By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
(As NSW experiences the worst floods in decades, it is worth remembering that flood waters have been a regular feature of the Hawkesbury River for centuries. This feature article by the Deep Hill Media team appeared in the October/November 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine. It is republished here with fresh images showing the current flood.)
IN 1978, my family moved to Richmond. It was the hottest summer and coldest winter for decades. But it was the rain that sent doubts lapping around my parents’ minds about the wisdom of shifting their young children to what was considered a distant outpost.
That March, the Hawkesbury River rose to 14.31m above Windsor Bridge. Richmond became an island. Our world ended at Chapel St, Agnes Banks and the RAAF base. Cows and farm equipment were brought up to the high paddocks on the fringes of town.
We didn’t know it then, but we and countless others previously and since had one man to thank for our safety – Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Local Councillor and Hawkesbury Flood Risk Management Committee Chairman Kevin Conolly believes the flame-haired leader would be happy with modern efforts to protect residents against flood – Macquarie’s colonial edicts concerning the floodplain continue to influence town planning in the Hawkesbury today.
But with many newcomers never having experienced a flood, modern authorities face similar challenges to their colonial peers.
Hawkesbury residents have been warned of flood dangers since Captain Arthur Philip saw weeds high in the trees at Agnes Banks. Governor King tried to convince settlers into regions other than the fertile but flood-prone Hawkesbury region.
But on his arrival in the fledgling colony in 1810, it was Governor Macquarie who took firm action and ordered the abandonment of floodplain dwellings.
A March, 30, 1806, report in the Sydney Gazette gives a descriptive account of what Macquarie did not want to see again – “…many individuals lost every thing they possessed, and that several have perished in the deluge, which was never before known to arrive to so great a height by from eight to ten feet. What rendered its progress still more destructive was the false notion of security which many had imbibed, from the supposed confidence that there never would be another heavy flood in the main river…”
Hundreds of terrified souls were plucked from rooftops and rafts of straw but five people died and much of the colony’s food supply was lost.
On December 6, 1810, Macquarie gave his famous after-dinner speech proclaiming the five towns of on high ground above the flood plain – Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town, Castlereagh and Wilberforce.
Each settler was allotted a plot in the new towns large enough for a house, offices, garden, corn yard and stockyard relative to the size of their flood prone farm.
But settlers largely ignored him at/to their peril. In 1816 the river rose again to 13.88m at Windsor Bridge, then to 14.03m in February 1817.
Frustration is apparent in Macquarie’s March 5 1817 proclamation when he again ordered settlers to higher ground – “…many of the deplorable Losses which have been sustained within the last few Years, might have been in great Measure averted, had the Settlers paid due Consideration to their own Interests, and to the frequent Admonitions they had received by removing their Residences from within the Flood Marks to the TOWNSHIPS assigned for them on the HIGHLANDS, it must be confessed that the Compassion excited by their Misfortunes is mingled with Sentiments of Astonishment and Surprise that any People could be found so totally insensitive to their true interests, as the Settlers have in this Instance proved themselves.”
A new benchmark was set for town planners in June 1867 when the Hawkesbury River spilled 19.26m above Windsor Bridge.
Fifteen members of the Eather family were swept into the swirling torrent at Cornwallis on the night of June 21. Twelve drowned, including Catharine (just 36), Emma (38), and five children apiece. Ironically, Catharine is buried opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.
Modern scientific evidence suggests an even greater inundation is possible, one where all that can be done is evacuate as many people as early as possible. Referred to as the probable maximum flood (PMF), experts predict it could reach 26.4m above Windsor Bridge.
Hawkesbury Council has successfully lobbied governments for flood evacuation routes – Richmond and Londonderry roads have been raised, and a new bypass built between Windsor and McGraths Hill. A higher Windsor Bridge will be built soon, and council continues work with the State Emergency Service (SES) to fine tune evacuation plans and procedures.
Lobbyists like Clr Conolly and former farmer John Miller continue to demand that more be done, including raising the Warragamba Dam wall by 4m, which would lower floodwaters by the equivalent of two house storeys, they say.
