeze, you don’t even need air-con. You can sit outside on the second-story deck all day tapping away at your latest literary masterpiece.

Writing in the “Treehouse.” Binoculars at the the ready to spot birds in the trees around the deck.

But while we’ve had it easy, other parts of Australia were hard hit. In late January, a friend in Townsville, North Queensland, wrote that they were pelted with 12 inches in a single night. At the same time, a four-day deluge caused severe flooding over a broad area in the South Australia outback. In some places it dumped 6-10 times the average rainfall for the whole month. Vital roads and railway lines were cut, including the Stuart Highway, the 1,760-mile transcontinental artery that runs north-south through the center of Australia. We saw the effects in the Darwin grocery stores where the shelves were empty of fruits and vegetables and other items were in short supply.

Now February has ended with sad news. On the last weekend of the month, a “rain bomb” exploded on the central Queensland coast, and in Brisbane and the surrounding region swollen rivers overflowed and flash floods killed seven people. Roads are cut off, power is out, trains, schools and businesses are shut, homes are flooded, and residents are sheltering in evacuation centers. A friend in Brisbane posted a photo of the river lapping way too close to the base of his waterfront apartment building. One news report describes the rain coming down “like waves of water.”

The rain should taper off in March and April. Cyclones could still pop up. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and our hatches battened until the dry reappears on Australia’s doorstep.