Bad timing, but great community
IT WAS surreal.
Amid the chaos of the summer floods, a lone figure would sit quietly on the veranda of the Fitzroy Hotel and watch the sun set over Rockhampton.
Just three months earlier, that figure, Tony Higgins, had bought the hotel and moved back to the Central Queensland city after 20 years away.
"I worked in town from 1980 to '86 as a stock and station agent, and when I moved away, I then got into pubs," he recalled.
"I'd had several, but then when the Fitzroy came up, I couldn't pass it up, so I came back to Rocky.
"It has a real history, being in the middle of the swamp and I didn't know it then, but once I bought it of course the first summer I was in it, it flooded.
"We knew it was coming, so we were lucky in that respect, we really had about a week and a half to prepare.
"But what we weren't sure of was how high it was going to be."
Then a marvellous stroke of luck came for Tony.
The water reached, but did not flow over the floorboards at the pub.
It was about then that the Fitzroy Hotel, or as it was known, the "Fitzroy Float-el", became part community centre, part water police dock and part pub.
After being advised by police to stay open during the day, but to close shop after dark, Tony would take a few moments to enjoy the twilight each evening.
He said: "I'd sit there and watch the sun set; with the light bouncing off the water, without the cars and the street lights and think how surreal it all was.
"If you didn't think we were in the middle of a flood, it was an incredible sight to see."
And the pub itself was a sight to see - and it certainly was seen.
As international media descended on Rockhampton, the Fitzroy Float-el was one of the most publicised images of the city, perhaps surpassed only by the river gauge on Quay St.
For Tony, those long days were filled with innumerable media interviews, so patrons of the Float-el ended up giving Tony the nickname of "Oprah".
But rather than the brief, but frenzied media attention it was the attention of local residents that really helped him through.
"I know a lot of people knock Depot Hill and the Swampies, but honestly, I couldn't think of a better community to be a part of during a flood.
"I opened the pub up to anybody. While we had no power and no fridges, we could get ice and had eskies for beer.
"Every morning I'd get up between 5am and 6am and there would be a copy of that day's Bully on the veranda, delivered via one of the local's boats.
"We had tables covered with goods, from canned food to razor blades and rubber gloves and it was all an honour system.
"People would come and get something they needed, and others would drop off things - later in the day, when we had beer, I would just leave out a tin and people would pay for it off their own back.
"I even had one guy come over in a boat, having bought a carton of beer for the pub, I paid him back for the carton.
"But instead of gett
ing himself a carton as well, he'd come back in to the pub and pay full price for that same beer just because he wanted to help keep me afloat."
Full of praise for the authorities and community, Tony said there was one particular organisation that he could not praise enough - the water police.
"We had their boats often tied up to the pub out the front and they were using it as a base, but I saw them do amazing things.
"You know, in those snake-infested waters, they'd get in up to their necks to help somebody get things out of their house."
Almost 12 months on from the floods, Tony is just now starting to get back on his feet at the hotel.
"We were lucky, we didn't have any major damage, but the big impact for us was the amount of time we simply couldn't operate.
"We were out for basically two months with no business, and then when we did get back open, everybody was still hurting from the floods.
"So it was slow going - it probably knocked me back about a third of the year in terms of money in the till.
"But I really just feel for others who were impacted, those down south who lost friends and family, or people out at Theodore who lost everything and had to be evacuated.
"The thing about the flood in Rocky was that I could sit here in the pub and without a boat, I was totally isolated.
"But with a boat, I could go down the street and not 300 metres from the edge of the floodwater, I could buy a latte - so it was quite a surreal experience."