When we arrived in 1953 the area was in the grip of a prolonged drought. This was decisively broken by a record flood in February 1954, only three months after I had arrived. Our farmhouse was on rising ground, about 200 metres from the creek. We watched apprehensively as the creek filled to a level where it would break its banks. The cattle had been moved to high ground. Now it was time to release the pigs from their paddock down near the river and let them scamper, along with ducks, chickens and various farm dogs, up to the house yard and under the house – the foundations weren’t much more than a foot off the ground, so there was a constant bumping of piglets against floor boards throughout the day and night.
The waters rose rapidly over two days and nights, until the farmhouse was marooned. We kids were excited – we were on an island, no school, and all this drama – but we knew we were fairly safe. Upstream from us was the Coffee Camp School and we knew it had been destroyed when desks, chairs, a blackboard and even a piano came floating by. The stream was fast and furious and murky brown.
Finally the rain stopped and the sun shone. But the waters took ages to disperse. The Goolmangar and Wilsons Creeks meet at North Lismore to form the Richmond River. From Lismore the river meanders for 70 miles (about 110 kms) to the ocean at Ballina. In this course it drops only 36 feet (about 10 metres). The flood waters took weeks to drain and disperse. Meanwhile the sun started to dry things up, resulting in steamy humidity and an appalling stench of rotting cattle corpses (some trapped up in the telephone lines that bordered the roads), other dead animals and vegetation. The process of cleaning up began. The shops in Lismore’s four main streets were all flooded, some to a height of two metres or more. Food and merchandise were destroyed and silt covered everything. The shopkeepers had taken few flood precautions and it all happened very quickly. Two weeks earlier the Queen and Prince Phillip had paraded through town on their 1954 Royal Visit to Australia through streets festooned with flags and bouquets. Now the sight of sagging shaggy bunting and streamers drooping from the lampposts only emphasised the sadness of it all.
We lost no stock and were relatively unscathed – a few fences needed mending where debris had crashed through. Low paddocks had turned into lakes and ponds which took weeks to dry out. However, the rich, loamy silt did wonders for the growth of fodder.
Marist Brothers High had copped the full force, except for two classroom blocks which were up on stilts. Fortunately First Year (Year Seven), my year, was on stilts, but other kids had desks full of soggy, useless books and whatever.
Gradually things returned to normal and farming life resumed. However, the flood was followed by a very dry 1955 and it became clear that this accumulation of disasters meant that the farm could definitely not support two families. The Blewetts moved back to Sydney apart from cousin Paul, who was sixteen or so. He had left school and stayed on as a paid farm worker.
Well, as we all know, the benevolent Lord moves in mysterious ways and seems to love to test us. In 1956 we had an even bigger flood and this one was a doozy. (It wasn’t higher in the Lismore township, but it was on our farm.) But this time there were family complications. My sister Nanette and her husband Alan Lowe were staying with us and on the morning of the first heavy rain were due to travel to Casino, perhaps an hour’s drive, to catch the train back to Sydney. Mum and Dad had planned to drive them to Casino and despite the heavy rain, decided all would be OK. They were wrong. They hadn’t got to Lismore before the road was flooded and they had to turn back. But now the low culvert on the West Nimbin Road was also under water. They were marooned. This was at Frank Boyle’s farm, so they took refuge there. They were anxious to get back to the farm where we kids were in the care of Nona and Grandfather, Mum’s elderly parents. Frank led them up the hill beside the stream that was flooding the culvert until they came to a fallen tree across the much narrower stream. All four in turn straddled this and then kept to the high ground, crossing several farms and crawling through fences and wading waterways.
When they finally came in sight of Aintree they were pretty much exhausted and appalled to see that the farmhouse was completely isolated on its own little island. Indeed, more than that, this time the floodwaters, higher than 1954, flowed freely under the house. The pigs were paddling and the poultry were seeking shelter in the trees. From the neighbouring Handford farm they could see just the very tops of the fence posts of the horse paddock, leading from the farm border to the house paddock. They decided to follow this line, clinging to the fence wires and fighting a very strong current. (If memory serves, I remember Paul Blewitt setting out from our side to meet them, then guide them back.) They made it, cold, wet and shivering, very fatigued and much in need of warm towels and clothes and hot tea.
Whilst they were coping with this ordeal, I had witnessed an awesome sight. To give some background: somewhere in the early 20th century my grandfather decided to fell a huge teak tree by the creek’s edge. He had hoped to fell it along the line of the road so that its trunk could form a part of the fence. However, it fell across the creek, requiring major surgery (to the tree, that is) to remove now useless limbs and such, until the only things left were the stump and a base section of its trunk which measured a good six feet (2 metres) in diameter and about 25 feet (10 metres) in length. This huge log lay there, useless, until 1956. Alongside it he built a large pigsty – a barn almost as big as the farmhouse itself with attic storage for fodder.
During this flood, the waters rose halfway up the galvanised iron roof of this pigsty, until maybe only the top one metre of the roof could be seen. As my grandparents, brothers and I watched the dramatic flow past of trees, furniture, household appliances, and the odd cow, we were awestruck as the visible part of the roof slowly turned through 180 degrees and sank into the swirling, muddy waters. That’s when we knelt down and started saying the rosary. This was no longer fun, like the first flood.
We discovered, when the waters subsided, that the power of the flood had picked up this enormous teak trunk, bowled it straight through the pigsty, which was now a shambles, and carried it a good 150 metres through some fences until it came to rest in the front paddock where, to my knowledge, it rests to this day.
The Good Lord was surely testing us.
The townsfolk and merchants were much better prepared this time; they had learned from the disaster of 1954. For example, some stores had clothing cabinets and display cases designed to rise and float on the waters. This flood hit us harder than the people in the town.
But life slowly returned to normal, as it does. School resumed. This time I wasn’t so lucky. I was in a classroom at ground level – that one where we used to climb out the window between periods – and in my desk my school books were all a soggy mess, along with the rotting bananas and apples that had festered there for way too long, as, in those days, they did in your average schoolboy’s desk.