Survival of the fittest

Homes destroyed by Tracy's ferocious strength
Homes destroyed by Tracy’s ferocious strength

Cyclone Tracy changed the face of Darwin forever. It also changed those who survived its ferocious destruction as survivor, Iced Vovo, reflects.

The Northern Territory is one of the last frontiers of Australia. It’s arid to tropical climate, rugged landscape and isolation continues to attract a culturally diverse mix of people and like most of Australia, the majority of Territorians can be found clinging to the coast in the great north’s capital, Darwin.

Darwin is a melting pot of business and personal interests represented by over 60 different nationalities.  Its main industries, as indicated by Darwin City Council, being “mining, offshore oil and gas production, pastoralism, tourism and tropical horticulture” with 60% of its workforce being Government employees. It is also a land of unique and prehistoric creatures such as the infamous crocodile, swelling in numbers and revered for its strength and survival.

Darwin is a place of extremes – extremely hot temperatures; extreme beer consumption (used medicinally to cope with the hot climate); extremely laid-back people (probably relates to the beer) and extreme natural beauty to name a few. Darwin is also a place I fear. It is not the abundance of creepy crawly creatures or the beady-eyed sharp-toothed crocs that freak me out, or the fear of a likely beer belly; it is the unpredictable weather patterns – good old Mother Nature herself that kept me from returning to Darwin for over 30 years. I doubt whether anyone watches, or criticises, the meteorology reports as consistently and with as much scrutiny as myself. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m obsessed by the weather as I listen fearfully for the daily predictions of wind patterns continually battening down my own private hatches. Why? Because they’re more often than not wrong as they were on 24 December, 1974.

Christmas 1974 is solidly cemented in my mind forever, as I’m sure it is for everyone else who happened to be living or visiting Darwin then. Unlike other childhood memories, whose details have faded or become distorted over time, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of that year, seem to be stuck, rigid, in my head, including the weather reports predicting and tracking Tracy’s approach.

Incredibly only 65 people were killed in the wake of Tracy’s 217 km cyclonic winds, 16 of those at sea. Pictures of a flattened city that were beamed across the country and interstate fail to really capture the intensity of its destruction. I know this because I can still clearly visualise the landscape pre Tracy, during the eye of the storm and then afterwards. Post this experience, I am now not only ‘twitchy’ at the slightest breeze, but when I see images of storms like the Indian Ocean Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 (let’s not get superstitious about Christmas) I know that in reality what I’m being shown is only the tip of the iceberg.

I rarely recall dreams, but for me, Cyclone Tracy is a reoccurring nightmare where I don’t have to have my eyes closed to experience the panic and to recall each moment of that night. A night that started with my family shopping for last minute presents at the newly opened Casuarina Shopping Centre, now a more modernised and institutionalised Darwin icon, and the place where my parents collected mine and my sister’s bicycles that would get their first ride Christmas Day amongst the rubble and remnants of our home. What I recall next is being gently woken by my Mum and realising I was wet. Steady rain had been coming through the louvres and onto my bed. The storm had started.

Weather reports predicted Tracy but broadcasts that night suggested the bulk of the cyclone would occur off shore far out in the Arafura Sea. We were told, and followed, cyclone precautionary measures such as keeping louvres open on one side of the house (to help with controlling air pressure).  Or my mothers favourite, “The bath full of water, which we were told to fill to use for drinking etc., but was completely contaminated with leaves, mud and a dark grey colour.” We were told not to be too concerned. Tracy was going to be no worse than other Cyclones Darwin had experienced before such as Selma who changed course and disappeared.

I never trust the weather. What I do trust are animals and Indigenous Australians. My sister’s cat, Sparky, (who survived Tracy only to be killed by a car soon after evacuation while temporarily living with my grandmother) took off Christmas Eve, to where we’ll never know, only to return safely after the storm. Likewise Darwin’s Aboriginal population appeared to go ‘walkabout’. We have a lot to learn from these people. It is obvious to me, and not a cliché, they know the land. If I were living in Darwin now, I’d be listening and learning more about Aboriginal ways.  I’d be following their lead, especially when it came to the weather.

I can recall the events of that night, in slow motion, as each aspect unfolded, from the air conditioner in my parents bedroom being sucked outside, to the roof being ripped off, to sitting on our parents knee in the shower cubicle, (the only solid part of the house left) waiting for the eye.

