Cyclone Tracy Memories Christmas 1974 – John King

CYCLONE TRACYMEMORIES CHRISTMAS1974 CHRISTMASEVE

Like many people I remember Tracy very well and was well aware of what a cyclone could do, we had family friends that remembered the cyclone of the late thirties and the damage that caused to Darwin. My parents lived at Howard Springs and were ready & waiting for Tracy, my Dad had the foresight to put cyclone bolts into the walls of the house when he had it built. Mom packed everything important into plastic bags & stowed them safely. She had also had batteries, radio, torches, spare water, along with stacks of food & grog.

However I wasn’t prepared and neither was anyone I knew, I worked at Lands & Surveys in Moonta House. As Surveyors we were a pretty resourceful bunch, we were out bush for a lot of the year, often in very remote places where we had to kill own food and make do with whatever was at hand.

Christmas Eve started pretty much the same as it had for years, Surveys always had two Christmas parties one for the office staff and another at the Survey depot in one of the old Navy victualling yard sheds, organised by the chainmen, and these were always a blast. While waiting for the office party to start most of us went down to the Hot & Cold at opening time to have a few starters. I remember one of the bosses coming in & asking one of the surveyors to come back to the office to take a phone call, typical Darwin.

We held the office party in the draftsmen’s area on the top floor; they had the biggest tables to put the food on. At about 3pm one of the phones rang, & I couldn’t believe it when someone called out that it was my Mother calling to warn me of the approaching cyclone and telling me to get home. It was a joke to most everyone there and I got quite a ribbing about it.

Moonta House pre cyclone

Around four the Surveyors took off for the chainman’s party which was in full swing, it had started to rain but no one was worried about anything other than eating & drinking. A lot of them had big families to look after but it was party time.

After a couple of hours a few of us arranged to meet at the Sea Breeze to continue on, around dark we gathered in the front bar of the pub. If you remember the Sea Breeze the bar opened onto the cliffs near where the Nightcliff jetty is now. Well you couldn’t stand at the bar because the sea was crashing over the cliffs and the spray was coming in the front door, it was rather damp, the rain was getting heavier as well, so we had a couple of beers out the back, and then because we were still getting wet I offered to continue the party at my place in Stuart Park.

I lived with my sister and one of my mates Dobie & his wife who were in a caravan in the yard, the house in Henry Street Stuart Park, was an old prefab elevated design that was brought out from England in the SO’s it was made out of aluminium & there were quite a few around inner Darwin, because of all the metal in them they looked a lot stronger than the places going up in the Northern suburbs, I figured a cyclone wouldn’t worry it

By this time we knew there was a storm coming, the rain was pissing down and the wind was powering up. Needless to say it wasn’t going to stop us having a good time. I remember going for a walk around 11pm up Henry Street with one of my mates, Fritzy. We took an umbrella which was useless, it blew apart. We then went back to the party & told the people there that it was getting pretty windy. The guys with wives & families started leaving, they all made it home. By about midnight there was just my sister & I left. I told her about the call from Mom in the afternoon and how I had made a promise to her that we would come home. So we threw a few things into my car. I had bought a whole lot of top shelf booze at the Gallon licence in Bishop Street so I put in a large bottle of Drambuie. It saved me.

By this time it was blowing a gale & we had no idea what was happening. The TV was off & I don’t think the radio was going either. I pulled up at the Airport gates servo to fuel up and that was the first time I realised how serious things were getting. I opened the car door an inch and it was blown out of my hand and slammed open. I freaked out worried about the door and I had my sister yelling at me that she was getting wet, I already was. I fuelled up & went to pay, we were the only people there & I asked the young fellow behind the counter what he was going to do, he answered that he had to work the night shift & had no plans to do anything else. We left & took off down the track to Howard Springs.

