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Chapter 9

It is your human environment that makes climate.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

Sept. 15--Night. Close to Australia now. Sydney 50 miles distant.

That note recalls an experience. The passengers were sent for, to come
up in the bow and see a fine sight. It was very dark. One could not
follow with the eye the surface of the sea more than fifty yards in any
direction it dimmed away and became lost to sight at about that distance
from us. But if you patiently gazed into the darkness a little while,
there was a sure reward for you. Presently, a quarter of a mile away you
would see a blinding splash or explosion of light on the water--a flash
so sudden and so astonishingly brilliant that it would make you catch
your breath; then that blotch of light would instantly extend itself and
take the corkscrew shape and imposing length of the fabled sea-serpent,
with every curve of its body and the "break" spreading away from its
head, and the wake following behind its tail clothed in a fierce splendor
of living fire. And my, but it was coming at a lightning gait! Almost
before you could think, this monster of light, fifty feet long, would go
flaming and storming by, and suddenly disappear. And out in the distance
whence he came you would see another flash; and another and another and
another, and see them turn into sea-serpents on the instant; and once
sixteen flashed up at the same time and came tearing towards us, a swarm
of wiggling curves, a moving conflagration, a vision of bewildering
beauty, a spectacle of fire and energy whose equal the most of those
people will not see again until after they are dead.

It was porpoises--porpoises aglow with phosphorescent light. They
presently collected in a wild and magnificent jumble under the bows, and
there they played for an hour, leaping and frollicking and carrying on,
turning summersaults in front of the stem or across it and never getting
hit, never making a miscalculation, though the stem missed them only
about an inch, as a rule. They were porpoises of the ordinary length
--eight or ten feet--but every twist of their bodies sent a long
procession of united and glowing curves astern. That fiery jumble was
an enchanting thing to look at, and we stayed out the performance; one
cannot have such a show as that twice in a lifetime. The porpoise is the
kitten of the sea; he never has a serious thought, he cares for nothing
but fun and play. But I think I never saw him at his winsomest until
that night. It was near a center of civilization, and he could have been
drinking.

By and by, when we had approached to somewhere within thirty miles of
Sydney Heads the great electric light that is posted on one of those
lofty ramparts began to show, and in time the little spark grew to a
great sun and pierced the firmament of darkness with a far-reaching sword
of light.

Sydney Harbor is shut in behind a precipice that extends some miles like
a wall, and exhibits no break to the ignorant stranger. It has a break
in the middle, but it makes so little show that even Captain Cook sailed
by it without seeing it. Near by that break is a false break which
resembles it, and which used to make trouble for the mariner at night, in
the early days before the place was lighted. It caused the memorable
disaster to the Duncan Dunbar, one of the most pathetic tragedies in the
history of that pitiless ruffian, the sea. The ship was a sailing
vessel; a fine and favorite passenger packet, commanded by a popular
captain of high reputation. She was due from England, and Sydney was
waiting, and counting the hours; counting the hours, and making ready to
give her a heart-stirring welcome; for she was bringing back a great
company of mothers and daughters, the long-missed light and bloom of life
of Sydney homes; daughters that had been years absent at school, and
mothers that had been with them all that time watching over them. Of all
the world only India and Australasia have by custom freighted ships and
fleets with their hearts, and know the tremendous meaning of that phrase;
only they know what the waiting is like when this freightage is entrusted
to the fickle winds, not steam, and what the joy is like when the ship
that is returning this treasure comes safe to port and the long dread is
over.

On board the Duncan Dunbar, flying toward Sydney Heads in the waning
afternoon, the happy home-comers made busy preparation, for it was not
doubted that they would be in the arms of their friends before the day
was done; they put away their sea-going clothes and put on clothes meeter
for the meeting, their richest and their loveliest, these poor brides of
the grave. But the wind lost force, or there was a miscalculation, and
before the Heads were sighted the darkness came on. It was said that
ordinarily the captain would have made a safe offing and waited for the
morning; but this was no ordinary occasion; all about him were appealing
faces, faces pathetic with disappointment. So his sympathy moved him to
try the dangerous passage in the dark. He had entered the Heads
seventeen times, and believed he knew the ground. So he steered straight
for the false opening, mistaking it for the true one. He did not find
out that he was wrong until it was too late. There was no saving the
ship. The great seas swept her in and crushed her to splinters and
rubbish upon the rock tushes at the base of the precipice. Not one of
all that fair and gracious company was ever seen again alive. The tale
is told to every stranger that passes the spot, and it will continue to
be told to all that come, for generations; but it will never grow old,
custom cannot stale it, the heart-break that is in it can never perish
out of it.

