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Wildfire   A Code Red Adventure

Read an extract

Matt Forrest turned off the engine of the green John Deere tractor and climbed down from the cab. It was barely nine in the morning but already the temperature had to be nearly forty degrees. Behind Matt, twenty-one hectares of vineyard spread up the valley in neat green rows, standing out against the red South Australian earth. To his left the white grapes showed faintly gold in the bleaching sunshine. To his right, black grapes made purple speckles among the green vines.

This summer had been one of the hottest and driest on record. Now it was finally February, the beginning of autumn, and the grapes at Forrest Vale vineyard were ready to harvest.

The harvest was always a special occasion for Matt and Jenny. Friends, neighbours, family and extended family came from miles around to help. For the next two weeks the couple’s wooden ranch-style house, which nestled at the bottom of the valley, would be full of guests.

Matt took off his bush hat and wiped the sweat out of his eyes, then stepped up onto the wooden decking that ran along the back of the house. Jenny was down at the local store getting supplies for the buffet lunch that would welcome the workers. It was Matt’s job to set up the tables and chairs.

He took two folding chairs from the stack leaning against the kitchen door and set them out on the stretch of grass in front of the decking. He went back, got two more, turned round--

And stopped. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Moments ago the hillside had been bathed in fierce sunshine as usual. But now the sky was turning black. The vines, completely still a moment ago, stirred as though an invisible hand was ruffling through them.

It was going to rain. Heavily.

Matt hurried back under cover. He was just in time. The rain came thundering down, making a deafening sound on the wooden roof.

Matt was stunned. It had been a lifelessly still morning. Now it was like sitting under a waterfall. He and Jenny had spent most of the season watching the weather forecast religiously. First, worried that the drought would kill the vines, they had spent a fortune watering them. Now that the vines were mature, rain could make the grapes rot, and so they had been praying for the dry spell to continue. One thing Matt was sure of: no storm had been forecast for today.

Above the noise of the rain he heard another sound. The phone. He ran into the kitchen and snatched up the receiver.

It was Jenny. ‘Hi, honey. I got everything except the ice. Do you think we can manage without it?’

Matt could barely hear her, the sound of the rain was so loud.
‘Are you driving in this?’ He had to shout.
‘Driving in what?’ replied Jenny. ‘Why are you shouting?’
Through the window Matt couldn’t even see the vines, just a thick rust-red fog. Above, the sky was an angry stripe of black. The rain was coming down with such a force that it was stirring up the dust in the valley like feet stirring up muck at the bottom of a pond. Surely Jenny wouldn’t even be able to see through the windscreen.

‘Honey, don’t try to drive in this. Pull over until it stops.’
‘Until what’s stopped?’
‘The rain!’ shouted Matt.

‘What rain?’ said Jenny. ‘It’s fine here. Bright sunshine. The weather forecast said there’d be no change.’

‘It’s coming down in buckets here,’ said Matt. He looked out of the window. Hailstones were pounding onto the decking, hard as golf balls. ‘Can’t you hear that?’

‘I just thought it was a bad line,’ said Jenny. ‘I’ll be back in five minutes. Bye.’ Matt was baffled.

Outside, the two chairs had been knocked over. Matt looked up at the sky and dashed out to rescue them. The wind flung sand in his face. His neck and arms stung as though pins were being thrown at him.

He dived back out of the rain.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, the storm stopped. The strong sun came out and the sky brightened. In under a minute it was deep blue again. The clouds of red dust slowly settled.

Matt leaned the chairs up against one of the posts that supported the roof.

That was when he noticed another strange thing. The chairs weren’t wet at all. They were, however, covered in powdery red dust.

So were his Brasher work boots.
He took off his hat. The brim was full of dust and pebbles. But no hailstones. There was no water anywhere, not even a trail of wet footprints where he had come in. The wooden decking was bone-dry. So was he.

How was that possible?
Matt stepped out onto the grass. It was covered in dust, and thousands of stones. Some were the size of Matt’s hand. They must have come from somewhere out in the desert.

That hadn’t been a rainstorm after all.
It had been a dust storm. A freak tornado - which had gone as suddenly as it had appeared . . .

Some summer days are just too hot.
February half term in Adelaide, Australia, was startlingly different from England. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was over forty degrees.

Most sensible people were indoors with the air conditioning on full. But right now, English teenager Ben Tracey was out under the glaring sun. He was clad from neck to ankles in a flying suit and his ears were muffled with big headphones like a pair of black foam doughnuts.

It was an outfit that would normally have been unbearably hot in those conditions, but Ben was feeling cold. Cold with fear. He was about to go flying in a Microlight Thruster.

It wasn’t the flying that bothered him. On the contrary, he’d just spent most of the last twenty hours in a jumbo jet. He had been in the central section, and the wings and the cockpit had seemed so far away that he could have been sitting in a row of seats in the departure lounge. It didn’t feel much like flying at all.

