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Rain Over Norfolk

Rain Over Norfolk

I can see clearly now the rain has gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way,
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind,
It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.                                                   

        – Johnny Nash, ‘I Can See Clearly Now’

Rain spatters against the window and I watch showers sweeping across the valley. Squalls batter our house, while trees and shrubs sway wildly, and heavy droplets hit the roof. Bedraggled roosters sadly peck at the lawn; their feathers damp and drooping. It’s late morning, but I turn on lights and attempt to banish the gloom. Walls creak and doors rattle; the wind picks up and water sheets in from the north.

This year we’ve seen terrible flooding in NSW and Queensland and it’s been unusually wet on Norfolk, too; days and days of mist and rain. So, with the dirty washing piling up, mildew on every surface and vegetables rotting on the vine, I’m now longing for some sunlight and blue skies. The everlasting drizzle has become depressing and everything smells dank and musty, so I flick the dehumidifier on and scrape caked mud off my shoes. There are deep puddles beside the driveway and I hear a cow mooing forlornly as it grazes the sodden fields.

The storm is worsening outside and, like
a melancholy mantra, a nursery rhyme runs through my head: Rain, rain, Go away! Come again, another day. Normally, as a weatherman’s wife, I’d be welcoming this downpour; especially living on a remote island with no rivers, lakes, dams, or great artesian basin adding to our water supply. Suddenly another cloudburst tumbles down, further saturating the house and yard, and I wish the rain would… finally…stop.

When it’s wet and dreary for too long I always think of a Ray Bradbury story – The Long Rain – about astronauts crash-landed on a planet of eternal moisture. Torrential rain falls endlessly and, as the drenched survivors search the dripping jungle for shelter, the entire crew gradually goes insane. Strangely enough, it’s either ‘feast or famine’ on Norfolk. Too much precipitation and we grumble about muddy tracks, sprouting mould, pot-holes and getting clothes dry. Not enough, and we complain about thirsty stock, wilting plants, parched soil and depleted tanks.

The island seems wonderfully lush and fertile to tourists and newcomers, but the community is almost completely reliant on regular rainfall. Most locals only have tanks and, although some have a bore – drawing on water that’s seeped over millennia into island aquifers – they never take this precious resource for granted. A few bad years in a row can see the water table fall dramatically which then reduces underground reserves. Author Ruth Park remembered first visiting Norfolk: “…in the rainy season, a time of mushrooms, overflowing tanks, and plant growth deliriously green.” but, as she ruefully recalled,”…I hadn’t an inkling that water-shortage always threatened.”

In dry years Islanders know how to be especially frugal – limiting showers, recycling household grey water and letting gardens die back. Though Norfolk’s pines and sub-tropical forests look luxuriant, the dusty tracks and yellowing grasses will show when we’re in drought, and even careful residents may then need to buy truckloads of bore water to replenish their empty tanks. At such times we dream of rain and imagine splashing through puddles with the smell of damp earth in our nostrils.

So, periods of low and high rainfall occur, but thankfully Norfolk hasn’t known the kind of catastrophic flooding just experienced in parts of Australia. Extreme weather events in the past, however, have brought destruction to our shores. On the night of May
21st – 22nd, 1936, Merval Hoare says:
…an electrical storm of ‘unprecedented severity’ lashed the island.” The Cable Station at Anson Bay recorded 15.5 inches (393.7 mm) of rain while Kingston received 9.47 inches (238 mm). Roads, bridges and culverts were demolished while landslides and floodwater caused substantial damage to crops, fences, houses and private property.

The island’s network of dirt lanes and byways had been graded and repaired, as part of a new Public Works scheme, and Hoare notes: “…important roads were probably in very good order [before the storm], smoothed over, but in many cases with the vulnerable topsoil exposed.”
This allowed the driving rain to cause multiple landslips, rock falls, road blockages and general devastation. Rubble, silt, boulders and surging waters carried away two bridges while ruining, and destabilizing, the recently improved local highways.