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The course of Tracy, we were just ahead of it

It was the worst drive of my life; we were the only car on the road which you could only see by the flashes of lightning. The rain was coming in horizontal and the car (an old HR sedan) was rocking like crazy. It was very slow and as we got further out of town we started getting hit by flying branches. By the time we got to Mom & Dads place we were totally freaked out.

I parked the car in front of the house and dashed inside and I was in an immediate argument with Mom over where I parked the car, she w s worried that the car would crash through the glass sliding door & kill us all. I had to move it. We had

no power and after all the partying I was absolutely stuffed so I crashed, and left the rest of them sitting in the dark, my Mom’s sister was up from South with her daughter for Christmas & Mom & her were going spare, the last thing they expected was to be caught in a cyclone.

I woke up to an almighty bang maybe an hour later, Dad’s home built shed had taken off into the night, we found the next day one of the concrete footings with the steel still in it had landed about a meter or so from where my head had been on the pillow. That was scary.

I went out to the lounge room where the rest were sitting watching the storm through the sliding doors. I was starting on a massive hangover and needed a leak. I opened that toilet door and was blown away by the noise the toilet bowl was making; the wind was sucking everything out of it by blowing over the outside vent pipe. So I went outside on the verandah and·had a piss into the wind. I was amazed when it disappeared up into the sky.  I raced back inside and told them all, of course they were all horrified. I had got a good look at the storm and it looked like it was getting worse, so we pulled out all the mattresses and put them down in

the hallway which the women took to.

By this time my hangover felt worse so I nicked out to the car & grabbed my bottle of Drambuie and realised that the roof of the house was starting to flap around. So Dad & I sat in front of the doors watching the house blow away with the girls telling us to get under cover. The noise of the wind was immense & with the banging of the  roof and the constant lightning flashes it was surreal. We were lucky, there were no other houses anywhere within miles, and the trees were far enough away

from the house not to hit it, it was all wind doing the damage.

It started to get light around six, & the wind was still up, and we could see the tin off the roof spread all around the block, caught in the trees, it looked bad. The scene reminded me of Antarctic blizzards I had seen in the movies, with the roar of the wind & the rain blowing horizontal to the ground. Of course by this time the Drambuie was having its effect & I was starting to feel ok. Dad & I started making plans as what our next move would be once the storm let up.

Dad in front of the house around 7am Xmas morning

The house had been built in 1973 and the cyclone bolts l,ield the walls together. We lost no glass & most of the bearers were still on the roof. We didn’t get wet either as the ceiling stayed in place; it took a day to leak through and wet everything inside.

The Eye passed about a kilometre north of us so the wind never let up, and the damage done was the same as Darwin’s.

SURVIVAL

As Mom & Dad’s house was stuffed I offered them accommodation at our place in Stuart Park, I still thought it would be ok, so my sister & I loaded up my car, which survived without any damage, with all the Christmas presents: there were plenty and they filled up the car. We took off back to Darwin; I had been drinking·for nearly 24 hours but felt as sober as ajudge.

Thedrive back to Darwin was as surreal as the drive down the night before. We

had to pick our way through all the tree debris on the road and all around the trees were stalks with a lot fallen down in the direction of the wind. It wasn’t until we got to the airport that werealised how bad it was, all the planes were upside down, on top of each other & wreaked. The servo I had filled up at was gone; I wondered

what had happened to the kid behind the counter.

Smashed planes, there were lots of them

Turning into Henry street there was a lot of damage to the houses and I still had hopes our place would be ok, but as we came over the crest of the hill we saw there

was hardly anything left, just the toilet & bath room. We looked around for Dobie & his wife they were nowhere to be seen, and the caravan they were living in had a huge piece of wood from the house up the hill, pieced through the roof through their bed and rammed deep into the ground under the van. We thought the worst.

We found out later that they had just gotten out of the van and were hiding under the house when the timber had smashed it. They were due to fly out to Bali Christmas morning on their honeymoon and had made their way to the airport in the faint hope the plane would still be going. They did get one a few days later but for South.

