Monday, January 16, 2012

"Welcome to Western Australia, would you like a Bushfire with your Cyclone?"

Blue "B" Alert means get prepared!!

It was almost the most unexciting day we have had on our Big Adventure:

7.00am  - Leaving Broome

Midday – Somewhere between Broome and Port Hedland

7.00pm – Just south of Port Hedland

But then things started to get interesting.

When we stopped at Port Hedland and walked along the foreshore we noticed the wind picking up and it was getting really choppy out at sea. We were going to stay there the night but checked the Bureau of Meteorology website and noticed that a tropical low was forming off the coast. For safety reasons we never drive at night but decided the prospect of nasty weather was enough to change the rules.

So we decided to leave and drive further south. The ultimate destination was Coral Bay, which turned out to be smack bang between 2 natural disasters - Cyclone Heidi to the North and a severe Bushfire to the South. All roads were closed south of the Coral Bay turn-off and would soon be closed to the north. But we were completely unaware of a possible cyclone at this stage, only a tropical low.

So we had a quick dinner and continued on our merry way south while the kids fell asleep in the car. We drove a few hours and it suddenly became apparent that we were heading straight into the eye of the nastiest, scariest storm we had ever seen in our lives. We had simultaneous lightning strikes on all 3 sides, thunder booming all around, the sky was glowing and it looked like the world was going to end. It was around 11pm and we hadn’t seen a single car in hours. I quickly checked the weather again and the tropical storm was now upgraded to a Cyclone. Crap! A few minutes later we lost mobile reception. And then I started to panic.

Of course we happened to be in a region known as the Pilbara, you know the one that always gets a special mention in the news due to its flash flooding and changeable weather conditions? We started seeing water across the road and then were taken by surprise when we hit the first floodway. It was quite scary. Just a 2WD towing an old caravan with precious cargo on board. I could just see the headlines with footage of the Family of 6 people and 1 whippet standing on top of their old caravan floating down the river.

Even the warning signs can't find a network.

The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere. This part of the world is very isolated indeed. We were still 120km from the Roadhouse we were heading to and 60km from the one we last passed. I wanted to head straight back to the last roadhouse but that was in the path of the cyclone so that wasn’t very comforting. But I didn’t want to go through any more floodways and possibly get stranded between them as the water levels rose. I started carrying on like a pork chop. I’m normally calm in a crisis but I was getting quite hysterical and it’s a good thing the kids were asleep.

Me: “Let’s call 000. I don’t like this and I’m getting totally freaked out”
Pianoman: “We can’t, we don’t have mobile reception (and this isn’t a real emergency)”
Me: “But you said we could access an emergency number on our new iphone 4s’s anywhere!”
Pianoman: “No I didn’t, it’s fitted with GPS so we can be tracked if things turn pear-shaped but you still need a little signal to call out (and it isn’t an emergency yet)”
Me:“But no one knows where we are! We were in Broome thismorning! I want to alert authorities before it becomes an emergency. No use calling when we’re floating down the river! Oh My God, we’re going to DIE!!!!!!”

The decision was made for us when we hit another floodway a bit further down but this time it was about 100 metres long and there was no way we were going to go through it. Mobile reception was finally back and we rang the emergency FESA hotline.

The conversation which the unruffled Pianoman had with the lady during this ordeal is hilarious (in hindsight):

Pianoman: Are all roads open between blah and blah?
Advice Line: Yes, all is fine since our last patrol a few hours ago
Pianoman: Well I am experiencing something a little different.
Advice Line: Oh, that’s odd, what exactly?
Pianoman: We are surrounded by a rather large storm and the floodways that were meant to be dry are now whitewater and hundreds of metres long:
Advice Line: (Silence)
Pianoman: Any suggestions?
Advice Line: Um, go to higher ground immediately and we will send a crew in the morning to assess the road but we are a bit stretched with cyclones and bushfires today.
Pianoman: (Silence) Um, thanks.

It wasn’t very comforting advice because there was no higher ground on the floodplains, just this one road, parts which weren’t yet covered in water.

We needed turn around and find a patch of road away from this particular floodway. But there was water on both sides of the road so turning around wasn’t easy. Some time later we see a 4WD approaching on the other side of the floodway. I feel a whole lot better seeing another human. He was a Bosnian with poor English and was also completely freaked out by the weather and says that there were about 30 more floodways after this one and we wouldn’t get through them. He helps us do a 50-point turn. When that didn’t get the car and caravan facing the other direction, we decide to unhitch the caravan and wheel it around by hand. Something was lost in translation and just as the Pianoman goes to get the jockey wheel and chocks for the wheels, the Bosnian unhitches the caravan and it promptly starts sliding down the side of the road. I yell out to the Pianoman who drops the jockey wheel and makes a run for the caravan. So there they are, the Bosnian and the Pianoman with both hands grabbing the caravan tow bar, feet firmly planted into the ground in front of them and bums in the air. Blood vessels are bursting on their faces as they try to keep Matilda from waltzing down the side of the flooded road.

The Pianoman yells at me to grab something to put behind the wheels. I quickly grab the first thing I see which is the spare Petrol Can. “Not that!” he screams. So I chuck the petrol can away like a madwoman and put my incredible hulk on and lift the heavy blue esky out of the back of the car and throw it behind the caravan moments before the boys hands slip off the caravan. That esky is so heavy and I still have no idea how I managed to lift it but that’s adrenalin for you. The esky does the trick.

