The current swirls around Ray’s legs as he wades towards the old flood gauge during the January 2008 flood.Picture: Jason Schaefer
The current swirls around Ray’s legs as he wades towards the old flood gauge during the January 2008 flood.Picture: Jason Schaefer

Telemetry signals the end of an era

The installation of flood telemetry equipment at Tuckurimba marks the end of an era for grazier and retired sugar-mill worker Ray Hunt, his family and neighbours.

During each flood for the past 52 years, Ray, 78, has waded through chest-deep floodwater six times a day to measure the height of the Wilsons River at Baxter Lane where he lives.

Now, a recently installed $20,000 telemetry station measures river heights and rainfall and transmits the data by radio to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) where it is posted on the bureau’s web site.

The solar-powered telemetry tower stands about 50 metres from the old gauge, which is at the place where the river first breaks its banks to spread out across the Tuckean floodplain.

Readings at that site are vital for farmers and other landholders in the Woodburn, Broadwater, Tuckean, Tuckurimba and Dungarubba areas who depend on them to warn when it is time to move stock and secure properties and as an indicator of how high the flood peak will be.

During floods Ray relayed the information by telephone to the local State Emergency Service (SES) headquarters and he fielded the sometimes dozens of inquiries from neighbours and others across the floodplain.

“The flood comes down from Lismore, between the hills and this is the first place it breaks away to spread out,” he said. “It rushes around the foot of this hill and collects fences, trees and rubbish.

“It’s a focal point here and is of great importance to all those people down river.”

Ray points out a new pipe which runs into the river at the foot of the old gauge.

“They’ve got a gas line in there and it runs up and along the bank to the telemetry tower,” he said. “Don’t ask me how it works. It’s over my head.

“As soon as the river rises, it sends a signal. It’s quite clever. It’s a bit cleverer than a man walking through the water and reading it and then ringing up someone.

“I’ve sent a heap of information sheets out to people. They will be able to sit in their living rooms and know exactly what is going on here.

“We haven’t had a flood yet to measure it. We’ve had a fresh, but they were having troubles when that fresh was on.

“They had to get the people down from Brisbane. There was some screw or something in there that wasn’t biting in enough. At any rate, the bloke said it’s all right now.

“So, all I’ve had off it is the tidal readings.”

After all those years supplying information to his neighbours, now it is Ray who will be asking them to keep him up to date.

“I haven’t got a computer, but Graeme Smith next door has,” he said. “He’s got all the stuff, so I can wander over to his place.”

While Ray will miss providing such a vital service to the community, he is resigned to his changing role and he knows that people will still seek his advice in time of flooding.

“It’s progress,” he said. “It’s like everything. The computer world has arrived. All these things are going out the back window. You know what I mean?

“I used to come down here and get a very accurate reading.

“People used to ring me up and say ‘how high’ and ‘what do you think?’. They may still ring me up and ask what I think. They will still call and ask ‘what should we do?’ and so forth.

“When I walked through there a few times it was getting a bit dangerous. You know, when you get water up to here (he indicates chest height and he is a tall man).

“People said ‘you are mad to do that’. I won’t do that any more, but I will certainly wander down here and have a look. I’ll be able to see how accurate our gauge is.

“It’s the end of an era for people, particularly here in the lower river.

“These hills go all the way to the Border Ranges. There is no break. That’s the first break away to flat land and the flat land goes all the way down to beyond Woodburn and up to the range down there.

“So you’ve got this great swirl of water that really rips around here.

“There have been three of four floods that have gone over the top here, so you can imagine the amount of water here.”

In 2007 Ray rang the Department of Regional Development in response to a newspaper article asking people with flood gauges to get in touch with a view to installing telemetry.

He got little response and it was not until another newspaper article was published detailing his dangerous task during the January 2008 flood that the message started to get through.

He said, in the 2008 flood, the water was quite deep and it was flowing fast.

“I decided that this would be the last time I would walk through it, because it was getting quite dangerous,” he said.

Ray has records and clippings that date back more than 50 years, from the time when his father was a gauge reader before him.

“My dad used to do it from the 1920s, so it’s been a lifetime experience,” he said. “I took it over when I was in my teens. When I left school I was helping on the farm. That’s what we did in those days. That would have been in the ’50s. I did the ’54 flood. That was one of our gigantic ones. The ’54 and ’74 ones were our biggest ones.”

Ray said the river started to break its banks when the level was 6.2 metres on the old gauge.

He said he often got inquiries from people seeking information about past floods.

Apart from his role as a gauge reader, Ray has a reputation for community service and for helping his neighbours when they are facing inundation.

Many have stories about his assistance with moving stock, securing equipment or just offering reassurance and advice.

While he has had to cut back some of his community work, Ray still serves as treasurer of the Coraki Golf Club and is a caller for the Telecross telephone contact service.

For a long time he drove the Caroona community bus.

He calls koalas ‘teddy bears’ and he is a member of the group campaigning against the expansion of the nearby Champion’s Quarry.

He cites concerns about the impact of the quarry on the local environment and wildlife and the increase in truck traffic as reasons for his opposition.

Most important in Ray’s life are his wife, Anne, and the rest of his family.

He takes pride in the farm, which still carries cattle and he is proud too of his gardens.

He points out a freshly dug piece of ground, close to the river and the new telemetry station.

“See my winter garden down there,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for years. I garden down there from July to December. Occasionally I lose a crop to a fresh, but rarely.

“I put potatoes in there in July and I have pumpkins in there, but a lot of stuff I used to grow, I can’t grow any more, because lizards and red bills love tomatoes and peas and beans. They don’t like potatoes and they don’t like pumpkins, so I just grow the basic stuff.

“It’s a beautiful piece of silt soil. I just keep it worked up. I’ve just put a new fence around it.

“I swim in the river there. I’ve been doing that nearly all my life.”

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