I vividly remember sounds – the patter of rain; the whir of wind; the screech of metal against metal; the thud of objects hitting each other in flight, then, the sound of eerie silence. The evil silence of Tracy’s eye. Afraid of the wild beast she was, we tentatively crept out from our broken home, and peeked out into her blackness, waiting for her to pounce. Nothing. Finally, “Are you ok?” Neighbours checking on each other. Fear in all our voices. Then, rapidly building, a sound I still can’t describe, the chilling sound of Tracy’s return. Retreating back inside our shell of a home wondering when it will end and how it will end.

Finally, it did end.  Christmas Day 1974. No homes, just distorted casings, iron and debris as far as you can see. No plants. Trees ripped from the ground along with telegraph poles, cars, aeroplane hangers and planes up-ended, twisted, and thrown like miniatures tossed by an angry child. My Dad, a RAAF Barracks Officer, almost immediately called on duty to start the clean up of the airbase and evacuation proceedings, “We made holes for makeshift toilets, collected food from freezers for redistribution and set up showers on the tarmac using blown off doors and fire hoses. Our priority was the civilians.” My Mum, sister and I left to ponder our survival. What was left, what was salvageable, what the hell had just happened!

I still have my treasured bike!
I still have my treasured bike!

We survived, so did those Christmas bikes that my sister and I used to ride around the RAAF base ruins taking in the scene of devastation until we were evacuated two days later.  We still have them. They are a solid reminder of Tracy, our Christmas miracles.  Not much else survived unscathed. Water damage wrecked virtually everything. “Material possessions aren’t important anymore,” Mum reflects. Thank God for the Salvos who became our saviours after Tracy helping to clothe and support us. Thank God for the RAAF too who still hold the record for the biggest and fastest evacuation. Another first was the 200 or more people on the Hercules aircraft we were transported out on. “I was given 15 minutes to pack a bag and get to the plane. Needless to say there was a weird mix of items in the suitcase,” Mum recounts.

It wasn’t that long ago that I finally returned to Darwin, a trip I had been putting off out of fear. Even when my sister went to Darwin for work 20 years on, I made excuses as to why I couldn’t visit. I wasn’t ready to. Sounds stupid, having a fear of a place. Darwin has been rebuilt, cyclone proof apparently (although I doubt I will ever live there again to test it out). Not 100% safe, no place could be. Building codes have been further amended but owners need to ensure their homes are maintained to minimise deterioration caused by corrosion, rotting timber, termites or general weathering. All which are likely to occur in tropical climes. Our home was supposed to be safe too, being one of the newer ones built at the time but as Mum recalls, “A lot of the really older homes seemed to withstand Tracy better than ours which was a typical tropical home, built on stilts, with 12 stairs leading to the front door. By the end of the cyclone it had lost its roof, all louvres down one side, one of the walls had fallen in over the new bikes, water was running down all the light fittings, the house had moved about 2 feet so the front stairs were no longer in line with the front door, all the nails in the floor boards had lifted and you could almost see their points, the lush garden plants and palm trees were all gone, in fact there was no trace of there ever being a garden and even the door key in the laundry down stairs was bent at right angles, from the strength of the wind.” Tracy left her mark everywhere.

Darwin’s a delightful modern city that, having now returned once and survived, I would be happy to visit again. It wasn’t how I remembered it and that’s not necessarily bad. Time does heal most wounds. Not all as I found out at Darwin Art Gallery’s simulated Cyclone Tracy display. Stepping into the Cyclone ‘enclosure’ immediately sent shivers down my spine, not an easy thing to do in the heat and humidity of the tropics! It was the taped sounds of Tracy however, that had me weeping amongst strangers, immobilised by all the memories flooding my senses. On reflection, it was kind of cathartic, but I would only recommend it to survivors, with caution.

We didn’t have counselling, it wasn’t what you did in those days and it wasn’t offered. We needed it. We probably still do.  I’m unsure whether Darwin, the scientist, got it right. In my experience nature will always have the upper hand. I’m not sure if it is the fittest or the smartest that will survive, as I don’t believe we were either, I believe we were some of the luckiest.

(Ps. Thanks to Mum for this solo surviving photo of Darwin post Tracy!)

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