Most of the rain fell between 11pm and 6am, and Hoare says Administrator Pinney: “…awoke to find Kingston Common under water, in places right up to Quality Row. The golf links were also inundated; from there the flood eventually broke through to the sea near the cemetery.” Café Dewville, situated on the hillside behind today’s golf club, was almost completely destroyed by floodwaters. The proprietor, R B Dewey, and his assistant were lucky to escape with their lives. Their piano was swept away, only to be found later, marooned on the golf course.

The Mudgee Guardian reported: “…losses are very heavy … over 1000 inhabitants are in dire distress … The force of the wind was indescribable.” A massive landslide severed the cable and, according to another newspaper, the cable hut:
“…was wrecked and washed out to sea when hundreds of tons of undermined
cliffs collapsed under the terrific force of
the storm.”
  The deluge saw 20 inches (508 mm) fall in 10 hours and: “…great rocks were lifted like corks in the valley torrents and deposited a mile away.”

By May 23rd the cable link had been restored on Norfolk, and the Administrator could tell Australian authorities about the flooding and attendant chaos. Prime Minister Lyons authorised Pinney to spend whatever was necessary to assist residents in need, maintain communication links and repair essential infrastructure. Hoare says: “Work on clearing the highways began at once. Trees, logs and debris were removed and temporary bridges put in place to restore communication around the island…[but] rainy days made the hard work harder.”

Fortunately, local passionfruit plantations  were largely unharmed, but valley landholders incurred the greatest losses. More than eighty property owners reported significant damage to their land, produce and assets, and the Commonwealth Government eventually granted 1200 pounds for flood relief. A contemporary journalist wrote: “Convict ruins and the recreation ground are now a gigantic mud flat covered with debris…” but also noted: “…a wealth of interest awaits scientists. In many of the washaways Polynesian skeletons and relics were unearthed.”

Some Islanders – now gone – had vivid memories of ‘The Great Flood’. Edie Mack (nee Gabbutt) recalled a cow, and small hut, being washed over the cliffs near Cascade. ‘Boonie’ Buffett, almost ten at the time, remembered how dozens of eels were flushed out of the swamped Kingston creeks. He and his brother, George Alden, gleefully collected bucket loads of the slimy, slippery creatures, and smuggled them home. They filled the family bathtub to the brim; and gave their dad, ‘Funny Bill’, quite a shock when he went to have his morning wash!

There were very few motorised vehicles on Norfolk in 1936, and any decent downpour turned the island’s unsealed roads into quagmires that no car or truck could traverse, so horse-drawn carts were still the main form of transport. Old-timers tell of attaching chains to car wheels in an attempt to drive on boggy island streets, full of puddles and pot-holes, but as Bill Wiseman observed: “…for a long time a horse could negotiate steep roads, muddy after rain, that were impassable to cars.”

Fifty years after the flood Jackie Ralph Quintal wrote
humorously of the special difficulties cart drivers faced during such a tempest: “Coming home in the darkness, A thunderstorm has hit; You cannot see the horse’s tail, for the lantern can’t be lit. The rain is fairly pelting down, Flooding the buggy seat; Your matches saturated, just to make your life complete. The horse is barely walking, As the waters past you sweep; Then you drop
into a pot-hole, nearly two feet deep.”

So, Norfolk doesn’t have the problems of yesteryear – it’s been a wet start to 2022, but we’ve had no dreadful floods to worry about. The storm has finally passed and the sun is out. Golden rays break through the leaden sky, and my lawn is suddenly a vivid green; scattered with brilliant yellow flowers. Shafts of fitful light glint on leaves and trees, and the world seems freshly laundered. The showers have vanished, a rainbow arches above me, and another song comes to mind:

I think I can make it now – the pain has gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared.
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day…

        – Johnny Nash, ‘I Can See Clearly Now’


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 05 Issue 02, 2022. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.

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