Sunday 19 February 2017 00.04 GMT
Nahid is resting on a bench outside a Target clothing store, her groceries beside her. A cheery, middle-aged woman with a soft Egyptian accent, she is eating a cone of bubblegum ice-cream as though it contains the secret of life. When I ask her if she’s enjoying her ice-cream, it takes her 30 seconds to stop laughing.
“On the weekend I was sick! Sick from the heat! It was like a virus,” she exclaims. “My nephew, he was throwing up from the heat! He couldn’t even take water, he was so sick.
“They say it’s going to be this bad in March too! Normally it is a little cooler in March, but this year…” Nahid shakes her head sorrowfully.
Australians are no strangers to hot weather. But for the past week large parts of the continent have suffered a heatwave of unusual length and intensity. Temperature records were beaten in cities and rural towns around the country. Shops across Sydney ran out of fans, and New South Wales energy minister Don Harwin urged people to beat the heat by going to the movies. More than 40,000 homes in South Australia experienced blackouts as electricity networks struggled to cope with the increased demand placed on the grid by air conditioners.
For those lucky enough to live near the coast, there’s an easy solution: go for a swim. Sydney’s beaches have been packed, as they are every summer, with city dwellers and tourists desperate to cool off.
But in the far-western Sydney suburb of Penrith – 60km from the coast – options for getting out of the heat are few. Penrith has the dubious honour of being Sydney’s hottest suburb, with summer daytime temperatures four or five degrees higher than in the inner city. During last week’s heatwave, the suburb sweltered through an unheard-of 46.9°C – a record for the city. “Penrith has had about 12 days above 40 degrees this summer, which is clearly unusual,” says Karl Braganza, climate monitoring manager at the Bureau of Meteorology.
When it gets that hot, Penrith mayor John Thain recommends that people don’t even venture outside. “The burn factor here’s so quick: it’s really important for people to stay safe,” Thain says. “Last weekend people were just hunkered down at home.”