37. Australia Road Trip: The Katherine Flood Chronicles

In solidarity...

I originally wrote this account of the Katherine Flood as it happened, in April 2006. Five years later I re-dedicated it to the people of Queensland who were suffering in the great flood of 2010/11. I wish I could consign it to history, but somehow I think there will be more floods and more people affected by them in the future; if so - this hub is for them.

We pose defiantly before the rising waters
We pose defiantly before the rising waters

Just a little town

Tidy Town Mechanics

Back in Katherine after our long weekend retreat at Nitmiluk Gorge,we treat ourselves to some luxury by booking into the Katherine Motel, situated just off the Stuart Highway in the centre of town. The motel is run by two personable chaps, Greg and Enzo, and the rooms are clean, comfortable, air conditioned and equipped with tellies. We check in, off-load Sheila, our valuables and two days worth of clothes and stuff, I then drive out to the mechanics yard, a few kilometres out of town on the Eumangalan Road, to drop off the old Winnebago to have the diff-oil seal repaired. The Cadillac Truck Service is a serious premises - a big, newly built steel structure with huge, opening shutters that leave the workshop cool and airy. There are at least half a dozen large road-train tractor units inside in various states of repair. I am impressed. After parking Winnie in a repair bay, I unhitch my bike and cycle back to town.

The Railway Bridge - Monday

The flood gauge on the old railway bridge became a place of pilgrimage - an indicator of how close we were to disaster.
The flood gauge on the old railway bridge became a place of pilgrimage - an indicator of how close we were to disaster.

Disaster Diary

Monday afternoon: After settling into our motel room we take an exploratory stroll up the main street. Despite being the only town of any consequence for over 300kms in any direction, Katherine is unassuming in size and though there is a lot of traffic cruising about there is a distinct lack of hustle and bustle. There are few tourists; as evident by the lack of Britz, Mauis, Appollos and Wicked Campervans that are so numerous on the east coast. There are however, hundreds of Aboriginal people in the town. They sit about in large groups on the grassy, palm-lined median strip that divides the main street, and in front of the shops, supermarkets and the Tourist Information Centre. After walking a block or so we also realize that they’re also a noisy mob, unlike the more inscrutable, chilled-out Aborigines in Tennant Creek. Somehow they seem out of place in the 'Tidy Town' of Katherine which, considering its remote location, looks remarkably modern in a mundane, suburban way.

The ‘Blackfella-Whitefella’ relationship is an odd social set-up that we don't really understand. The two races seem to co-exist without coming into any sort of social contact with each other. Katherine looks and feels very much like a whitefella’s town, but the Aborigines (who were here first after all) seem oblivious to their own incongruity in this apparently banal place and they use the pavements, shop fronts, and grassy areas as meeting and socialising areas, much as they would a familiar clearing or encampment in the bush.

At the north end of Main Street there is a bridge over the Katherine River. An old rail bridge also runs parallel to the road bridge, about 200 metres down stream. On one of its concrete pylons there is a flood gauge. The full flowing river is at 6 metres and we try but fail to imagine how much water it must take to raise it to 18 metres, the top of the scale.

We both are thinking the same thing. This trip has turned into a trial by nature for us - an adventure of almost biblical proportions. First we had to deal with the monsoons in Cooktown. Then there was the frantic Sunday night dash into the outback to avoid the full ferocity of Cyclone Larry. Then we faced all the rising floods as we crossed the drowned wilderness of the Gulf Savannah country, and as we traversed the arid plains of the Barkly Tablelands we were machine-gunned by clouds of suicidal locusts. Now we both wonder if the Katherine River could rise high enough to cause us more problems. Anything is possible in the Outback it seems.

That night: we play the pokies in the Katherine Hotel while a monsoon lashes the town. Outside the streets are almost deserted, except of course, for wandering Aboriginal souls. In the pub, the whirring of the poker machines, the bells, the spinning fruit, the dollars signs and the tacky tune that plays when you win 10c or more, has a soporific effect on Sheila, she loves it. For me it is the cold beer; but whatever the panacea, we forget, for a few hours, about our broken vehicle and the fat, swirling river up the road.

