Flood rain sounds different to normal rain. It’s harder, heavier, more relentless. Growing up in the flood-prone Bellinger Valley, I developed an ear for it.
We lived in a fibro house on the northside of town that overlooked Lavender’s Bridge. Before a flood, the air would hum with humidity, nervous energy and a splash of excitement. When the river began to lick the bottom of the bridge, the school bus would collect all of us northside kids and take us home early, so we didn’t get stuck on the wrong side of town. My mum would pull a couch out onto the front verandah so we could watch the water rise and take bets on when the bridge would go under. It was inevitable. But we never knew how high it would get, how long it would last or what it would leave behind.
When the flood water finally escaped out the river mouth like a chocolate milkshake spilling into the sea, we assessed the damage to see what secrets washed up. The banks were littered with uprooted trees, the swimming wharf was ripped away never to be seen again, fences were torn down, shaken up and spat out on a faraway beach. After a few days, the pair of geese that lived under the bridge would return like nothing happened. Where did they go when it flooded? I didn’t wonder, because I was six and selfish.
When I was 10, we moved to Alice Springs and lived in a brick apartment along the Todd River. It was unlike any river I’d ever seen. The dry dirt bed was home to red gum trees and locals who slept under the stars. The river was different, but the sound of flood rain was the same. The air grew heavy with the scent of gidgee bush, like petrol. Almost overnight, a torrent of water rushed down the riverbed transforming it into something more recognisable to a kid from the Bellinger Valley. After the water disappeared as quickly as it came, the gum trees sprouted new green leaves, grass grew from the red dirt and the locals returned to sleep under the stars. Where did they go when it flooded? I did wonder, because I was 10 and curious.
They say if you see the Todd River flood three times, you’ll never leave Alice Springs. And a part of me never has.
When I was a teenager, we moved to Townsville at the same time as Cyclone Larry. We lived in a rundown second-storey apartment, three blocks back from the beach. It was unlike any beach I’d ever swam at. The sand was rough, and the seawater was like soup: sticky, still and un-swimmable. There were signs with a hitlist of dangers – box jellyfish, crocodiles and Irukandji – each one more deadly than the last.
When the cyclone alarm sounded, we sticky-taped our windows with a cross, filled the bath with water and waited. The air was thick with electricity, fear and howling wind. Until it wasn’t. Then it was dead still, the eerie eye of the storm.
If the Todd River was unlike any river I’d seen and the Strand was unlike any beach I’d swam at, cyclone rain was unlike any rain I’d heard. It pelted down in all directions like stray bullets without a target. It lashed the windows and filled the streets. The wind roared, taunted the sea and shredded the trees. After the eye of the storm passed and Larry fizzled into a severe weather warning, we sighed with relief having escaped the brunt of it. Weeks later, we drove north and saw roofless houses, flattened banana crops and felled power poles. My nan cried. At least no one died. I tried to reassure her, because I was a teenager and didn’t know what else to say.
When I started university, I moved to Brisbane at the same time as the 2011 floods. I lived in a crappy student apartment in Highgate Hill, which as the name suggests, was on top of a hill. The rain came and it came and I thought it would never leave. I watched the news and saw an apartment I had inspected with six feet of water through it. I walked down to the St Lucia bridge and saw a dead cow floating down the river like a bloated buoy. I heard a rescue helicopter land at the end of my street, and I prayed and prayed to a higher power. On bended knees, I thanked the higher power that I lived in a crappy student apartment on a hill.
My nan called and cried. I couldn’t reassure her. Thirty-three people had died. Entire towns were destroyed. Little kids were rescued from rooftops by helicopter. Not everyone could be saved. It’s horrific. I said. Because I wasn’t a kid anymore and this flood wasn’t exciting, it was terrifying.
When I turned 28, I moved back home to the Bellinger Valley. Last week, the scent of flood rain brewed on the horizon. I followed the local SES page on Facebook and watched the Lavender’s Bridge flood-cam. When it went under, like it always does, I crossed my fingers that fences would be the only things torn down, shaken up and spat out on a faraway beach.
If rivers are a metaphor for life – the ebb and flow, meandering bends and strong undercurrents – floods are a country song.
Let the water wash away the past
May it come hard and fast
Let the water make its peace
But please dear lord, save the geese
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My life in travel
Favourite childhood holiday memory
“When I was eight, my grandparents took me to The Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo and on the way there my nan said, “How exciting, you’ll get to see your cousins tomorrow.” She was referring to the orangutans because I’m a ranga, but when we arrived in Dubbo, my actual human cousins were there as well. What a stitch-up. Good one, nan.”
Next Australian holiday
“I’m heading north to Darwin next month so I can read Trent Dalton’s book All Our Shimmering Skies in situ.”
My spirit destination
“If I was a town, I would be Kalbarri in Western Australia. It’s a rough diamond of a place with a ripper local tavern and the most exquisite sunsets over the Indian Ocean. Plus there’s a seahorse farm. What more could you want? Beer, views and seahorses. That’s the trifecta.”
Top of your travel bucket list…
“I’m aching to visit El Questro Homestead in The Kimberley. I’m drawn to places with rich red dirt, probably because it colour-coordinates really well with my hair. I don’t know.”