Torrential rain sheets past the window of our unit. The tops of the palm trees around the pool, swept to extreme angles by the storm, look like dancing ghouls in the grey of early morning; the howling wind provides a haunting musical backdrop. One of the shade sails to the side of the pool has become partially untethered and flaps about wildly, periodically sending an enormous spray of water into the air as a fresh gust rockets underneath it. Amazingly, the pool furniture is still in neat rows around the perimeter of the enclosure, apart from one rogue daybed, wedged awkwardly between the pool and spa. We are on the top floor of our holiday accommodation, a three storey building, around a kilometre from the beach. The storm – the tail end of ex-tropical cyclone Oswald – after raging all night, is showing no signs of abating. The morning news service reveals that SES personnel have worked throughout the night and that gusts of well over 100 kilometres per hour were recorded on the Gold Coast.
We’d booked our beach holiday months ago. And I’d been hanging out for it. Time to lol about poolside and read books. Early morning walks on the beach, body surfing in the warm Pacific Ocean. A catch-up with a loved aunt. Card games. Time to sit and chat around the meal table without someone having to rush off to finish an assignment or to study for an exam. One week of Queensland sunshine after a year when we’d all worked hard and achieved well. I’d heard about the impending cyclone, but the major impact was going to be on far north Queensland. A niggling thought had lurked in the back of my mind that the Gold Coast could cop some rain but I’d swept it away.
Movement outside catches my eye and drags my attention from reports of projected flood levels along the Brisbane River and roofs blowing off in Surfers Paradise to the pool area beneath our balcony – just in time to see two daybeds and a chair fly across the courtyard and into the pool. The shade sail whips into the air again before momentarily sagging across the pool decking until it’s wrenched violently upwards by another enormous gust.
We spend the day inside, reading our books between watching the news and trying to put a contingency plan in place for Hannah, who is to fly home before the rest of us to enrol in her uni course. Gold Coast airport is closed and we can only speculate about whether she’ll be able to fly out as scheduled tomorrow.
Later in the day, when the wind dies down a fraction, we venture out to the local shops for food staples. On the way we park on the cliff top and look out at the coastline. The sea is a seething monster frothing and foaming and spuming. When the rain stops momentarily I hop out of the car to take a photo that doesn’t have to be timed between windscreen wiper sweeps. I can hardly open the door against the force of the wind. When I step out I’m engulfed by it – and a sudden fear of being swept away. I have felt no wind like it. Needless to say a photo-shoot ensues as we jump about and pose for the camera with our hurricane hair vertical and our rain jackets puffed out about us.
That evening, in front of the television news, as the full impact of the flooding becomes apparent, I think about a phone call from Auntie Del – and cringe. The day after we’d arrived she’d suggested Hannah stay with her to be closer to the airport in case of floods. ‘She’s being a bit extreme,’ I’d announced to the others. Surely this rain would pass and we’d be able to get on with our holiday. The newsreader lists the latest flood alerts. It includes the Tweed Valley – which lies between us and Gold Coast airport. I feel a tug of shame at my haughtiness.
As if she were psychic, an image of my aunt lights up on my mobile phone. She’s rung to tell me her son-in-law who works with the council has advised us that if the airport is open tomorrow, not to take the Kingscliff road; several large trees have come down and it’s unlikely they’ll be cleared by tomorrow. I listen intently – a renewed respect for her local knowledge and advice.
The following morning the sun streams in through my window. The curtains, for once, are motionless, not flying into the centre of the room like flags. Another phone call from Auntie Del reveals she can hear planes taking off. A check on the web shows Hannah’s flight status as positive. We relax for the rest of the morning and enjoy our first – and Hannah’s only – laze by the pool before setting off for the airport – avoiding the Kingscliff road. We’ve estimated a twenty-minute drive.
By the time we’ve driven a few kilometres along the Tweed Coast Road the traffic has backed up to a crawl. The reason becomes clear when we pass a ROAD FLOODED sign. Further along, the tarmac disappears under a river of water and the wash from cars sprays across the roofs of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. Already a ute has succumbed to the flow and the driver stands down-stream, holding the open passenger door in waist-deep in water, a look of resigned anguish on his face.
My heart races as the car in front enters the river. It’s a four-wheel-drive. I’m at the wheel of our hire car, a Hyundai i45.
‘It’s too deep. We won’t make it.’
‘Yes we will. All the other cars are driving through it okay.’
‘The ute didn’t.’
‘Well, don’t stop. Keep going.’
‘But we’re in a sedan. A low-slung sedan.’
‘It’ll be fine, Mum. Just keep your foot on the accelerator.’
‘What if we’re washed away? It’s a river flowing over the road.’
‘Leave a bit of distance so you don’t have to stop if the car in front has to.’
‘Go, Mum! You can do it.’
Whoops of excitement sound from the back seat. The clicks of cameras.
‘Wind up your window. Quick!’
‘Keep accelerating. You’re doing great, Mum.’
Eventually we emerge on the other side of the water-course and a cheer goes up from the back seat. I am about to sigh with relief when I catch sight of another huge spray of water as we curve around the road. This looks much deeper to our left and the on-coming cars are veering to the verge to let those on our side stick to the centre. After more coaching and more cheers of delight we make it through. Thankfully the rest of the route is dry and we arrive at the airport with time to spare before Hannah’s flight.
A phone call to Auntie Del assures us that the river is tidal and if we time our return crossing for low tide, we should be okay. We shop for food supplies to fill in the time. By six o’clock when we head back to our accommodation the ROAD FLOODED sign has been removed. Replaced with ROAD CLOSED. Several cars have pulled up on the side of the road. Armed with our local knowledge I swing around the sign and continue along the road, wondering if I am being sensible or foolish. My passengers urge me on. Fortunately, further ahead we see a line of cars whose drivers have evidently made the same decision. Good. I can observe how they fair before committing to the crossing.
The water level is marginally lower and we make it back. (At the end of our holiday when we return the car I am amazed that no one quizzes about whether we’ve driven through flood waters!)
On the plane as we make our approach for landing, below us is the sepia-toned patchwork quilt of the outskirts of Melbourne. I will be going home to a parched garden. And for once in my life I will be grateful for having to roll out the hose.