THE GREAT DUST-UP OF NOVEMBER 1902
The year 1902 was one of appalling drought in eastern Australia. Whenever strong winds blew, dessicated soil was whipped into great dust clouds. On the worst day, Wednesday 12 November, northwesterly gales caused exceptional dust-storms to sweep across three states. The winds caused considerable damage in their own right, tearing roofs from buildings and uprooting trees across Victoria, South Australia and southwestern New South Wales.
The storm was first reported in South Australia, where it affected many parts of the state. Thick clouds of dust shrouded Adelaide from early morning, reducing visibility to 20 metres. It would have been quite an experience for Madame Melba, who had sung in the City of Churches the previous evening!
In Victoria and the Riverina, gales and dust began in the morning and worsened as the day went on. Reddish-brown dust filled the air as the temperature climbed to 38°C. A squall line seems to have crossed northern Victoria and the Riverina in the afternoon, because town after town reported a sudden terrifying increase in wind, and dust so thick that it put the town in total darkness for between five and 20 minutes. The winds blew down telegraph poles over western Victoria, and it took days to repair the line from Melbourne to Adelaide. The mail coach from Geelong to Portarlington, caught in the storm, was halted for 20 minutes as the elements terrified horses and passengers alike. After the storm, sand 30cm deep had to be shovelled from the line between Kerang and Swan Hill before trains could pass.
In some towns, "balls of fire" were reported. At Boort in central Victoria they reportedly fell into paddocks and streets, with showers of sparks as they struck the ground. In Chiltern and Deniliquin the balls were blamed for setting fire to buildings. A possible explanation is that fast-moving blowing dust particles generated static electricity, which ignited organic matter carried along with the dust. The experience must have been truly frightening: the sky a lurid red, a hot gale blowing, dust thick enough for almost total darkness, and balls of fire to add to the terror.
In NSW the mail coach from Hay to Deniliquin was delayed nine hours. In Hay itself, the Land Court had to adjourn when the president could not see the papers in front of him. The dust reached Sydney early the next day: northwest winds were lighter, and the dust took the form of a haze that thickened during the day (ships reported that it extended from south of Sydney to Newcastle). Dust clouds reached as far north as Inverell, before heading out to sea.