Lessons in love, floods and the supremacy of nature as the mighty Clarence river in northern NSW breaks her banks. By Tim Baker
Locked in our sublime honeymoon bubble, we had no idea what we were driving into as the cane fields, farmhouses and mud-brown river raced by.
Sure, it was raining, but no more than we’d become used to in the sub-tropical weirdness of late summer weather on the NSW north coast. We had a pile of videos, wine, turkish bread, goat’s cheese, home-made pesto, smoked salmon, and a few days at Seascape, the quaint, ’50s-style beachfront holiday units in Yamba we’d fallen in love with over Christmas. All the ingredients for an idyllic retreat to unwind in after the excitement of our nuptial celebration.
As we crossed the Clarence, the great river was sitting higher than usual, to be sure, and as we wound our way through the low-lying flood plains, past the oyster beds and mangroves and fishing shacks, her rising waters lapped the shoulders of the road into town. But we had no idea then how close we’d come to calamity. A few hours earlier and we’d have driven into the midst of a mini-cyclone that threatened to devastate the sleepy coastal town . . . that felled trees, exploded shop-front windows and flung roof tiles and pine cones through the streets like missiles. A few hours later and we’d have been flooded out of town altogether, stuck somewhere in the uncertain limbo of the crippled Pacific Highway, cut off to the north and south as the flood waters rose all around us.
Trapped in Yamba
It was as though the Magic Mountain had yawned open just long enough for us to pass safely through, then slammed shut behind us. The next day, the only road in and out of Yamba, and much of the Pacific Highway, was unpassable, and the little town of some 5000 people was completely isolated. There were plenty of trees down and a few boarded-up windows and waterlogged gardens as we cruised into town, but little to indicate the extent of the previous evening’s fury. The only signs at our cosy little holiday cottage that anything was amiss were a TV that let out an alarming hum and a slow, dripping leak through the ceiling fan above the bed. We pulled the mattress off its base and installed it on the lounge-room floor in front of the TV as we settled in for a video marathon while we waited for the rain to ease, feeling like we were in a London squat. In hindsight, our message on the landlady’s answering machine, politely alerting her to these deficiencies in our digs, must have sounded naive when most in town would’ve been thankful had their houses still been standing.
The Bureau of Meteorology stopped short of calling it a cyclone, technically because it was generated over ocean too cool to qualify, with the low looming and intensifying out of the south in an uncharacteristic arc. But in its nature and intensity, in the dark spinning eye that seemed to focus on the hapless village and resolve to wreak havoc for most of the night, the storm was entirely cyclonic in character.
This, it must be said, was something of an aberration for what is normally an idyllic sub-tropical climate. Yamba sits 700 kms north of Sydney, 300 kms south of Brisbane, with average temperatures in the mid-20s for much of the year. For good reason, this town is where disillusioned Byronites are heading to escape the invasion of their place by backpackers and sea-changers.
Riding out the flood
Over the next few days, the stories came out . . . of terrified locals huddled in the most protected corners of their homes as windows exploded, electrics buzzed and sparked, stately old trees cracked and fell. Legendary surfboard shaper Thornton Fallander, out at Angourie, a few kilometres to the south, sat on his balcony drinking beer as the storm raged all around him, like a salty old skipper refusing to quit the bridge. Others bunkered down on their kitchen floors with a bottle of red to fortify their nerves against the maelstrom. The Pacific Ocean turned from its magnificent azure blue to a dark coffee brown as the flood waters surged out the mouth of the Clarence, turning the harbour entrance into a tumultuous tangle of rapids, as river and ocean tumbled over each other and trees, logs – even the occasional sheep – bobbed by.
Jenni, our host at Seascape, moved us to a drier, roomier flat and we sat out the remainder of the deluge in comfortable luxury, as rain lashed the windows and winds howled. We watched Dr Zhivago, The Great Gatsby and The Tango Lesson, ate goat’s cheese and pesto on turkish bread and smoked salmon and capers on toast, drank wine, and enjoyed all those things honeymooners do, while feeling like we were ensconced in a ship at sea, untroubled by the news that we were unable to leave town even if we wanted to. We’d toyed with the idea of a honeymoon on a tropical island, although it wasn’t quite in the budget, and had seemingly ended up on one anyway.
As the days wore on, and predictions of our isolation extended into the week ahead, a peculiar sense of unity gripped the community – as if all were inhabitants of a spacious, well-appointed lifeboat. We became known about town as the honeymooners trapped by the flood, and complete strangers would ask us how we were enjoying our stay. While some unscrupulous caravan park owners we heard of in nearby towns had upped their rates to exploit stranded campers, our gracious host halved our rent to a special “flood rate” for our extended stay. Yamba, we felt, embraced us and revealed herself in a way that was inaccessible to the casual visitor.
There were morning coffees and exquisite almond cake over games of backgammon at the Beachwood Cafe. There were uncrowded surfs at Angourie Point with only the locals, who revelled in the absence of out-of-towners clogging the line-up but who nonetheless graciously accepted my presence and happily shared waves. There were long beach walks past the waist-high piles of driftwood that gave promise of many epic beach bonfires to be enjoyed in the near future. There were blissful nudie swims at an isolated national park beach, accessible only via a long walk, which we had all to ourselves on an overcast weekday. There were natural waterfalls, formed among the coastal cliffs as the floodwaters drained off the land, which we showered under to wash off the salt.
