My day in the floods

For now you can call me the Western Star’s overseas reporter. I had intended to drive back to Roma on Monday after a very wet Christmas with friends in Maryborough. Normally it’s a straightforward if dull five and a half hour drive of about 520km. But Monday was never going to be a straightforward day.
(photo: Jimbour Creek around midday Monday)
The Bureau of Meteorology told me there was a nasty storm cell heading from exactly the direction I was travelling. The Department of Main Roads told me the Wondai-Chinchilla road was closed as was the Warrego Highway near Chinchilla and in the town itself. I passed Charley’s Creek in Chinchilla on the day before Christmas Eve and it was lapping the bridge. It was no surprise to hear it went over.
Yet knowing all this I set off in blind hope. Maybe the information is 24 hours old, I thought. Maybe it will be down by the time I get there, I rationalised optimistically. Maybe I could still get through via Tara or Condamine. So I set off around 9.30am with extra provisions given to me by concerned friends and set off along the highway. The Bruce Highway south to Gympie was busy as always and I scuttled along at 80kph. I turned off at Bauple and headed towards Kilkivan and Goomeri where the traffic was less but the rain was now quite intense. That was the first mistake. I should have continued down the Bruce and holed out at my place in Brisbane.
My second mistake was not listening to the radio. I was playing music oblivious to the gathering crisis ahead of me. When I travelled about 250km to Wondai, I saw the first sign that said “water over the road”. The creek at the northern entrance to town had burst its banks and I carefully treaded my way through the centre of the road sending water flying in all directions. It would not be the last time I did this.
I saw the Chinchilla turn off and although there was no ‘road closed’ sign I didn’t want to risk it. It was 160km of nothing and I hated the thought of getting 100km or more and then having to turn back. So I took the detour via Kingaroy and Dalby. This would add about 80 to 100km to my journey but a safer option I thought.
The rains continued to pummel down. I got about 40km north of Dalby to the little town of Bell when my heart dropped. Without any warning the road to Dalby was closed. There was a right turn still open to Jimbour which I knew lay north of the Warrego Highway somewhere. So I started to drive to Jimbour. The fun started here. There were several creeks that had burst their banks and I had to gingerly tread my way through them. I got to the very edge of Jimbour where I saw the Jimbour Creek. It had burst its banks severely and was rushing over the bridge in dangerous looking fashion.
A 4WD came the other way and carefully crossed the bridge. The driver stopped and talk to me at the other side. “What do you reckon my chances are?” I said. “I wouldn’t do it in that little rocket,” he said with a sideways glance at my tiny Kia Rio. Any other way through?” “Nope, apart from the road back to Bell and that won’t be open much longer,” he answered. He went off and I got out to chance the creek on foot. It was, as he said, too dangerous for my “rocket”. I hurriedly got back in the car and drove the hazardous route back to Bell.
I stopped in at the Bell pub and asked them what was the story with the closed road to Dalby. “I came up there a half hour ago,” one woman told me. “But it was in a 4WD.” Another said I would be alright if I could get past Cattle Creek 5km south of down. “If you can see the cement on the bridge, it is still safe to cross.” “But I’d do it now if I were you, it’s still rising.”
So, I decided to chance it. I crossed the “road closed” sign, breaking the law in the process as I later realised. If a cop saw me on the other side, they were perfectly entitled to give me a ticket – something I was unaware of that morning. I got to Cattle Creek and had to cross the most dangerous stretch of water yet. The bridge itself – and its cement – was still visible but the water had cut cross across in a different spot and it was more hazardous than anything I had encountered on the Jimbour Road.
Once I got across I gave a whoop of delight thinking it would be plain sailing to Dalby. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were several more burst creeks to contend with and the closer I got to Dalby the worse they were. Once particularly long stretch had my heart in my mouth as the car bobbed from side to side but luckily I didn’t stall. I was just 5km outside Dalby and though I had made it when I saw the tall mast on the northern edge of town. The signs weren’t encouraging though as the fields on both sides of the road were turned into lakes. Finally I got to a point where a convoy of cars was stopped ahead of me.
I got out to take a look. It wasn’t a creek crossing but simply a place where the raging waters burst over the road and on to the field on the other side. There was no height marker but a bent post had scared the drivers ahead (also in 2WD vehicles) enough to stop. I got out to walk across. The water came up to my knees and beyond. There was a very strong current that wanted to pull me into the field.
