Robert and Mary Fox – An Account of Cyclone Tracy

This is not my story but that written by late wife, Mary Fox, shortly after Cyclone Tracy. It is the personal account of our experience during and immediately after CT. Mary passed away on 30 May 2022.

Robert Fox

An Account of Cyclone Tracy

by Mary Fox, January 1975.

 

December 24, 1974.

From about midday, the radio broadcasts on the approach of Cyclone Tracy began to take effect as we battened down loose objects and generally cleaned up around the house. We had already, during the last week of the school term, been through a similar process when Selma appeared in about the same area. Like many of our other Wet season visitors she had, however, moved off after approaching to within 50km of Darwin. Despite these near misses, I think most people still prepared themselves for a big blow and probably cursed the fact that Xmas would be wet and drizzly.

By the 7:00pm news we had our map out and had found the Grose Islands to the south-west; at that stage the point where Tracy was to cross the coast. It had begun to blow quite steadily and rain was falling – similar circumstances to Selma’s earlier approach. As the evening progressed, a relatively slight change of direction placed Tracy on a direct course for Darwin, ETA 5:00am. Consequently we took our precautions a step further and removed pictures from the walls, taped up the large sliding glass doors and cleared the tops of the bookcase, sideboard and dressing tables. We placed a deal of this in the first or spare bedroom, already holding guns, cameras, record players and much other accumulated property.

About 11:00pm we decided to go to the main bedroom, at the end of the house, and perhaps read whilst listening to the radio for Tracy to “break up” or veer off as she must surely do. The power, at this stage, was periodically off for varying lengths of time and each time it returned we wondered at the skill and luck which was keeping it available. A particular noise became obvious at this time but a couple of investigations did not reveal its source; possibly a tree rubbing against the stairs. It was during the power failures, which I think became permanent before we moved out to the dining room, whilst sitting in bed, propped against the end wall which was facing into the wind, that one could feel the house quivering.

As the wind built up we decided it was little use trying to sleep so dressing in boots, jeans and long sleeved shirts we sat at the dining room table with the transistor radio turned on. The warnings came every half hour or so but still the ETA of 5:00am stood. We decided to let someone sleep so Bob went back to the bedroom while I played Patience by candlelight.

 

December 25.

It must have been close to 1:30am when I noticed a bumping underneath the house. I woke Bob who, upon investigating, decided it was the tilt-a-door, enclosing the vehicles downstairs, rocking. The force of the wind was now rising to a frightening speed and rocking the house. We noticed lights downstairs at our neighbours, Fitzsimmons, then we heard a noise. We assumed it was Denis shouting but he only did so once, that we heard, so we thought that he would ring if he needed us.

It was then that a great ripping sound shook the house and although Bob struggled he could not easily open the front door. We resigned ourselves to the fact that that the back tilt-a door had come adrift but decided that it was too dangerous to attempt to do anything as the wind was now throwing metallic objects about on the road, presumably galvanised iron sheeting.

Then came a knocking at the front door. After a struggle, Denis was admitted, soaked to the skin. He was on call from the hospital and his phone was out of order. He rang in to check and we told him to give our number as a substitute. Before returning home he told us that our house was moving little compared to his and that the ceramic tiles were falling off his toilet walls. He had also had to open one of his Christmas presents, a waterproof torch.

As we watched Denis cross between our houses, we heard another rumbling, scraping metallic sound. He presumed, along with us, that his aluminium dinghy had come off his Landrover rack and shone his torch in that direction, into the wind. The boat was intact but in the torch light could be seen sheets of roofing iron littering our yards.

It must have been near 2:00am and we came to realise that Tracy was upon us, three hours early. The ABC continued to broadcast and Bob Roberts who had just come on, reported that roads into the city were almost impassable and advised listeners not to drive anywhere.

Then, with a terrible grinding, rolling noise, the back tilt-a-door must have come completely adrift, tumbled across the car and out the other end of the garage where the front tilt-a-door had already blown open. We crouched with our backs to the kitchen, wondering whether to risk crossing in front of the glass doors to the toilet (“Take shelter in the smallest room in the house”). Then two louvres cracked in one of the kitchen banks and Bob removed them.

By this stage the floor was quite awash as the rain had been beating in under the louvres and doors for probably two hours. Suddenly, with a terrible “Whump!”, what must have Vita’s house came crashing down. We decided the time had come to move so, clutching a torch each, the radio and urging on a terrified dog we dashed one after the other across the living room into the corridor, shutting the door behind us.

