I was on the side of the road trying to sleep in my car, sweating in the stinking heat, mosquitoes buzzing in my ears.
I was wondering if I was crazy.
I’d just driven 1,000 kilometres chasing a storm.
It started with the build-up of cumulus clouds along the coast as they drifted inland, deep inland.
I swear, somehow it was flirting with me, whispering “follow me”.
Despite the dangers and risks storm chasing brings, I yell, “OK!” into the wind, my head out the window of my four-wheel drive.
But the storm lied.
It fizzled out, and I didn’t have a single, decent photo.
As I lay there, sticky, hot and a bit embarrassed that I’d been so easily seduced by a storm, I wondered, “Why did I just drive 1,000km to chase a storm?”
I’ve since followed other storm chasers on social media, and in doing that I have realised there is a fascinating psyche behind people who chase weather systems.
I am a filmmaker. I tell stories for a living. So it felt like a natural fit that I would create the documentary Chasing Bolts, a story about people who chase storms.
I first “met” Jordan Cantelo via Instagram in 2017 when he posted an incredible photo of a storm-cloud formation near Mullewa in Western Australia.
While a storm is brewing, often it is fierce, intimidating, rough and powerful, yet Jordan seems to have this ability to capture a layer of intimacy, the soft underbelly not many get to see.
Every December, Jordan takes leave from his job in Perth as a fire operations officer with Parks and Wildlife and heads north towards some of the bigger storm events in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, right before the wet.
I called him up and asked if he would mind if I followed him to watch how he goes about chasing “bolts” (storm-chaser lingo for lightning) to try to understand why he does it.
“It’s looking good around the East Pilbara region next week,” he said.
“I’ll meet you in Mt Magnet, mate.”
Even over the phone, I could sense his enthusiasm.
Over the course of three weeks, I followed Jordan around as he zigzagged across the north of WA following storms.
He was, relentless, like a tiger on the prowl, hungry. Like a storm in himself.
Jordan was constantly looking at weather apps and predictions.
He was always on the move and trying to be one step ahead, like he was playing chess with the weather.
He’d say that he’d left his family back home in Perth, so he had to make it all count.
In the cool early mornings, Jordan was still and calm but, even then, I could tell he had bolts on his mind.
Sometimes I’d catch him looking up at the clear blue skies above, pondering what was happening up there.
He’d say that we couldn’t see it, but there were things happening in the sky, ingredients that were invisible to us swirling around that made storms: Moisture, lift and an unstable atmosphere.
Jordan ponders what the day might bring as he takes a refreshing swim to start the day in Karijini National Park. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Fern Pool in Karijini National Park is a gorgeous spot to take refuge from the hot weather. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
A water monitor looks for some breakfast during a cool Kimberley morning. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Jordan spends a small fortune on fuel as he zigzags through the north of WA in search of storms. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Jordan investigates what the weather might be doing and where the storms might be next. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Jordan wonders what the day will bring as he takes in the sunrise in the Pilbara. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
The temperature in the north of WA during December can be brutal.
Jordan and I were often drinking 5 litres of water each day and not much of it was coming out.
One day the daytime temperature reached 50 degrees Celsius; most days it rarely dipped below 45.
And there was little respite at night.
The storms would last for a few hours, before slipping away.
It was only then, when there was no possibility whatsoever of any more lightning, that Jordan and I would try to get some sleep.
Often Jordan is alone when doing these great chases, but he says to me a couple of times over the course that it’s nice to have company for a change.
I guess the isolation can be refreshing at first, alone in the bush.
But perhaps on a still night listening to all the bugs and frogs echo, you might ask yourself if you are indeed mad to drive such distances alone.
Jordan would sleep in the back of his car with a battery-operated fan, and the doors and windows shut to keep out insects.
I was in my swag on the roof rack of my car with a full-body-length mozzie net that would stick to my sweaty skin.
Every so often a gentle, cool breeze would provide respite from the humidity, just for a moment.
