Acheron – Chapter 7
River of Sorrows
January came round again, and with it, the longed-for rain after a parched year. However, it seemed that we were about to get too much of a good thing. Such is the lot of the Aussie farmer.
The radio spoke in sombre tones of a deepening East Coast Low. Coastal New South Wales was soon awash. Then it swept down across the mountains and was upon us.
It rained all day, then it rained all night. Thunder cracked and lightning flashed, but mostly it just rained. The dry ground could not absorb all the water that fell from the sky — it ran off in great sheets, swelled every track to a stream, every creek to a river, every river to a raging torrent of mud and debris.
In a grey, sodden dawn after a fitful night’s sleep, I stepped out onto the veranda and peered through the residual drizzle into the valley.
I couldn’t make sense of what I saw. The familiar landscape had been rearranged. The tree-lined meanders of the narrow Acheron River were gone. In their place, a wide expanse of grey-brown liquid, dotted with tree canopies, power poles and the roofs of buildings. A flat and apparently motionless expanse, except where obstructions funnelled the flood: there you could see the current tugging and worrying at anything that tried to resist, stay still. Mobs of cattle huddled anxious and lowing on islands of higher ground.
The river bend where the Doyles’ farmlet had slowly grown and blossomed no longer existed. There was just water and the tops of trees and bushes.
I yelled for Dad and Uncle Andy. Soon the whole family was standing next to me. All I could do now was point — my voice had deserted me.
The phone was dead and there was no power. Mum went to start the diesel generator while we men put on our oilskins and boots. Dad started the tractor and I jumped up alongside him. We glanced at each other without a word. Andy hitched the trailer with his fishing tinny to the Landcruiser and we set off down the hill in convoy.
It took us an hour to get to Doyles. Andy had to leave the Landcruiser uphill of where the highway had been the day before. I helped him to launch the little boat and hopped in the bow, being lighter and nimbler than Dad. We advanced slowly and cautiously across the turbid lake which used to be our valley. I used the paddle to fend off debris and to sound for shallows.
Meanwhile, Dad set off on the tractor to raise help from neighbouring farms.
My uncle and I reached the Doyle land. Along the way we passed a flock of chooks that I recognised as belonging to the farmlet, perched in a tree, peering anxiously at the water.
Dearbhla and Colm were standing on the roof of their home, alongside them a few of their sheep and Max the dog; around them the flood roiled. Colm waved frantically and hailed us as soon as we hove into view.
‘We can’t find Áine,’ he called. Whatever my uncle called back was lost to me. All I heard was the blood thundering in my ears.
Others started to arrive in an assortment of craft, from kayaks and rowboats to a big RIB with twin outboards. The older men conferred hastily, agreed upon a search strategy. Colm jumped in the RIB and they skimmed off across the water.
Between us we searched every snag, every half-submerged tree or bush, every islet of higher ground in the swollen torrent between Doyles and Alexandra, ten kilometres downstream. My voice soon cracked from yelling, my eyes grew sore from scanning the waters and the isolated clumps of dry land.
Every time we came to a half-sunken farm building, a raft of debris or a thicket of bushes where a person might lie concealed, I would scoot from the bow and investigate, while my uncle used a boathook to hold the boat steady. At first, he tried to protest, to shoulder this precarious work himself. He had to concede, though, that I was lighter and faster — and needed to do this.
It was mid-morning when word came from boat to boat that Áine had been found. She was alive! An ambulance had taken her to the district hospital in Alexandra.
Next week in ‘Acheron’:
Chapter 8 – Waiting
The two families wait in an anxious vigil while Áine fights for her life. Who will win: Áine or the river?