Last Saturday morning, 7 February 2009, I was sitting inside our home at Two Wells north of Adelaide watching the hot north-west wind doing its damage to our garden.
During the morning I saw our best banana plant, growing on top of our soakage pit (the only place around here that such a thing could grow), sag and slowly lay down until it was flattened onto the ground.
By noon the air temp was 45.3° C, under our verandah, and I was inside under the ceiling fan feeling knackered. For the first time that I can remember in my 50+ summers I have resorted this year to stepping under the cold shower in my underwear then emerging dripping wet to sit under the fan to really cool off. It works.
But even so on that day I was relieved but somehow stunned when the cool change came in, early. Just after midday the breeze was from the south and about 10° C cooler. That was more than enough for me and that same weather system carried on over Victoria with the result we are currently trying to come to terms with.
Half way through that morning I grasped the nagging thought I have often had: we need a better name for this bastard wind. The hot north-westerly is not adequate for this killer. The Californians have their Santa Annas the mediterraneans have their siroccos what have we got? After 172 years Adelaidians have not come up with much. What about the older people?
So clad in my damp T-shirt and jocks I sat at my labouring laptop and emailed a couple of colleagues of mine at the SA Museum, both anthropologists of note. By that afternoon I had a reply, from one of them, directing me to the Kaurna word wortabokarra.
In 1840, Teichelmann and Schurmann, recorded its meaning as: “north-west wind; tempestuous weather”. They also have bokarra: “northwesterly wind, which is very hot during summer and indicates a storm”.
This is more like it.
What are the word’s roots?
I am not a linguist, but the same book (available as a copy from Google) tells me that worta means “behind” and karra is the redgum tree with other meanings of high, sky and heaven.
I guess it was the biggest strongest thing around in their environment as it often still is in ours.
Even if I have the etymology wrong, notions of getting behind the redgum under these conditions sounds reasonable to me. These smooth-barked stalwarts resist burning too.
They drop their limbs usually on still mornings during droughts as many of us know, but that is just a reminder that the real world is all around us and the old-fellas would have had a word for that too.