I’d roll over and look at Jordan’s car in the near distance and wonder who had it worse.
Some nights were just too brutal and both of us couldn’t wait for daylight to arrive so we could bounce to the next town for a cold shower and some luxury aircon.
It begged the question, was all this really worth it?
Jordan explores a large boab tree as he waits for storms to build up in the Kimberley. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
White cockatoos fly off into the Kimberley landscape. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
A boab tree next to a small creek in the Kimberley. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
When there are no storms around, Jordan enjoys taking photos of landscapes. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
A boab flower soaks up the warm sunshine in the Kimberley. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Awe and wonder
Author and broadcaster Julia Baird has written about storm chasers in her book Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark.
She tells me that when people are awed and dwarfed by forces much larger than themselves, it makes us stop and question things.
Julia said nobody could control when a storm would happen, but if you were deliberately pursuing awe and wonder, when you were actively hunting it down, it became a part of the way you live.
Following Jordan for those thousands of kilometres through the Pilbara and Kimberley, I could tell his tank was being filled after each storm, and I’m not just talking about his fuel tank every time we stopped at a roadhouse.
His emotional tank, his mental tank.
And yes, I was there to capture his story, but my tank was being filled as well.
This makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?
Jordan says it’s a feeling too hard to put into words witnessing a good storm.
A lightning strike hits a tree in front of Chris Lewis’s car. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
A typical summer afternoon in the Kimberley region. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
A dust storm blows through the Pilbara. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Jordan photographs a rainbow within a rain band and hopes for a lucky bolt to appear. (ABC Midwest & Wheatbelt: Chris Lewis)
Lurking with unpredictability
After three weeks of storm chasing in the north, Christmas was coming, and Jordan was soon due back in Perth.
One day we were near Derby, and a storm was building. Jordan was getting ready to start moving.
I needed to capture some cloud time-lapses for the story, so we parted company. He went chasing and I stayed.
I had two cameras set up as the clouds moved across the landscape. Little spats of rain turned to heavy drops.
I was in my own little world as I tried to capture the raindrops sliding down the trunk of a boab tree. The gentle rain was bliss, instantly making it 10 degrees cooler. It was beautiful.
I walked about 80 metres from the car when I started to notice the occasional flash and the rain getting harder.
At first, I was excited. “How good is this?” I thought.
But then the flashes increased, and they were close. My internal alarm started to sound. Something was not right.
I raced for the car.
I have never felt so vulnerable, entirely at the mercy of a power much greater than me.
I remember those explosive sounds as each bolt shot through the atmosphere.
And the relief when I made it to the car and clambered in.
Instantly my phone rang. It was Jordan.
“Are you OK?” he yelled down the line.
I was terrified, cowering in my car, hoping this wasn’t to be my last day on Earth.
While lightning crashed around me, Jordan calmed me down, telling me I was in the safest place possible when in the middle of nowhere.
Ten minutes passed, which felt like an hour, and the storm eased.
The lightning disappeared and there was almost silence. The occasional distant thunder fused with birds gradually taking up their posts once more.
I gingerly opened the car door and stepped out. I took a deep breath as I tried to digest what had just happened.
Suddenly I could hear footsteps approaching, squelching in the wet dirt. It was Jordan.
“How’d you go, mate? That must’ve been amazing to see,” he yelled, a little too enthusiastically for my liking.
Turns out Jordan had been on the outer edge of this mad beast, watching its strobes light up like a disco among the dark grey tones.
We chatted like kids coming off a roller-coaster ride for the first time, admiring how raw the power of nature could be, and how quickly things could change.
I learnt a lesson that day. I got too close, and I was reminded of how small and insignificant I am.
Following Jordan, and meeting other storm chasers for this story, I have even more respect for their work.
Behind those beautiful lightning and cloud shots is a lot of sweat, kilometres and fatigue.
And, personal journeys of awe and wonder at powers much greater than us.
Watch Chris Lewis’s documentary Chasing Bolts on ABC Australia YouTube.