There were two hundred persons in the ship, and but one survived the
disaster. He was a sailor. A huge sea flung him up the face of the
precipice and stretched him on a narrow shelf of rock midway between the
top and the bottom, and there he lay all night. At any other time he
would have lain there for the rest of his life, without chance of
discovery; but the next morning the ghastly news swept through Sydney
that the Duncan Dunbar had gone down in sight of home, and straightway
the walls of the Heads were black with mourners; and one of these,
stretching himself out over the precipice to spy out what might be seen
below, discovered this miraculously preserved relic of the wreck. Ropes
were brought and the nearly impossible feat of rescuing the man was
accomplished. He was a person with a practical turn of mind, and he
hired a hall in Sydney and exhibited himself at sixpence a head till he
exhausted the output of the gold fields for that year.

We entered and cast anchor, and in the morning went oh-ing and ah-ing in
admiration up through the crooks and turns of the spacious and beautiful
harbor--a harbor which is the darling of Sydney and the wonder of the
world. It is not surprising that the people are proud of it, nor that
they put their enthusiasm into eloquent words. A returning citizen asked
me what I thought of it, and I testified with a cordiality which I judged
would be up to the market rate. I said it was beautiful--superbly
beautiful. Then by a natural impulse I gave God the praise. The citizen
did not seem altogether satisfied. He said:

"It is beautiful, of course it's beautiful--the Harbor; but that isn't
all of it, it's only half of it; Sydney's the other half, and it takes
both of them together to ring the supremacy-bell. God made the Harbor,
and that's all right; but Satan made Sydney."

Of course I made an apology; and asked him to convey it to his friend.
He was right about Sydney being half of it. It would be beautiful
without Sydney, but not above half as beautiful as it is now, with Sydney
added. It is shaped somewhat like an oak-leaf-a roomy sheet of lovely
blue water, with narrow off-shoots of water running up into the country
on both sides between long fingers of land, high wooden ridges with sides
sloped like graves. Handsome villas are perched here and there on these
ridges, snuggling amongst the foliage, and one catches alluring glimpses
of them as the ship swims by toward the city. The city clothes a cluster
of hills and a ruffle of neighboring ridges with its undulating masses of
masonry, and out of these masses spring towers and spires and other
architectural dignities and grandeurs that break the flowing lines and
give picturesqueness to the general effect.

The narrow inlets which I have mentioned go wandering out into the land
everywhere and hiding themselves in it, and pleasure-launches are always
exploring them with picnic parties on board. It is said by trustworthy
people that if you explore them all you will find that you have covered
700 miles of water passage. But there are liars everywhere this year,
and they will double that when their works are in good going order.
October was close at hand, spring was come. It was really spring
--everybody said so; but you could have sold it for summer in Canada, and
nobody would have suspected. It was the very weather that makes our home
summers the perfection of climatic luxury; I mean, when you are out in
the wood or by the sea. But these people said it was cool, now--a person
ought to see Sydney in the summer time if he wanted to know what warm
weather is; and he ought to go north ten or fifteen hundred miles if he
wanted to know what hot weather is. They said that away up there toward
the equator the hens laid fried eggs. Sydney is the place to go to get
information about other people's climates. It seems to me that the
occupation of Unbiased Traveler Seeking Information is the pleasantest
and most irresponsible trade there is. The traveler can always find out
anything he wants to, merely by asking. He can get at all the facts, and
more. Everybody helps him, nobody hinders him. Anybody who has an old
fact in stock that is no longer negotiable in the domestic market will
let him have it at his own price. An accumulation of such goods is
easily and quickly made. They cost almost nothing and they bring par in
the foreign market. Travelers who come to America always freight up with
the same old nursery tales that their predecessors selected, and they
carry them back and always work them off without any trouble in the home
market.

If the climates of the world were determined by parallels of latitude,
then we could know a place's climate by its position on the map; and so
we should know that the climate of Sydney was the counterpart of the
climate of Columbia, S. C., and of Little Rock, Arkansas, since Sydney is
about the same distance south of the equator that those other towns are
north of-it-thirty-four degrees. But no, climate disregards the
parallels of latitude. In Arkansas they have a winter; in Sydney they
have the name of it, but not the thing itself. I have seen the ice in
the Mississippi floating past the mouth of the Arkansas river; and at
Memphis, but a little way above, the Mississippi has been frozen over,
from bank to bank. But they have never had a cold spell in Sydney which
brought the mercury down to freezing point. Once in a mid-winter day
there, in the month of July, the mercury went down to 36 deg., and that
remains the memorable "cold day" in the history of the town. No doubt
Little Rock has seen it below zero. Once, in Sydney, in mid-summer,
about New Year's Day, the mercury went up to 106 deg. in the shade, and
that is Sydney's memorable hot day. That would about tally with Little
Rock's hottest day also, I imagine. My Sydney figures are taken from a
government report, and are trustworthy. In the matter of summer weather
Arkansas has no advantage over Sydney, perhaps, but when it comes to
winter weather, that is another affair. You could cut up an Arkansas
winter into a hundred Sydney winters and have enough left for Arkansas
and the poor.