We moved into the toilet, probably for two minutes, before the louvres blew in and we were ejected into the corridor. We attempted to move to the back door but the banks of louvres along the side came crashing in. Retreating to the bathroom door, we opened it but had to shut it immediately because of the wind. Then we noticed that the end house wall was ripped off and we could see the other neighbours’, Readers, house.

I opened the door into the living room – the glass doors were smashed by a piece of roofing iron so there was no point in going to the front door to risk being hurled out of it, so we shut the corridor door again. Bob then attempted to open the back door off the corridor but was almost swept into the opened end bedroom and had to hold on to the lintel before returning to the corner between the bathroom and living room doors.

We had been attempting to reach the Reader’s brick house but realised it was too dangerous. There was nothing to do but cower in the corner, the two doors staying shut but clattering alarmingly as Tracy howled about us. The ABC had gone off the air abruptly about 2:30am. We tried in vain to find something on the radio but of course, like us, they were trapped in winds of 170-200mph with Darwin smashing down about them. (“Stay tuned to your radio in case the cyclone turns back”)

At the gap left by the louvre banks in the corridor a sheet of someone’s roof clattered and banged but fortunately remained caught up outside. Periodically pieces of our roof ripped off and there must have been more “whoomps” as other houses came down. We had no way of knowing when the rest of our house would go and had no idea of what we could do if it did.

Occasional lulls were never long enough or predictable enough to attempt a dash to Reader’s house but we knew we would have to eventually do something. We flashed our torches at their roofless brick walls but we did not know they were sheltering in a corridor and our torches were not strong enough. I think we were trying to let them know that we might be coming over. From behind their house came occasional flashes from perhaps Vitas or Blackburns.

Then came an easing, not the “calm eye” one had been told of, though apparently some parts of Darwin did experience this. The wind changed direction and we knew we would have to spend over another hour of the same savage wind flinging all the wreckage back at us.

This time it blew steadily, not in the earlier gusts, and we heard what was left of the living room go. The linen cupboard doors flew open and one door proceeded to batter against the corridor door. Now the wind was not blowing so directly on the back stairs. We anxiously watched the ceiling as what little remained of the roof must have flown off. I think we thought that if enough walls stood up to give us protection from one direction of the wind, they would from another.

We dragged one of the rolled up carpets (removed for protection from weeks of renovations and painting) along the corridor and crouched beneath it in calf deep water. The dog sat on a sodden mat placed over shattered glass.

Then, under the steady wind, the wall opposite the corridor began to move in, caused, we later discovered, by the linen cupboard, doors open, pushing back into the spare room. We had to go. Once more clutching torches and a sodden dog, we fled down the back stairs, miraculously untouched by flying debris. Hurling out various items placed in the laundry for protection, we crouched under the sinks between the refrigerator and the washing machine. It was relatively calm there, protected by the new garage wall, and we realised that we should have been there from the beginning (“Only in extremes, shelter under an elevated house”).

It was now about 5:00am and Tracy seemed to be leaving us, though it was not safe to venture out for another 2 hours yet. Picking sodden clothes out of the washing basket we cushioned our behinds from the concrete. Snooker sat in my lap, creating some warmth.

We were both shivering. Bob had a plastic raincoat which helped generate some heat. We found the umbrella and put that up as a small barrier against the wind. We were sitting, amongst other things, in the midst of the Christmas cheer and next to the fridge full of cold beer. So we had our Christmas can while waiting for Tracy to abate.

Gradually the sky lightened but the wind still blew and there was plenty of debris laying about to be uplifted and hurled at those venturing out. Denis came across, checking on neighbours. He informed us that his house was gone. They had retreated to the surgery and rooms beneath around 2:00am when the plate glass bedroom window had crashed in.

Cautiously we ventured forth to note that our toilet still stood, though punctured by flying objects – the reasons for the “explosion” of the window? The devastation about was absolute – whole houses missing – the ground littered with household effects, furniture, pieces of roofing, shattered glass and so forth – metres deep in some places.

We stayed close to the laundry till David Reader emerged, wrapped in a blanket, and came across to see us. The front brick wall of his house was leaning dangerously outwards and the whole roof had lifted off, almost in one piece.

