A trail of destruction

East coast low—Wednesday, 9 June – Thursday, 10 June 2021

On the morning of Wednesday, 9 June 2021, a low pressure system commonly known as an east coast low began to move across the Gippsland coast. By around 2:00 pm, southerly winds began to increase across areas of higher elevations and a constant, driving rain set in. Here at Mount Dandenong, 600 metres above sea level, the winds tore through the tree tops and we knew we were in for a wild night. The destruction that followed though, no one could really have foreseen. By daylight on Thursday, the numbers of trees downed would be estimated to have been in their thousands. 119 homes were rendered uninhabitable, with another 140 or so badly damaged. Thankfully, in some form of miracle, there were no deaths.

An east coast low brings winds rarely experienced in these parts and the results can be catastrophic.

On Wednesday night as darkness fell and the wind increased to speeds of up to 120kph, Vanessa and I made the decision to sleep in the lounge room, with a couch and a dog each. Around 7:00 pm we heard the first boom and the whole house shook. We thought at first that we must have been directly in the path of a huge thunderstorm. It wasn’t until the third or fourth boom that we realised there was no accompanying lightning. What we were hearing was the first of many giant Mountain Ash trees in Singleton Reserve, most over 50 metres tall and aged well over a hundred years, being topped like skittles in the intense winds.

The view of Singleton Reserve from our driveway.

The power first went out at around 7:30 pm and came back on again almost immediately. Throughout the evening the lights would frequently flicker and we knew it was only a matter of time before they would finally stay off. That happened at around 9:00 pm. We tried our best to get some sleep, but neither of us could really nod off, especially as more booms rang out at regular intervals. At 10:45 we heard on the emergency services scanner, that one of the local CFA crews was attempting to clear a path through fallen trees on the corner of our street, in order to rescue an ambulance and SES vehicle that were trapped just down the road. Apparently they had been responding to a call out for a woman trapped in her house and a tree had fallen across the SES vehicle, crushing it like an aluminium can. As we watched from the relative safety of our window, several more trees came down where the CFA crew were working. They hurriedly backed the truck away, just as another tree came down on the spot where the truck had been. Over the scanner we heard them (wisely) abandon their efforts and head back to the depot – at that moment we realised that should the worse happen, we were now totally isolated from any help.

The spot where the CFA crews had been working to free an ambulance and SES vehicle before further falling trees forced them to retreat.

By 2:00am we were both feeling the effects of trying to sleep on a couch with a frightened dog alongside us and we decided to head into the bedroom, however less than half an hour later we heard an almighty crash behind us. I ventured outside with my torch and saw the unmistakable outline of a large branch resting only metres away from the wall where our heads had just been. We headed back to the lounge room with all thoughts of sleep abandoned. The booms continued throughout the night, and we listened in disbelief as crew after crew of CFA and FRV firefighters attempted to gain access to the mountain, only to be thwarted at each turn by fallen trees.

One of several giant Stringybarks that fell into our property from our neighbour’s yard – this one landed just metres away from our bedroom wall.

When dawn finally came, a pale sun rose across a scene out of a horror film. With the winds still howling around us, we wandered down our driveway where a 30 m high Messmate Stringybark had crashed down during the night, completely blocking any vehicle access to our property. We realised then that the ‘branch’ that had narrowly missed our bedroom the night before was in fact another, even larger Messmate Stringybark, which had fallen right across our neighbour’s yard. With despair I realised that underneath its crown lay the smashed remains of a 45 year old Magnolia that had been one of the most beautiful trees on our property.

The giant stringybark that fell during the night.

Down on Ridge Road we saw huge stands of Mountain Ash and Mountain Grey Gum laying across the road in all directions. The tree that had fallen where the CFA truck had been in the middle of the night had just brushed the side of our neighbour’s home, smashing the fibro-cement cladding and destroying a stained glass window, but thankfully not doing any serious damage. Right up and down our street, the story was repeated, but miraculously there were no reports of damage to houses.

A Mountain Ash that fell across Ridge Road and miraculously only just grazed the side of our neighbour’s house.

One thing was becoming abundantly clear as we walked around – a large portion of our fences had been demolished by fallen trees on both the north and south sides of the property. I desperately wanted to survey the rest of the property for damage, but as we watched more trees fall over in the reserve, we decided to head back into the house until the winds eased.

The tree that had fallen across the driveway had also taken out a copse of Blackwoods, along with much of our fence line.
The combined mess of the Stringybark and Blackwoods where they had come to rest on Eyre Road.

As it turns out, the decision to head inside and start calling our insurance agency probably saved our lives. At around 10:00 am we felt the house shake again and looked out of the window to see a large branch that had fallen across the garden outside, smashing huge concrete planters and bird baths as it fell. As we rushed to the front veranda to take a closer look, we realised that it was in fact another huge Messmate Stringybark that had just fallen across the driveway.