We turn the car around and hook the caravan back on, collect the tossed petrol can and put the esky back into the boot. At that point, Miss Fancy wakes up from all the commotion and sees me with the esky, “Oh mum, can I have a drink too?”.

We drive the 60km back to the previous Roadhouse navigating the previously dry but now fast flowing floodways in complete silence. It’s now 1 in the morning and the Roadhouse is full of about 20 Road Trains, all with their engines running and it’s so loud. We find a spot next to the petrol bowser and carry the kids into the caravan. The 3 boys have slept the entire way through the ‘adventure’.

We slept at a patrol station - yay us!!! There is the petrol attendant up bright and early to put the Blue Alert sign on the wall (which quickly turned to a Red Alert).

I feel like a stiff drink but instead start getting high on petrol fumes as the petrol can that I tossed away now had a hole in it and had leaked petrol all over the caravan floor. Back we all go to sleep in the car.

I stayed awake and chatted to the Truckies until they started leaving around 3am. When the last one left at 6am it was finally quiet but then we had to make tracks too. The Truckies said we had a small window to get south as the water would temporarily decrease but then the patrols would come through and close the roads.

And so we left in the wee hours of the morning, drove through about 30 of these floodways, each time praying that we wouldn’t aquaplane off the road into the ether.

It’s just as well we did because literally 30 minutes after we arrived at Coral Bay, they closed that very road too. So we arrived at our destination, having dodged yet another cyclone and quite relieved to be ‘stranded’ in paradise until the Bushfires were under control and the road south was re-opened. We were just one big happy family in Coral Bay - no one could get in and no one could get out.

We unhitched Matilda, went directly to the Bottleshop, poured ourselves a drink and burst into hysterical laughter. 

Why does everything seem so much scarier and dramatic at night?


  1. Oh my gosh what a terrifying night. You are very brave. I loved reading your story i felt like I was reading a book. You might have a future as an author. Glad you are all ok and relaxing after that.

  2. My goodness Mel, I was totally gripped by this post. You guys are so brave getting through that ordeal... though I guess the weather didn't give you much choice. I am staggered that your boys slept through all the chaos though, amazing how deeply they can sink into slumber at times. That story is definitely one for the ages.
    I was scared enough a couple of times on our road trip to QLD last week... and that was just when the petrol light came on when we were between towns. I'd have to toughen up to take on an adventure like yours ;o)
    Great photos too by the way xo

  3. Woah - that's intense.
    You are certainly experiencing all that this great land has to offer!
    You won't be forgetting that part of the adventure in a hurry.

    Safe travels.

  4. Oh my gosh that is sooo very scary. I think you coped so well I was freaking out reading what you had written I know I would have been a complete mess by the end of it all. I'm so glad to hear that you made it through safely, wow what an adventure story you have to tell too. I hope that you are all enjoying Coral Bay and having a relaxing time you certainly all deserve it. xx

  5. O M G. I can't imagine how freaked you must have been, but you both made the right decisions at the right times by the sound of it. So fortunate that you got out before the road closed! Amazing story now, but I can see how completely frightening it must have been at the time. Glad you are all safe!!

  6. OMG Mel!!!!!!!!!!! FREAKY!! You have done amazingly well. I was scared for you reading through your post. What adventures you have had...creating memories that you and your family will never forget and such stories to share! Glad you are well.

  7. Wow Mel! So pleased you are all safe and sound. You did well to keep going through all that water.
    Hope you had a good few drinks and a few days to recover.
    This country is a funny thing sometimes with fire and flood together!

  8. Oh Mel, that was the most gripping post I've read in a while. And I'm staggered that you've still managed to blog about it (with your humour intact) right out there. You and the Pianoman were sensational under pressure - I dip my lid to you ☺. Julie is spot on - that definitely *was* one for the ages. J x

  9. Yikes! So not a day you're hoping to repeat in a hurry then ;D So glad you came through unharmed and able to laugh about the adventure :D

  10. Oh it's so bonkers isn't it?? We've had similar crazy situations fleeing Darwin from a cyclone on an Army posting, flying out on the last flight then they close the airport & friends are stranded on the Stuart Highway. My husband is the king of choking wheels & all that stuff, he'd have died if someone else screwed it up & no doubt expect me to fling myself under the wheels to stop the caravan.
    All i can say after living in cyclone & flood ravaged Darwin for 6+ years is that i love my Landcruiser & big tyres, makes the world of difference. So glad you all made it fine & at least one child appreciated the excitement & action. Love Posie

  11. What an adventure! Happy to hear you're safe. No doubt the kids will be sharing the story of the crazy night at the petrol station for years to come x

  12. Oh, oh, oh!!! Damn that would have been scary! It's been a week since you posted that, so I'm hoping that where ever you are is a whole lot calmer....eeek.

    1. Oh yes, it's been absolutely smooth sailing since then. Wasn't a good time for me to have a little bloggy break and leave anyone hanging was it :-)

  13. Damn scary stuff, I am showing this to my hubby. I hope Coral bay is paradise indeed.

    1. Hi Trish, yes Coral Bay was heaven on a stick. Finally just posted about it :-)

  14. What an experience! I am making my way back through your adventure posts and this one was absolutely gripping. So glad to have found you! Emma

  15. I'm sure it wasn't funny at the time Mel, but it just gave me a hell of a laugh. The 50 pt turn, the esky, the Bosnian....classic!
    Sounds like my life!

  16. It's over a YEAR since you experienced it and I know you're back home safe but I still got the heeby jeebies reading this post! Coral Bay IS awesome, am glad you enjoyed your time there; hope it made up for the hellish night that preceded it!