This is a tale of stupidity.
About two months ago, my boyfriend and I were running fast and free on an Australian East Coast road trip. It had been a gorgeous trip, full of hiking and nature from a true Australian perspective, thanks to the guidance of my Melbourne-based Aussie friend.
All was, as they say, well and good up until the point we went our separate ways: in Brisbane, Queensland. My buddy was heading back home, south to Melbourne where work and responsibility awaited him, and Boyfriend and I were continuing doggedly north, to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.
It seemed like a solid plan at the time: we had gone halfway up Australia in my friend’s car, then in Brisbane, Boyfriend and I were to rent our own and take it the rest of the way. The rental was cheap, our spirits were high – and the weather seemed good. All was golden as we walked into the rental place.
However. There were two things we didn’t know.
1) There were floods happening just north of us so massive, they were comparable to the size of Texas,
and 2) by the time dear Boyfriend and I would reach them, they would have grown to swallow an even greater swath of land that the media later stated was “the size of France and Germany combined.”
Enter we two stupid Americans and a reluctant Aussie into the rental store. The clerk stared at us incredulously.
“You want to do what, now?”
After we were politely informed of the size of the floods, our initial idea was: let’s get around it! My friend did his best for us – found out as much as he could about what roads were flooded, helped us find a route, and gave us his advice. We got our car, said goodbye to him, and started out. In our defense, the situation was developing so rapidly that hardly anyone knew what was going on until the water was practically at their feet, or in some cases, their necks.
So we drove through the city of Towoomba, trying our best to avoid the water by going slightly south before going west. Everything seemed fine and dry, though slightly worrying as we passed through Goondiwindi (Goon-duh-wind-ee), as the waters of the streams around it were feet from the asphalt of the road. But this didn’t show up all that often, and we hoped that the further out we went, the drier it would get.
After Goondiwindi, it got dark. As the sun set behind a sky of ever-blacker storm clouds that were rolling in from the north, we watched kangaroos and wallabies jump in the strangely crimson twilight. What was left of open sky was blood red. After the sun was gone, the only sources of light to be found were from the headlights of our pathetically dinky green car (so small I just called it ‘the booger’) and ever-increasing forks of lightning.
We were aiming for a town called St. George. While small, several hours drive away from any other settlement in the region and otherwise a lonely destination, St. George was the highway hub that, according to our calculations, would take us up and out of danger. But as the black clouds rolled heavily and angrily above us and the lightning flashed, Boyfriend and I began to notice a few strange things…
First, we were the ONLY people on the road. While the sun was still up, we optimistically supposed that was because we were heading deeper into the bush, and that traffic would be inevitably slow. However, the few cars we ever noticed on the road were all passing us, going the opposite direction. And ALL of them, save a semi or two, looked as if they had been jammed full of the contents of an entire house. I mean the works: cars stuffed full plus the approximate equivalent mass of the car itself strapped to the top – and pulling boats and trailers behind that were filled with more stuff.
Also, the only vehicles headed in our direction were enormous semi trucks bearing down on us with a mad determination akin to a suicide mission straight into the mouth of hell. (It dawned on us later that they were getting supplies into the region and getting out as fast as possible…)
Second, we slowly began to notice something on the road itself. No – not water. Not yet. It was something small, organic, and growing in greater and greater numbers at alarming speed: toads. Millions of them. It started out as something easy to avoid (and explain away) – a few toads hopping on the road here and there – but as the dark night grew older, hundreds, then thousands of them crowded the asphalt. Yet there was no rain.
The toads were joined by worms, then came the mice and the moles – and as plowing through them had become completely unavoidable – we realized that the burrowing animals were the first to start the search for higher ground. And the highest ground left to them was the road. They had no choice but to sit and wait for death by car or water. Some toads even chose the easy route and jumped straight into our wheels. The whole scene looked like a harbinger for the god damned apocalypse, people.
At this point, the only thing left that kept us moving forward was the vague hope that St. George had the road that would lead us out.
Finally, we came upon the lights of St. George. It was a small but pretty town, complete with historic buildings and wide streets. Wide, empty streets. And as we came upon the intersection to the next desired highway, we instead encountered a road block. And behind the road block – water. A lot of water. Our ‘intuition’ told us that before we found a place to park the car and sleep, that we should check with the locals about the road conditions past St. George – or if there was any road at all.
The only establishment that we could find still open (it was around 10pm at that point) was the town pub. The lights of the bar were literally the only ones to be seen in an otherwise dark and eerie main street, and the only people that could be found were inside, and DRUNK. Nobody knew anything but the bottom of their glasses at that point, so the bar tender (who might also have been drunk) suggested we talk to the policeman on duty.
Walking down the road to the station, we passed by a park, or rather, a river that covered what used to be a park. I was sufficiently nervous and twitchy at this point, but Boyfriend figured that we still had a shot – if we found someone to tell us what was up.
There was an emergency phone at the front entrance of the station. Boyfriend picked it up. The woman on the other end told him that there was still a chance to get out. The officer on duty pulled into the station and we stopped him.
“Hello, sir. Is there any way to get out of here?”
“Sure – the last road open goes to Goondiwindi.”
“But…we just came up from there – we’re trying to get to Cairns.” We pulled out a map.
“Well I don’t know what to tell you – from what we can tell, the floods have entirely covered this area…”
He pointed to ALL OF QUEENSLAND.
“…so the only way to get up north at this point is to go back south and take an entirely different route through the Outback.”
We were all silent a moment and Boyfriend pondered this new information.
“So the only road open out of here is the one to Goondiwindi?” I asked.
This poor man had an extraordinary gift for patience, even when confronted with two stupid American tourists complaining that their vacation was ruined – when his town was on the brink of being swallowed by water.
“Yes. In fact, you’d better hurry. That road is gonna be closed here by midnight and then there will be no getting out for anybody – probably not for the next two weeks.”
I stared at him wide-eyed, with a twinge of panic, and Boyfriend broke his ponderous silence:
“But there has to be another option…”
“I’m TELLING you your options, mate,” the officer said.
“Yes – thank you…” I dragged Boyfriend away. “We’d better get out of here.”
“Wait, wait, wait…” Boyfriend stopped and turned back to the station, “Let’s call that lady again…but you do it this time. I don’t want to be the one to call her twice…”
There were three things I knew for certain at this point:
1) Boyfriend would not leave unless I did this,
2) I was going to kill him if the floods didn’t first,
and 3) having the same American couple call her for the second time on an emergency police line would probably make this lady reaaaallllllly pissed off.
All of my politically-correct, cross-cultural sensitivities screamed at me.
“Where are you exactly?”
“…oh. You’d better leave. There is no way out through St. George.”
I turned to Boyfriend.
“Let’s leave – NOW.”
We did. We left just before the road closed, and drove the 8 hours back to Brisbane through a sea of amphibians and rodents. From there we just said “fuck it” and flew to Cairns. A week later, however, Towoomba was underwater. Towoomba and the surrounding area became the place with the highest death toll throughout the whole tragedy. St. George ended up 30 feet underwater – And they say over 10 people died in their cars driving through it.
Sometimes life can be pretty touch-and-go. And what have I learned from this?
1) Don’t fuck with Mother Nature.
2) Don’t drive through a flood zone unless you want to look like a dead jack-ass.
3) If your boyfriend wants to continue driving through flood waters, punch him in the solar plexus.