Surviving Ex Cyclone Debbie/NSW Floods 2017
We never expected Cyclone Debbie to hit as hard as it did across South QLD and Northern NSW and I don’t think many other people did either. Looking at the weather forecast a couple of days before it was expected and having experienced a tail end of a cyclone in Perth a few years ago, we knew a lot of rain was coming. What we have learnt from our trip is that plans change and you always need a plan B or even D. We both love a good spreadsheet and maybe we over plan, but during peak season we feel most times it works in our favour to get the best sites and locations. On plan A we were suppose to be on Fraser Island and plan B in Lamington National Park. With the high rainfall and strong winds we thought a commercial campsite away from the coastal storm surge, not directly on a major river and off the hills away from strong winds made sense, so time for plan C.
Day 1: We saw Mt Warning from the Best of All View Points the day before and found a campsite with a coffee shop down the road and set off in beautiful sunshine back over the boarder into NSW. We set up camp, drove up the road and then hiked up Mt Warning an inactive volcano with what apparently are special views. At the top the weather come in at around 4am and it was a white out, with nothing to see we made a quick descent back to the site and put up all the walls on the camper trailer.
On checking the weather and news the forecast wasn’t good and we were in for a rough 48hrs of storms and extreme rainfall. Looking around we were camping next to a small creek, with very little water running through it and we had crossed a causeway over the Tweed river to get to the site, but that was about 2km away. The campsite management said we would be fine, but as the evening unfolded and the rain got heavier we started to see a trickling creek turn into a river and a river turn into torrential fast moving massive body of water. Trees were being ripped out, huge boulders bigger than me started tumbling down the creek making loud booming noises.
Day 2: At 5am having had very little sleep we started to pack up to a basic set-up and got a little sleep between 6.30-7.45am before the only other camper in the unpowered section came asking if we could immediately help him move his tent further up the field as rain was now running through it and he thought the river would breech any minute. Rich went to help carry his tent to high ground in the camp kitchen as I started quickly taking down the rest of DOT our camper trailer. She had held up very well and we were nice and dry inside, but the sheer volume of water billowing downstream wasn’t to be ignored. Our plan was to quickly cross the smaller rising creek back to the main campsite to book into a cabin to ride the rest out. We walked across first to test the waters, I’m only 162cm and it was up to my upper thigh, flowing fast but the bottom was solid and a cabin available on higher ground that side. So we held our breath and went for it, even within that 5 minutes it took to test it the levels had significantly risen and although we made it across with the Landrover making it look easy [ After her other issues, she has been forgiven for getting us across] the force of the water ripped the side trim off and bent the number plate. Once inside the cabin we showered, dried out and settled down to watch the news reports of the unfolding floods. The devastation was incredible and although in hind sight we should have asked our local friends if we could return to their home, we could have been in a lot more trouble. Rain was forecast for the next 32 hours, having already rained solidly for 18 and it was getting heavier plus we were still faced with the creek we were camping near now running outside our cabin, but we were higher and further away from it. We monitored the conditions closely and by 1.30pm the levels were to reach for the first time the walls of our cabin patio. Gas bottles, chairs, trees and boulders rushed past our window where once a creek ran that wouldn’t have transported a large stick. We moved the car and trailer to the small carpark at the top of the campsite and were ready to camp out in the front seats if needed. Having walked down to the main road and talking to the locals that morning [ Their an eclectic, quirky, but friendly bunch] it quickly clear we were now an Island and completely cut off. Stories from past events were being told by the residents that have lived here for years about being stranded for 11 days, idiot tourists trying to cross the floodwaters and ending up being rescued from a pipe under the causeway and the levels rising to where they had at 1.30pm, but the rain this time was still falling. We had some internet connection at reception and so were able to check the BOM forecast and let worried friends and family know we were safe, dry, warm and had food and power. During the early evening on that second day the power did go out for a few hours, but we got the candles out and continued to watch the ever rising and falling water levels. We knew we were not going to get much sleep that night as the creek sounded like a small aircraft taking off and the rain was pelting down, plus we were on high alert to evacuate the cabin if it breached the patio wall as the water flow was so fast. Richards new torch with its super bright beam was perfect for this task (Richard insisted I put a link to it here, available from Drifta)…. okay he was right to buy it. The waters did get close once more around 3am and looking in the morning you could see the line of debris was so so close. The rain eventually stopped at 5am which was such a welcomed relief and so we grabbed some much needed sleep before we were woken by a huge black bull outside the cabin, that had escaped from a neighbours field.
Day 3: The next morning along with all the locals, we are only two of four tourists on this now island, we headed off to look at the damage around 10am some 5 hours after the last rain. The flood damage was crazy with trees down, massive amounts of silt and mud deposited and all roads impassable. Later we headed down again after reports the road had been washed away and found although the water levels had gone down, more than half the road had now collapsed into the river Tweed. At around 4pm the we were able to cross back over to the unpowered sites and see what we escaped, the area we were camped on had flooded, but there looked to be patches of higher ground that might not have.
Some stats we heard on the news: The area has seen between 400-700mm of rain over night 20 thousand people have been effected by evacuation in the towns below us which include Lismore, Tweed Heads and Wullumburgh with the high tides causing issues more issues for them. The levy broke for the first time in 12 years in Lismore and they are without power. There were 406 swift water rescues in NSW and 180 in QLD and the news showed pictures of everything underwater. Sadly 3 people have lost their lives in the flood and our hearts go out to those families and this total rose to 5 by day 5 and more sad stories of a family being swept away in their car by the Tweed as the week went on.
Day 4: The manager Brian on this campsite is amazing and once the water levels reduced, he travelled down to the local shops to get some supplies via the back of the local golf course. There wasn’t much left but he managed to get us some basics which was fantastic. We were told we could now physical get out, but with the weight of our camping rig, the risk of traveling over the small amount of remaining road and not knowing what we would face further down and where we could get too was playing on our minds. So we set up our camper trailer and dried everything off, plus had a little spring clean and a bit of relaxing, as its a beautiful setting. The bull came back and the locals who were taking a well earned rest and a beer on the balcony [ Official lock in party ] while telling their flood stories, had fun heading him off the campsite with a tiny little dog!
Day 5: Today we woke up really undecided what to do and faced a mind game battle for a few hours. More rain was now forecast for on Wednesday for 4 days and people were saying the road would be closed tomorrow with no idea when it would re-open. We were still not sure if we could cross the little amount of road left with the weight of our rig, were we just jumping out the frying pan into the fire. After another visit to the hole to see that there was no further erosion, a check on road closure status’s and a chat on the phone to locals further down the valley, we packed up, gave Brian the manager a big hug and went for it. The journey was actually very easy across the hole, over the first creek and across the causeway before making our way along the windy roads to the M1 and over the boarder back into QLD. But the devastation we saw on route to our friends on the Gold Coast was heart breaking. People throwing their ruined belongs out of first floor windows, piles and piles of sodden mattresses, chairs and sofas by the side of the road, debris in the trees, along the fences and bridges.
This could have been a lot worse for us, we have actually been extremely lucky, sitting in a cafe with the local paper we saw that Springbrook NP where we had been earlier in the week has six landslides, with the road into the Gold Coast that we had driven. Mt Tamborine where we visited with my parents only 2 weeks ago cut off as well, their new 15 million dollar bridge destroyed.
If you are camping in this local area we would really recomend you stay at Mt Warning Rainforest Park, soak up the tranquility and climb Mt Warning.