July 2nd, 2007. Reckon it didn't rain?
Like the rest of the state, Walhalla has been suffering from the effects of several years of sustained drought conditions. Among other problems that this has caused (apart from creating near-perfect conditions for the bushfires of last Christmas) is the proliferation of shrubbery and small trees that visitors will now notice growing in the bed of Stringer's Creek. Stronger flows than we've been seeing in recent years have usually kept the channel of the creek clear of such growth in the past, but we've been obliged to consider working bees to reduce the clutter that will otherwise only hinder the water's flow and jeopardize structures standing in or near the creek in the event of a serious flood.
Historically, there are many precedents for strong and very swiftly-rising floods in Walhalla's steep and narrow valley, at times even days after the worst of the rain has ended. Sometimes, these have been very destructive floods that have quickly swept away bridges, waterwheels, roadways and buildings, and put the very lives of townspeople at grave risk. This effect is most noticeable in the centre of town, at the very point in the main junction where the Left-Hand and Right-Hand Branches of Stringer's Creek flow together, causing cataclysmic flows such as those seen in 1891 and again in 1952, or in the floods of the Queen's Birthday weekend in 1978 (commemorated in a report in the August 1998 edition of the "Walhalla Chronicle"). When this happens, the usually-meandering stream turns into a raging torrent that finds its own most direct path downhill, taking with it everything in its path -- and occasionally even revealing specks of gold that have remained undiscovered for over 150 years when it recedes to its more tranquil levels.
"Walhalla Heyday" quotes the example of the floods of 1-3 August, 1891, which followed an unusually heavy local downpour that had persisted for two days. By Monday, 3rd August, 1891, the Gippsland Times was reporting that "... the town is inundated ... What was formerly the main street is now a roaring torrent. Bridges and in some cases houses have been swept away, and many families have had to seek refuge in the hotels and public buildings, which are crowded ... The mines are flooded and the furnaces put out ... It will take the district months to recover." Fortunately, recovery is one of our best subjects ...
If you'd been up at Walhalla last weekend, you'd know that the rains of the past week have had a similarly dramatic effect, as you'll possibly be able to judge by the following pair of photos that were taken from the Thomson River road bridge. The first was taken back in March, 2002, on the occasion of the return of the Walhalla Goldfields Railway to the town.
Even then, five years ago, it shows the level of the Thomson somewhat constrained by state policy decisions to deflect significant volumes of the river's flow through the ranges into metropolitan Melbourne's Upper Yarra Dam. In the years since then, this situation has only been aggravated by a lack of rain that led to continually declining water levels in the Thomson Dam. The Thomson, one of Victoria's largest dams, had fallen to as low as barely 29% of its capacity before the recent rains, and as recently as a month ago would almost have allowed visitors to cross the river on foot at this point, only a few kilometers downstream, without getting seriously wet.
The second photo (above) was taken by Brian Brewer on the last weekend in June from an almost identical position on the adjacent road bridge, and clearly shows not only a far wider and deeper stream than the earlier one, but also the considerable amounts of debris that have been flushed down the river and which have collected against the railway bridge, and also, on the bridge pylons, clear evidence of the height that the waters reached in scouring the structure clean.
Some 25 km downstream and east-southeast from Walhalla, Cowwarr, like Walhalla, also felt the heat from the bushfires of last Christmas.
In a curious footnote to the recent rains, we received a phone call from there -- where the downpour filled the dam to overflowing quite early -- to say that they had recovered a time capsule that had apparently been buried at Walhalla some four years ago (we assume, since it was marked to be opened in 2203), and it had clearly been disinterred by the floods from wherever it was originally buried -- equally clearly, a little bit too close to Stringer's Creek -- and washed downstream by the torrent to join the Thomson, then swiftly on to Cowwarr. Given the deluge, it all probably happened in record time, too!
As our photo shows, the "capsule" -- actually a sealed, lidded plastic bucket -- is in remarkably good condition, considering its recent journey, so our present aim, now that it has been returned to the valley, is to re-seal it and re-bury it, only a little more securely this time, to make sure that this time, it stays buried, for at least another 196 years!
Postscript to a postscript:
... and here's a photo of our esteemed re-interment planning committee, following this year's Annual General Meeting on October 14th, 2007, deciding on a spot that looks far enough inland from the creek to cope with the next big flood ...