Australia: The Flood

In Cooloola National Park, Bowman Leigh and her camping group get caught in the Noosa River flood.

That morning, I woke up with ants in my sleeping bag.

Sweaty from long underwear intended to keep the ant bites at bay, I rolled over just as my tent-mate Kendall began to open her eyes. “I’m glad today’s the last day,” I said, smashing an ant.

“Me too,” she yawned.

Two days into our sixth camping trip of the semester, you’d think we’d be used to this by now. Granted, almost everyone had steadily built a tolerance for scarce showers, big bugs, and composting toilets (all except Jenni, from Miami), but something about this particular morning was beginning to wear on even the biggest bush-lovers, including me.

Three days ago, my class and I had left Byron Bay — the surfing paradise we’ve called “home” since February — for the sands of Cooloola National Park in southern Queensland. The added bonus of visiting Cooloola (besides a much-needed reprieve from rainforest leeches) was the guidance of a man named John Sinclair.

Growing up with the park as a playground, John naturally found himself defending the area when sand miners threatened to destroy the unique environment of Cooloola and nearby Fraser Island. John’s environmental stance soon created enemies, and eventually jeopardized his education career and fueled hostility in his own hometown of Maryborough. Local business owners blamed John for sabotaging the economic boost that sand-miners and their families would surely bring, and in 1976, a sign popped up at a Maryborough service station reading, “Sinclair Banned Here.”

In the end, though, John’s sacrifice paid off, saving an irreplaceable ecosystem at a time when no one else dared confront those seeking to capitalize on Cooloola’s natural resources. Now, after writing a few books and earning the prestigious title “Mr. Fraser Island,” John runs his own eco-tours around Australia, aptly titled “John Sinclair’s Go Bush Safaris.” Anticipating our journey to Cooloola, we were all looking forward to absorbing some of John’s wisdom, and hopefully a little enthusiasm for the country he loves.

The second bonus of the trip was that Dave, our infamous chain-smoking bus driver from Brisbane, was coming along for the ride as well. Since our first meeting at the airport, Dave’s presence in our lives has been a bit patchy, so every appearance is a serious treat. From stopping the bus for cig-and-Sudoku breaks, to acting as our liaison into the world of boxed wine, Dave has become an irreplaceable part of our Australian experience and a guaranteed bringer of field-trip entertainment. I saw Dave sitting by himself on our first day in Cooloola, cross-legged in a camping chair with cigarette in hand, and I called over to him, “Looks like you’re living the dream over there, Dave!”

He looked at me and smiled. “If I’m dreaming, than this must be a nightmare.”

Finally rousing myself from our tent, I stepped out on to a rectangular welcome mat with “Juncus” written in big letters across the front (John names each of the Go Bush tents after a local species of plant).

Feeling a few raindrops, I quickly grabbed all the clothes hanging on nearby tarp-lines and threw them in the tent. Something in the back of my mind told me that I should move my laptop from Juncus to the bus before we left on our day hike, but thought, “Oh well. The group was already waiting, anyway.”

Once seated on the bus, it was clear I wasn’t the only one feeling less than stoked about the day. As we bumped up the road towards the park entrance, people slouched with sleep or gazed out at the rain. An hour later, our “morning tea” break brought us to a town called Rainbow Beach, where it was clear no rainbows would be seen that day. The sky sat heavy, leaking water bit by bit, ready to burst any minute. We watched big stormy swells push surfers along the water until Peter called us over for a meeting.

“We’re going back to camp,” he said, “so we can get out of there before the rain makes the road impassable for the bus. Rains aren’t supposed to let up anytime soon and I don’t want to take any risks. We’ll pack up the tents, then spend the night in Brisbane.”

People around me tried to hold in their excitement, faking disappointment that the trip had come to a premature end. But this rain storm was an answer to our prayers. Just as I’d wished from my ant-infested bed that morning, we were heading back to civilization. Jenni from Miami — a self-proclaimed nature-hater and probably the most relieved to spend the night in a city — noticed the word “Jesus” spray-painted on a beam of our gazebo and cried for joy: “God loves me, people! We’re saved!”

The ride back to camp was loud, as excited voices filled the bus while John muttered about how this much rain would be no fun to walk in. Staring out the window, I thought about the finality of this trip, how it was the last phase of the program between me and an independent project on the other side of the country.

A quick lurch of the bus and I was back in reality, suddenly noticing that we were stopped in the middle of nowhere. As my eyes tried to focus through window condensation, I made out Peter’s tall figure wading through a miniature lake covering the road. His blue rain slicker stood out against the brown water and I watched as each long stride caused his “mozzie-legs” to sink a little deeper. Not a good sign for our little blue bus.

As Peter sloshed back, we could tell something was wrong. Before we knew what was happening, he’d quickly enlisted the help of John and another student named Alex, before giving swift orders to Dave.

“Take this,” Peter said, handing over John’s cell phone, “and get the kids to Kin-Kin as fast as you can.” And with that, he pulled on his bright blue hood and headed out down the road. Apparently, the plan was for him, John, and Alex to walk the ten to fifteen kilometers to camp, pack up all our belongings, and get out of there in John’s Go Bush 4WD. As Little Blue pulled away, I watched the three silhouettes grow smaller and smaller through the back window, my eyes drifting down to the big “Emergency” sticker on the window ledge.

In a few short minutes, Dave had gone from bus driver to mother duck, hurtling down the road with sixteen confused ducklings in tow. As we bounced toward higher ground, our group became less and less sure about what to expect. First Brisbane, now Kin-Kin minus two leaders, one student, and all of our stuff? Maybe God wasn’t on our side, after all.