Then David and Bob were gone. They had noticed a head bobbing up above the wreckage of Vita’s house, the highest point on the floor being the bathtub. Fearing the worst,they climbed up to find a crippled chap, miraculously unhurt, who had ridden out the cyclone amongst the small amount of debris left on the floor.

Gradually it became obvious that all the neighbours were safe, though houses were wrecked. Ian Blackburn waved that he was OK. (His wife was ill in hospital and he had his young child to look after). We later discovered that he had a nasty gouge on one leg and eventually had to be evacuated for a skin graft. Mary, Maureen and Bobby Reader emerged with Mick who had been staying with them and they came across to shelter beneath our floor. Although this was dripping from the continuous rain, it was intact and provided more protection than their roofless walls. Mary’s kitchen cupboards were still accessible as was their fridge, packed with Christmas food.

Rescuing camping equipment from the flooded storeroom, we set up the gas stove and managed to give everyone a cup of coffee or tea and a few slices of bread. Reader’s refrigerator was still accessible and packed with Christmas fare – ours lay beneath a fallen wall. At some stage an ambulance drove slowly past, presumably ready to help anyone injured. We later heard that you had to be very badly injured indeed to get treatment at the hospital. During the day we were to see the odd police or civil defence vehicle picking its way along the debris strewn road, as well as many sightseers in private vehicles. Some of these deservedly received flat tyres from driving across debris and would have been given no sympathy.

As radio was not restored until late on Boxing Day afternoon and so few officials seemed to be about we had no instructions to follow so decided to stay with our house for the time being. The pillars and floor were intact; upstairs the second bedroom remained complete but for seven louvres, easily replaced. The ceiling was soaked, of course, and we decided not to sleep there eventually, because it might crash in.

 

The first bedroom, containing so many valuables, was caved in by the linen cupboard but the freezer, jammed against the desk, had prevented complete collapse. The toilet bowl and pipe stood intact but the cistern was smashed.The bath room was wrecked but we had access to the water-filled bath and used this to flush the toilet – a process we later found to be strongly advised when an intact sewerage system remained. The living room and kitchen walls appeared to have crashed in on each other and, in fact, we were luckier than most people, as many of our belongings remained on the floor.

The possessions we felt then, and still do, that were the most heartbreaking to have lost and the most impossible to replace were our books. They were now sodden masses of pulp. One can buy another camera or record player but how do you replace complete sets of out of print books? At this time we also thought of those people who were absent from their homes and who had no chance of of salvaging what little might remain of their possessions before the rain wrecked them completely.

During Christmas morning we poked about, with others, among debris, collecting valuables spread through yards and along roads. It still seemed unreal, a dream that could not have happened to us. From upstairs, with the salvaged binoculars, we could see as far as the sea and well into neighbouring suburbs. All was virtually unrecognisable which did cause real problems later when driving about, one’s bearings were easily lost in this unfamiliar landscape. The only landmarks remaining were the Casuarina and Alawa schools and shopping centres, as well as the water towers.

Even the concrete monstrosities of power poles in Rothdale and Trower Roads had been smashed to the ground, along with the metal stobie poles. However the suburbs of Alawa, Moil and Jingili were positively scenic compared to the complete and utter devastation of Nakara and Tiwi, less than a mile away. Except for the rubble, it might have been a great bare moonscape, as we looked across to the stripped bushland beyond. Of course no gardens remained anywhere and broken and uprooted trees lay about, while those remaining upright stood starkly stripped of all but the most solid branches.

Many houses were worse than ours, with floors and even concrete pillars gone and one wonders why hundreds more where not killed. That morning, as we talked with our neighbours, we all thought that the death toll must be in the thousands. The ground level brick commission houses seemed to have held up much better, except for roofs, some even had those timbers intact. By Christmas night some people had managed to nail sufficient roofing iron back on for protection. However David Reader did see quite a number of brick homes reduced to heaps of rubble. Just across from us, one family in a commission house had only 4 louvres broken – a freak piece of luck. The cameras were intact in their solid case so we had a means of keeping a record of the devastation and later activities.

With no power we knew the problem of rotting food would soon be upon us. Consequently we valiantly attempted to consume it before this happened. We used up quite a few of the cold beers in the fridge – some by entertaining the Allwoods from nearby who answered our invitation with alacrity. They had no dry clothes and, as our bedroom cupboards had stayed closed, accepted some from us. Alan revealed that, as well as losing most of their house and possessions, the briefcase containing his work and notes for his almost completed Master’s thesis – the results of three year’s work and record keeping – had been blown open and all notes destroyed. They had sheltered in their car – as apparently a number of people did.