The second Stringybark to fall across the driveway.
This tree was much closer to the house than the first and it managed to smash a number of pots and bird baths as it fell.

By around 2:00 pm that afternoon the wind finally abated and we managed to venture out again to start checking on our neighbours. Right up and down the street we heard of massive damage to gardens and outbuildings, but not to houses. Sadly, just before nightfall we heard that there were a couple of houses at the end of the street that hadn’t fared so well. Thankfully though, there were still no reports of fatalities.

Right along the street there were trees down, but thankfully very few reports of damage to houses.

For most of the day on Friday we spoke on and off with our insurance company, as well as checking in with some of our neighbours. An electrician managed to make it all the way to our place from Beaconsfield to perform a make-safe on the damaged garden shed that housed the power to our water pump and the pond. Luckily he arrived just as the SES managed to cut a path through the trees that were still down across the main road, although he was forced to backtrack several times and had a few hairy moments where his van just scraped underneath some mammoth fallen trees.

The damaged garden shed.

On Friday morning I spoke to a neighbour who had been off the mountain for surgery throughout the week. She had been unable to get in touch with her husband and daughter who were in their home during the storm, although she had been told that they were OK. I wandered up the road to check on them, and once I found them safe and well I put them on to my phone to speak to her. A large tree had fallen from Singleton Reserve directly onto the roof of their carport, with the car buried beneath. We walked together along their fence line to check in on another neighbour whose property backed on to Singleton Reserve – miraculously the house had escaped major damage, despite the appearance that a multi-lane freeway had been bulldozed through the trees.

Parts of Singleton Reserve had been almost completely flattened.

Later that afternoon, as it became clear that we would be spending another night without power or access to our driveway, I walked down to the end of the street to chat with the father of the neighbour whose house I had been looking at that morning. He noticed the trees down across the driveway and asked if we were stuck. When I replied that we hadn’t been able to get the cars out of the drive since Wednesday, he headed off to his sons house, where the sounds of chainsaws and heavy haulage equipment could still be heard. Half an hour later, he returned driving an old Massey Ferguson tractor, with his son and a mate hanging off the back, wielding two giant chainsaws. Within a few minutes they had cleared a path through for us, pushing the massive trunks to the side to allow us just enough room for a car to get through.

My brand new glasshouse was completely destroyed.

By Saturday morning we started to get a little concerned about the lack of urgency of any coordinated response to what was clearly a disaster. It seemed that there were dozens of separate tree crews, SES, CFA, Parks Vic and FRV officers on the mountain, but few of them seemed to be talking to each other. We had three separate welfare checks in the space of a couple of hours – we were happy that they were indeed doing them, but there seemed to be a hell of a lot of doubling up. I heard from a neighbour that the road to Montrose was temporarily opened so I headed down that way – if I’d thought it was bad up here, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the utter devastation further along the ridge. In places there were entire hillsides flattened, in others trees as wide as buses hung precariously just metres above the road. I saw several houses that had been completely destroyed by fallen trees, and many others with trees across driveways or through fences. I wasn’t in the right headspace to take any photographs (I’m still not), but here is a link to a video that follows pretty much the same route I took.

All the way along the ridge there were downed trees and power lines.

I headed down to the Stihl store in Bayswater to buy a larger chainsaw, as well as a new chain for my smaller one – unfortunately when I arrived I discovered that every single chainsaw in the place was gone, as well as all the spare chains! I quickly looked up the next closest store and made my way to Ringwood, where they still had a bunch left, although as each person in the queue before me was there to pick up a chainsaw I did start to panic. Luckily most people were after smaller ones – I on the other hand walked out with a very heavy, very large 25″ bladed monster, spending a considerably large chunk of our increasingly unlikely holiday savings in the process. I also stopped to pick up some jerrycans and fuel as our insurance company had promised us that they would be able to source a generator so that we could finally have some lights.

With hundreds of power lines down we were thankful our insurer had managed to source a generator.

By the time I returned home the SES had closed off all access to the mountain from the Montrose end, so I had to divert through to Basin–Olinda Road. After 270mm of rain, it had started to wash out in places, but thankfully I made it through unscathed. A message from AusNet, our power supplier, gave us an estimate that the power would be restored by Sunday night. This was rather strange we felt, as we’d only just been looking at the smashed transformers, wires entangled in branches and poles leaning over at acute angles. Not to mention the fact that in all of the service vehicles we’d seen in the area, not one of them was from AusNet.

Any talk of getting the power reconnected quickly seemed unlikely, given the massive damage that had been incurred by all sorts of infrastructure.

