Floods draw out community cooperation
Floods were not likely on the day Sophie set off in the sunshine, with a fully laden bicycle to catch the train to the most south-western tip of Holland that had been formed after the closure of inlets and estuaries following the 1953 floods.
Despite her proximity to this area of Holland, Alida had missed all these events while locked up in an institution where residents were probably sheltered from all outside news. No doubt they would have had no access to either radio or TV, which was only in its early development in 1953.
One of Sophie’s knees grated as she gently nursed it along on the half-hour cycle ride to the train station. She relished the fact that it was probably the last holiday she would have to have to push her knees on the old Dutch bike, with only three gears, that she’d been riding ever since she first came to Holland in 1985. At the same time, she felt sad that this might be the last time she came to stay in this part of the country. Bea’s children had made it clear that moving their mother was imperative for the coming year.
Halfway to her destination, and just over the border, she was able to empty the recycling in Dutch bins from the bike panniers, because the province where Bea lived in Belgium didn’t collect plastics that were not of the highest grade. Bea usually took empty glass containers to the bins in Holland, which had separate bins for each colour of glass. What a good idea to get people to sort their own rubbish to make recycling easier, Sophie thought. What a pity Australia doesn’t get organised in the same way.
Two cars took up most of the space in front of the bins, but her bike weaved easily between them. It was moments like these when Sophie was glad to be cycling.
Soon after the intercity express train left Maastricht, located well south of the main breadth of Holland, summer was gone in minutes. When Sophie looked out of the window she wondered if the afternoon would clear as in her previous expeditions to Dutch beaches, but a solid blanket of greyish white clouds refused to comply with the weather forecast of a sunny 22 degrees. Armed with bathers, she hoped that the thick grey blanket would move east, but for the whole two-and-a-half hour train trip it looked as though it was going to rain.
Sophie amused herself with noting how many little parks and community spaces or private backyards contained llamas, sheep and deer with their young. She wondered if there were any animals on the property where Alida lived, given the custom of keeping diverse kinds of creatures as backyard pets in Holland. She marvelled at how frequently fields were interspersed with forests of spruce, pine, beech and poplars, delineated with ponds and creeks. As they entered land below sea level, there was a network of small canals, about one to two metres wide, draining excess rainfall from the fields. These and lines of tall trees demarcated properties and often small meadows nestled amongst forests. On previous train trips, she’d noticed deer grazed there in the evenings.
Everywhere subtle shades of soft, brilliant green dominated the landscape. Sophie recalled people saying, ‘too green’, but she herself never tired of the verdure, having come from the Perth Hills’ harsh grey green leaves with mostly grey-barked forests. Western Australian paddocks struggled to hold a grass covering, especially after cropping for about half the year. Poor soils took six months to grow crops to harvest readiness in Australia.
At the last two of three train changes, Sophie had to sit in freezing wind for ten minutes or more. She shivered, wishing she had brought her warm coat like most of the people her age whom she observed. Discussion of the weather was foremost in Holland as people anxiously hunted for any glimmer of sun to sit in or travel to. However, even such a basic discussion as this hadn’t existed in her grandmother’s life because, according to Bea, Alida didn’t go anywhere. So I should appreciate this freedom, thought Sophie, especially as most people don’t get to enjoy the amount of travel I undertake.
As the train travelled south-west of Roosendaal, the track was higher than the surrounding fields. Sophie looked down and observed that it was on top of a dyke, one of many which formed a matrix across the land toward the estuary. It was hard to imagine that all of this densely cropped agricultural land had been covered by the ocean only fifty-seven years ago.
Large kites, which resembled giant birds of prey on long, flexible poles floated above apple crops and seemed to keep blackbirds and smaller birds away. Clear plastic covered tomato and berry crops.
Comprehensive information display on top of floodgates
On arriving at Middleburg, Sophie found that the train had missed the bus to the Delta project information island by just five minutes. She explored the beautiful old town during the remaining fifty-five-minute wait and met the bus in the town centre.
Sophie felt ill as the local transport bus weaved around many Dutch icons, such as windmills and dykes, until the road straightened on top of the dam walls and gates which spanned over a hundred kilometres. The sun shone brilliantly, but the wind necessitated long sleeves – which also provided protection from the sun.
