The thing about rivers

Posted on 21 February 2011


The hobby farm between Logan and Mount Tamborine in South East Queensland where I grew up has a tiny creek running through the front of it. The two houses on the property are far away from the creek, built, in 1977 and 1981 respectively, above the 1974 flood line. I distinctly remember my dad pointing out the little tree in the middle of the paddock nearest the house yard as the marker for where the creek got to during those floods. It was difficult to picture the water so far up. Three and half paddocks in front of our house would have been under water. The metre and a half wide creek would have been an inland sea.

At least once each summer it flooded enough so that we were stuck at home. We got to miss school for a few days and have deep baths—a luxury after the often completely dry winter months when you’re on tank water. Usually it flooded after at least three days of heavy rain and would go down again in another three days or so, but once it swelled from heavy rain to the west. That time it just sat there, brown and stagnant and odd.

My mother might tell a different story but according to my memory the four of us were mostly pretty tame during our captivity, even when there was no power and therefore no TV (and definitely no VCR—we didn’t have one until I was halfway through high school). We turned inward and read or we turned outward and played in the mud.

This summer I got flooded into my parents’ place again just after Christmas. The power stayed on so it was easy to find projects to keep ourselves busy. I wrote, sewed, talked to friends online, read up on random stuff on Wikipedia, even went for a run around the dry portion of land when I couldn’t stay inside anymore.

A couple of weeks later I heard about the devastation in Toowoomba, and wondered how long it would take for the water to get to Brisbane. It took longer than I expected given the violence with which it hit the range and the Lockyer Valley.

Once I heard the Wivenhoe gates were to be opened I left work and went home to wait. These floods were different from all the others I’ve been through. It was unforeseen and unpredictable, beyond the 1974 benchmark that has always been in my head. They’d always said I’d never see anything as bad as that and then they started saying this one would be worse.

Waiting involved looking up my building on the 1974 flood maps, checking what non‑perishable food I had, stocking up at the corner shop, watching the news until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and maintaining a constant internal monologue about staying calm. A friend stayed with me which helped.

Power went out. We found candles and matches and torches were found. We used our computers until their batteries were spent. Then we read books torchlight, ate the last perishable foods for dinner before the fridge got warm. We switched from white to red wine.

Once we heard that the water had peaked, the relief was so sharp we both got teary. Now the worst was past, we were still safe, and we knew what to expect. I drove from West End to Toowong to visit a friend who hadn’t seen a familiar face for days. It took me an hour because of the jammed roads and because I had to take a loop through Paddington and the high parts of Bardon.

On the way, I thought I’d blown my clutch because it was a struggle to change gears. I wrestled the gear stick into second and left it there for the rest of the trip. I discovered later that there was nothing wrong with anything and I had been in the middle of a panic attack.

The next day we started helping with the clean-up. We spent most of our time at a warehouse on Montague Road which had lost about a third of its stock; basically anything that was on the lowest of three shelves was unsalvageable. The owners had also lost their whole house. The scale of what had to be done in just that one warehouse was so immense that if I stopped to take it in, I was completely overwhelmed. So I stopped doing that and focused on moving one piece of mud-soaked stuff at a time.

Even though nothing happened to me except being stranded in my flat and getting covered in silty mud from head to toe a few days in a row, it took me the next week to get over the shock of what had happened. I kept tearing up in public, which I never do! I can barely imagine the shock and grief that people who lost homes are experiencing, let alone those who lost people.

I’ve always lived near a creek or river and within easy driving distance of the ocean and I feel claustrophobic if I spend very long somewhere landlocked. This hasn’t changed—I couldn’t live in Melbourne if it didn’t have a river.

As horrifying as the floods were and probably will be again, there’s no way around it; rivers do that sometimes. All you can do is be prepared and stay calm.