NATIONAL, April 07, 2011: The terrifying images emerging from the recent Queensland floods served as a chilling reminder of the sheer power and unpredictability of Mother Nature.
Those fearsome torrents of water powering down the main street of Toowoomba are forever etched on the minds of many Australians.
Disasters on that scale are indeed traumatic. People die, property is lost, and livelihoods are whisked away in a heartbeat.
Although, just as swiftly as the waters had risen, rousing reports of heroism were filtering through our television sets and appearing on the pages of our daily broadsheets. Tales of self-sacrifice in the fray, and of true blue Australian mateship in full flight.
We Aussies adore a good hero.
Whether it’s our brave troops serving overseas, sporting greats, musical exports or those brave bush pioneers, Aussies can’t hear enough about a ‘kid done good.’
Think Don Bradman, Henry Lawson, James Cook, Hume, Hovell, Sturt, Mawson, Burke, Kelly…all familiar names, all ‘heroes’ of Australian history.
That’s why it’s so strange that scarcely anyone outside of a few history boffins have ever heard of a young Wiradjuri boy named Yarri.
Or is it so strange after-all?
Up until Christmas Eve in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy blew out of the Arafura Sea with category three winds that snatched 71 lives in Darwin, a little known event in the tiny town of Gundagai in the NSW southern highlands was the single worst natural disaster in Australian-European history.
And this is where young Yarri comes into focus.
In 1852, Yarri lived in and around a small settler’s camp known as ‘The Crossing.’ It would later be called Gundagai, a word based on the Wiradjuri term gundabandoo – bingee, meaning ‘to slash the back of a knee with an axe.’ This is thought to be a reference to a bend in the mighty Murrumbidgee River, which flowed alongside.
Settlers Peter and Henry Stuckey first built on The Crossing in 1828, and as the theft of Wiradjuri lands became more common place, a small township soon arose on the flats of the Murrumbidgee.
There was money to make at The Crossing in the mid 1800s.
It emerged as a meeting place for southbound settlers and overlanders heading for Port Phillip Bay in Victoria.
In some cases travellers camped for weeks at the Murrumbidgee crossing, usually waiting for the waters to recede.
Before too long permanent dwellings had emerged and a small, thriving town was born.
But The Crossing was a perilous place.
The Wiradjuri had repeatedly warned those white settlers building on the flats – of great waters that careered through the area. But as expected, their warnings were ignored.
Indeed the very name Murrumbidgee should’ve stood as a warning in itself, as it literally translates to ‘one big water.’
Sure enough, in June of 1852, a savage drought finally broke and it rained for three weeks straight.
Soon ‘Old Gundagai’ resembled an island, marooned in between the rapidly rising waters of nearby Morley’s Creek and the great Murrumbidgee River.
Before nightfall on Thursday, June 24, the greedy local punt owner named Spencer saw a chance to make a quick buck from the emerging crisis, and hired out his boat to bring those who could afford it to higher ground.
Perhaps it was karma, but Spencer’s first run across the swollen waters ended in tragedy after his punt was wrenched off-course and collided with a tree. Six lives were lost, including three children.
They were the first of many deaths to come in the rapidly rising torrent.
By the time the weak sun went down on Friday night the Murrumbidgee was rising at an astonishing rate of one metre per hour.
The population of Gundagai were now either on the roofs of their houses, or had chanced a perilous swim to higher ground to escape the rising water level.
With the punt now out of action, young Yarri sprung into action.
What took place next was arguably the single most heroic and selfless act in Australian recorded history.
Yarri launched into the now kilometre wide flood zone in a traditional bark canoe he’d carved himself from local timber.
Many dwellings had already been washed away, torn off their foundations and sent downstream with their human cargo.
In the black of night, Yarri was guided by the screams of survivors clinging to trees and roof tops in the freezing waters.
Dodging huge logs and other debris, he went back and forth rescuing anyone he could find.
He spent the entire night in his canoe, paddling up and downstream to conduct rescue after rescue.
His canoe would usually only hold one person, but such were the water skills of Yarri, he ferried up to six people at a time to a safe spot on the river bank.
John Spencer, a relative of the town’s punt owner and also the Inn Keeper spent 36 hours in a tree until Yarri came for him. Spencer was near frozen and completely naked at the time, save for a cash box strapped around his neck.
Whole families were torn from the roofs of their houses, the carcases of sheep, horses and cattle were found wedged in the branches of trees the following day.
With estimates of around 100 people drowned, the great flood of Gundagai in 1852 was the single worst natural disaster in Australia’s recorded history.
It could have been far worse though.
Yarri saved a staggering 49 people from the great flood over a 40-hour period.
In a disaster of any kind, such a truly amazing act of bravery is simply mind-blowing, but given the date was 1852 and Yarri was atop a bark canoe in the black of night, makes this yarn all the more astounding.
But what’s perhaps more mind boggling is the lack of recognition in Australian history books of such a superhuman feat.
There’s no poetry, folk song or bronze statue to honour Yarri in Gundagai.
There’s written recognition of his feat outside of a small leaflet put together by a dedicated local historian in Gundagai.
Wiradjuri man and Councillor for the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), Craig Cromelin believes the balance is badly off.
“There’s an entire museum dedicated to a bloke that scored a few runs for Australia in cricket.
“There’s highways, buildings, monuments and museums dedicated to white ‘explorers’ who apparently ‘discovered’ and ‘opened-up’ the wild expanses of Australia.
“An entire Victorian town survives off the back of the exploits of a police-killing criminal in Ned Kelly, he said.
“There are even exhibits placed all over Australia displaying the stuffed body parts of a successful race horse named Phar Lap.
“But what of Yarri?
“He wasn’t a well trained horse, nor did he shoot police. He saved innocent lives at the risk of his own.
“I can’t help but think his skin colour had something to do with the fact ‘Yarri’ isn’t a household name today.
“If Yarri wasn’t Wiradjuri would he be held in the same regard as Bradman, Burke and Wills, Mawson, Lawson and company?
“I think he might.
“To be fair, there was some recognition of Yarri’s bravery dotted throughout Gundagai following the great flood, including a small plaque, a bridge name and a sundial.
“But all in all, it equates to bugger all considering he singlehandedly ensured the continuing survival of Gundagai.
“What breaks my heart most of all is a Gundagai Times newspaper report from June 29, 1879.”
‘A gentleman, who passed through south Gundagai on Monday complains that he saw some individuals whom, he supposes, would expect to be considered men, maltreating and teasing an unfortunate black fellow, who he subsequently ascertained was ‘Old Yarry’.’
‘He reminds us that this blackfellow was instrumental in saving the lives of many white people in the disastrous flood of 1852, and that the only thanks he received was to be kicked around by a lot of white rascals, whom he says, supply in their own persons a strong argument in favour of the theory of decent of man from monkeys, as all they require is the caudal appendage in order to present a most striking likeness to their ancestors according to Dr Darwin’s hypothesis.’