Evacuated from Fraser Island, the storm pressing down on us, bedraggled and rattled we flee south, covering barely 80 clicks before Mary hauls her dripping tailgate into Maryborough and skids to an ungainly halt.
And. So. It. Starts.
Howling Valkyries vent squalling funnels of rain at the truck. The KD (our knock-down shelter) buckles and sinks to its knees, a watery death with sodden mourners. As Mary slews to the left, rocking on her axles like a troubled child, the streets slide away, coursing, surging downstream in a flood of despair. Tangled limbs skewer deep drains that choke and overflow and the maelstrom spins into a whorl of hate, lashing all in its path with malevolent fury.
This is the prelude to the devastation wrought by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, a storm cell of unprecedented force that slammed into the southern Queensland coast in January 2013.
The morning is a slate grey shroud, bruised-bellied clouds skud across an invisible horizon and water pelts from the sky, caught in a vortex of angry air. Towns submerge before our eyes, all roads to the coast are closed and the highway is our final retreat.
In full flight and surfing a latent frill of fear, we let Mary off her leash…
Russell Island is the largest of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, a mob of curly coasted land snippets that wallow just off the coast of Brisbane. Funny place to take shelter you might think, but Russell lies in the lee of North Stradbroke Island, which promises protection from the elements. That and an open-hearted saltie, the indomitable Captain Dave, catcher of crays, who offers a port in the storm.
The car ferry rolls like a bitch; while the Tin Lid and I pitch queasily from side to side the Cowboy spends the hour at sea boning up on local info. According to the storyteller Karragarra is the gay island, a mere four kilometres of rainbow-hued hubris and a Ferrari owner who drives his pride and joy along the 300m of tarmac twice a day in a squeal of glory. Macleay is the site of a recent murder, an elderly woman robbed of not only her hidden fortune but her life. When we were there no-one was talking, a wall of silence that buffeted the police barge moored stubbornly in the ferry lane. The culprit, a ‘junk-mail deliverer’ has since been arrested. On Lamb Island there is much discussion as to how the mainlanders cope with ‘Australia’, that distant country just 20 minutes to the west.
Russell Island does not rate a mention.
As we wait out the storm at Captain Dave’s all hell breaks loose, a bellicose virago that scolds the landscape with her hysteria.
The power fails on the first day, the pier is inoperable and the ferries stymied; there are food and water shortages, produce rots in the darkened island store and the threat of structural collapse keeps people shuttered inside. Isolation takes on new meaning here, as visibility drops to a few feet and the long life milk the Tin Lid has stashed dwindles to a trickle.
For five days we are stranded. It’s all very Robinson Crusoe – with mango moonshine and board games for ten.
In the aftermath the IGA is the place to be. It is eerily empty, shelves bare, save for a few hollow-eyed souls stocking up on Black and Gold.
A grey lady sporting grey mullet, teeth and skin, plus a dim outlook on life, is bereft in the biscuit section:
“We’ve ‘ad no power for four fucken days, no food, no help. No bugger came to see if we was alright or nuffink. We moved from bloody Gympie to get away from the water but me, I’d rahver be flooded there – at least there people come and check on yers. Drive through flooded roads and everythink. And some fuckers had power! So I didn’t have to throw all me bloody food away after all. Fuck ’em. No-one even offered to help.”
Distraught and dejected she slides out into the rain carrying her yellow-and-black-hued treasure: cat litter, chicken soup, dunny roll and a ratty pack of Milk Arrowroots.
A disaster management plan is in place and flashing lights illuminate the damage. Finally we escape the confines of our isolation into an island that thrives on, well, isolation.
Kibbinkibbinwa Point and Ooncooncoo Bay, Turtle Swamp, Whistling Kite Wetlands and Wet Mouse, the island trails intrigue in its wake. With all the inherent issues of island life, Russell is a weathered soul, lines of frustration worn deep on a sunburnt face.
Once an Aboriginal hunting ground for shellfish, fish and turtles, the island was only settled recently. The local mob believe that the eerie searching sob of the curlews that stalk the corners are the souls of children who have died, “the call of the young ones”.
They left well alone, save for a crossing point from the northeast tip across across the passage to Stradbroke Island.
The whitefellas have no such quandaries, spreading out, kit homes in tow, like an unexplained rash. According to the Brisbane Times,
“The population is small, the views are priceless and the facilities are reasonably good considering most things have to be shipped in. But the wide-spread land scam that dogs Russell’s reputation has likely kept many away from this spot in the past. During the early 1970s, large parcels of farmland were divided and heavily promoted by investors. Many unwary buyers found the blocks of land they had bought were not where they thought, and media reports at the time documented how some were even underwater at high tide.”
This place has a healthy seam of blood-red Australiana running richly through it, a sticky viscosity of retro dagginess. A sulky teen butt-scoots along on a skateboard down a dirt track. A heavily mustached, tattooed and muscle-bound bloke leers from a Commodore, his vowels exorcised into an ocker drawl. His moll is a picture of suburban necessity, unscrunching her Aussie emblazoned boxers with an expert finger, uggs schlepping on wet concrete despite the tropical heat.
Island necessity breeds innovation in the sweetest style:
And a Sandman lolls insolently on a pebbledash drive:
The whisper of a dope-dealing mafia outpost that is protected “by a pit bull with aids” meets a tangle of rusted metal that marks the final resting place for a burnt-out ute, eaten alive by the sand. A man arrives home carrying an esky and a car battery, his stubbies rumpled from the ferry.
A scrabble of discarded fridges, rusted car bodies, old shoes and plasterboard stamp a heavy urban footprint. It is testament to Russell’s status as a human hideaway, a bolthole for artists, retirees and thieves. Million-dollar properties with waterfront views are lapped by a stain of underprivilege, a greasy scum that floats on the surface of paradise.
But despite the palpable pall of inequity that scents a wary breeze, there is a rich weave of society on Russell island and social debris and the clutter of commonality aside, nature has a way of burgeoning before your eyes, rampant, verdant and wealthy.
Precious wetlands, an abundance of woodlands, mangroves and tall trees, Russell is a conservation locus. It is here, among the whispering grasses, or knee-deep in a rock pool where liquid life churns between cool-skinned bones that this inscrutable curl of isolation truly exists.
Dirt tracks straight and true peter out with a sigh as the bush reclaims its own. Vacant lots have an air of resignation, plots with no plot. While humans challenge and develop and clutter, Russell Island strikes the sound of perfect silence all on it’s own.
And Captain Dave took the Tin Lid crabbing. Which made his little life…