I left Queensland three and a half years ago, just before Brisbane City Council began to give away four-minute egg-timers to help people spend less time in the shower. On beaches all along the coast the outdoor taps had been turned off. People were encouraged to report the malfeasants who watered their gardens or washed their cars. When I returned last August, the drought had not yet broken: reservoirs were at their lowest levels ever; people were showering over buckets to save water. No one was meant to flush the toilet till it was absolutely necessary. You’d certainly never leave the tap running as you brushed your teeth.
Then the rain came, and at first there was widespread rejoicing. But it kept coming, till the floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I’m now in Melbourne, watching the news as floodwaters rise in Victoria, thinking about the day I first saw Brisbane from the river.
It was the late 1990s. I’d lived in Far North Queensland for a few years and it was time to live in a city again. I took a ride on the City Cat, the new catamaran ferry service, past the arts precinct, freshly landscaped parks and fabricated beach at South Bank. An old powerhouse at New Farm was being made into another museum. New walkways encouraged pedestrians to the water’s edge. Old warehouses converted into blocks of flats and postmodern mansions with pontoons crowded the banks.
The grand houses of former times were built up on the ridges, to catch such breezes as there were. Brisbane’s long summers are stinkers, the air heavy with intense humidity that endlessly promises a relieving storm of cool air that never comes, or passes so swiftly the steaming heat only worsens. The river used to be the haunt of criminals, vagabonds and the romantically inclined in search of a bit of privacy. It must have been the arrival of domestic air-conditioning, as well as the global fashion for waterside development, that began the craze for actually living there.
I decided to live on the coast instead, an hour’s drive south, but every week I’d get back up to the city. Friends from Sydney lived in a renovated house on the river bank. When we were young, the idea that we would one day live in Queensland would have been unthinkable. It was the Deep North, a police state; most people of liberal persuasion or artistic inclination fled as soon as they could. It was only after the International Expo of 1988, and a political scandal that brought down the corrupt and repressive state government, that the south-east corner of Queensland became the fastest-growing area of Australia. Brisbane began to welcome foreign migrants, open espresso bars, build skyscrapers and develop expensive housing by the river.
And how lovely that house was, open to the garden reaching down to the brown water with its muddy smell, the rowers and the ferryboats going past, occasionally a barge laden with cargo. We never thought that the house could be ravaged by floodwater, even though we knew how much damage had been done by the massive flood of 1974. The Wivenhoe Dam was built to prevent anything like that happening again. But it couldn’t contain the Brisbane River last week, and the destruction this time has been far worse.