Tuesday: when not watching TV, or writing this journal, I head out on my bike to explore the streets of Katherine. We also manage to find a nice little café in a small arcade of shops that runs off the main drag. Here we can get not-too-bad flat whites and the latest copy of theTerritorian or even the Australian, though they are always a day behind. That night we hit the pub again for a few cold ones and five bucks worth of pokie fun.

The Railway Bridge - Tuesday

The river rose 12 metres over night and the situation suddenly becomes critical.
The river rose 12 metres overnight and the situation suddenly becomes critical.

...and the rain came down

Wednesday: Rain lashes the Top End. It covers the drain in the courtyard of the Motel and lowers the temperature considerably. In the afternoon, during a lull in the monsoon, we walk up to the bridge. To our amazment the water is swirling around the 16 metre mark on the railway bridge scale. Many of the trees down on the river bank that were only half submerged yesterday have disappeared below the mass of water. It flows like a thick brown soup and the treetops that still poke above the surface look like sticks of limp celery. We detect an air of concern in Katherine now. There’s a rush on the Woolworths, and undertones of panic.

Nightfall: We walk back to the bridge. The wet streets are very busy, reflecting the headlights of cars as they come and go in a steady stream; but where are they going? Where are they coming from? Darwin is over 300kms to the north and Tennant Creek is a 600 kilometre drive to the south through a wilderness much of which was on the verge of flooding when we passed through it several days ago. To the west lies Kunnunarra over 500kms away and heaven knows what that road is like. The traffic is a mystery to me.

Large groups of aboriginals patrol the streets and their shouts and raucous arguments in their unique Northern Territory Pidgin (kriol or creole) punctuate the surreal symphony of rain and traffic. Police sirens occasionally howl and a paddy wagon cruises repeatedly through theWoolworths parking lot. As we head up toward the river, an aboriginal woman walks briskly past us with a real sense of urgency and purpose; “The river he will go over tonight”, she says to us as she passes, “I gotta find my fambily. Maybe they in the scrub,” she says anxiously and suddenly veers off at a fast trot across the road toward the darkness of the eternal bush that lurks beyond the lights of the main street.

At the bridge, there are hoards of curious and concerned onlookers, witnesses to an impending disaster and we are one with them. From the bridge we can see the water swirl and eddy out of the blackness like the skin of a living monster. The bridge actually groans with the weight of water pushing against it. It has reached 18 metres on the scale; In fact, the scale has bloody well broken - the piece of tin with 18m on it hangs askew by a single screw as it is battered by the watery onslaught. The river will soon be beyond measure.

Standing on the bridge, I imagine the mass of fast moving water barely two metres below our feet; I think of the awesome gorge of Nitmiluk that it has flowed through further upstream and a chill comes over me. The water has amassed from days of monsoon in the Kakadu and Arnhamland regions of the Territory. It is a vast catchment area and much of its run-off is flowing beneath our feet. According to the local newspaper there are “five Sydney Harbours worth of water passing under the bridge every hour.”

We move off the bridge and hang about by the bank for a while. People stop and stare at the whirlpools that lick the shore; they talk with us. We’ve all seen it rise today, we all have our stories to tell and our presence here is testimony to our fears.

Eventually we retreat to the motel and eat ham sandwiches and a portion of Red Rooster chips for dinner but are soon drawn back to the river to check the level once more. It’s scarily high, beyond measure. Debris is beginning to pile up against the road bridge. We watch the level inch up the bank, a rock in the mud is our marker but it soon disappears into the brown soup. On the near-deserted main street a shop keeper is busily loading his stock of ladies frocks into a shipping container parked at the kerb, while two aboriginals engage in a fearsome argument across the street.