From the limited news we could access on Saturday it seemed that most journalists were either oblivious to the situation up here, or had decided to move on to other news. There had been flooding in Gippsland and tragically, a couple of deaths, so with the media for the most part being kept out of the the ranges there seemed very little interest in reporting the true depth of the situation. There was a slight peak in interest when parts of Kallista and The Patch were told that their water was unsafe to drink, however this soon gave way to reports on the death of Geoffrey Edelston, the upcoming lifting of COVID restrictions and the possibility of getting crowds back to the footy. Sadly this continued throughout the weekend – in one of the few reports that even mentioned it I heard one commentator ask a representative from AusNet why the power hadn’t been restored by now, stating that “it’s just a storm—we get them all the time”.

This wasn’t just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill storm.

It wasn’t really until the following Wednesday, a full week after the storms, when the penny finally dropped that this was serious. AusNet announced that their initial assessments had in fact been wrong and that up to 3000 homes around Kalorama, Mount Dandenong, Olinda and Sassafrass would be without power until July 10 2021—a full month after the power first went out. Suddenly the mountain was swarming with news crews and commentators were screaming at politicians to do more, or to bring in the army.

A tree crew work to remove tons of debris from across downed power lines.

For us it has been an exercise in coping. It’s also reinforced to us that although it can be quite scary living up on he mountains at times, the way our community has banded together has reinforced why we love living here so much. Neighbours who aren’t too busy to take the time to check on each other, to call and chat to people who are doing it tough. Random acts of kindness like the local CFA volunteers organising care packages for vulnerable people or a rotating roster of people willing to go around refuelling and restarting generators regularly throughout the day for those elderly residents who are unable to do so themselves.

Parts of our garden lie buried under a multitude of fallen trees.

Gardens and sheds can be replaced—houses can be repaired or rebuilt too, although I dare say some may never be. It’s going to take many months and possibly even years to completely clean up the damage and many decades to replace the thousands of trees that were lost, but at the end of the day, residents here have dealt with tragedy before and have continued to prosper in spite of it. I’m sure we will continue to do so this time around.

Late on a Sunday afternoon and the chainsaws finally get a break after working flat out all weekend.

Let’s just hope that if only one thing good comes out of this event, it’s that something is finally done to fix the shambles that is Emergency Management Victoria, although I won’t hold my breath. The decision 9 days after the initial storms to finally call in 120 ADF staff to assist with the clean up and distribution of care packages shows how incredibly out of touch this useless bureaucracy is. This interview with one of our legendary CFA volunteers by Virginia Trioli on Melbourne radio a full week after the storms sums up the general feeling in the community here – it’s hard to imagine how the management of this disaster could have been handled any worse.

Learning to paint in oils

A pictorial timeline of my progress so far.

In October 2019, whilst searching through YouTube for something to watch, I decided to check out some videos of the iconic American TV personality Bob Ross. I was immediately struck by how easy he made it look to create stunning landscapes in such a short time, so of course I had to try it out for myself.

A snowy mountain by Mark Greatorex October 2019 Oil on canvas

My first few attempts came out OK, but I soon realised that I didn’t really want to paint snow-capped Alaskan peaks all the time. It was then that I discovered the work of Len Hend, an Australian artist who paints outback and bush scenes using the same wet-on-wet technique as that used by Bob. Len’s tutorials helped me to discover a passion for painting the Australian landscape, and I soon began to paint prolifically, completing at least one painting each day.

Broken Creek, Barmah Forest by Mark Greatorex December 2019 Oil on canvas

I have now started a blog where I will showcase the best of my paintings as I complete them, along with a bit of a story behind why I chose to paint each one. You can view it here: Art by Rex. I’ve also started to take lessons with a local artist, Peter Delahenty, who is based in Olinda.

The MacLaughlin River, NSW by Mark Greatorex January 2020 Oil on canvas

Four years on

Four years ago today we turned the key in the front door at our house in Wyndham Vale for the very last time, bundled Reinhardt and Zelda into the cars and made our way across the city traffic to arrive at our wonderful new home in Mount Dandenong.

The Wyndham Vale house itself had been nice, and we left behind some wonderful neighbours, but we weren’t all that sorry to say goodbye to the western suburbs, especially considering the house and garden that we were moving into.

Four years on and we’re still good friends with our Wyndham Vale neighbours, but we’ve made a whole bunch of new friends here as well. It really is a wonderful community, and no matter what the stresses of the working day may bring, every night that we leave the city and return to the mountain, it still feels like we’re heading off on holidays.

Things have changed a lot in the four years since we moved here. The moss covered “lawns” that we inherited have largely gone thanks to a combination of dogs and a couple of overly dry summers, and we’re slowly working our way towards replacing them completely with paths and gardens.

The Rhododendrons, Camellias and Azaleas that dominated the garden when we first arrived still continue to thrive, but we’ve also worked hard to establish a lot more native plants, as well as thousands of spring bulbs to bring colour to the garden at what is otherwise a pretty dreary time of the year up here.

