a memoir by Matthew Ward
Before the earthquake of 1989, Newcastle NSW was known as a ‘large industrial town.’ After the earthquake of 1989 Newcastle NSW was known as ‘that large industrial town that had an earthquake.’
In the twenty years since the earthquake, she has since become less of an industrial town and a little bit closer to a modern, bohemian city whose population used to remember the natural disaster every year, but now only does so every five or ten years.
What I hated was I was not in my home town when the earthquake hit. I was in Coffs Harbour on holiday with my younger brother, Philip; a mate, Tony; and my brother’s mate, Darren. This is how it all went down. At the then mature age of 23, I was ‘absent without leave’ when my city had its biggest event since the flaming car Star Hotel riots of 1979 that shortly after was immortalised by Aussie rockers Cold Chisel.
We had crept into a Coffs Harbour caravan park around mid-afternoon on December 27th 1989, tired after Christmas and Boxing Day celebrations, and a little jetlagged by the trip from Newcastle – a jetlagged feeling even though we travelled there by car, if that makes any sense.
We constructed a slipshod tent and I crashed in there immediately despite the hot weather. To my confusion, I awoke an hour later in the orange light to the sound of giggling and the sight of a little green crab that was inching itself towards me, pincers ready – I believed – to sever my little toes. The giggling was not the crab, as you might have gathered, but the other guys outside who did this sort of thing for a lark all the time, as we all did.
That night we walked from the caravan park in our going to town clothes, my then long hair split-enzy because I used Sunlight Soap instead of shampoo in the caravan shower block. Anyway, at a club we drank expensive watered down scotches and Cokes, watched music videos on a big screen and then hours later walked back to the caravan park with that ‘paid too much to not to get anywhere’ feeling.
Next morning on December 28th we woke up around 9am, dressed casually and shortly after went by car into town to grab breakfast. On the way back, Darren, who was driving, decided to bunny hop his car around another caravan park. Inevitably the clutch cable snapped. We then pushed the car in the heat to the local Mitsubishi parts place, the rest of us hoping that this example of buffoonery would cost Darren a motza. It didn’t. He wasn’t called Lucky the Cat for nothing. The clutch cable for his model of Sigma, a GE (1978), was only $20 or something. The models after the GE had cables that started at over $100.
So, being someone who worked in the car game I knew that even though Darren would be paying next to nothing for his cable, they wouldn’t have one for at least a week – it might even have to come from Japan – and then he’d have to book in to get it done. Well, they had one and said they could fix it within the hour for next to nothing. Lucky the Cat strikes again.
After the car was roadworthy once more, we cruised to get lunch in the middle of Coffs. Strange things then started to happen. I went to an autoteller and was told via an onscreen message that the bank I was trying to get money from, The Newcastle Permanent, was down. Then we got back into the car and just drove around. Someone put the car radio on. There was some music and we chatted generally about nothing in particular just as the DJ said: “And we’ll give you more info on the Newcastle earthquake as it comes to hand…” Someone in the car told the others to shut up, and we waited an eternity for the DJ to get back to us. We assumed the whole thing was a joke as he played Martika’s then popular cover of Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.
We all decided we had to be back in Newcastle, so we went back to the caravan park to pack. Tony and I hung around waiting for Philip and Darren and while we did we met an old man who told us the best place to go for a bite was the RSL where we could get a baked dinner and “exotic things like peas and carrots and potatoes.” We knew all about peas and carrots and potatoes but let him talk as he seemed to delight in telling us the marvels of baked dinners.
So, we travelled in two cars, Darren driving his car with Philip as shotgun, and Tony driving his brown metallic V8 HZ Kingswood with me in the passenger seat, both vehicles trying to get to Newcastle as quickly as possible but Tony winning due to sheer horsepower.
Tony and I eventually arrived back in Newcastle after lunch, eager to go cruise Main and see what the damage was, from Hamilton where awnings had collapsed on cars and the Newcastle Worker’s Club where poker machine playing pensioners had shuffled through dust and spilled coins to try and escape the rumble of the floor.
