House hunting is a stressful business but in these times of Covid it is particularly hard for buyers, especially if a move to the country is planned as property prices rise daily.
Whatever the difficulties, most buyers do not consider being flood-bound as part of their search.
Ana Ducloux, recently returned to Australia after many years living and working in London and had been searching NSW for a three-bed house with a good-sized garden.
To help in her search, Ana house and animal sits for people when they go on holiday. She has looked after numerous cats, dogs, horses and alpacas all over the state which has given her the chance to get the feel of the area. She wasn’t fussy where she bought – just somewhere between the Sunshine Coast where her brother Peter lives and Sydney where she has friends.
After visiting her brother in Queensland last autumn, Ana was travelling south, keeping an eye out for a promising property. She stayed for three nights in Lismore with a friend and planned to head down the Pacific Highway to Laurieton, south of Port Macquarie to visit another friend and look at some properties near the coast. But this was March and the area was experiencing the worst floods for 53 years.
‘Before I got to Laurieton I stopped and rang my friend who told me all the roads into her area were closed,’ said Ana. ‘The rain was lashing down and I could hardly see where I was going. I couldn’t stop in Laurieton, all the roads were under water.’
It was getting late and Ana knew she had to make a quick decision. She thought of her old friends Reg and Usha Harris in Wingham which was about a 20 minute drive. They were away for a few days but of course Ana could stay, Reg said. ‘Get the key from our next door neighbour, Trish.’
So Ana heaved a sigh of relief as she parked close to the house at the end of the long drive and knocked on the neighbour’s door for the key. Reg’s house backs on to the Manning River and when Ana rang him he asked her to keep an eye on things. The river was rising but she was told there wasn’t cause for alarm.
However over the next few hours the local creeks burst their banks simultaneously with a king tide, something which had not happened for at least one hundred years.
Anna slept soundly until woken by the neighbours knocking loudly at three in the morning, flood waters lapping round her bed. Wading through water up to her knees in total darkness – the rising waters had taken down all the electrics in the street – Ana grabbed her belongings, forgetting her laptop. ‘I wasn’t thinking straight,’ she recalled. ‘The neighbours had alerted me which was very kind of them and they were waiting for me. I just grabbed what I could before I was piggy-backed out of the house to the main road by Trish’s daughter’s boyfriend, Ben. ‘Thankfully I’d called on Trish, otherwise no-one would have known I was there.’
Ben drove Ana through the blacked-out night to the safety of Wingham High Street, leaving her there to go back and help his girlfriend save her horse. At four in the morning, Ana was alone in Wingham’s empty main street, still in her pyjamas with only a jacket for warmth. ‘I was terrified,’ she says. ‘There was no-one around. I didn’t know where I was, what to do or where to go.’
Standing in front of the Betta Electrical Shop Ana decided to bang on the door. To her surprise and relief, Michael the owner, opened the door. He’d gone to check on his white goods in the basement which was flooded, only to discover they were all ruined. Despite his own troubles, made her a coffee before locking up and returning to his family. ‘He was kindness itself. I was so grateful to him. But when he’d gone, I wondered what was I going to do?’
Sitting on a chair outside Michael’s store a car with a young couple inside went by twice and stopped. ‘Are you OK?’ ‘No,’ Ana replied.
‘Hop in and we’ll take you to the emergency evacuee centre at the golf club on higher ground.’
Ana was an early arrival at the club-house where volunteers were organising bread rolls and coffee. ‘People were just sitting around at tables, stunned,’ says Ana. ‘We were all in a state of shock.’ Over the next hour more and more people came in with their children and animals. Apart from adults and children of all ages, there were birds in cages, cats wrapped in duvets or blankets and dogs roaming freely about. One of these arrivals was Reg’s neighbour, Shirley McRae who came in with her five blue kelpie dogs. She explained that the road had completely flooded and she’d been rescued by the Special Emergency Service. ‘They’d managed to get a canoe,’ Ana explained, ‘and Shirley and the dogs piled in, only to discover the boat had a hole so they had to paddle mighty quickly to safety!’
‘I can’t speak highly enough of all those people who helped that night, the SES, the Fire Brigade, the Salvation Army and the locals,’ says Ana. ‘They saved us in so many ways.’
The kindness of the Wingham community continued as the day went on. Beth Braham told Ana she had four beds and would she like to stay, offering the same invitation to Shirley and her kelpies.
The following day Ana returned to Reg’s property. ‘Everything in the house was affected. My little blue car and lap-top were write-offs. At the height of the flood, the water had reached the top of my car.’
Ana was determined to salvage what she could from Reg’s house.
Reg’s father, Reginald Harris, was a war correspondent in the Pacific area and post-war covered the Japanese War Crimes Trials. Reg is writing a book about his father’s life using his letters and contemporary photos. Just before the flood he laid them all out on his desk for referencing. Ana managed to save the precious letters and all the old photos.
‘They were the only things Reg wanted to save and I managed to do that but all his books were totally destroyed. I took lots of photos to show Reg the extent of the damage.’
A day later, after various conversations with someone outside Australia, she was told she could pick up a hire car from Taree airport. But how to get there? The bridge between Taree and Wingham was closed, making it impossible to get in or out of Wingham.
‘I ended up staying at Beth’s place for three nights,’ na says. ‘She was so generous, cooking meals for us and providing copious glasses of red wine. We just needed to talk and talk about our experiences and in doing so we forged a very special friendship.’
When the rain stopped, there were other horrors for the community to deal with. Dead cattle were floating down the Manning River as many people had had to abandon their animals. Shirley lost most of her chickens and nearly all the fields were contaminated with sewerage.
Another kind Wingham citizen, Earle Braham, offered Ana a lift to Taree airport in his four-wheel drive and five days later she was back in Sydney. It was there that the full effect of what had happened struck her with force. ‘I couldn’t settle,’ she says. ‘I realised I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. I was one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t lost anything really – my car and laptop were covered and replaceable. It made me realise how important counselling is for people badly affected in the floods and bush-fires, people who, many months later, are still suffering. So many don’t talk about it. They must.’
But the flood didn’t only leave devastation in its wake. ‘This was my first experience of being in a small town,’ says Ana. ‘I saw how everyone worked together when things were bad and I kept that thought with me.’
A few months later Ana returned to Wingham to see Reg and Usha. Ironically, the last place Ana planned to visit was the local estate agent, however word got around and she heard there was a house for sale in the area.
‘It had to be affordable and not in the flood area!’
It turned out to be near the golf club, on high ground. She put in an offer which was accepted and two months later she moved in.
Ana had not only found her house but great kindness in a community, a place to call home.