We finally managed to get on a paved road, but noticed that the scene had changed drastically since morning. With rain still coming down in buckets, the cow fields and ditches that flanked the street were filling fast with brown water that eventually spilled out over the road. Every so often, Dave would have to stop and send a few willing scouts out into the downpour to gauge if the water was shallow enough to drive through. Our rule of thumb: water over ankles, no go. If the water was too high, Dave would give a yell and four or five of us would jump out (rain coats, at this point, were irrelevant), man either side of the trailer hitch, and then lift and detach the trailer from the bus so Dave could back up without drifting into a flooded ditch.

Once, after performing the trailer maneuver and heading back the way we had come, we noticed something strange about the road ahead. Straining our eyes to see through a foggy windshield, we were interrupted by a loud “horse-shit!” from Dave in the driver’s seat. “Is that a tree?” someone voiced from the front of the bus. Sure enough, in the ten minutes it took to turn around, a large tree had blown over, completely blocking the road and trapping Little Blue in flood country. I took my cue and turned on my camera – this was too good. I pushed play and began my first flood-u-mentary.

“This is SIT (School for International Training) Australia during a flood,” I shouted over the rain, followed closely by a quick correction from Kendall: “Uh, cyclone!”. In Australia, cyclone and hurricane are synonymous and using proper local jargon was clearly important even in crisis time. Panning around the bus, Mia from New Orleans gave her two cents from the backseat, “It’s like Katrina part two.” A last shot of the video zoomed in on Jenni solemnly tracing SOS on every fogged up window in the bus. If we survived, I was putting this on YouTube.

Lucky for us, a big man with a big winch on his pick-up arrived, presently removing the giant tree from our path. Onward and upward, Dave propelled us to higher ground while other students raised their cell phones in search of service. When we finally reached a safe elevation, Dave’s next mission was to try and get a hold of someone that was really in charge. Now that Kin-Kin had been washed from the agenda, we were sitting ducks.

As Dave wandered outside in the rain, randomly coming back in, saying “Dammit!” under his breath, and going back out, our admiration for the bus-driver swelled. He was just Peter’s long-time surfing buddy who drove the program’s bus for fun, and fighting floods and downed trees with sixteen students on board wasn’t exactly part of the job description. As we watched him fumble with his phone one more time, Laura turned to the whole bus and said, pityingly, “If Dave needs to smoke on the bus, let him smoke on the bus.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Cooloola National Park, our leaders and fellow student walked (maybe waded) toward a flood bigger than anyone suspected. Unable to reach Peter, we all wondered what was happening, but we remained fairly sure that the water couldn’t possibly rise high enough to wash away our camp. The back-up town for Kin-Kin turned out to be a place called Gympie – a perfect word to sum up the pathetic rain-drenched band of students soon emerging from Little Blue with nothing more than day-hike gear. Dave had found accommodation at the Gympie Caravan Park, so we spent the night eating Dominos and watching the local news, hoping for updates. Still uninformed, it was hard to fall asleep that night.

Not two seconds after turning on ABC News the next morning, the screen read “Noosa Floods,” and a live feed showed rescue boats evacuating a slew of fourteen-year-old boys that had been camped twenty meters over from us. A smiling blonde reporter motioned to the current water level of 1.6 meters, currently displayed by a terrifying brown deluge about two-thirds of the way up a nearby street sign.

I thought of my laptop and backpack being ripped down stream, along with our poor tent Juncus. I thought of Peter, John, and Alex, and wondered where they could be. I started to miss those bloody ants.

After a weary group breakfast outside of trailer number 10, Dave arrived and delivered the news. The guys had miraculously managed to save everything, but nothing had made it out dry. They had opted to stay with our stuff rather than evacuate, and all three had spent the night in the highest structure on the flood bank: a handicapped composting toilet stall.

When we finally reunited with them at a designated petrol station down the road, the sight of the car made everything feel real. Noses pressed against bus windows, we finally spotted John’s once-white 4WD sitting in the parking lot. Crammed with backpacks and random wads of wet clothes, it had clearly been packed as quickly as possible. Spotting Alex across the parking lot, people ran to embrace him and say thanks.

Eyes barely open, he nodded respectfully after each hug and said, “You might want to unload the jeep. I’m gonna go lay down now.”

Alex’s recount of the flood on the bus ride back told of waist-high water and snakes swimming by while trying to grab as much as possible from each tent. With fourteen girls in our group, many of whom had belongings splayed out all over the place, there wasn’t much Alex didn’t see.

“There are no secrets on this trip anymore,” he said with a chuckle.

Finally arriving in Byron, our last task was to sort through the pile of clothes that had failed to make it into a backpack. Taking over the foyer of our apartment complex with a sort of post-flood bazaar, we sorted through everything – yelps of joy ringing out whenever a missing article reunited with its owner.

An exhausted Peter and Dave said their farewells and the rest of us slowly filtered away toward laundromats or the apartments for a hot shower. A couple girls took a weary Alex out for a much-deserved beer.

As I lugged my waterlogged pack to room seven, I overheard someone say. “And the trip was going so smoothly.”

I guess in Australia, when it rains, it floods.

Bowman Leigh hails from Portland, OR but is currently in Australia studying sustainability. Talents include a knack for public embarrassment, fig-tree climbing, and obsessive cleaning, but her passion is in perfecting "bush-dance" moves.