We decided to have Christmas dinner with the Readers and Mick – Mary supplying the food and our downstairs fridge being stacked with beer, wines etc. The Allwoods declined to join us, as Albert and June Harden had set up a communal camp under their house and were playing hosts to Vitas, Angeles, Staffords, Ian Blackburn and themselves – a truly magnificent gesture. As they left, we spied a familiar pair walking along Alawa Crescent – Lee and Eva Miller. Their flat in Coconut Grove was intact, except for flooding, though those above them had been destroyed. Being in no strife themselves, they had decided to walk, not wishing to add to the already steady traffic of quite unnecessary (in most cases) travellers, to the homes of their friends and offer shelter in their flat for the night.

The cold beers were steadily being depleted and they agreed to have lunch with us. So there we sat, on chairs remaining from an earlier party, around improvised tables, with David, Mary, Maureen, Bobby, Mick, Eva and Lee, dining sumptuously on cold roast turkey, pickled pork, ham, various cheeses and fruits, washed down with sparkling burgundy, chilled white wines and beer. This was apparently a common occurrence throughout Darwin – the food would not keep and the grog would eventually get warm – so why not? Probably as a reaction, the consumption of cold beers continued in true Territory style and all about one could see neighbours and visitors wandering or poking about with the inevitable cold one encased in surviving coolers.

During the course of the afternoon, the Readers decided to move to David’s workshop at the Community College and they spent some time arranging transport with friends as both their vehicles were under their wrecked roof. Together we inspected their other neighbour’s place – almost intact despite being a conglomeration of vehicles, caravans, boats and other bits of machinery. Later friends of the absent residents moved in and set up a generator to run a freezer.

Joan Fitzsimmons continued to search our yards for her possessions. Denis’ records and their personal papers were causing the most concern. However, except for odd pieces, these had disappeared. He had gone up to the hospital with some injured early in the morning and she was later told by a visitor that he would be there indefinitely as the other anaesthetist had been killed. Denis did not, in fact, return home until almost midnight and had to be off on Boxing Day morning until about 11:00am when a relief was flown in from south. Luckily Joan’s parents were up on holidays and could help her out.

In the course of the afternoon we had visits from Toivo Nittim as well as John Read and Paddy Ryan  – the latter two to check if we wanted to move into Darwin Primary School (where Daphne was Principal) with them and their families. They also came with the rather alarming news that Margaret and Wayne Morris were nowhere to be found. John and Paddy had searched the rubble of their Nakara home and asked about but no-one had any news. We had all of course heard stories of deaths and shocking injuries by then. We could only hope that they might have gone to nearby friends.

John and Paddy left and, as the sun was out and the rain had stopped we managed to gather and dry sufficient bedding to prepare a bed in the car. Both our vehicles were intact. The Toyota Crown was chipped and scratched, with one windscreen wiper damaged but

otherwise virtually unscathed by tumbling doors. The Landrover was only missing paint from the front bullbar where the tilt-a-door had banged against it. As we had the floor above, a concrete base and camping equipment set up in the laundry, Bob decide to set off for an hour or so in the Landrover to see if he could check on a few friends. He went first over to Nakara to look for Margaret and Wayne again, then to the Nakara School. People had moved into schools which were mostly intact, except for windows broken. Although many hundreds were gathered there, quite a few injured, he could not find them.

Over at Hoopers in Nightcliff, he found them all OK and appearing to have only lost a few sheets of roofing iron. They were housing the Galvins who had lost most of their Rapid Creek house. On his return he helped attempt to pull the Reader’s roof off Mick’s car.

Then the Landrover had a flat tyre and that had to be changed, so they decided to leave it until Boxing Day. We split the remaining food and Readers went off to the College.

John Valentine, foreman with the City Council, called in and told us that Brown’s house had been demolished but that the tenants had gathered all that they could into the storeroom. He lived in Nakara and had help pull out some bodies, including that of a child whose father sat downstairs whilst a cupboard collapsed on the child.

Night was now coming and with it the rain seemed to be building up again. We knew that certain tasks had to be done fairly shortly – extracting the food from the freezer and fridge and burying it; waterproofing the floor so we could comfortably use the downstairs concreted area; making the decision to leave or stay……..

