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Stories - Lightning the Load

Around 3 pm Wednesday 2nd April we departed to muster 450 sheep in the paddock we call Lower Hammonds. There had been a very light shower of rain just prior so we took coats. Half an hour later a brisk southerly came through and strata, foggy cloud came down over the higher points of the hills. Then it got very dark. I knew daylight saving had just ended but it still should not have been THIS dark at 4 pm.

Obviously something was brewing above the fog.

The sheep were on the downhill run along the stock lane toward the out laying yards when the mountains to the west turned white with torrential rain. One old, poor, fly blown sheep fell over and I stopped the bike to tie him up, planning to collect him later. I then had to pass under trees to get to the yards and hoped there was no lightning around. As we closed the gate on the last of the sheep the rain started. Above the combined noise of the storm and distressed sheep I called to Emma that there were two choices. She could bolt for home in the rain or shelter with me on the bulldozer, which just happened to be parked nearby. She had a very valuable saddle on her horse and chose to go. She galloped off into what looked like a wall of water.

Dozers are not exactly known for their sheltering ability at the best of times, let alone when rain is being blown side ways. I sat on top of the back of the seat with my head touching the roof of the canopy, but still getting wet. ‘Candy' and ‘Snapper' chose to lay on the ground on the leeward side. I puzzled why they did not get underneath where it would have been drier.

Ten or so minutes went by and I heard soft, distant thunder abeam me, way off to the south. As the storm was travelling west to east I estimated it to have half passed over.

I was partly thinking about the stubby I was going to have when I got home, the water filling up puddles which would give us another two weeks of grass growth, and also about how thunder and lightning don't seem to have the same level of severity at this time of year as they do in mid summer when...the dozer lit up like someone had shone a huge spotlight on it from above.

There was a bang unlike anything I have ever heard before directly behind me. I turned to see the same small stand of trees I had passed under ten minutes earlier erupt in a giant shower of sparks something like that from an arc welder but a thousand times bigger.

Lightning had struck something just behind me. I don't remember ever seeing such a sight...or, having such a fright.

My first thought was for the dogs but I need not have feared. ‘Candy' shot up the side of the dozer, climbing, trembling into my lap. ‘Snapper' sat there stunned and very wet. The sheep seemed not to have even noticed anything happened. Thank goodness Emma rode home as the horse may not have taken this so well.

The impact...or is it percussion ?... from the strike, left me with a head ache and slightly numbed down the left side of the neck. That stubby I was going to have had to be raised to two stubbies...and, in quick succession!

I was fine next day.

We searched in vain for a tree that had been struck. Evidently the lightning simply struck the ground. One strike earlier this summer, after dark one Sunday night, produced a blaze from a ground hit. It burned two square meters before a light shower put it out five minutes later.

Note: 1] The say lightning never strikes in the same place twice. I have two trees four meters apart on top of a hill that were each struck, eighteen months apart. How much closer than that does it have to be?

2] How safe is a bulldozer in a storm, when it comes to lightning? We have discussed this often and seem to agree they are so well earthed in dirt that they are probably fine. Any thoughts?

3] What is the correct word in the English language to describe the force or blast of a lightning strike? After asking numerous people, producing no definite answer, I settled on ‘percussion'.

Peter Norvill
April 2003

PS ...we normally refer to thunder ‘echoing', around the mountains. When one is this close to a strike there is NO echo. As loud as it is, it is a ‘dull thud' type of bang.