The whole narrow, hilly belt of the Pacific side of New South Wales has
the climate of its capital--a mean winter temperature of 54 deg. and a
mean summer one of 71 deg. It is a climate which cannot be improved upon
for healthfulness. But the experts say that 90 deg. in New South Wales
is harder to bear than 112 deg. in the neighboring colony of Victoria,
because the atmosphere of the former is humid, and of the latter dry.
The mean temperature of the southernmost point of New South Wales is the
same as that of Nice--60 deg.--yet Nice is further from the equator by
460 miles than is the former.

But Nature is always stingy of perfect climates; stingier in the case of
Australia than usual. Apparently this vast continent has a really good
climate nowhere but around the edges.

If we look at a map of the world we are surprised to see how big
Australia is. It is about two-thirds as large as the United States was
before we added Alaska.

But where as one finds a sufficiently good climate and fertile land
almost everywhere in the United States, it seems settled that inside of
the Australian border-belt one finds many deserts and in spots a climate
which nothing can stand except a few of the hardier kinds of rocks. In
effect, Australia is as yet unoccupied. If you take a map of the United
States and leave the Atlantic sea-board States in their places; also the
fringe of Southern States from Florida west to the Mouth of the
Mississippi; also a narrow, inhabited streak up the Mississippi half-way
to its head waters; also a narrow, inhabited border along the Pacific
coast: then take a brushful of paint and obliterate the whole remaining
mighty stretch of country that lies between the Atlantic States and the
Pacific-coast strip, your map will look like the latest map of Australia.

This stupendous blank is hot, not to say torrid; a part of it is fertile,
the rest is desert; it is not liberally watered; it has no towns. One
has only to cross the mountains of New South Wales and descend into the
westward-lying regions to find that he has left the choice climate behind
him, and found a new one of a quite different character. In fact, he
would not know by the thermometer that he was not in the blistering
Plains of India. Captain Sturt, the great explorer, gives us a sample of
the heat.

"The wind, which had been blowing all the morning from the N.E.,
increased to a heavy gale, and I shall never forget its withering
effect. I sought shelter behind a large gum-tree, but the blasts of
heat were so terrific that I wondered the very grass did not take
fire. This really was nothing ideal: everything both animate and
inanimate gave way before it; the horses stood with their backs to
the wind and their noses to the ground, without the muscular
strength to raise their heads; the birds were mute, and the leaves
of the trees under which we were sitting fell like a snow shower
around us. At noon I took a thermometer graded to 127 deg., out of
my box, and observed that the mercury was up to 125. Thinking that
it had been unduly influenced, I put it in the fork of a tree close
to me, sheltered alike from the wind and the sun. I went to examine
it about an hour afterwards, when I found the mercury had risen to
the-top of the instrument and had burst the bulb, a circumstance
that I believe no traveler has ever before had to record. I cannot
find language to convey to the reader's mind an idea of the intense
and oppressive nature of the heat that prevailed."

That hot wind sweeps over Sydney sometimes, and brings with it what is
called a "dust-storm." It is said that most Australian towns are
acquainted with the dust-storm. I think I know what it is like, for the
following description by Mr. Gape tallies very well with the alkali
duststorm of Nevada, if you leave out the "shovel" part. Still the
shovel part is a pretty important part, and seems to indicate that my
Nevada storm is but a poor thing, after all.

"As we proceeded the altitude became less, and the heat
proportionately greater until we reached Dubbo, which is only 600
feet above sea-level. It is a pretty town, built on an extensive
plain . . . . After the effects of a shower of rain have passed
away the surface of the ground crumbles into a thick layer of dust,
and occasionally, when the wind is in a particular quarter, it is
lifted bodily from the ground in one long opaque cloud. In the
midst of such a storm nothing can be seen a few yards ahead, and the
unlucky person who happens to be out at the time is compelled to
seek the nearest retreat at hand. When the thrifty housewife sees
in the distance the dark column advancing in a steady whirl towards
her house, she closes the doors and windows with all expedition. A
drawing-room, the window of which has been carelessly left open
during a dust-storm, is indeed an extraordinary sight. A lady who
has resided in Dubbo for some years says that the dust lies so thick
on the carpet that it is necessary to use a shovel to remove it."

And probably a wagon. I was mistaken; I have not seen a proper
duststorm. To my mind the exterior aspects and character of Australia
are fascinating things to look at and think about, they are so strange,
so weird, so new, so uncommonplace, such a startling and interesting
contrast to the other sections of the planet, the sections that are known
to us all, familiar to us all. In the matter of particulars--a detail
here, a detail there--we have had the choice climate of New South Wales'
seacoast; we have had the Australian heat as furnished by Captain Sturt;
we have had the wonderful dust-storm; and we have considered the
phenomenon of an almost empty hot wilderness half as big as the United
States, with a narrow belt of civilization, population, and good climate
around it.


Mark Twain