The house belonged to Dobie’s parents who had rented it to me a couple of months before & I felt guilty about the state it was in. My sister & I had a look around for anything we could salvage, I had hundreds of books they were everywhere and wet through, which upset me, we found a few wet clothes, and by some miracle all the top shelf booze I had  bought was ok, enough to last for a month or more, as the car was already full of presents about all we could we fit in anyway was the booze.

What to do next? We decided we had to find out how our friends from the night before had fared, as they all lived in the northern suburbs we took off down Bagot road. God it was a mess there was crap all over the road and power lines down everywhere, we had to pick our way through it all. The poor car was copping it; I managed to put a hole in the fuel tank and got a flat tyre.

Our first stop was at the Fritz’s in Nightcliff they lived in Johnson place, they were at home, but of course the house was hardly there but had come through a bit better than those around it. I remember seeing the water tank around the corner, Fritzy had pointed out a big ding in it. It had been hit by the fridge from the house next door a least a couple of hundred meters away. The force of Tracy was amazing.

Fritzy’s house a few days later

We then took off down Trower Road and things got worse. There was nothing left, driving was getting harder, and the strangest thing was there was hardly anyone around. We found a number of mate’s houses, quite difficult because even though I had helped survey a lot of the northern suburbs I could hardly recognise anything.

We found no one else & by this time we were worried sick. We didn’t know that everyone had collected at the local schools.

Everywhere seemed to be the same, not much left

I was getting pretty buggered and driving any further was not really an option my poor car was copping a flogging, so we headed back to Howard Springs. Things had gotten worse at home Mom & Dad were absolutely distraught, their new house was gone and to make things worse the house was now full of water that had collected in the ceiling. When we told them about our house in town and the state of Darwin they didn’t believe us I told them we were better off than just about anyone else and would have to make do with what we had.

Later that afternoon a car came down the road the first all day and it was a friend who was a nurse at the hospital. She told us there were hundreds dead, we believed her after seeing the damage done in towr:i-. I spent the rest of the day making up a list of things we were going to need and that night slept the sleep of the dead.

The next morning I was ready to go, I knew where I could get nearly everything we would need, the Survey depot in Gardens Hill, I had keys to the place but when I got there it was pretty stuffed, I filled up all the jerry cans I could find with petrol, recovered a couple of large tarpaulins, as many roofing nails as I could find along with assorted tools, car batteries, lights, ropes, cooking stuff, all the gear you could possibly need for us to get back on our feet. I saw no one it was eerie, though I did hear later that most of the Toyota’s parked up were stolen, one was found in Perth.

I made a number of trips that dayback & forth to Howard springs. I called into the shops in Stuart Park, I knew the Greek owners who told me to grab whatever I wanted, in particular I grabbed food and smokes and batteries. On the second or third trip I was driving past the ice works near the airport, we used to get all our ice there when we went bush and I knew the set up. The gate was open and there was a guy there wandering around I asked him if it was ok if I grabbed some ice. •

There was a huge cold room chock ablock full of ice that was starting to melt, I started filling up bags & put them in the car, it was cold & slow work so I backed

the car up to the door and just pushed all the ice I could into the boot. The car by this time was leaking like a sieve so I got home as fast as I could, & we filled up everything available with ice. It lasted a week or two. The next day when I went back into town there was a queue back up to Bagot road all with one bag each waiting to get ice, I certainly felt guilty about what I had taken.

People waiting for ice

The next few days were a blur. We put the tarps over the timber that was left on the roof to keep out the rain; I took my Aunt and her daughter to the airport to be evacuated. It was absolute chaos. My Mom & Sister were told they had to go but they refused. We pulled the carpet out of the house, it was saturated, it upset Mom as it had only been laid a few weeks before Xmas. We also found a friend down the road that loaned us an old furphy water cart which we could fill at a nearby creek. There was also an old guy few blocks away that had a genset and he let us use his freezer to keep our food cold after we ran out of ice. This was a life saver.