I agreed with the other drivers this was the end of the line. One had already called a tow truck and when it arrived the driver told us there was at least three or four such crossings still to go. “And one of them is even worse than this one,” the truckie said. Immediately the other three of us in line asked to be towed as soon as he could come back. It would cost $120 but worth every penny as I didn’t want to be in these rising waters a minute longer than necessary.
We watched as a parade of 4WDs made the crossing. One 2WD came up behind us and made as if he was going to give it a go. We all watched intently sure he would be dragged off in the field. At the last moment, he must have realised this too and pulled out. We spent an hour or two in an agonising slow wait for the truck to return while the islands of road receded and the oceans of water rose. I went back to my car and turned on ABC local radio. The news was unrelentingly bad. Dalby was cut off in all directions. Chinchilla Creek was still rising. England were smashing the Aussies in the cricket in faraway Melbourne where miraculously it wasn’t raining.
(photo: the end of the line 5km north of Dalby yesterday)
It was clear I would be spending the night in Dalby. Then I heard something that made me change my mind. The radio said Myall Creek in Dalby was still rising and expected to peak at 11pm. There was talk of evacuations. What, I thought, was the point of spending the night in Dalby if I was going to be washed away. Maybe I should try and get back to Brisbane via Kingaroy. At least I would have a dry bed for the night. I canvassed this idea with the others. They all thought this was silly. “In any case the Nanango is cut off the other side of Kingaroy,” someone said. Undeterred I asked the latest arrival, “Can you get still back to Bell?” “just about,” I was told laconically. So I hopped back in the car and did a u-turn and started to drive north again. The creeks I had passed were getting more swollen. I passed through two very dangerous ones, heart in mouth and car in first gear revving slowly through the waters.
Third time unlucky, I stalled. I jumped out of the car and gamely pushed the car out of the flooded creek. Water sloshed all around me and by fierce effort and pumping adrenalin I succeeded in pushing the car back on to dry land. The floor of the car was soaking wet, my thongs had disappeared into the floodwaters. I was stuck and on a closed road, far from help in any direction.
I cursed my impetuous change of plan. I could see another flooded stretch about 400m ahead and decided to push the car onwards to get to the other side of that. I would have pushed my car about a kilometre in total. I was totally stuffed at the end and the car still would not start. A couple in a 4WD gave me a spray to dry off the motor. They also told me there was further dangers ahead. “How is the Cattle Creek?” I asked. “You won’t make that, there is a creek up to .4m down the road,” they said.
I was resigned to a night in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rising waters. After starting the car about a million times, it miraculously revved into life on the million and first go. I cheered up and started north again. I got to the .4m crossing – I could see the measure and they weren’t lying.
But I trudged through it anyway. Amazingly I made it through. Just the Cattle Creek to go, I thought. Sure enough it had risen, but nothing like the peaks I had already negotiated. I was finally free from my nightmare. So what, Nanango was closed but I thought I would cross that bridge (or not) when I came to it. I refueled in Kingaroy and asked the attendant about options back to Brisbane. “The Dingo Creek at Wondai is up,” he said (I remembered this as the very first watery experience of the day which seemed like aeons ago. “Nanango is out too but you may be able to get through the back way,” he said.
So I set off for Nanango 21km away on the main highway back to Brisbane. The rain had stopped now but it was late afternoon and I was worried about being in floodwaters after dark. I got through town and then saw the creek. It was completely impassable. But authorities here were prepared. There were yellow detour signs that took me “the back way” and after 25kms or so landed me back on the highway on the Brisbane side of Nanango. Waves of relief could finally replace the waves of floodwaters that had dominated my day.
For the remainder of the 170km back to Brisbane I peered into countless overflowing creeks – but none of them spilled onto the road. I listened intently to ABC Local Radio and the fund of horror stories emerging from people across the state. Dalby and Chinchilla were on the verge of evacuation. It would be a while before I would be getting back to Roma. I didn’t care. I went home to bed and had long dreams about getting stuck in floods. Whenever I woke which was often, I reminded myself I was dry and safe. I drifted off the sleep again waiting for the waters to rise again in my mind.
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