This is a guest post by criminal lawyer Stewart O’Connell, who in 1998 was working in Katherine, NT. It was one Australia Day he’ll never forget.
26 January 1998. 4am. Landline rings, waking me. Probably an arrested client calling from cop shop. Nope. Mum, calling from Darwin, panicked, “Why haven’t you evacuated yet?”. I lived 100m from the Katherine river. I’d spent the previous night with fellow Katherine Regional Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (“KRALAS”) lawyer, Glen Dooley, riding our pushbikes along the riverbank, marvelling at the mass of roiling water flowing past.
But the banks are close to the length of two olympic swimming pools apart. And to overflow the water would have to rise higher than the length of a cricket pitch. Surely the river was well contained. Mum begged to differ.
I begrudgingly rolled out of bed and looked out the front door. Never doubt your mother. Especially when she stays up all night listening to the radio. I now lived 20m from the Katherine River.
The sight of the river roaring down O’Shea Terrace to Giles street was initially thrilling. But then I was gripped by uncertainty. How long do we have before we go under? When the power went out the combination of that uncertainty, darkness and the sound of the raging river and distressed animals was extremely eerie.
By daybreak I lived on an Island. There was no question of driving out in the Ford Laser.
With the sun now out it seemed more exciting than threatening. Surely it wouldn’t get higher than the present knee deep on the road? I walked to Glen’s place. He was more inland and in a gully so the water was thigh deep in his living room.
It was highly amusing to see this self assured red Irish giant in a bit of a flap. He was desperately trying to save the treasured CD collection, a hodgepodge of 70’s metal, punk/new-wave and Aussie pub rock. I would have gifted most of it to the river.
When Glen failed to join my festive mood I convinced my girlfriend, Natasha, to go for stroll towards Katherine Terrace. The water was only thigh deep. What could go wrong?
By this stage Katherine had transformed into a network of rivers all flowing towards Eastside. The first, second, third and fourth street rivers were all flowing strongly across Giles Street. It was Venice but with rollicking muddy water and crocodiles. And tinnies (small aluminium dinghys).
A tinnie, chockas with evacuees, stalled in Giles street in the flow of the fourth street river. The force of the river smashed it into a light pole. The light fell just missing the occupants. When the dinghy flipped and everyone went under the festive mood immediately evaporated.
I’m no Bondi lifesaver but I crossed the road praying that people were going to pop back up. Thankfully they did. A couple of them foolishly tried to right the now bent boat. That quickly led to a scream from one of the men as they lost control of the aluminium wreck. His toes had been crushed by it. Shit was getting real. Another boat came and rescued the injured man. But now, pinned to a chain mesh fence, I realised that the river was not playing and it wasn’t to be trifled with.
Being held against that fence and unable to move rates in my top 5 scary experiences, along with being swept away at low level when I was eight. This river and I had history. Eventually a lone dude in a tinnie stopped and pulled me into his boat. I asked him to go pick up Natasha who was still on the other side of the road but the current was so strong we were swept away in the opposite direction. I’ll never forget the bewildered look on Natasha’s face as I disappeared around the corner.
Five minutes later, adrenaline still pumping, I was standing on the kitchen bench of the dudes house, chest deep in water, while he swam around the living room retrieving photos and papers. He joined me on the bench and grabbed a nearby floating esky. Inside, a cold 6-pack of VB stubbies. If you’ve never drank three beers while chest deep in water inside someones house, well I highly recommend it. One of those moments in life where I simultaneously felt completely alive and in a dreamlike state.
Fuelled with amber courage I declined to accompany the dude to safety and set off swimming in the hope of finding Natasha at our home. Probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, and like Paul Kelly, I’ve done all the dumb things.
I battled that river for a good half hour. I’ve never really known when to give in, but I realised I was not going to win when I noticed so many others losing the battle. A heap of wallabies swept passed me, some dead, most frantically struggling.
I saw snakes, goannas, frogs and possums – all fighting to stay alive. I was just another creature in this waterlogged menagerie, at the mercy of the whims of nature. And then for the first time that day my thoughts turned to the bigger lizards that sometimes occupy these waters (they later found a number of them lurking around Red Rooster). And with that I was done. I let the current take me.
What an exhilarating and humbling feeling to just let go and be at the mercy of nature.
As luck would have it I was washed onto the stairs of an upstair house. The house was above the waterline and the couple inside gave me a change of clothes (the water was deathly cold believe it or not), food and ice-cream. Again, ice-cream on the balcony of an upstairs house now situated in the middle of a vast river, totally recommend it. We were later rescued by one of the many boats trawling for the stranded.
Arriving in Eastside brought a new wave of fear. What if Natasha hadn’t made it? I ran around to all the various shelters trying to find her. After a couple of hours of panic and feeling like I was literally in the dramatic third act of a Hollywood drama, I eventually did. It had been about 8 hours since we had been separated. It was an emotional reunion. She then promptly left Katherine. I stayed.
Looking back I like to think that the mass of water that consumed Katherine on Australia Day 1998 was actually God’s wrathful response to the ludicrous and contemptible mandatory sentencing laws introduced by the Territory Government in 1997. It washed away the files and evidence of those already charged, destroyed the courthouse and damaged most of the property the laws were supposedly designed to protect. A stark reminder that the laws of man are insignificant against the laws of the land.
KRALAS on the other hand, situated atop the pizza shop in Katherine Terrace, was left untouched. When court eventually did resume we were in a prime position to take advantage of the many weaknesses the brown water had left in the police cases.
And that this watery invasion happened on “Australia” Day, well maybe the spirits really were making a statement. Getting paid and not having to practice law for several months was one of the best times of my working life. But we did work. We cleaned. Cleaned the thick mud that covered everything, cleaned the rotten food out of fridges, cleaned the random debris in the streets, and wiped any mud splashes off Glen’s CD’s (all of which were spared damage, much to Glen’s joy).
It was the kind of hard work that makes you feel accomplished and satisfactorily exhausted at the end of the day. We worked and then we drank cold VB. And we ate like kings. I expected we would get standard rations of rice and bully beef, but the Woolies trucks that got stranded contained stuffed olives, caviar, raspberry jam and an assortment of other delicacies.
And we partied.
We partied like people who had witnessed and survived something extraordinary.
A day and an aftermath that I will always remember with amazement and a deep respect for the forces of this beautiful land.