On our way back to the motel another aboriginal man politely asks me for a smoke. I oblige and make him a roll-up. He walks with us for a block or so, all the while asking us to answer absurd riddles. We wrongly guess each answer then insist that he tells us the true answer as we can’t think straight and there is a bloody flood about to happen!

We can’t play the pokies as the landlord is locking down the pub, because the “bloody river is about to go over.” Sheila asks him if our campervan, parked out on the Eumangalan Road, will be OK. He laughs and says “no way, it will go under for sure.”

We return to the motel and have a nervous drink in RJ’s Bar and Bistro. Enzo and Greg, the owners, are new to Katherine, having only recently taken over the lease of the motel. Both are worried by the impending events. Apparently, when the river reaches 19 metres the flood sirens will sound and from then the town will have approximately six hours to evacuate. At that point we must place ourselves in the hands of the authorities as we have nowhere to go and no way of getting there. We assume everyone in charge knows what they are doing, though over the course of the day we’ve heard different scenarios, facts and statistics regarding floods in Katherine. One thing is fact: In 1998 the river went up to 22 metres and the town was devastated. Three people were killed on that occasion and the water rose up to the shop awnings on main street. A 3.3 metre saltwater croc was photographed swimming past Woolworths.

We go to bed for a fitful sleep, fully expecting to be woken by the wail of sirens sometime in the dark, wet night. Before bed we pack our valuables – guitar, passports, tickets, laptop and such like - as best we can and prepare to stash them on top of the wardrobe, or on the roof with us, if it comes to that. I go up to the corner around 1.00am but there is no sign of a wall of water crashing down Main Street so I finally lay down and get some sleep.

The Railway Bridge, Wednesday afternoon

The flood level gauge succumbs to the flow of water
The flood level gauge succumbs to the flow of water

Evacuation

Thursday, daybreak: I wake about five. Get up and look out the window. The ground is dry. There are no sirens. We have survived. There is no flood. I cycle up to the bridge while Sheila catches up on some serious shuteye. Emergency service vehicles blockade the road but folks are still wandering about on the deck of the bridge. The water is right up to the bottom of the railway bridge. Just a tiny gap shows. It bulges and swirls and bubbles in the light morning drizzle. At least it is still within its course. I return to bed for a few more winks.

8.00am: Back at the bridge, I cycle to the other side and the road to Darwin is entirely underwater. I can see a family of aboriginals crossing a field, waste deep, with bags on their heads. A tinny motors across the lake that was only yesterday the road, and drops another native family off at the point where the highway rises from the flood. Cycling back, I skirt around the side streets to buy some tobacco from Woollies. To my shock there is water everywhere. Not just a puddle but a lake. Cars are engulfed as they drive through it. It extends into the distance along the southern entry into town. The Tourist information Centre is an island. Now things begin to speed up.

There is a serious traffic jam as vehicles flee to the south through half metre deep water. The water is seeping further up the main street, but not from the bridge end, rather it is entering town from the east where the river has burst its banks and found the path of least resistance. At the motel, Greg the manager, tells us that we should evacuate. I tell him we have no where to go and no way of getting there. I ask him what he’s doing and he says he’s staying to guard against looters. We’ll stay too I say. At least we can help and perhaps the water won’t reach us anyway.

We set to work. Going from room to room, Nick the restaurant manager and I, take all the bar fridges and lift them onto the vanity units, ensuring the doors are open so they wont float away. Then we put the television from each room on top of the fridge. Sheila keeps a cold beer at hand for me as we do each of the 36 rooms as rapidly as we can. Meanwhile Greg brings out a stepladder and props it against the roof.

“This is our escape route, if we need it,” he says.

Outside, the water is continuing to ooze up the main street like a lava flow. There are people wading waist-deep further down the road and a police officer, directing traffic is standing up to his knees in water on the corner next to the pub. As the day progresses the water level continues to rise. It creeps around the corner and past the motel. The sirens wail and the evacuation of the town continues apace.

