First 1974, then 2019 - history repeats

North west floods: history repeats


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A 1974 newspaper clipping shared recently by former Gulf Country resident, Dawn Teece.

A 1974 newspaper clipping shared recently by former Gulf Country resident, Dawn Teece.

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North west Queenslanders reeling from February's vicious weather event may be able to take heart from knowing that the region has lost vast numbers of cattle in previous natural disasters and recovered.

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North west Queenslanders reeling from February's vicious weather event may be able to take heart from knowing that the region has lost vast numbers of cattle in previous natural disasters and recovered.

It's difficult, researching an event that took place 45 years ago, to find out whether the shocking headline of a million-head toll was ever reached.

History shows though, that despite the terrible floods that swept cattle out to sea all round the Gulf in February 1974, followed by the scourge of 'red water' or tick fever in the predominantly British breed herd of the time, plus the disastrous cattle price slump of the mid-70s, the industry did fight its way back.

Long-term north west Queensland resident, Don McDonald, says the differences between the flooding in 1974 and this month's event were marked.

"We had several good years in the lead-up to 1974 - there was green grass and strong cattle," he said.

"The rain covered a huge area - it started in the Gulf and worked its way down through the rest of Queensland.

"Country went under and stayed under then. The eastern side of the Gulf had very little flooding this time whereas everything was covered in '74.

"This time it was short but very intense, and the cattle had no fire burning in their bellies."

Their usual resilience, thanks to an active rumen bug, was depleted and no match for the starvation diet that days of belting rain and icy wind forced them to endure.

"They just stood in the rain and died this time," Mr McDonald said.

His memories are borne out by Bureau of Meteorology records.

Hydrologist Claire Mills said that in the January-February 1974 flood event, widespread major flooding occurred in almost all areas of Queensland, including throughout the Gulf catchments.

"By comparison, the recent February 2019 flood event, which occurred after around one week of heavy monsoonal rain in north west Queensland and around Townsville, was less widespread and involved fewer catchments," she said.

Mt Isa's artery - its rail link with Townsville - was severed for a period in 1974. This picture comes from February 5, 1974.

Mt Isa's artery - its rail link with Townsville - was severed for a period in 1974. This picture comes from February 5, 1974.

While the Flinders River experienced its most significant flood in more than 50 years and new levels were set at Hughenden, Richmond and at Walkers Bend, levels at Julia Creek were just below 1974, and flood levels at Cloncurry on the Cloncurry River peaked below those in 1974.

On the Leichhardt River, levels at Floraville were similar to 1974; while the Nicholson, Gregory, Norman and Gilbert Rivers were significantly less than in 1974.

"1974 was a La Nina year, and heavy rainfall and flooding was persistent and widespread," Ms Mills said. "By comparison, the monsoon rainfall earlier this year was intense with many record daily and weekly totals broken."

McDonald Holdings acquired its Gulf properties, Iffley, Dunbar and Rutland Plains, following the 1974 flood, which Mr McDonald said "nearly broke" William Angliss.

"People recovered very slowly, picking up a few head here and there," he recalled. "There was no talk of compensation then, that I recall."

It was a time of few bitumen roads, no four wheel drives, few helicopters, and no mobile phones. The lack of GPS equipment prompted stations subsequently to paint their names on their roofs as a location finder.

Memories of 74

One of those who remembers how hard helicopter pilots found it to navigate around the vast sea of water in 1974 is Neil Teece, now of Atherton but then the head stockman at Glencoe, an outstation of Miranda Downs, 140km north of Normanton.

He and his wife Dawn, who was the cook, were caretaking at Glencoe, owned by Queensland Stations, for the off season when the 28-day rain period set in.

As flood waters came up waist deep under the main house and into other buildings five feet off the ground, a helicopter came to evacuate the pair to Stirling, another property owned by William Angliss, and then to Normanton.

It was a fraught departure, according to Neil. He remembers the big helicopter being able to put just one runner on the high dirt mound that was the only landmark out of the water.

A traumatised cow was occupying the same mound and she wouldn't leave, despite the presence of the hovering chopper.

Neil remembers her charging the machine, much to the chagrin of the pilot, and putting a horn through the perspex windscreen.

To get his wife safely inside, he had to distract the cow, pulling her tail and turning her back towards the water.

Thirty or 40 Queensland Station employees had congregated at Stirling, north of Normanton, by that stage.

It was decided that the women should be evacuated to Normanton, which took place alongside a deviation to Glencoe where Neil had safely left some working dogs.

After checking their welfare, they followed the landline phone in to Normanton to keep their bearings.

"I knew where it was normally but that big lot of water - it was an inland sea, we couldn't work it out."

When they could return, they discovered two horses had died of ironwood poisoning under the main house, which they had to cut up and take away with a wheelbarrow.

Of 160 horses on the property, 40 survived.

Neil said the flood at that time was more to the north of Normanton and the company he worked for, Queensland Stations, owned by William Angliss and Co, would have lost a quarter of a million cattle.

“It was the cold wind that did for them this time, after coming out of 40 degree heat for months,” he said. “And a lot of the higher roads that cattle were once able to get onto, they’ve been fenced off for safety now.”

Gulf memories

Gulf cattleman, Barry Hughes, was a teenager in 1974 when the floods hit and he didn't get to school for weeks.

He remembers swimming horses across rivers to get to Forsyth, camping out in the mud and mosquitoes along the way.

"A lot of cattle were wiped out then too - it was hard to quantify, given there were few helicopters flying round in those days," he said. "It's the same sort of episode taking place now - cattle are dying from skin diseases."

Barry said his family lost two-thirds of what remained of their herd to the tick fever that struck the British breed-based cattle that made up much of the Gulf's herd at that time.

Another 1974 clipping from Dawn Teece.

Another 1974 clipping from Dawn Teece.

In the world beef slump that followed, triggered by high world beef production and oil price shocks, Australia's Whitlam government put out an employment package for the country as a whole, that Barry remembers being a big help.

"A lot of people went to town and worked on the RED scheme - that's how we got our cement causeways," he said.

Barry is one of many waiting to see what assistance pathways the federal government will come up with in the wake of this month's flooding.

The story First 1974, then 2019 - history repeats first appeared on North Queensland Register.

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