Having been told that someone had opened a fire hydrant a couple off blocks away, we walked back and forth with suitable containers filled with water; as we knew that water could be a problem. Whilst there we talked to people from across the road – he was of some importance in the Attorney–General’s Department – and he told us that Patterson, Stretton and others had arrived at 5:30pm. We did not know it then but the magnificent efforts of Darwin’s rescuers were already in motion. Earlier Tiger Brennan (Darwin’s Mayor) had visited Mary Reader but he knew little and seemed more concerned about some of the beautiful homes of the wealthy and influential being damaged than the utter destruction he would have had to drive through.

After eating, with Snooker, the remnants of Christmas dinner we retired to the car where, I suppose, we slept but always the nagging idea – it was still raining – had Tracy really left us or was she on her way back for another attempt? Surely by now the authorities would be sufficiently organised to let us know if this was a possibility?

We heard little during the night. A group of firemen came along dismantling fire hydrants –we were lucky to have collected that water but later we found they had opened a few more here and there for water collection. Denis came home and tried for a while to disinter his Landrover from beneath the debris. It was not damaged, just immoveable – something to do besides work with casualties at the hospital. We also heard loudspeakers in the distance. Later we found they were police, telling those without suitable shelter to move into the nearest school.

 

December 26.

We awoke and breakfasted on tinned food. It was interrupted, I can not recall by what. During the morning John and Daph Read called on us, with Wayne. Margaret had been badly cut about the legs and he had taken her to Nakara School, leaving just before Bob arrived. A friend took them to the casualty station at Casuarina Shopping Centre where they gave her over 30 stitches in one of the cuts – no anaesthetic. Later they were driven to Reads and then to Darwin Primary School.

They had remained upstairs, during the cyclone, under a mattress and a wall and come in on them. Wayne had very sore hips he said. He also said that there had been some pathetic injuries at Casuarina – at least one child with a leg missing. One of his friends had lost their baby – they had four children and could not physically protect them all. The three of them were off to collect food from Read’s house, to check Morris’ vehicles and to find glasses for Wayne.

Later they came past again – Wayne had his Volkswagen going and had found his glasses. While they were at our place a policeman came and asked for John’s Mazda truck. He pointed out that it was his only transport and that they were gathering supplies for Darwin Primary. The policeman checked on the Landrover’s ownership but did not appear to want it. Later we saw plenty of new trucks in car yards, so it probably was not important.

Bob helped David, Mick and another chap to get the roof off their cars both of which were in working order despite smashed windows.  The Readers commenced loading valuables into their vehicles. We had collected the few of our salvageable belongings from outside and placed them under the house – speaker boxes, one badly dented amplifier, one sodden bean bag and other bits and pieces. We left other items upstairs until we had decided what to do. Although we had earlier heard that the cyclone had hit near Larrimah, blocking the highway, this proved to be false and we were now considering the problem of getting fuel to leave, perhaps.

Now came the problem of extricating freezer and fridge. The latter was easiest – a hefty push and off came the wall to crash down into the yard, tumbling the stove with it. The freezer, however, was jammed tight and appeared to be holding up the wall. So we left it till a removal system could be devised, though Mick did chop along the wall behind it.

 

During this time Mary Reader came with the news that dogs were being shot. They were minding one for the Maugers and asked Mick to take it to the police station. She was later reprieved but only for 24 hours as it became obvious that Mary and the children would be evacuated. They were also living in overcrowded conditions at the College. This was true of all the schools – some became quite putrid. Casuarina High was sheltering over 5 000.

We reasoned that it would be stray dogs and those in crowded conditions that were to be shot. Snooker was to stay close to the house or vehicles in any case. Mary also told us that tetanus shots of a limited number were available at the College so we went down and received them. Later we were told that no more vaccine was available for some days. Out typhoid and cholera shots were up to date, thanks to our previously postponed trip overseas.

By lunch time we had decided that, if fuel was available, we would drive out with our two vehicles loaded with valuables. We were, after all, unskilled as far as being of any use around town was concerned and would eventually become two more people to feed, clothe and shelter. Dana and Errol Chinner visited us to give us a dozen beer they had bought in return for Bob developing a film for Errol. Amazingly, the fragile negative strip had survived, much to Errol’s joy. It was through him that we obtained a quantity of fuel, though plenty was available around town, for the waiting. Eventually we decided to leave the Landrover in a safe place, loaded with gear, as it was mechanically unsound for a long trip and would use large quantities of fuel.

