Back in the 1960s, as the old red rattlers made their way out of West Ryde Station, commuters were greeted with a trackside billboard that regularly forecast the day of judgement, the ‘rapture ’ and the end of the world as we know it today. I seem to remember it was curated by the Christadelphians but I could be wrong. Nevertheless for many a railway traveller, cocooned in a bone shaking carriage with a copy of The Daily Mirror, it was a brief moment of foreboding – regardless of your religious conviction.
Last week Sydney was consumed by a massive dust storm when masses of dirt from the drought stricken rural areas blew eastward towards the coast. The city and suburbs were soon blanketed in a sinister dark orange glow as thousands of tonnes of top soil were dumped out at sea.
Travelling to the city on one of the old intercity trains, not quite a red rattler but still a bona fide antique, the view from the grubby graffiti scratched windows was decidedly eery. Bemused and bewildered Chinese tourists wondered just what they were in for as the train approached Redfern Station. The pollution in Beijing was never this bad and their holiday to Australia had promised some of the cleanest air in the world.
Just short of Redfern the train slowed to a sluggish crawl and then a complete halt. Outside its unwashed windows commuters and tourists alike were confronted with the industrial wasteland of old crumbling railway buildings, their once proud facades completely scarred with all manner of mindless and meaningless graffiti – the calling cards of a future generation of sociopaths, car jackers, wife beaters and axe murderers. No photo op here!
By now the Chinese tourists were surely wondering why they had not opted for Hawaii or even Guam as the dust storm transformed the old industrial site into something akin to a post nuclear holocaust. Meanwhile I am reliably told a group of local filmmakers had seized the opportunity to shoot some priceless footage for a planned feature on apocalyptic Sydney – a disaster movie whereby unchecked climate change plunges the city into a perpetual dust bowl.
As the overcrowded intercity train finally got going again and crept into Central, a number of the Chinese tourists had donned the kind of face masks that are a familiar item in Beijing or Shanghai these days. Who knows what memories of Sydney they will take back to China – the Opera House, Taronga Park or the breath choking dust storm?
The next day and the storm has all but blown over – Sydney is back to relative normality (or as normal as it can be). We have had the odd dust shower before and many will just dismiss it as an aberration, unlikely to reoccur for many years to come. Others tend to see it differently – a precursor of the ravages of unchecked climate change that will inevitably overwhelm us. Yes it could well have been a portent of even a biblical prophecy. But unlike the Christadelphian billboard which stood for decades, it was really just a fleeting reminder of how suddenly and quickly everything can turn to dust.