Escaping the flood

It looks like the city of Rockhampton in Central Queensland is about to suffer its worst floods in over sixty years. The airport will shut in a couple of days before the flood waters peak. Last time that happened it didn’t reopen for two weeks, which means our upcoming Easter trip there would be cancelled.

So what better time to recall a time twenty-six years ago in Rockhampton when I almost didn’t get to catch my first flights in fifteen years as flood waters surrounded the airport.

A Qantas flight out of Rockhampton in drier times

“I think that you had better get out tonight.”

My family moved up to a property 30 km’s outside of Rockhampton from Melbourne when I was 10. I never really fit in there, with my love of science and learning. Imagine my excitement then when I was selected to attend the CRA National Science Summer School in Canberra for two weeks in January 1991, surrounded by 144 of my peers, all enthusiasts of science.

It was also to be my first flight since I was but 18 months old. Appropriately enough, that’s the oldest recognisable memory that I have, flying TAA Melbourne to Adelaide. Since then, all my travel had been by car, bus and train. This time I was booked with Ansett to fly from Rockhampton to Brisbane, then Brisbane to Sydney. The last leg would be a summer school coach ride from Sydney to Canberra, though I would fly all the way back.

There was one problem. Rain had been falling steadily in the region for days, a consequence of Cyclone Joy. The Fitzroy River, which runs through the centre of Rockhampton and near the airport, was rising. Rapidly. That evening, about a week before I was scheduled to depart, Dad issued the warning that I would have to leave as soon as possible.

We called Ansett and got the last seat on the next morning’s first departure to Brisbane. Just in case the roads were flooded the plan was to leave as soon as possible and then spend the night at the airport. That meant I had to get packing!

It was about 10pm by the time we departed from home, just Dad and I in the Mitsubishi Starwagon van. Our normal route to Rockhampton along Lakes Creek Road ran close to the river and was already flooded. Instead we went the long way round via the coastal town of Yeppoon and then through the hills, entering the city from the north. At that time of night the quiet country roads were virtually deserted, the landscapes black silhouettes against a dark sky.

Rockhampton Airport is sited next to lagoons fed by the Fitzroy River. The waters were already starting to lap near to the edges of the road as we pulled into the airport car park. The airport had closed for the evening and was empty of human presence but for ourselves.

We lay the rear seats of the van flat to form a bed, but the little folding seat was jammed upright, so there was only space enough for one; Dad with his bad back needed it. I was left trying to make myself comfortable on the front passenger seat, which didn’t recline that far. I generally can’t sleep upright and the gear stick poking into my side didn’t help matters.

Most of the night was spent reading George Turner’s book Beloved Son in the amber light of the car park’s lamps. The book was due back at the library in the next couple of days and I couldn’t take it with me. The story, which involved genetic engineering in a post Third World War Australia was quite appropriate, considering that I was enrolled in the Molecular Biology stream at the Summer School.

There is a stillness to the night, mysterious shadows under an amber light flickering in the intermittent showers. I finished the book, still could not sleep for more than half an hour at a time. I listened to taped music on my Walkman, sat and dreamed half-awake.

Eventually it was 6 AM and the airport slowly awoke as dawn approached. Dad helped me check my case in then said goodbye, hoping that the roads would be open so he could reach home again. I went to the bathroom, shaved and tried to wash the sleep out of my eyes (remember that you could bring shavers and big tubes of toothpaste on board in those days!).

I was excited, but a little apprehensive, as I boarded the plane, which was probably a Boeing 737-300, larger than most of the aircraft that serve Rockhampton these days. As we took off and banked around the airport I stared out the window and saw how close the water was to the runway. I believe that we were one of, if not the very last, flights to depart before the airport was shut down by the floods. It was a couple of weeks before the airport was reopened with all but 20 metres of the runway under water during the flood’s peak.

The view of the flood was quickly swallowed up by the clouds. We were served a hot breakfast on the hour long flight – those were the days! I looked out the window the entire flight, excited to be flying, marvelling at the world and sky from above.

I had about four hours to kill in Brisbane while I waited for my next flight to Sydney, so I caught the bus into the city.

As I wandered around I felt tired and a little lonely. The previous winter I had attended a week long “extended learning school” where I met Karen from Rockhampton. She, another girl and I had worked really well together in the laboratory while the other students mucked around. I felt like chatting to her again.

Imagine my surprise then when I bumped into Karen while I waited for a local train to take me a couple of stops from the city back to the Roma Street transit station! We had a quick chat before heading off our separate ways, but I felt a little less alone in my travels after that.

I returned to the airport and boarded my flight to Sydney, where I was reunited with my luggage, which had preceded me by a few hours. I was met my Aunt and Uncle with whom I would stay for a week before returning to the airport to catch the chartered coach to Canberra. I ended up sleeping off a huge headache for the rest of the afternoon and watching a news item about the flooding in Rockhampton.

I enjoyed my week long stay in Sydney and the two weeks in Canberra. I had only visited the Australian capital once before, in winter when it is at its dreariest. Now, it was summer, hot, dry and with clear blue skies. The middle Sunday of the summer school was spent with a Rotarian family who took another student and I down to Lake Burley Griffin for a swim (not something you’d do these days). That was the day I fell in love with Canberra, a city where bush, farmland and suburbia are intertwined, a city of learning and surprising sophistication despite its small size.

Every one of us was sad to be returning home at the end of the school. Ours was an early flight out of Canberra. I remember us waiting at the gate before 6:30 AM. The Thunderbirds were showing on the televisions. It was just like my early childhood when I would set the alarm to watch the super-marionettes in action.

As the aircraft rose into the sky I looked across at Canberra’s many landmarks, thinking to myself that it was a wonderful city to view from above. I saw the erosion in the farmlands of the Southern Highlands, the Royal National Park, then we finally descended into Sydney. From Sydney, another flight up to Brisbane, but with a shorter transit, before our last leg into Rockhampton. The sky was clear now and the extent of the flooding highly visible from above, especially south of the city where the brown and muddy Fitzroy spread into many brown rivulets, meeting the sea at Port Alma.

We touched down into the golden afternoon light. Besides me was another student from Rockhampton who had also attended the summer school. Trapped by Rockhampton Airport’s closure, he had been forced to catch one of the boats normally used to ferry tourists to Great Keppel Island out from Rosslyn Bay on the coast and ride it down to Gladstone to catch a flight to Sydney. He told me that he had got terribly seasick on that voyage.

Now he was sobbing, realising that the wonderful experience had finally come to its conclusion.

While my memories of those flights have been diluted by my many flights since they made a huge impression on me at the time. I would sit at the grey monochrome screen of my XT-compatible PC flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator 4, imagining I was flying again between Canberra and Rockhampton again, remembering those happy times.

If only flying was still that much fun for me today.

An earlier version of this report can be found at

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