This isn’t how I imagined the flood to unfold. I thought it would be like a tidal wave rather than this slow, teasing rise. Like an over-excited adolescent, I set off on my bike to explore the gradually flooding streets of Katherine. A bicycle is a good way to get around in a flood. I soon find myself pedalling in water that comes up to the top of the tyres, but except for my legs, I remain dry. The danger lies in not being able to see what the ground is like and once I ride off a curb and nearly topple into the brown, soupy water. Then I see a large huntsman spider floating on a leaf, and then a small snake swims by; I had forgotten the sage advice of Alwin, my aboriginal mate who warned me of snakes during our crossing of Creen Creek in Queensland a couple of weeks earlier. Suddenly, the chance that I could actually encounter a croc in this watery world becomes all too real and I carefully pedal back to a less flooded street.

Thursday afternoon: The town is almost deserted on the ground, except for us at the motel, the police and an assortment of stubborn locals, who, like me, are cycling or walking about in the surreal townscape. All those evacuated have gone to one of three refuge centres located on higher ground on the southern outskirts town. All the Aboriginals have gone. I am told that most of them don’t live in Katherine, they come into town once or twice a year from remote settlements and communities for some serious socialising. The evacuation centres are their only place of refuge now that their camps in the bush around town are underwater.

I manage to spend a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon sitting on the steps outside the motel, drinking beer with a couple of the other guests who have also chosen to stay on. We sit about stoically, watching the water slowly rise around us with unstoppable certainty. Police trucks cruise by regularly and in the sky above, low flying helicopters buzz and circle like dragon flies.

As the drama slowly unfurls I feel we are entering a bizarre dimension. The town looks different now, like a place does under a heavy fall of fresh snow, though it is far from a pretty scene. The water is carrying sticks and leaves and assorted human debris. Plastic bottles, a bucket, scraps of paper - it’s a mess. Streams of trapped air rise up out of the road and bubble to the surface, and when police trucks drive past waves lap at our feet and wash up the motel driveway. But luckily, it seems that the motel is on ground that is about a metre and a half higher than the surrounding streets, though that margin will do us no good if the water rises to the 1998 flood level.

The Railway Bridge - Thursday

Scenes from the flood

HIgh Tide on Main Street
HIgh Tide on Main Street
Snake rescue
Snake rescue
The army rescure squad
The army rescure squad
Sean and Dave - Defiant Territorians
Sean and Dave - Defiant Territorians
Let's call it Cycle Surfing
Let's call it Cycle Surfing

Weird stuff

Shit happens during a flood. Things you wouldn’t see in normal circumstances such as a mob of wallabies fleeing in panic down the flooded main street, hopping laboriously through the water. Snakes entwined around railings on the bridge. A possum huddled in a tree in the middle of the river, it’s chance of survival is small. As debris piles up against the bridge it turns into floating island habitats composed of straw, sticks, oil drums and old flip flops. These ugly lumps of flotsom are crawling with large ants. We watch from the bridge as a desperate toad leaps off an ant infested floater and attempts to swim to the leafy branch of a tree that is bent into the torrent. The toad is just feet below us but we are as powerless to save it as it is to reach the perceived safety of the tree. Each time the creature nears the branch the swirling current sends it back to the edge of the bridge again. It can’t live on the debris island either as the ants would eat it alive. I can't believe that I feel such sympathy for a cane toad. Then I see a man gliding mysteriously through deep water on the main street, he is actually peddling a bike which is entirely underwater, except for the handle bars.

As the afternoon wears on people who didn’t evacuate begin to congregate around the bridge which is actually on high ground and has avoided going under while water fills up the town itself. It is on the bridge that a tragic event takes place.