The charm before the storm
Yamba is one of those classic coastal spots where a burgeoning cosmopolitan sophistication – evident in some fine restaurants giving the haute cuisine treatment to the area’s bountiful seafood – sits easily alongside the traditional fishing and surfing town roots. It’s the kind of unaffected charm that must have first drawn people to Byron Bay or Noosa 20 years ago. But Yamba’s end-of-the-road geography – surrounded by flood plains and national parks – may preserve its essential stubbies-and-thongs Australianness even as its desirability draws more visitors.
At the town’s heart sits the magnificent Pacific Hotel – burnt down, blown over and rebuilt several times over the decades. Here you can still enjoy a $55 a night double room, with bathroom down the hall and majestic ocean views. A rowdy, rough-and-tumble front bar crowded with fishermen and surfers is the aperitif for a true fine dining experience in the restaurant, its fresh and unfussy fare also complemented by spectacular ocean views. When the restaurant manager wants to know what the catch of the day is, she only has to stick her head into the front bar and ask. Then there’s the historic surfboard collection mounted on the walls, framed black and white photos recording the evolution of both town and pub, and the inevitable pool table.
Over the road, several eateries serve up predictable but passable variations on “New Australian” cuisine. The almost legendary Beachwood once served up the best coffee in town as well as Mediterranean-style favourites, with great seafood, vegetarian meals and desserts as highlights, earning it a place in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
Sadly, gregarious host Sevtap has moved on and the culinary chasm the Beachwood left has yet to be completely filled. Down the road, in the centre of town, there are quality Indian and Italian restaurants, a warm and cosy corner deli-cum-coffee shop, the ubiquitous Chinese and fish ‘n’ chip joint and great fresh local produce.
A short drive south to the famed surf break and settlement of Angourie, there’s also a corner store with the best lentil and veggie burgers around and a new venture, Spooky’s Cafe, which shows initial promise. On the road to Angourie, a slickly marketed Rainforest Resort promotes its upmarket Cunjevoi Restaurant and luxury facilities, though I suspect its guests miss out on the quaintness that is the region’s real charm. If you want to sample the waves at Angourie Point, be courteous and understand that a lot of long-time locals have made this place their home specifically to worship at the great surfing cathedral the Point provides. This was the site of the infamous “surf rage” incident that made headlines around the country a few years ago, when surfing champion Nat Young copped a hiding from another local, Michael Hutchinson. The locals play down the episode these days, scoffing at the surf rage tag and saying it had more to do with a long-standing personal grudge than wave rights. Regardless, the Point is a sacred site deserving of reverent behaviour by visitors.
As it became clear we weren’t going to be leaving town in a hurry, a strange restlessness set in. We’ve always enjoyed Yamba, even mused about the idea of moving there one day, but our love affair with the place was put to the test with life’s responsibilities calling back home. By Tuesday, day four of our confinement, with Kirsten due at work the following day, we decided we’d try our luck in our little All-Wheel-Drive Toyota at low tide. We’d seen plenty of big, jacked-up 4WDs bypassing the “road closed” barricade at the outskirts of town, and figured maybe the authorities were being overly cautious in not reopening the road. We made it over the low-lying bridges and past the cane fields, where a six-inch sheet of water ran over the road, and were almost within sight of the Pacific Highway and our passage home, high fiving and congratulating ourselves on our daring. Then, as we rounded the last bend before the highway, we came face to face with . . . a lake. It completely obscured the road ahead. The tide was already on its way back up and we feared we might get stranded somewhere out in no-man’s land, requiring an ignoble rescue by the State Emergency Services. We hurriedly retreated to the sanctuary of Yamba with our tails between our legs, humbled city folk with a new respect for the supremacy of nature and the might of the Clarence River.
Rumours abounded over the state of the flood and the likely duration of our isolation. On Wednesday the “road closed” barricade came down and again we loaded up the car thinking we were heading home, only to discover we could go no further than nearby Maclean (“The Scottish Town”, with different varieties of tartan decorating every telegraph pole). The Pacific Highway remained closed in both directions, with a thick layer of mud left behind even as the flood waters receded, and the clover leaf exits and entrances to the highway still deep underwater. It felt good even to go as far afield as Maclean, where the river had risen to within a few inches of the tops of the levy banks, which are all that stand between the town and total inundation by the Clarence in just such an event.
With all commuting to work and school out of town impossible, long lunches became the order of the day for the grown-ups, while liberated schoolkids happily splashed in the mud and puddles and diligent citizens continued the clean-up.
Finally, on Thursday, we got the all clear, but by then the restlessness had all but subsided and we were almost sorry to leave. Still, our regular lives beckoned from outside the cosy cocoon and flood-stricken camaraderie we’d enjoyed. We’d come for a long weekend and stayed a week, re-entering the world blinking and uncertain of whether we wouldn’t rather just return to our burrow at Seascape, munch Turkish bread, sip wine and watch videos forever. There was a special freedom in having no choice but to do nothing.
With sea levels and meteorological weirdness reportedly on the rise, you can fantasise about Yamba eventually becoming an island, permanently cut off from the outside world, accessible only by boat or 4WD, at low tide or in drought. It would thus be preserved in its current state of perfect equilibrium between forces new and old, a timeless model in the evolution of a small coastal town with a few good restaurants and a still rowdy front bar.
Enjoy it all while you can.