I had a tetanus shot & what every else they were injecting at Alawa school we went around to all the schools looking for friends and found no one, I did find two, Tom & Lorna, their house was stuffed and they were barely getting by so I offered them to camp with us, Tom had hundreds of guns, he collected them & they took a while to move, they both helped clean up around the block & Mom & Dad appreciated their help.

As the week went on one of the most astounding sights going back & forth to Howard Springs was the traffic heading south. The cars were all wrecked some without roofs it was amazing what people had managed to get going. I was still trying to scrounge stuff, I went into town, Smith Street was a mess. The Chin family were in their shop, it was only a tin shed and was just about all gone, I was friends with a few of them and they let me pick through what was lying around.

This shop sold everything and even though wet & pretty stuffed I found lots of gear I could use. I remember going into Casuarina but there was nothing left but rotting food. I also did a bit of “sightseeing”. The damage done by Tracy was just incredible, I went down to the wharf and saw the patrol boat jammed up under it,

& the harbour had debris all over it, there were people making do with what was left, like washing on the pipeline into town. The damage done in the northern suburbs looked worse the closer you looked, the twisted power poles were impressive. My regret is that I didn’t have 8: camera; it blew away so I didn’t take any photos.

The harbour was a mess Typical destruction

Bythe end of the week we were going ok. We had a dry house, a water supply, lights, plenty of food and most important cold beer. The creek down the road was flowing well and it was pure luxury after a hot day to have a wash in. It became a meeting point for anyone that was left at Howard Springs. .

Mom & Dad always had a party at New Year and when Stretton wanted to shut down all grog sales in Darwin we decided to have a party anyway, we had plenty of booze and food, so I ran around the neighbourhood & invited as many people as I could find. There wasn’t many, but by about 8 o’clock New Year’s Eve there were hundreds of people there, god knows where they all came from. It was one of the best parties I had ever been too. There were people crying into their cups over what they had lost and others just going crazy. After midnight I told a couple of ABC journo’s about the creek down the road and about half the party adjourned for a swim, it turned out that the ABC mob were a bunch of nudists so everyone stripped off and had a swim. It was a ball. The next morning the block looked like a parking lot with people sleeping everywhere.

I was due to go back to work after the New Year holiday which I did. Only a few of us rocked up. Me & my mate Fritzy, a couple of others and the Surveyor General, Peter Wells, the big boss. Fritzy & I didn’t think much about that. He put us straight to work. The first job was to clean up the mess from the Xmas party, no one had been in the building since Xmas eve and it was a mess, empty beer cans, rotting food, overflowing ash trays and everything stinking from the water that had leaked in, there was no power and it was as hot as hell. We then had to do something with the old survey plans, we held plans of old surveys going back to Goyder, & Wellsy was really worried about them. He made us get up on the roof and patch up any leaks. It was three stories high & we weren’t builders, I

remember Fritzy slipping in his own sweat and sliding down the roof to the edge, he managed to pull up just in time. We were reasonably successful and we never lost any plans or field notes.

THEAFTERMATH

Life in Darwin now became a grind. There were no pubs, no TV, no Drive In, no shops just work every day & all day. I helped Dad & Tom put the roof back on the house at Howard Springs, Dad had enough tin hoarded and we found bits of wood lying around and I had plenty of roofing nails. It was bloody hard work, with none of us with many building skills. I also helped Fritzy put the roof back on his parents’ house at Nightcliff, that was hairy it was an elevated house & it was along wayfrom the ground. In all I helped put over half a dozen roofs back on. All jerry built but mostly waterproof, I swore I would never do another roof in my life, it was hot hard dangerous work.