A Tragic Event

A wallaby is spotted in the river as it is swept up to the metal sides of the bridge. Here the poor creature will be eventually sucked under and drowned. From the large crowd of spectators a couple of men fashion a noose from baling twine and manage to lasso the unfortunate animal and lift it to the safety of the road. The frightened creature kicks and scratches and its rescuers are forced to put it down. Despite its battered condition it makes wobbly, tentative hops down the road. It gathers pace and is almost off the bridge when someone in the crowd thoughtlessly runs in front of it to photograph it. The disorientated marsupial stops, panics, and jumps over the railing. back into the swirling river where it is sucked under by a whirlpool and is presumably drowned. One of the blokes who had originally plucked it from the river, a young man from Alice Springs named Sean, verbally abuses the photographer for his selfish stupidity. The crowd of onlookers are genuinely shocked by the tragic irony of the rescue and the pointless death of the frightened creature.

That night the motel bar becomes the centre of our world.

The Luxury Disaster Holiday Movie

Thursday Night: Like passengers on the Titanic, we sit around in the motel bar, watching helplessly as the water rises around us. I feel like a bit like a character in a movie - hey, it helps to pass the time. So who else is in this cast of characters, trapped on a sinking island in the great turbulent sea that is the Top End of Australia?

There is of course Sheila and me - two hapless travellers unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the right time. We aren’t naïve though, having already survived the trauma of Cyclone Larry and the flooded creeks and waterways of the vast Gulf country. We are, by now, hardened adventurers, expecting the unexpected and fully aware that whatever happens now will happen, and we will just have to deal with it. That being said we are also a bit scared. Our Winnebago, our home, is sitting in a garage on the other side of the swollen river, while we are here with scant few of our belongings and only each other in which to find solice and comfort.

The star in our disaster movie is Greg, the owner of the motel. It is he that we look to for advice and leadership, though truth be told, he is new to the Territory and has never experienced a flood before. Still, when he bravely stated that he would stay through the event to protect his property, we gained confidence in that and chose to stay too – after all, where else could we go?

Greg’s partner Enzo is a Sicilian whose warm smile does little to mask his fears. It is their business that is at stake here, their livelihood, and like Winnie is to us, their home.

Nick is the bar manager, just arrived in town to begin work in the newly reopend motel, and now facing the possible ruination of his career plans.

His petite Phillipina girlfriend, Myleen, appears oblivious to the approaching danger. She natters endlessly about irrelevant subjects, thus offering a brief escape from the unfoldiing drama outside for anyone who is fed up with constant 'flood talk'.

Chef keeps himself to himself, though he is not unfriendly, just so tied to the kitchen that he has scant need to communicate with anyone else. One thing is certain, this young bloke with his floury pallor and long ginger goatee, can indeed cook.

Then there is the random cowboy. Jay is a young dude who just appears out of nowhere during the evening, one minute not there, and when I return from the gents, there he is, sitting at the barrel table smoking, with a secret smile on his face. He has come to Katherine to spend a week's holiday from his job as a drover out in the Never Never. Like all of us, he is now marooned here. I offer him a beer which he accepts with a nod, but there's little conversation from him. He is as laconic and unreadable as you would expect a lone cowboy to be.

Sean and Dave are the Removalists. Their truckload of someone else’s life is parked five kilometres out of town with a broken gear box. They hope it is parked on high ground. They are here on full pay with expenses; and they can drink. Dave is the driver, a typical Territory type with a curt manner and a bushy black beard. Sean is the sidekick and if there is co-star in this drama, it would definitely be him. He is the hero who saved the wallaby from the swirling waters on the bridge, only to see it leap to its death when spooked by a non-thinking photographer. He is a real Territorian, born in Alice Springs and living in Darwin. He is a young man who can spin a yarn, drive a bulldozer and ride a brumby. He refers to the aborigines as The Indigenous, without a hint of racism, and tells funny stories where he refers himself as “Mr Huge”, then laughs along with us as we laugh at him. He is tall, lanky, shaven headed and a bit wild. When Sean is around, the flood becomes fun.

