“Nah mate. The water came from those hills.” The grimy farmer pointed in the direction of a series of hills several kilometres away. It hadn’t rained for four months but the signs of one of the largest floods on record in the Riverina area of New South Wales were obvious. Broken fences. A large water storage tank perched high in a nearby eucalyptus tree. The smell. There’s always a smell after a flood, even when the water is long gone. It’s a sweet, unpleasant smell of rotting vegetation and mud. I’d know that smell anywhere.
I became an environmental engineer several years before trying my hand at stand-up comedy and writing. Since I can’t find a bank that accepts IOUs from comedy club owners or gallons of free post-mix soft drink as mortgage repayments, I’ll continue working as an environmental engineer. I rather enjoy money and providing food for my family is a hobby of mine. In 2010 I joined an engineering consultancy that specialised in insurance claims for flood damage. This is a difficult industry sector because it deals directly with people who have lost everything and are battling to regain their homes and livelihood. My job description is remarkably simple; determine if a property was inundated by rainfall or by water that has overflowed from a creek or river.
In practice it is very difficult.
My first assignment sent me to Victoria where I encountered the frustrating issue of rural road names vs modern GPS devices. After accidentally arriving at the farmer’s property two hours late, I explained my tardiness.
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “This is Cockburn Road. In some directories they call it Smith Road and the Council calls it Billabong Road but we call it Stevens Road…” Thanks.
I’ve inspected more than five hundred individual properties in the eastern states of Australia and I’m still amazed at the resilience of people who’ve lost everything. That laconic sense of humour associated with Australians really comes to the fore when you’re leaning on a fence next to a partially decomposed cow. While chewing a protruding stalk of grass, one larrikin in Holbrook asked me if I’d seen the large submarine which is, to the general passer-by, inexplicably located in the middle of the town. When I replied in the affirmative he drawled “Yep. Wasn’t there last week. Bloody big flood, eh mate?“
I wasn’t prepared for the loneliness when I first started doing property inspections. Long straight roads can bring about some crazy antics when there’s no radio reception, and counting road kill loses its appeal after you reach twenty kangaroo carcasses at the 30 kilometre mark in the two hundred kilometre stretch between Moree and Walgett. Similarly, sitting in your undies on a dishevelled motel bed in West Wyalong while you sip cold beer and watch ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ on a small television isn’t how I’d envisaged spending my nights. Sometimes I use this opportunity to write, but exhaustion from a fourteen-hour day and thoughts of my wife and kids snuggled in bed makes my creative juices dry up. The clientele of these small, run-down motels are the same throughout rural Australia. Dull-eyed men in Hi-Vis shirts and work boots and Grey Nomads who are all too willing to tell you the best place to get a good meat pie as they perform a pre-journey inspection of their dusty Viscount caravan. I try not to judge a town on the quality of its pies but it’s hard. Even the smallest three-street town has a bakery and it’s almost impossible to resist stopping in for a bite to eat. Explaining the pie-gravy on your fluorescent orange shirt to a property owner is another matter.
“The last place I visited was a little dirty and I got some mud on my shirt. No, that isn’t a piece of onion.”
Photo source: Andy Thompson
The other aspect of the job I wasn’t prepared for was the confrontation and the emotion. I was bitten on the calf by a small but recalcitrant dog at the second property I inspected. I’ve seen a farmer bitten on the ankle by a snake only to laugh it off and tell me he’s had worse bites. I‘ve also been pressed up against a wall by a farming goods store proprietor who said, in no uncertain terms, that he’d take me to the “fucking cleaners” if I didn’t write a report in his favour. The report wasn’t favourable towards him and I probably can’t visit Lowood ever again. As for the dog? Well, I wear heavy work boots now.
During one inspection, a 6’5 burly farmer broke down and sobbed into his hands as he recalled the events leading up to the destruction of his farm and house during the 2011 Lockyer Valley flood event. There’s no subject you can take while studying engineering that can prepare you for listening to a man tell you about the crippling fear he felt as he watched a rescue helicopter pluck his four kids from the roof of his home and carry them away during a massive thunderstorm. He stayed behind with his house and spent the night praying that they were okay.
Sometimes the long and lonely roads give me an opportunity to reflect on how privileged I am to have seen a large chunk of rural Australia that many people don’t even know exists. I’ve met some of the most resilient people in Australia and I’ve also never lost my house or livelihood. Sure, I’d love to earn good money telling jokes, making people smile and developing my burgeoning alcohol addiction…but seeing the vast remoteness of the Australian bush and meeting affable people is a nice way to make a living.
Perhaps if I am ever in the same predicament as these sad but smiling people, I’ll be able to laugh in the face of adversity. I hope I could be like the elderly lady in North Bundaberg who apologised after showing me into her home. Half of the house was missing, washed away in a raging torrent a few weeks earlier. She said, “Sorry about the mess. We had a real big party the other night and some of our guests can’t handle their grog.”
Andy Thompson is a Brisbane-based comedian and writer. He’s also an environmental engineer and is somewhat skilled at working out which way water flows. He was once told he was a terrific bleeder by a nurse but is unsure where to put this in his résumé. Probably under “Lifetime Achievements.”
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.