We’re actively working to introduce additional wildlife friendly elements to the garden too. Number one of course is the wildlife pond that we created a few years ago, but we’re also looking at providing more lower and mid level habitat to provide extra food and shelter for birds. It seems to be working, as we’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of birds such as honeyeaters, whipbirds and bowerbirds using the garden over the last 12 months or so.

So here’s to a fabulous 4 years, and let’s hope there are many, many more to come!

The winter rose

Winter is well and truly here at Mount Dandenong, but despite the cold days and wet, drizzly nights, one plant in particular chooses this time of the year to shine – the one and only Winter Rose – Helleborus. These are a few examples of the varieties currently flowering in the garden at Greatrakes (along with a couple of other early season arrivals).

Also making a show during the cold weather are these beautiful little crocus bulbs:

Winter Wonderland

For the first time in the almost 4 years that we have lived here at Greatrakes, we have had snowfalls heavy enough to settle on the ground, not just once, but two days in a row.

Snow started falling in the early hours of Saturday morning and when I woke up around 5:30 am it was quite heavy – there was a covering of around 5 mm of snow on the bluestones along the edge of the front porch. By 7:30 am the sun had risen and the garden was white with a fresh dusting. Sadly over the next hour the snow turned to drizzle and by lunchtime it was all gone.

Then on Saturday night and into Sunday morning, a fresh wave of snow showers hit, and by sunrise the garden was once again white, however this time it kept snowing, and by 9:00 am there were actually some quite heavy snow showers.

This meant that the snow lasted well into the day, with the drizzle not taking over until well after 10:00 am, and patches of snow still visible in the more sheltered areas of the garden well into the afternoon.

Heide thought it was fabulous stuff, but Reinhardt was completely ambivalent about the whole experience, preferring instead to bury himself in among the cushions on the couch.

Reinhardt is not a big fan of the white stuff.

Plans for a pond

In 2016 we started work on what would eventually become the Greatrakes Wildlife Pond. Three years on, the pond has now become an established feature of the garden, and a favourite spot for visitors and ourselves alike to sit and watch the world go by. What was once a plain, featureless area of patchy lawn is now an oasis, with its running cascades and placid pools proving to be a haven for many species of native birds, frogs and insects.

In the meantime however, other parts of the garden have not fared quite so well. The summer of 2017-18 at Mount Dandenong was a tale of two halves, with a very wet start, followed by a dry spell that stretched late into autumn, whilst the 2018-19 summer has been a long and dry one with below average rainfall. This has proven to be fatal for the lawn area alongside our David Austin rose border.

Main lawn

We’re pretty sure the soil that forms the slope in this area consists mainly of the sub soil that was extracted when the house was extended and a courtyard excavated some time in the mid 80s – it’s certainly much heavier than the typically rich mountain soil found throughout the rest of the garden. The lawn area also cops a lot of foot traffic of both the two legged and four legged varieties, as well as the runoff from the top path every time it rains. As a consequence it spends most of winter in a permanently sodden state, and most of summer baked dry to the consistency of concrete.

When we first arrived here in 2015, this “lawn” consisted mainly of moss – great for staying green during the damp winters and retaining enough moisture through normal summers, but definitely ill suited to sustained traffic or extended dry spells. We’ve attempted to establish more grass, but after four years we’re ready to admit defeat and start looking at alternative arrangements.

Sacred Lotus

Enter the plans for a new Lotus Pond. One of the few regrets with the wildlife pond was that due to the location we weren’t able to create any pools large enough or deep enough to grow Lotus plants, but the location of this new pond is much more open and sunny, with far fewer tree roots (hopefully) to contend with. It also offers better visibility from the house, so an oriental style pond with Lotus, surrounded by Japanese Maples and Cherry Blossoms will provide a beautiful backdrop to the rose border when viewed from the living room. As with the wildlife pond, this pond will also feature a series of cascades and a natural bio filter to maintain crystal clear water without the use of chemicals.

Greatrakes Lotus Pond Bio Filter plan

We are in the very early stages of planning at the moment, with preliminary excavation not likely to begin until later this year, so stay tuned for more information as it comes to hand…

A new home, a new look

Our previous web hosting company decided to increase our annual fee by 125%, so we’ve decided to move hosts accordingly.

Unfortunately, 3 years of accumulated crap across the main website and several sub domains meant that the migration of images & posts was turning out to be a bit of a nightmare, so we have decided to take it all down in the short term while we change the look and feel of the whole site.

Our main website, “Rexness.com” will now take on the name of our previous blog site “Greetings from Greatrakes” and will serve more as a blog, including elements of our former photo blog “Rexness Photography”. In the meantime, “Our Travel Diary” and “Vanessa’s Cakes to Share” will spend some time offline before returning as their own sub domains with a new look and feel.