We all sit around in the bar, dropping rounds of booze on our room tabs, casting glances out the window at the black water lapping up the driveway. The street outside is under half a metre of water and through the bathroom window in our room we can see a river where once there was a road. We are on an atoll, only inches above the threatening waters.

Friday: The water has stopped rising. The river peaks at 19 metres and the day dawns dull and dry. We have survived but we are still trapped and can only wait now for the levels to drop. That day is spent in idleness. The water is dirty - it’s not safe to wade through it for too long. In the deeper parts of town there is the danger of crocs, and snakes could be swimming anywhere. The toilets threaten to back up if flushed so we try not eat too much. The sky is full of buzzing News choppers. On the television we see what they see, yet it is hard to equate the news footage of a town under water with the little enclave of dry security that we are sitting in.

We think of the evacuees who fled to the refuge centres on high ground outside town. There would be no rib-eye steaks, salmon pasta, ice cold VBs, TV or air-conditioning for them. Just a crowded school hall lined with camp cots and blue emergency blankets and hundreds of homeless. Think of the porta-loos out there, with 500 desperate refugees trying to use them. We are lucky - we are on a Luxury Disaster Holiday and though the whole escapade will cost us in terms of dollars, at least we are comfortable.

The weekend: We watch as the waters slowly subside during Saturday and Sunday, hoping and praying that our Winnebago hasn't been drowned and can be fixed as soon as possible.

Monday: Sean and Dave are able to reach and repair their truck, and by midday the long road to Darwin is declared open to through traffic; sadly, they leave. The cleaners return to work at the motel and mundane routine sets in for everyone but us, and all we want to do now is kiss Katherine’s wet arse goodbye.

Tuesday: The alcohol curfew is lifted. Hooray. This was imposed at the beginning of the crisis to keep order amongst the Aboriginal population and to protect them from being caught in the flood waters while drunk. During the worst it, our motel bar was the only place in town that was permitted to sell alcohol, and that was only to the registered guests. The police kept a patrol vehicle outside to monitor who was in the bar and on a couple of occasions they threatened to close it down. Our hero, Greg, argued the case and so we were able to get pissed at our leisure while the rest of the wet town went dry.

This is not the end.

And so it comes to pass that Winnie is fixed. The flood waters never reached the high ground where the workshop is situated and I am able to collect the old beast on Wednesday morning. On the cycle ride out to Eumungalen Road I travel along a stretch of road that was previously under two and a half metres of water. Rubbish, straw and assorted debris hang from the branches of trees and on fence wire. The roofs of several sunken vehicles are visible in the slowly receding water on the road sides. I realise how very lucky we, and the town, have been. The flood could have been much worse.

That afternoon we load up, say our farewells to Greg, Enzo, Nick, Myleen, Chef and the Cleaners and hit the road north. Ironically, if we want to keep travelling on this epic journey we will have to return to Katherine as Darwin is, in reality, a dead end. With this in mind, Myleen gives me $150 and asks me if I can buy a guitar for her in a music shop in the city and drop it off on our way back. Floods or not, life goes on, and somewhere there is always a song waiting to be sung.

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Comments 3 comments

barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 5 years ago from Queensland Australia

Great story. I am sure there are going to be lots of similar stories told from people living through this one-including myself although I live in Brisbane yet I have seriously never seen as much rain over such a period 6-8 weeks in my 53 years of living in England & Aus as now! thanks for share this!


saltymick profile image

saltymick 5 years ago Author

Thanks for your comment Barry... yes, the scale of the recent Queensland flood is terrible and will generate some harrowing tales I'm sure. During our experience in Katherine, it was the lead-up to the flood that was the most tense - watching the river rise, not knowing how deep the water would go, how much damage would be done, etc. and having no way of escaping and no where to go, being as Katherine is surrounded by wilderness. However, It all worked out OK in the end.


leanne 4 years ago

how big the katherine floods were?

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