Suburbiana Kempsey: Floods, Slim Dusty and growing up along the mighty Macleay

Tony Vermeer
The Nightly
Bible-worthy inundations regularly put our town on the map by wiping us off it.
Bible-worthy inundations regularly put our town on the map by wiping us off it. Credit: The Nightly

I grew up in a river town. Like most of my fellow citizens in the republic of Kempsey I was proud of our river, the mighty Macleay, which feeds pure mountain rain from the Great Dividing Range to the Pacific Ocean, snaking through an impossibly beautiful valley to an impossibly beautiful coast.

I was especially proud because even though snooty rival towns on the NSW mid-north coast such as Taree and Port Macquarie had their own quite-nice rivers none of them could do a flood like ours.

As any local could tell you, the Macleay was a global phenomenon — officially (drum-roll) the fourth-fastest flowing river in flood in the world.

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This had been confirmed via painstaking research by international scientists and published in peer-reviewed studies in respected scientific journals. We were all a bit hazy on the actual details but everybody reckoned the boffins had declared that our Macleay had just been pipped for the podium in the flood Olympics by the Amazon, the Nile and the Mississippi.

Bible-worthy inundations regularly put our town on the map by wiping us off it. Until they built a levee to protect the Kempsey CBD in the sixties, we were in a neck-and-neck race with Lismore to see who could go under most often. If Noah came back as an Aussie, he’d have built his ark in the middle of Smith St, our main drag, and sailed it to the top of neighbouring Mount Yarrahapinni.

Water, water everywhere.
Water, water everywhere. Credit: Tyler F. Smith/SES

In the Big One of 1949, the town was drowned when the Macleay burst its banks after a huge rain bomb. Newsreel reports claimed the river rose 59 feet (18m) in a day although the official gauge apparently registered 8.5m. You couldn’t see much more above the muddy sea than the post office tower and its clock — like a drowning man with two hands, not waving.

Kempsey still floods, but these days downriver cops it worse more often than not. It’s why the town is now home to the longest road bridge in Australia – stretching 3.2km across the river flats – which had to be built to flood-proof the zillion-dollar M1 bypass.

A river that cuts through a town is both a unifier and a divider. It is at the same time common property, a connection and an internal border. You live on one side or the other, and that’s your lot, your first marker in a town.

In Kempsey on the West Bank of the Macleay lay the town’s six pubs and three licensed clubs, all but one within convenient staggering distance of each other in a triumph of town planning.

Every restaurant was also located there. Back in the day that consisted of a Chinese joint run by two brothers from Hong Kong and a truck-stop diner at a Shell servo.

Luckily, my developing teenage palate was well served on our rare nights out as both establishments offered steak and chips. But for entrée I could substitute the Chiko roll from the servo menu with the spring roll from the Chinese.

The Macleay River is both a unifier and a divider.
The Macleay River is both a unifier and a divider. Credit: Visit NSW

The West also happened to be home to the town’s entire collection of supermarkets, shops and cafes, Kempsey’s only theatre/cinema, its two radio stations, the district hospital — where various members of our family were on a first name basis with the emergency staff — the town’s fire, ambulance and railway stations and most of its sporting facilities including Verge St Oval, home of the all-konquering Kempsey Kowboys footy team which regularly alliterated their opposition.

But our family lived in the East on the edge of town. We had none of the above except for one grog-less general store (admittedly it was kind of famous having been owned by the family of award-winning author Thomas Keneally).

If we wanted to eat out near home, we had a picnic in the backyard.

To play footy after school we had to clear the cow shit from the paddock of a neighboring farm. The dried pats were no problem, piled high they made decent goal posts. The fresh ones were left and treated as land mines. Magic for developing a decent sidestep, terrible for dry cleaning bills.

A consolation, if you could call it that, was that the East was the home of a ballroom dance school where countless girls and boys including some crossovers from the West learned to butcher the Barn Dance and the Gypsy Tap in preparation for school socials.

Lessons were held in the back room of a house by an elderly couple who obviously fancied a challenge. He was a former jockey, so the whisperers said, who’d acquired a wooden leg after a nasty trackwork incident.

True or not, he had a distinctive gait on the dance floor that his students found quite difficult to emulate and his head only came up to his wife’s armpit, so he tended to disappear in the swirls of her skirt whenever they demonstrated the waltz. Which, taken together, is probably why nobody from Kempsey has won Dancing With The Stars.

My town is probably best known to the wider world as the home of country music legend Slim Dusty – he was a farm boy from the West, upriver at Nulla Nulla – and Akubra hats which migrated from Sydney to set up its factory in no-man’s land, that is South Kempsey.

Kempsey was the home town of country music legend Slim Dusty.
Kempsey was the home town of country music legend Slim Dusty. Credit: Steven Siewert/Fairfax

I apologise if by now I’ve made the Macleay River sound as if it were the Rubicon or the Styx. Crossing over was not like passing the point of no return or heading to Hades. There was no Cold War between East and West and the Kempsey Bridge wasn’t our Berlin Wall – although there were armed checkpoints when the cops set up an RBT on the off-ramp and the West did need occasional food drops in flood time.

All in all, those living in the East seemed largely content with their choice. Truth to tell, it was the preferred home for most of the town’s doctors and lawyers although their businesses lay in the West.

Maybe that had something to do with the other notable thing about East Kempsey. It was on the high side of the Macleay. It never flooded.

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