But this microlight was a little too much at the other extreme.
For a start, it was tiny. The whole thing looked home-made - and not very strongly. The cockpit was a fibreglass pod attached to a hang-glider wing by a series of struts like a child’s climbing frame. Cables passed between the two seats, connecting pedals at the front to flaps at the back. They looked like they could easily be snipped in two with a pair of wirecutters. The undercarriage consisted of three wheels like a tricycle. Behind the seats, the pod was open to the elements. Ben had seen model aeroplanes that looked more substantial.

Now they were trundling out along the tarmac airstrip, taxiing to the runway. Ben could feel every bump in the concrete. The two-stroke engine, mounted in the middle of the wing above his head, sounded like it had been pinched from a lawnmower. The propeller paddled in a lazy circle like a ceiling fan.

He’d heard of light aircraft but this was ridiculous. If this thing got into the air he’d be amazed.

The bleached concrete of the airstrip was marked with painted chevrons and arrows. Beyond the perimeter wire lay dusty, scrubby brush, and in the distance the parched hills of the vineyards of South Australia. The way the engine was burping and stuttering gave Ben an alarming vision of the microlight bobbing up and down through the air for a mile or two and then crashing into the vineyards. If that happened, he hoped the rows of vines would break their fall.

What was worse than the flimsy aircraft and the lawnmower engine was that Ben knew the pilot didn’t really want him there. She was a blonde, eighteenyear- old Texan girl called Kelly, and she clearly wasn’t thrilled at having a thirteen-year-old as a passenger.

‘Most people find microlights pretty scary,’ Kelly said through his headset as she completed her preflight checks. ‘If you want, you can get out and watch first.’

‘No thanks,’ said Ben. ‘I want to go up.’
But he kept noticing more things that added to his apprehension. There was the poking out of the floor. For some reason a Velcro strap was hanging off it. And then there was the door. It had a rotating catch that was so fiddly he hadn’t been able to close it when he first got in. Kelly had watched him fumble with it, then impatiently batted his hands out of the way and fastened it herself. Now he kept wondering if it was about to come undone.

Kelly consulted the map spread out on her knee, then spoke to the control tower through the mouthpiece. ‘This is microlight Tango Eight Five Sierra Golf. Requesting permission to take off.’

Ben heard their reply. ‘Go ahead, Tango Eight Five Sierra Golf. Take off runway zero-nine under your own discretion.’

‘Ben,’ said Kelly, ‘we’re going up. Last chance if you wanna get out. Oh, and don’t touch those pedals or that handle beside you or we’ll crash.’

Ben had a set of pedals in his foot well and a lever between him and the door. He made sure his hands and feet were well away from them. But he did it casually, as though he wasn’t worried. It was clear that Kelly would like nothing better than for him to bottle out.

Sweat trickled from the heavy foam pads around his ears and down into his collar. Kelly pushed the centre stick forward and opened the throttle. The lawnmower engine gave a roar. The white propeller became a blur. Suddenly the machine was moving forward with purpose.

They gathered speed, then Kelly pulled the stick back and the nose came up. Ben realized the ride had suddenly got smoother. He could no longer feel the wheels on the runway.

They were in the air. They climbed steeply. Over the parched scrubland and the corduroy vineyards. Over a road, which shrank to a narrow ribbon. A lone van was trundling down it, the size of a grain of rice. Ben’s entire body was rigid, waiting for disaster.

Kelly levelled out the craft to cruising altitude. A breeze blew in through the back of the open cockpit behind Ben, making him glad he was wearing the flying suit. It also made him feel like he was dangling from a giant kite. But they were flying, really flying, in a way you could never experience inside an airliner.

A huge grin spread across Ben’s face. This was awesome. He looked across at Kelly and gave her a double thumbs-up.

He didn’t see what she did next. Suddenly Ben’s stomach left the flying suit. They were slipping sideways and downwards - fast. His shoulder and hip slid across the seat and banged into the door. The ribbon road was zooming towards them. The engine wailed in his ears like in films he’d seen of Second World War Spitfires plummeting to the ground.

Just as abruptly, they were flying level again, gliding through beautiful deep blue sky, the engine purring gently above their heads.

Ben let go of the seat and breathed a long, silent sigh of relief. Well, at least his door had held.

Kelly’s eyes were shining. Her face had lost the unfriendly scowl; instead she was glowing with pride. ‘That,’ she said, ‘is crossing the controls. What do you think of my baby flying machine?’

Ben nodded emphatically before he got his brain in gear to reply. The machine might look like a shaky contraption on the ground, but in the air it was magic. ‘Amazing,’ he said. ‘Can I have a go?’

‘Maybe,’ said Kelly.

Gripping action and adventure from the SAS hero

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