Soon after the Fritz’s roof went on his parents took off south & I moved in. It was a bit crowded at Howard Springs and I was sick of going through the police check point every time I drove the track. Cops with guns turned me off. Living in Nightcliff at this time was different to say the least. The Navy fleet was in the harbour an amazing sight with all the helicopters coming & going, the sailors were moving around the area cleaning things up & looking for bodies. We had crop dusters going over spraying chemicals over everything trying to kill any bugs, the smell was horrible. We had managed to score a generator so we had fridges & lights going, the only ones for miles around at night. Fritzy had a pool table that had been smashed around a bit but we got it fixed and we played many games of pool.

We tidied up a bit around the yard and on one of the trips with the trailer to the dump; we came across a dump truck dumping thousands of cans of beer. It had come from the wharf the beer had gotten wet & they were chucking it all. We couldn’t believe our luck, the cans were all loose but we filled up the car & trailer to overflowing and raced back to Fritzy’s place, where we carried them upstairs, we didn’t want any to go missing. That was a wrong move it took ages to stack them

up against the end wall, & we were desperate to get back to the dump. When we made it back I think everybody left in Darwin had been and they were all gone. The beer we had lasted for ages, it made for some good parties, there were all types; the green cans went first and the Four X last.

Around this time Rolf Harris came to Darwin and held a concert at the Amphitheatre, I think anyone who could was at this concert, it was strange the only light for miles around was coming from the stage and Rolf did a great show. Our group was very popular as my sister was with us, one of the few women there. It was a great night & sort of helped with the feeling that things were getting better.

Fritzy & I were going to work in town every day, which was strange, there were no shops opened and few people around, a takeaway food shop opened across the road from Moonta House the first one in town, which was great as we could now buy our lunch. It was very popular. We were still getting all our food at Darwin High school,

which was cool, it was all for free, but everything was in a large size too much for two guys. We were still eating leftovers a year later.

By February people were starting to come back & we found that most of our mates were ok and were not hurt in the cyclone although they lost everything. Relating stories of what had happened over Christmas became a favourite past time. There was not much else to do, although one of my friends came back with a new Torana which was airconditioned, a rarity in those days, with a great stereo. We used to drive around the empty northern suburbs at night with everything blasting and explore the ruins in the dark. It was strange. There were also afew “blue” movies doing the rounds, because we had gensets and had resurrected an old movie projector, we held a movie night, there were few women left and word got out and we hosted a whole mob of fellows, again it was a memorable night.

I started surveying again the office was slowly getting back to normal. One of my first jobs was to survey East Point for a caravan park, I didn’t like the idea it would have buggered East Point, in the end Tracy Village went up which was a great place for a rage, especially Sunday arvos, when the place got packed. By Easter Fritzy & I took up the Governments offer of a bit of R & R, they were going to cut it out & even though we didn’t think we needed to get out we took off for the weekend in Perth. Wrong move the place was shut up because of Easter and finding a beer was hard, we did see a movie, the first one for months it was about an earthquake and we both decided we would rather go through a cyclone than an earthquake. We

were glad to get back.

There are many other memories of the things we got up to in this time, even though my hom.e town was destroyed and my friends and their families were scattered around the country with some injured & killed, I didn’t really have that much of a hard time of it all. You just did what you had to do & got on with it. Along with a lot of people who were in Darwin at the time, pre to post cyclone, we saw the town changed for ever, not always for the better, old Darwin literally disappeared before our eyes. The help we all received from people across Australia was also a highlight of the time along with the way those who were left helped each other.

Good Memories.

John King 40 years on.

My Sister, Mom & Dad & I at Howard Springs pre cyclone, I was 24 when Tracy hit, I had grown up in Darwin and I don’t remember ever being bothered by the weather, it was either wet or dry. Tracy changed that forever, I have since been through a number of cyclones, Gretel, Max and in Katherine, Les which flooded my house and in its ownway the Katherine flood was as bad as Tracy. That’s a story for another time

Photos of Old Darwin (BT)

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The Amphitheatre The old Town hall

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Houses going up in Cullen Bay Smith Street

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