By now the radio was functioning again and, after drying out our Hitachi transistor which had floated for some hours in water, we heard that all must register at a centre and names were given of people to see at each one – in most cases at a school. We also heard that those wishing or having to be eventually evacuated should register for this and wait their turn to be called to the centre for bussing to the airport. As Daphne Read was listed as in charge at Darwin Primary, we decided to visit them.

Before driving in, Bob checked at Casuarina Police Station to find that those willing to drive out were to do so with officialdom’s blessing. At the school we found Margaret to be quite adversely affected by her injuries – she had not even had an anaesthetic until that afternoon. Daphne told us that Margaret was down for evacuation and would be taking Larry with her. Elaine Ryan was in good spirits and, being just two weeks away from her confinement, was also to be shortly flown out. Over a cup of coffee we told them of our intentions and passed on forwarding addresses. John and Wayne were out delivering supplies so we farewelled Daph, Margaret, Elaine, Paddy and Larry, who had salvaged his Christmas present to Bob, not knowing if or when we would see them again.

We returned home, having noted that insurance companies would be open to register claims at 1:00pm next afternoon. The house had been made more comfortable by placing sheets of iron and tarpaulins beneath the floorboards to fend off drips of water. However it rained little on Boxing Day and we had dried out more bedding. We made our camp stretchers up and decided to speak to Tim Angeles and Alan Allwood to see if they would mind keeping an eye on the house when we had gone.

Whilst we were over at Angeles June Harden invited us to have dinner with them as Tim had cooked up a huge stew. She was really looking after her neighbours – organising meals and providing a safe place for the children during the day. Tim and Alan offered to keep the Landrover out at their Berrimah offices where, many of their colleagues and their families were sleeping.

The conversation touched on a variety of topics as we ate Tim’s delicious stew and drank tea poured from June’s best silver teapot. John Valentine told us of two looters shot at Casuarina Centre – taking television sets. Others had heard of two more in private houses.

Enough guns seemed to be available for protection that evening and any looter would have come to a sticky end. No-one seemed to think that the police would have the time nor inclination to investigate an “accident” and this opinion was confirmed later by our conversation with a policeman at Pine Creek.

We left Hardens, having told everyone of our plans, and returned home where we prepared ourselves with two guns. The water had been turned back on for a short time and we managed to have a shower in Reader’s bathroom. We listened as names of some evacuees were broadcast, recognizing a few and finally fell asleep, leaving Snooker to keep guard.

 

December 27.

We spent next morning packing our moveable and undamaged gear into the Landrover and car. The latter, of course, had to carry sufficient food, water, bedding and tools for a week’s trip, as we did not know how things would be down the track. We also managed to pack in all our remaining clothes- mainly rough casual and very good, the slide projector we had bought ourselves for Christmas and all the guns and cameras. Our photo albums and negatives of all black and white photos (very handy as some of our photos were badly soaked but can eventually be re-printed) were packed along with jewellery and other valuables, as well as our salvaged bank and cheque books and sodden personal papers.. This, as well as eight gallons of petrol, loaded the car down but we had plenty of time for travelling.

Then, into the Landrover went anything else worth saving and which could be easily moved. This included much of our kitchen equipment, part of our glass and crockery ware, typewriter, some collapsible chairs but no other furniture (much of that belonged to the Government anyway) and many other bits and pieces accumulated over five years. We knew of course that much will rust or rot from being left in damp conditions but it was all we could do. We also managed to prise open the freezer and bury the food therein.

Having packed the vehicles, we set off to put in our insurance claim and pay a farewell visit to friends. Driving into and through the city, we realised that the northern suburbs were indeed the worst hit. Possibly the greatest loss in the city proper was the fact that the old stone buildings – the Museum, Christ Church Cathedral, Naval Headquarters – had been flattened, over 100 years of early Darwin gone. The great metal and glass monstrosities of government offices stood virtually intact, apart from broken windows. Here and there could be seen cars completely tipped over or concertinaed together.

Policemen stood point duty, directing the traffic along passable roads. One, unshaven, dressed in motorcycle boots but with ordinary trousers tucked in, clutched a carton of orange juice as he stood on duty. A great deal of credit and praise must go to the NT Police. They were in the same boat as everyone else – wrecked homes, evacuated families – yet working tirelessly and continuously even when confronted by the usual thoughtlessness.