Trouble was every stickybeak Novocastrian and rubbernecker from outside Newcastle was determined to get into Newcastle as well. The roads all the way back were packed. We sat in the car outside Wickham Gates for an eternity. We had to have a story ready as there was security only allowing in certain people and turning most away who u-turned it back to where they came from. We cooked up a half-baked story that I had a brother in Merewether and was concerned for his welfare.
I gave the story to the security guy and he asked where exactly my brother lived. Well, we hadn’t thought that far ahead, and he gave us the ‘good try’ look and urged us to turn around, which we did.
Traffic was thick going back to the suburbs but eventually I arrived home to New Lambton while Tony left to see his family in Kotara.
My brother arrived soon after and we relayed our stories to our parents, and my younger sister who had escaped from Newcastle an hour or so before from her workplace, Spotlight, a retailer of manchester, material etc. My parents were worried after hearing apocalyptic stories on the radio of Newcastle totally collapsing and greeted her with relief.
When the quake happened, everyone in my street apparently went outside, not having ever been prepared for such a natural disaster. It didn’t hit anywhere near as badly as in the city but still it had been a shock. When I heard this I wished I had been there, too.
The aftereffects were everpresent on the media and in the streets. It was in the papers, on the TV and Novocastrians loved talking about the tragedy. Several people unfortunately lost their lives and we watched stories on TV of relatives of the deceased reliving their stories of woe.
In the following week the Newcastle CBD and Hamilton were turned into ghost towns, with only those who owned buildings that were deemed safe or tradesmen allowed to enter the zones. Tony was a plumber at the time and was called in to do work, so he kept the rest of us updated on the situation in town.
Being an avid amateur photographer, the following week I travelled over in my car to Tighes Hill, a suburb next to Hamilton, that had had its own shakeup. That year I had been going part-time to tech (TAFE) and I was keen to see if it had sustained any damage. It had, and I used my zoom lens SLR to photograph fallen walls, and red & white taped off areas. I also talked to some teachers who were not allowed into their workplace until they were given the okay, which was at least a week away.
A week after that buildings started to get demolished. In Tighes Hill I stood with 50 or so curious onlookers, a lot with cameras, while a pub was knocked down. In New Lambton similar crowds gathered as the facade of the pharmacy in Orchardtown Road was toppled over. The old George Hotel in town, where my Nan had worked in the ’70s, was apparently too unstable and had to be knocked down, yet when they tried she held on, refusing to go, and those of us who used to go there as underage drinkers with fake photocopied boat licenses were very proud of her steadfastedness that day.
Scenes like this were repeated all over the city and suburbs. The excitement then died down and thousands of people whose homes had been damaged by the earthquake struggled to get their abodes habitable again. Some of them would wait years.
A few years later I was at university. One afternoon I was at home talking on the phone to my friend Michelle. The sliding door to my room was closed, then someone rattled it to say, I assumed, that dinner was ready or that someone was at the door to see me. “Yeah, hang on,” I yelled out.
Michelle said: “What in the f*** was that?”
“What was what?” I replied.
“I think that was a tremor,” she said.
“Cool,” I said, I wasn’t here for the last one (in 1989).”
“Well I was,” she said. “I’m getting outa here!”
“No, just stand under the doorframe,” I said and did just that (I had read that somewhere).
Well, she uttered something unprintable and rushed outside her flat and into the street.
As a bit of a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that at the time of the turmoil in Newcastle, where we were in Coffs Harbour was very quiet, peaceful. Tony and I had been sitting on grass in the caravan park playing chess while in our home town of Newcastle, people ran for their lives. I can’t remember who won that chess game but that doesn’t matter, does it? While we were playing a peaceful game that represented war, a peaceful city was in the midst of its own war, against nature.
Years after the earthquake, when Novocastrians told their tales, I had always felt left out, but I was soon warmed by the curiosity of others who wanted to know about my time in Coffs at the time of the quake, the very story you are reading now. It was still an earthquake story, I realised, and as relevant as any other earthquake story.
© 2010, Matthew Glenn Ward