John Miller, 81, knows firsthand about floods in the Hawkesbury. Heady with romantic ideals of farm life, he brought his pregnant wife and toddler to his new farm at Sackville in 1955. In 1956, seven floods wiped out every fruit and vegetable crop he planted.
“I knew nothing about the 1867 flood or any other flood. I’d never a seen a flood before … I got to the bottom of the farm and there’s water up to my packing sheds, and I was carrying bags of fertiliser on my back because it had been raining for weeks, and I kept sinking down in the mud. I didn’t know until I bought the place it was called Mud Island.”
After asking neighbours about his property, John relates “he said ‘Well, in 1867 there was a two storey house there and it was washed away, and a bloke found it at the bottom of the Ebenezer gorge’.
“I couldn’t make a go of it so I moved out of the area and grew mushrooms.”
The zone around John Miller’s former farm is where floodwaters are deepest and most furious. When the Hawkesbury Nepean River floods the water doesn’t just gradually rise – Mother Nature throws a tantrum.
It only takes a few days of very heavy constant rain to cause severe flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley because water surges into the valley at a much higher rate than it can flow out. When the water hits the narrow sandstone cliffs at Ebenezer/Sackville, a bottleneck causes the water to back up into the Richmond/Windsor floodplain before heading back down for another go at squeezing through the cliffs.
Meanwhile, anything in its path is ripped away and catapulted downstream at great speed. “You’ve got tree trunks” John Miller says. “You’d see them go under the bridge and then spear out of the water as they came out the other side. It was horrifying.
“Some people say to me ‘We’ll never get another flood again’ and I say ‘No, and we’ll never get another bushfire in the Blue Mountains either, will we?’ Some people have said I’m a scaremonger, but I’d hate to have to say: `I told you so’.”
Clr Conolly agrees – “The risk is certainly very real. There will be another flood, but there are a lot of people who are not familiar with the fact that it does flood, and the magnitude of floods in the Hawkesbury.
“Macquarie took a very sensible approach and saved many people’s lives. We’re trying to do the same.”
Living high and dry above the floodplain these days, I can only hope others will heed the warnings too. *
• Captain Arthur Philip sees weeds in the trees when he camped on Richmond Hill at Agnes Banks while touring the Hawkesbury Nepean River in 1789
• Governor Philip Gidley King tries to persuade settlers to “set a greater value on the forrest lands’’ of Toongabbie, Parramatta, Prospect Hill, Castle Hill, Seven Hills and Port Jackson after the devastating October 1806 flood when the river rose 14.64m above Windsor Bridge
• May and August 1809: floodwaters rise 14.64m and 14.49m above the bridge respectively, devastating the colony’s food supply
• December 6, 1810: Governor Lachlan Macquarie names his five towns and orders settlers to abandon their riverbank homes
• March 1817: Macquarie strengthens his order to abandon the floodplain
• June 1867: 12 members of the Eather family drown when floodwaters rise 19.26m
• 1960 Warragamba Dam completed
• November 1961: the river rises 15.1m
• March and June 1978: floodwaters rise 14.31m and 9.55m respectively
• February 1992: the last Hawkesbury River flood when water rises 11m above the bridge
• June 2002: $150 million Warragamba Dam auxiliary spillway completed
• On the right hand side of Cornwallis Rd about 1km from the Greenway Cres and Moses St, Cornwallis, intersection is a simple sign commemorating the tragic demise of 12 members of the Eather family swept into the torrent on the night of June 21.
• One of the 12, Catharine, is buried in Windsor Catholic Cemetery, Hawkesbury Valley Way and George St, ironically opposite the start of the new flood evacuation bypass in Windsor.
• The height of the 1867 flood is marked on the side wall of the Macquarie Arms Hotel at Thompson’s Square, Windsor
• Away from Windsor, markers can be seen throughout the Hawkesbury to commemorate floodwater height and the location of significant sites including behind St James’ Anglican Church, Pitt Town; and the location of the original church at Sackville Reach near the cemetery on Tizzana Rd.