A large number of people were waiting to receive emergency purchase orders, so we decide that we had sufficient supplies and cash to get by. En route to Queensland we discovered these to be unnecessary, so well organised were our fellow Territorians. The insurance claim took little time – 100% destruction of home and minor salvage of contents.

Then, using our camera to keep a record, we moved out of Darwin city. How long before we saw it again we could not know. At Coconut Grove we came across Lee and Eva, helped by Bob Paton whose own family were, luckily, south on leave, packing to leave their flat. The landlord had asked for his rent that morning and, although they had a few days grace, they felt they could not stand it and were moving out to the Forest Research Institute’s buildings on MacMillans Road. They intend to drive over to Toowoomba at some stage, to Lee’s family. Of course the weather may have hindered them.

At Hooper’s we farewelled Kathy Hooper, Stephanie Galvin and their children – Ron and Alan being out. They were unsure of future plans but Stephanie wanted to return to Darwin. In fact, except for Bob Paton, we spoke to no-one who is vehemently opposed to the idea of re-settling in Darwin. Most had, like us, evolved ideas and plans for re-building and future precautions to cope with another Tracey. Finally we returned home to say goodbye to the Fitzsimmons – Joan was hoping to have her parents and her children flown out shortly – and to collect the Landrover.

We left 87 Alawa Crescent about 4:00pm that afternoon, still strewn with possessions we could not carry, but less valuable, perhaps more easily replaceable. We had to hope that the looters did not move in. We have since heard of increased police strength and salvage work by the Navy, so we are hopeful. At Berrimah Farm we left the Landrover, covered in tarps, in the care of Tom Weir of Alan Allwood’s staff, and set off out of Darwin.  Possibly we felt a little like rats deserting a sinking ship but knew we had little choice and probably would eventually be asked to leave.

Tracey had only roared through bushland and the sparsely populated areas out of Darwin to about the Fifteen Mile. From there the ugly spectacle of debris, ruined homes and de-leafed trees could no longer be seen. The dog must have realised she was safe now, for she pawed to be let out, not for the usual reason, but to romp in green grass and around whole trees. She had cowered for most of the day in the car – possibly hearing the shots from the police station a few blocks away.

We drove into Adelaide River through a tropical downpour which reduced visibility to almost nil and sent torrents pouring across the re-construction work on the road. Inquiries revealed that messages could only be sent from further south, so we had to eventually wait until Katherine to contact families we knew had been awaiting news.

Facilities were non-existent in Darwin at that time This had been the topic of conversation, again and again. We could hear the news on radio broadcasts from late Boxing Day but could not let anyone know we were OK. In fact many people were most upset at the form of some of the news reporting and knew it could only aggravate the anxiety of those outside Darwin. One item which particularly upset some was the way Mrs Cairns wept while talking to a reporter.

Too exhausted to drive further, we camped at about the Ninety Mile and slept crammed along the car seats.

 

December 28.

Passing through Pine Creek, we spoke with the policeman manning the roadblock and learned that he had pulled over number of looters – perhaps they still languish in the Pine Creek jail! He had his rifle leaning against his car and his pistol holster unclipped – his orders were to shoot to kill, there was no room in hospital for injured looters. He offered us “steaks at the CWA” and “tucker for the dog” but we said we were OK and pushed on.

At Katherine, another policeman instructed us to register at the District Office This we did, after sending telegrams through the PMG personnel who were working during their holiday. At the District Office a number of public servants took our details and told us to obtain petrol from a local garage. We filled up at no cost – we would do the same at Dunmarra. Then we went down to the emergency food centre where the people of Katherine supplied us with sandwiches, coffee and beef soup that was more a stew. We could also have received any other essentials such as towels or medical supplies if we wished.

The idea was, as in all the other centres we came to, to kit us up, feed us, fuel our vehicle and move us on. One felt very small and inadequately grateful as we passed through Dunmarra and spoke to the policeman at the Threeways who advised us to get to Mt Isa as quickly as possible because of the weather. Petrol and food was provided gratis at the Threeways Roadhouse. All these people from Adelaide River through Pine Creek, Dunmarra, Threeways, and, as we heard on the radio, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, were all so willing to help, lend a sympathetic ear and demonstrate the generosity one may have thought had gone from the Territory. One cannot begin to work out how to thank or repay them.

