The flood - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Matthew Condon
FOURTEEN PEOPLE LOST their lives in that terrible event. In a city of just 900,000 people, those who weren’t directly affected knew of somebody who was. Our dining table, for months afterwards, was full of stories of family friends and my father’s work colleagues who had ‘gone under’ in the flood and lost everything.
The people of Beck Street soon returned to their usual routines. Up in the big white governor’s house, through the trees, Air Marshall Colin Hannah resumed his garden parties. Children went back to school.
I look back on those few days now as a memory sealed off and preserved forever. For that brief moment the people of Brisbane were removed from their own lives, reefed from them, and focused just on the river, and the survival of their fellow citizens and their houses and the goods and chattels they’d accumulated over a lifetime. The clock didn’t measure work hours and tram timetables during those suspended days, but the rise and fall of water.
For a period, the city’s context vanished. Gone were thoughts of the bombing of the local nightclub the Whiskey Au Go Go and the murder of fifteen people just the year before, or Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s consolidation of power following his hard stand on street protest marches and the work of the Special Branch, or Valley Diehards’ thrilling last-gasp rugby league premiership win over Redcliffe a few months earlier.
Instead it was relentless rain, dark water, yellow car headlights, emergency vehicles, boats and life jackets, candles and sandwiches. And objects, hundreds, thousands, cut loose from their contexts. Then it was over. It left, in the minds of everyone who had witnessed it, a feint sepia watermark.
The floods of 1974 were epochal for dull, dreary Brisbane, so much so that we have celebrated the water’s height in public art, signs and plaques across the city. Houses affected thirty-seven years ago still have ghostly high-water lines on stumps and beams under the house.
Rosalie went under in 1974, and I have always had a suspicion that the flood was in some way responsible for washing away its suburban status the next year. That the huge, unthinkable volumes of water that January, down from the Brisbane Valley, the Stanley and Bremer rivers, and countless creeks and rivulets en route to the city, simply swept through Milton and into Beck, and erased it from the map.
The only way Rosalie could return – in the way of Brigadoon – would be for another flood to pay a visit, to reconnect it to 1974 and 1893 and 1890 and all the other floods that, following an ancient template, had visited this little pocket of the world at the bend of a brown, unremarkable river.
Then came January 2011.
BRISBANE TODAY IS a city of more than two million people. As old Mrs Guy has been sitting at her front window the city has hurtled ahead and become something she wouldn’t recognise. It has confounding traffic problems, supermarket queues, gang and drug violence, stratospheric rental costs, elite suburbs and their opposite, and a suburban creep that is heading north for Noosa, west to Toowoomba and south to the New South Wales border.
It is a city with a young demographic. It is a city that takes back many of the expatriates that shunned it early in life and gifts them a family-friendly metropolis without the frenetic edge of a Sydney or Melbourne. It is a city that takes in early career professionals who can’t find an open door in the southern capitals, and who can short-cut their way to practical experience in the sunshine.
Brisbane, with these multiple points of flux, feels like a young place permanently looking for itself – the opposite of what used to be true in the 1960s and ’70s. In my children’s lifetime it will be part of a massive conurbation from the Sunshine to the Gold Coast.
It is not there yet. It is still a place where the multi-billion-dollar CLEM7 tunnel, Australia’s largest underground motor vehicle carriageway, can open and almost immediately teeter at the edge of financial ruin through lack of use. Who’s going to pay a few dollars for a road toll in Brisbane? Hobos still live in the old Botanic Gardens in the city, as they have done since the government gardener Walter Hill started tilling the soil there in the mid-1800s. The XXXX brewery in Milton still, when the wind is right, sends out a bouquet of hops that can blanket several suburbs. And the river still floods, given the right conditions.
Brisbane sits on a flood plain. The Indigenous people always knew this. Surveyor-General John Oxley, charged with founding the colony of Moreton Bay, first nosed a rowboat into the Brisbane River in 1823, then returned in 1824 to found the place proper. Indigenous elders told these white explorers of floods that submerged today’s West End.
During that first excursion, in 1823, Oxley journeyed up the river to Goodna, near Ipswich, then turned around and headed for the bay where his ship, the Mermaid, lay at anchor. He came back in 1824 with the colony’s founding party, and looked for a suitable site for the future city.
Oxley once more traversed the river and on 28 September came ashore east of what would become known as the Old Western Creek, a stream that ran beneath today’s Coronation Drive at Milton. He wisely followed the creek inland for about a kilometre in search of fresh water for the future city, and came upon ‘a chain of ponds watering a fine valley’, as he recorded in his Field Books.
Part of this ‘chain of ponds’ would later be dubbed Red Jacket Swamp. Today it is Gregory Park, across from the Milton State School, and the chain covers the grid we know as Baroona Road, Nash Street and Beck Street, all the way up to the pinched gullies of Birdwood Terrace. The ‘fine valley’ was created by the ridges of Paddington, Bardon and Auchenflower. Oxley had wandered into Rosalie. He deemed it a suitable location for the settlement.
The following year, however, in 1825, Moreton Bay’s first commandant, Lieutenant Henry Miller, set up camp on a high bluff downstream from Oxley’s recommendation, and that elbow of land became the future CBD. An obelisk, inaccurately placed, was erected at North Quay to commemorate Oxley’s landing. It still stands today, a sandstone pin about 700 metres from Oxley’s actual landfall.