By Ellen Hill, Deep Hill Media
Burnt-out, cranky and desperate for solace to rediscover what it is to be a family, we packed the hatchback to the ceiling with just enough breathing room for Son & Heir and aimed for the coast.
We were so eager to leave behind the constant bbbbrrring of the phone, ping of the tablet and cha-ching of the hard-earned cash leaving the house that we set off in the dark at 3.30am.
Our pre-dawn escape turned out to be a fantastic inadvertent decision: with gloriously traffic-free freeways, we had covered a chunk of distance by sunrise.
When we pulled into Port Macquarie on the mid-North Coast of NSW for breakfast. a few bleary-eyed tradies and annoyingly beautiful bodies smugly jogging along the waterfront were the only human encounters while we chowed into our bi-annual takeaway food brekky.
Just as we were beginning to flag, the hatchback was bouncing along a worn dirt track like an overburdened black beetle into Illaroo Beach on the far north coast of NSW between Coffs Harbour and Grafton.
We drove through the gates, reveling in familiar sights, feeling the oppression of worldly cares lifting from our hearts – until our gaze lifted, the rose tints slipped away and we were rudely confronted with reality.
Rows of overlapping tent lines, 4WDs littering the trackside, naked children trudging towards the beach and their undies flapping from makeshift clothes lines lay before us and the whiff of 50 barbecues sizzling in the summer sun hung in the salt-laden air.
After 10 hours on the road it was too late to turn back. At that stage we would be hard pressed to find an alternative campsite either.
We ended up pitching camp in a perfect spot on a little rise at the back of the campground next to the bush with plenty of room for a large tent and a fire. By the time the hammock and clothes line were strung in front it had become our private den, where we stayed for two weeks of blissful unwashed solitude.
Our contentment to live alongside the masses in dishevelled harmony got us thinking: Why do millions of Aussies abandon their comfortable air-conditioned suburban palaces in search of a seaside Nirvana they know in reality is a tortuous day-long journey in the stinking heat with a 4WD crammed with squabbling offspring, blow-up beach toys and bikes precariously tied with odd bits of rope to the back obscuring the rear view?
Renting a small patch of ground under the stars for $350 a fortnight means you can afford to take a cruise up the mighty Clarence River on the M.V. Mirigini from the boat ramp at Iluka because you haven’t had to shell out $350 a night for a hotel room.
It means you can buy the kids an ice cream after a day at the beach because you’ve bought healthy food from the supermarket and cooked it yourself on the barbie rather than splurged on takeaway food or expensive restaurant fare.
While the face of the Aussie beachside camping trip has changed, the spirit certainly hasn’t:. Thousands of Aussies join the mass migration up the east coast of the continent in search of surf, sand and sun, a simpler life, a breath of fresh air and re-connection with human beings they are supposed to share a life with.
From the swimming sessions, meal times, ducking into town and strolls at dusk, the campsite moves as one.
When one kid hears “Ja-ack! Tea’s ready! Tell Chloe to tell `Arry to tell Teagan tea’s ready!”, every kid knows it refers to them and, with a grumble and towels dragging on the ground, they trudge barefoot through squeaky sand still baking hot from the 40 degree sun and head for the family trough.
With vast skies above and heaving water gobbling up the heavenly bodies in front, there is space enough for all at a beachfront campsite.
Even when the cowboys of the sand in their new 4WDs tear down the beach just out of reach of the waves, even when generations of campers have bagged the ultimate spot since 1952 and even when the grey nomads park a lumping great SUV with its whopping great aerial and pull-out veranda in the middle of the ground, there is space for all.
Like a flock of cantankerous cockatoos in a tree, the family groups squawk and squabble over the food. They hustle and huddle at the showers and grizzle and groan over chores. But they do it together.