We camped that night along the Barkly Highway, having travelled over 600 miles, fearing the worst of roads further east. Tracey had not only wrecked Darwin but was now busily creating wet weather to cut off the supply lines in and routes out.

 

December 29.

We set off early in the morning and at Avon Downs passed the lone policeman waiting to turn back those busybodies we later passed with Queensland and New South Wales number plates – presumably tourists. Occasionally we passed an NT plate – possibly a Darwin resident anxious to return or a resident of another part of the Territory. At Camooweal one could almost say that they had not heard yet – especially when one chap remarked to his breakfast companion that he had heard the power would be back on next day! We ate steak burgers, filled up and drove on to Mt Isa.

We drove in about 1:00pm to be directed to the airport where once more we found kind-hearted people from the service clubs who allocated us a billet and ascertained whether we wished to fly out and leave the Mine to entrain the vehicle or perhaps wait to get a berth on a freight train for ourselves and vehicle. Heavy rain had closed the main road east. We decided to wait for a train berth. Once more PMG employees helped us and we were able to phone families and speak to them personally, free of charge. They also urged us to fill in re-addressing information. A very helpful policeman offered us directions to food, clothing or any other needs.

Then were off to 5 Oak Street where Peter and Pat Chapman put us up in grand style for two days. They allowed us to poke around washing clothes, checking the car and fed us enormous meals and scads of cold beer – a truly welcome resting period with two people we hope we can repay some day. They even spoilt the dog – allowing her to sleep in the laundry!

 

December 30.

This was spent poking about Mount Isa, buying odds and ends, and lazing about the Chapman house. That afternoon we discovered that by being present at the railway yards at 5:00am, we could get on a freight train. The condition of the roads was still a matter for conjecture so we decided it was not worth the risk of driving – later we discovered we would have made it, but only on the 31st, of all days. So we packed up once more, ready for an early start and cracked a bottle of sparkling burgundy with the Chapmans, to toast a yet unknown future.

 

December 31.

We were early to the station but this was not necessary as the car was the first on. Some difficulty in fitting it in to the carriage but later a forklift was used. After 9:15 we were given our tickets to ride on a carriage behind the freight and, the only amount we paid for ourselves, bought the dog a “parcel” ticket. The train did not leave until 12:30pm so we went into town to buy sandwiches and reading matter.

When the time came to leave, we found there was not enough room in the dog box for all the dogs travelling. So eventually we travelled with Snooker and another couple with two dogs in the carriage behind the guard van. After an eternity we stopped at Cloncurry between 7:00 and 8:30, walking to town to purchase a few cold beers – our New Year’s Eve drink.

 

January 1.

We slept fitfully as the train stopped at every little siding, reaching Richmond early in the morning. It was midday before we arrived at Hughenden where we had sandwiches and coffee whilst we waited for our car to be offloaded. Then a fast trip to Home Hill to spend the night with Ray and Rosemary.

January 2.

An uneventful drive to Collinsville to meet Harold and Val, then out to Myuna where we have been gradually drying out photo albums, washing clothes and tentatively making a few plans. We have done almost all that we can until the government tells us what to do. Many things have to be sorted out – it may be possible to build on our block in McMinns

Lagoon. There are few children in Darwin so teachers will be extra personnel of little use for some time. Ian Kirkegaard has contacted Bob and told him that the Branch has set up on a temporary basis in Brisbane but could be looking for volunteers to be rostered for six weeks “caretaking” in Darwin.

We have lost a great deal but probably no friends. We will not be alone in our attempts to live again in Darwin. It will be a struggle, no doubt. We owe a great many people deep gratitude and cannot but admire the excellent organisation and support of government departments and people in the face of a complete disaster.

——————-

I was somewhat premature in my final paragraphs.  Bob flew back to Darwin later in January, having got a permit to do so. He set up house with George Brown in Clive and Adie Dunlop’s house in Nightcliff. Noreen Brown and I returned in early February to join them and to help staff the quickly re-established schools for the many hundreds of children who remained in Darwin.

We did build a house out at McMinn’s Lagoon but only moved out to live in it after our daughter, Rachel, was born in July 1975. Our second daughter, Laura, was born in September 1976. With their partners they are still resident, like us, in Darwin and environs.

Mary Fox, January 2006

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