Storm of approval

Sydney's summer weather is gaining an international reputation, both for its technical excellence and for its innovation. Even so, Wednesday night's southerly buster was staggering in its violence and beauty. Could this mark a long-wished-for return to the glory days of the '77-'78 El Nino?

All day a collage of heat and humidity had smeared the sky. While some have derided the archaising impulse in summer sunsets - the irregular areas of pink, apricot and silver bordering pastels that bruise to indigo - the conventional hues were here deployed to unsettling effect. The city held its breath.

The first notice of the change was a sudden drop in temperature at around eight. Dominant themes here included the black silhouettes of trees and construction sites against a very deep sky. The stage was set for rippling sheets of silent lightning, fading to green at their edges.

Where an inexpert climate might have been tempted to rush, Sydney tackled this phase with patience and restraint. The result - a gradual, at first scarcely perceptible, buildup of tension and attention. By nine, windows were open, lovers leaned out, children were over-excited. The sheets flashed closer and closer together, but still the thunder was barely more than a rumble.

The moment had come. A sustained pause, trees inky against the purple night. In theatres, the action reached a crisis. Couples making love began to tremble.

The lightning bolt that came rent the sky for zenith to horizon. Thunder rocked houses to their foundations. Audiences exploded into laughter. Dogs howled. Rain came out of the clouds like water from a bucket. I leaned out my window with raindrops running down my face, and laughed like Juliet.

Friday, 6 February 1998. It's a southerly, buster.
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