The steady drumming of an army of torrential rain on our tin roof abated bringing a welcome respite, but the night sky remained dark and menacing as faint moon beams cast a deathly shadow through the clouds to shimmer over murky brown waters below. My world had magically turned into a raging sea of swirling brown mud and debris captive to its fast flowing current. There was nothing else in front of me.
Day’s earlier under an endless blue sky , cattle peacefully grazed on pastures beside a tranquil river which meandered behind our home in Kyogle. It was a time in my life of certainty and endless childhood joy as I rushed home from school each day into the paddocks with my companions to play imaginative games by the river. Armed with our swords fashioned from left over wooden crates the grazing cattle became imagined ferocious wild animals, trees our only refuge, our pet dog and cat our faithful protectors. Each day our activities were interrupted by my mother calling from the porch ‘The Search’, an abbreviation for our favourite radio show. ‘The Search for the Golden Boomerang” was due to commence. We listened intently and with such excitement as is only possible when the unseen is allowed to expand from word descriptions alone to such grand proportions within a child’s imagination.
The family home built on high stilts was purchased as flood free and consequently despite the cyclonic rain of that fateful day we believed would be safe. As the floodwaters entered our backyard I imagined myself as a fisherman and dangled my line in the brown waters. But as my excitement increased as the rising waters inched up the back steps, my parents decided it was prudent to evacuate across the road to a neighbour located on much higher ground. My father told me not to worry as he was staying on to protect our furniture and effects by storing it upstairs and on the roof.
My mother, clutching a hurriedly packed small suitcase and I walked through torrential rain down the front steps up on to the road then across the steep grassy slope leading up to the steep steps of our neighbours house. Once I had changed from wet clothes I was able to join my neighbours son who was one of my companions. One of his favourite games was to act as a pretend priest (as he had already determined this was to be his adult vocation). He took great delight in donning whatever colorful garb he could lay his hands on and with added silverware proceeded to administer his own version of holybread and water to cheer us up. Even so I felt less than reassured and soon wandered out on to the front verandah to see what was happening.
The rain had abated for a temporary reprise and I could see my father swimming around in our flooded home, attempting to place objects onto a higher vantage point in what was a futile attempt to avoid the ever raising floodwaters. Mother was becoming increasingly concerned as the floodwaters became stronger and lapped over the window sills. She watched intently, her small frame rigid like a mousetrap ready to snap at the slightest surface disturbance. I sensed her growing fear but to our relief my father apparently realized the futility of any further endeavors and struck out with slow measured strokes through the half submerged bedroom window for the safety of dry land.
It was a long swim through raging waters. I observed his usual slow unhurried but rhythmic style that characterized everything he did in life and it was with mild relief I saw him reach dry land. Still fully clothed, cold, and exhausted yet determined, he manfully hauled himself up onto the bank. Eventually he joined us on the verandah as we all watched in silence our house disappear under the mighty waters of the Richmond River. I remembered thinking that this adventure had reached its final climax and wondered what had befallen others. I stood observing and saw a new world in front of me, one that had been transformed unto a raging sea of swirling brown mud and debris.
Elsewhere tragedies were occurring. Some folk lost their lives as homes were washed away in the raging torrent whilst others perished when their rescue boat capsized. Others clung on grimly to trees and were miraculously rescued. Amongst the sadness of stories too deep for a young heart to fully understand were other of great heroism as men with their flimsy boats rushed to continually help those in desperate trouble.When the waters subsided we returned to what was left of our family home. I will never forget the endless mud and that pungent odor, like no other I have ever experienced a reminder of unexpected death and destruction. But I cannot recall feeling frightened or lonely. Even as our meager supplies dwindled word came that help was on its way. Sure enough the faithful drone of a DC 3 aircraft signaled a hope for fresh produce as we watched white parachutes with their heavily laden supplies attached drift earthward into our welcoming hands.In the aftermath the sheets of corrugated iron dislodged from houses were put to good use to make canoes. The iron was simply folded over and both ends sealed with tar, to deliver milk and supplies to stranded townsfolk. Each morning search parties sett out with grim faces to look for bodies. Every organization imaginable rushed in to help including the local Girl Guides Association who were recognized later with an international award for their outstanding service. All of the community shared in its tragedy and no one felt alone.
It was too painful for my parents to stay so they sold the family home for a fraction of its previous value and the financial consequences and hardship lingered on for many years afterwards.
The memories of our beloved home in its delightful setting, transformed into a sea of brown surf, remain with me as clear today as they were so long ago.