The massive engineering feat stretched north and south as far as the eye could see as Sophie followed the few people wandering toward a smart building. It was a self-guide tour of a museum displaying pictures of local wildlife and plants.
After a quick walk around the displays, she went outside and took photos and a video of the huge dam walls with gates that lifted as the water rose, and the wind turbines which were the only semblance of trees in view. Returning to the junction of paths near the road, she walked through the pedestrian and cycle path tunnel to find only a single sand track in the direction of a large glass building surrounded by carparks. In the distance were novelty rides for children or young-at-heart. When she reached the far side of the building, signs on the roadside showed clearly what attractions could be reached from the carpark. Given the bus-stop was a few hundred metres past the building on the other side of the road, Sophie forgave herself for wasting time on the wrong side of the road, thus missing the boat tour.
People power saved others from floods
Inside the information building, Sophie videoed the Delta 3D experience of the 1953 floods, which finished with a dramatic rescue of a couple’s teenage daughter, where a large piece of a wooden bridge washed between their house and the dyke on which they were stacking sandbags from their old truck. It depicted the heroic rescue efforts undertaken to save nearly as many people as the 1,800 plus who perished in the winter storm. She learned that half of Holland was below sea level, and that the entire region she was in had been completely flooded.
The Dutch had immediately set to rebuilding the dykes which had been destroyed, and by 1986 had completed the final complex mechanical water management structures. Soon after their opening, Emmanuelle’s son had driven Sophie around the new developments in the cold month of April. It was just prior to her return to Australia from a six-month agricultural exchange programme, which had allowed her to find and meet all ten of her cousins and two of her three aunts, one married to her only uncle who was by then already developing the initial stages of early onset dementia. This aunt, Bea, had outlived every one of her generation.
Walking back out into the sunshine, now a perfect temperature thirty-one years later, Sophie explored the inside chambers below the new mechanical gates. She thought they looked similar to the much smaller structures on dam walls on rivers in Australia. She climbed ladders to the four levels and read signs stating that the highest tide rose an extra four metres. These gates were designed to be lifted to stop the North Sea engulfing the inlets, canals, major harbours and cities of the west coast, with the chance of a repeat disaster being decreased to 1 in 2,000 years. Eager to make the most of the sunshine, she headed back to the train station to travel another half hour for a sunset swim.
Clouds had built up for an hour, but as the train drew up at Vlissingen the skies cleared. Sophie stepped out into warm sunshine. She followed the small crowd across bridges where yachts jostled for a place to move quickly through when the lock was opened. Ships passed close to the shore as they left the harbour. All the beach dunes, except for a tiny strip of sand on which a few people frolicked at the water’s edge, were covered with large, smooth stones covered by a thick layer of concrete.
The gamble of bringing bathers and towel was looking like it might possibly pay off.
Sophie climbed four levels in the windmills at Albert’s Beach and visited a memorial to Second World War soldiers. By then the exercise, added to the warmer temperature, was reaching a level when she considered she might swim.
The driver of the bus back to Middelburg had suggested Sophie take a bus north of the port village to the beach holiday camping region, so she walked through the sights of Vlissengen old town to the bus-stop. The single-car width road weaved up the coast around farms and forests on the flats behind dykes, which were higher than the church steeples of the villages nestled below, and were thus sheltered from the ferocious ocean winter winds. The bus dropped her at the base of a dyke which reminded Sophie of steep mountains in Nepal. By the time she had reached the water’s edge, Sophie had climbed stairs carrying her trolley bag, photographed the church from the top of the dyke, and found a little plastic hotbox demountable toilet to change in. She relished the seawater temperature which had warmed to the same as summer in Australia. What more could anybody want?
All that Sophie had seen that day had been within 150 kilometres from where Alida had been confined for 48 years and which she herself had never seen. The flood waters had penetrated to within 50 kilometres of Alida’s residence.
Sophie looked out over the shimmering water to the setting sun and breathed a gentle message: ‘Oma Alida, I hope your now free spirit has enjoyed this day through my body.’