I flew into Darwin during a cyclone last night.
Well, to be fair, it was ex Tropical Cyclone Alessia by the time we actually made it to the Top End, but I didn’t know that when I got on the plane. I was sitting at Sydney airport with my fellow Territorians, all of us checking the BOM tracking map online. There were mixed opinions at Gate 12: some certain we wouldn’t be getting on the plane (too dangerous by far), others thought a bit of turbulence would just help them sleep through the four and a half hour journey.
There have been a few cyclones in my time in the Top End. Tropical Cyclone Helen threw down a few African Mahogany trees in early 2008. Cyclone Grant tried to spoil Christmas one year and failed (I got to drink champagne in a backyard pool while people sent me texts to see “if I was alright”. I think they had bigger hailstones in Melbourne that December). And then Cyclone Carlos was all drain pipe trousers and big moustache swagger, but then he got drunk, fumbled around in the dark and fell asleep on the bed with all his clothes on.
For me cyclone season is usually about being on standby at work, some trees down, a few whistling winds and debating whether I should go with baked beans or tinned dolmades for the cyclone kit.
I’m being glib, but I’m not really. Especially when I think about what happened to Darwin 39 years ago.
The stories from Cyclone Tracy get me every time. My uncle remembers taking refuge in a car, drinking the last of the Christmas party booze and waiting to die. Everyone describes “that sound”: the roar of the wind, the scream of it, like a freight train pounding down the rails towards you.
I’ll never forget Terry Kenwrick’s version of Tracy. Terry was a teacher, actor and man about town; he spent Christmas Eve 1974 in a house in Tiwi with his wife and child. This is how he described the experience:
It was like a giant had grabbed your house and was literally shaking it really hard. He was going to kill you. There was no way out. And then the power went off and we lay on the floor next to the bathtub, with our feet keeping the door closed. Terror kicked in… I can’t remember much after that. We could barely scream to each other. I just thought there was no way out of this one. I tried praying, we all did. We tried everything.
By dawn, the wind was dropping. And as dawn came up, it was raining like hell and very, very windy but lessening. I squeezed out of this cubby hole and stood up.
The view was incredible. 360 degrees of total destruction. Not a building left habitable.
Then I saw a policeman in nothing but a hat and a pair of underpants, with a double barrelled shot gun slung over his shoulder. He was stumbling towards me.
I said, What do we do now mate?
And he said, I don’t know, and went on, looking for something to shoot.
But last night was no Tracy, not even close. When I got off the plane, the wind had died down and the roads had just a dressing of leftover rain.
Today in the grey light of morning, I can see the damage of (ex) Tropical Cyclone Alessia, the Category 1 that never was. The blinds in our bedroom are hanging on by a thread, and two of the large pot plants on the balcony have been knocked over. Never mind. As the internet meme says, We Will Rebuild.
I’m enjoying the scattering of clouds and the silence and the cooler temperature.
It’s actually a bit nippy.
I might even turn the fan off.