When myriad electronic brain drainers and conversation killers every family is infected with eventually expire, there is no alternative but to talk to each other, play games, physically exercise, explore the surrounds and, wait for it …do absolutely nothing but sit around the campfire.
Camping is a fantastic leveller. Yeah, the neighbours might have a new Range Rover to your ancient hatchback, they might have a you-beaut camp dunny and a portable oven but you all look the same in the water. Everyone smells putrid after a few days. Everybody blisters like an overcooked fried egg white in the sun.
It’s cliche for sure, but nothing beats a dreamy sunset walk along the beach with your love while the kids you made together skip and squeal in the shallows in the distance.
Nothing matters when kids slave away all day in the blistering sun on a sandcastle and moat or digging a hole to the centre of the earth, only for the sea to wash away their progress in one spiteful wave on the next inbound tide. The ritual is repeated on the morrow over and over again and committed to the memory bank to be savoured when the complications of adulthood cloud a difficult day.
Stone the crows! It’s the Aussie way `init? You’re just not `Strayan if you haven’t taken the family camping, had a line of undies and cozzies strung between the guy ropes and eaten a sandy sanga in the salty haze of surf.
So grab a beer, douse yourself in mozzie spray and join Gazza, Bazza and Dazza at the barbie while Shaz, Maz and Kaz giggle and natter over glasses of bubbly and barefoot kids beg the dog to give up the cricket ball in the last rays of a tourism brochure kind of day and embrace the great outdoors.
Here’s some tips on how to escape the rat race with the rat race:
– Change your travel time or route to avoid becoming entangled in the mass migration
– However, be prepared for traffic and factor travel times accordingly, scheduling meal and rest breaks to coincide with major bottlenecks such as Macksville on the north coast of NSW to avoid frustration and stress
– Pare back the luggage, especially clothes
– Buy your own healthy food and engage the whole family in preparing meals
– Embrace the crowds as an opportunity to meet new friends
– Focus on picturesque, quirky and unique sights rather than hysterical billboards counting down the kilometres to the next fast food restaurant
* Deep Hill Media stayed at Illaroo Campground in Yuraygir National Park at their own expense.
By Ellen Hill for Leura Village Association
Discover nature’s bounty in the Blue Mountains at the second Leura Harvest Festival on Sunday May 3 and immerse in innovative sustainable living, browse more than 60 street stalls, and witness the reinvention of the iconic Australian lamington.
Set among the famous cherry trees of Leura Mall, the Leura Village Association event will showcase all facets of sustainable living including outstanding regional produce, handmade and recycled items, to the latest clever initiatives in the Blue Mountains and wider region.
Visitors and locals can learn about everything from food preserving to clean energy, permaculture, beekeeping and micro-farming from an impressive line-up of guest speakers. Visitors can also meet this year’s Leura Harvest Festival ambassador, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley executive chef Jason Martin who is passionate about sourcing the very best regional, seasonal organic produce for the resort’s restaurants.
Other highlights will include regional wine and beer tastings, jam-making and knitting competitions, the traditional art of wool spinning, a chook show and dozens of stalls exhibiting sustainable, organic and locally grown food and produce, clean energy.
Leura Village Association president Barry Jarrott said: “The Leura Harvest Festival is a result of a growing demand for quality locally-grown produce from a population that is disillusioned with the multinational corporations that dictate what we eat, how it is produced and where it comes from.
“The success of last year’s festival proves that the Blue Mountains and wider community craves a stronger connection with the environment, better quality food and support of local growers and manufacturers.”
The second Leura Harvest Festival has received funding from the NSW Department of Premier and State Cabinet’s 2014 Bushfire Recovery Grant. The festival’s theme is “connecting the community’’.
The event will celebrate food from a 100 mile radius and promote recycling and re-purposing and encourage visitors to notice and immerse themselves in the magnificent Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area around them.
Go to www.leuravillage.com.au to find out more about Leura and its accommodation options. Visit http://leuravillage.com.au/fairsandfestivals/ for details about Leura Harvest Festival and event registrations. To apply for a stall, email firstname.lastname@example.org.