Thursday, December 16, 2010



Australia knows only too well the cruel vagaries of mother nature.  The years of severe drought, rivers turning to dust, fodder trucked into properties no longer able to support livestock only to be followed by the paradox of widespread flooding, damage to roads and property, and again loss of crops and livelihood.

In fact the country is experiencing right now the absurdity of severe floods after years of frightening drought.  We don’t have a flood problem on Straddie where the sand quickly absorbs the rain and excess water sinks deep into the water table or flows out to sea. 

But as current news stories report the flooded farms and towns of Northern New South Wales, not all that far from where we live, I’m reminded of an amazing survival story that happened a few years ago.

It is the unbelievable story of Barney the Brahmin Bull and his miraculous 87km journey through raging flooded creeks and river to the Pacific Ocean.  The news story says it all.

Jen and Chris in Ecuador know the Border ranges area well, they lived there for many years and can appreciate the narrow twisting waterways of high country landscape where this story took place.

Barney’s unbelievable journey began when the 12 month old bull calf was washed away by a wall of water from its pasture on the banks of Hopping Dick Creek at around 2am one Sunday morning. Its owner considered the bull lost before being told seven hours later it had been found alive and well near the Tweed River’s entrance to the sea roughly 90km downstream.

The exhausted animal was sighted floating toward the  ocean by a passerby who alerted park rangers.  In that seven hours Barney had been catapulted through raging flood waters as the creek fed into the larger Tweed River. On its mad journey to the Pacific Ocean the calf had to avoid barbed wire and branches, tree trunks and rocks and all the other flotsam and jetsam swirling about in the water.

As Barney’s bemused owner told the reporter, ‘when we got him back to the property the bull calf rushed up to his mates in the paddock and you could almost hear him saying “Mate you have no idea what I’ve just been through.” ’

Floods are a calamity we on Straddie don’t experience but like the rest of Australia our island is prone to bushfire. Year after year headlines in newspapers throughout the country report the death and destruction caused by these out of control infernos. As a city girl I had never known its actual horror, never seen the billowing clouds of smoke darkening the sky, never heard the crackling onslaught as flames roared ever closer.

 Then suddenly one April day in 2006 the headlines were for us.

Major bushfire raging on North Stradbroke Island

    Campers evacuated as Stradbroke fire rages

          Bushfires hit Stradbroke

Someone, perhaps a lazy camper failing to properly douse his camp fire, or a negligent driver flicking a cigarette butt out the window of his vehicle had sparked the initial blaze.  Whoever or however it started, by that casual action someone set in motion a fire that stretched out onto several fronts, crossing the island from ocean to bay with frightening speed.  

With so much uninhabited land in its path this fire proved contrary, twisting and turning with the prevailing winds to attack in different directions. We no sooner thought we were no longer in the fires path then it again changed direction and fire fighters and equipment rushed to establish breaks, to attempt to turn the blaze back on itself. The fire would take several days to finally quell and would push our local rural fire brigades to their absolute limit.

Little Ship Club  Dunwich - photo by Roger
Our house is to the extreme left of the houses on the hill seen here from the One Mile.  
Behind our home is a deep bush gully, and behind that is an even higher ridge than the one our home is built on. There are houses up there too.  Behind all that the island bush and scrub stretches roughly 15 km across to  the small township of Point Lookout and to the ocean beaches.

The newspaper photo below shows the smoke billowing across the island, speeding closer toward us.  At this stage we were facing our second evacuation. Fire crews to relieve and bolster our local brigades had been rushed across on the barges from  mainland fire brigades as far away as New South Wales to the south and the Sunshine Coast to the north.

Our street and the one higher up than ours was in panic mode, photo albums, treasures, essential documents and clothing were being frantically shoved into cars.  Worried parents on the mainland for shopping or work were phoning neighbours, the cry went out, make sure the kids aren’t home, get hold of the dog or the cat. Helicopters were brought in to water bomb spot fires.  Police were darting into houses, ordering everyone out, now. Evacuate.

Some hardy souls defied the order, instead grabbing hoses to douse roof tops and gutters. Others rushed down to the town trying to help where they could, putting together sandwiches and food for fire and emergency crews.  Others eyed the barges standing by, hoping against hope they wouldn’t need to be shipped off.  Some like me, took a last look at our homes and said a silent goodbye.

I had been put in charge of two teenage children and their dog by a frantic mother stranded on the mainland.  The eldest, the boy, was already helping the fire fighters and I knew he was safe.  I put the lass on the job of gathering essentials to throw in our 4WD while I rushed back to finish with my house.

She did indeed put together a small pile of clothing, but her priority rating was a little out of kilter, she had added a TV set and CD player.  

Friends down in the township took in the dog.  By days end they would have several varieties tied to their front fence, all of them perfectly behaved.  They knew something extremely out of the ordinary was afoot and territorial spats would have to be put on hold.  For the moment anyway.

It would be many days before the fire was halted with no loss of lives and our homes saved. But all this was only due to the hard work and long hours put in by our own local North Stradbroke Auxiliary Fire Brigade, emergency crews from the mainland, island police and residents alike.  The sand and silica mines are the islands major employers and their staff and heavy moving equipment rushed to create huge fire breaks around the township.

I swear one of the breaks, a short walk from my home, was wide enough to land a Boeing 727 on. It’s moments like these in the face of crisis and fear you realise your neighbours, and I use that word in the widest far flung sense, are indeed your best friends. 

We experienced more fires through the years and again the wonderful sight of men and women suddenly materialising from goodness knows where to leap on roofs, brushing the burning embers from gutters, directing hoses onto exploding trees.  In one incident two fishermen passing by the jetty quickly beached their boat on the sand and raced to lend a hand.

Our fires on Straddie were bad enough, but nothing like the Armageddon of all fires that Australia’s southern state of Victoria faced just a few years ago in 2009.   The stark photos that flashed around the world showed the agony and heartbreak as house after house, whole communities, were destroyed, and the death toll kept rising, men, women, children, pets and livestock trapped in the flames.

It was a dark time of mourning for all Australians.
But one newspaper photo in particular moved a nation to tears.  It sent an acutely touching message of salvation, admiration and relief. This example of man and wild life coming together, one begging help, the other offering what little he could, a sip of water.  For all Australians it was a moment of hope in the midst of despair.

Victorian Country Fire Association fire fighter David Tree offering help. The video this shot was sourced from was taken by his fire fighter colleague.

Its moments like these I feel exceptionally proud to be an Australian.


Next  Part 5 Straddie– A surprising slice of history