It was a seriously dark and stormy night as Elsmore grazier Ray Mepham pushed his way through knee-deep rushing floodwaters rising from the Macintrye River.
The sound of pelting rain on his farm house roof had woken him a short time before at 1am.
“I opened the window [and] my nostrils filled with the stench of floodwater,” he said.
The sound of roaring water came from the river’s direction so he dressed quickly, hurried to the car and drove down the valley towards the noise.
Confronted by a waterway where his riverside paddock had been, Ray parked the vehicle and decided to make his way on foot to the water level gauges.
Armed with a torch and holding a wire fence line for guidance in the dark, he made his way across the blackened field to the river bank.
There the white gauge posts indicated a water level of 14 and a half feet above average and rising.
The sound of snapping trees and branches came from behind him as the waters pushed their way higher into the riverside bush.
“I realised I could become cut off in pitch black darkness,” Ray says.
He made his way back to the car and then to the house to raise the alarm for Inverell.
Ray walked the fence that night because he was and in many ways he still is, a River Gauge Reader.
The volunteer job was one of about six across the Northern Tablelands region staffed by farmers who formed an early flood warning system for local communities.
The Macintyre River runs through Ray’s property, “Little Valley” where flood waters appear and peak five hours before hitting Inverell.
That frightening night walk on February 11, 1976, gave Ray the chance to raise the alarm.
The flood was heading for town and it was a bad one.
“I made my way back to report to the SES controllers,” he said.
As a result of that warning the town began evacuations before the flood hit.
Inverell was struck with two floods that year, both in February. The first had arrived just days before on the 6th.
Ray signaled the warnings for them, as he had for the bad flood of 1955 and then again in 1991 after which an automatic monitoring station was installed in a tin shed on his riverbank.
Since then, he has battled and won a more secure telecommunications connection to that monitoring system, saying afterwards that “I can rest easy now”.
That system still operates today monitoring, measuring and sending data to the authorities to warn Inverell in case of a flood.
But the human system still works too. That turns 87 this month and may be resting a little easier but is still keeping a watchful eye on the river.
“I feel skeptical,” Ray says. “Modern technology is known to fail at times.”
Looking back on his 60 years as a volunteer River Gauge Reader, Ray explains “I was taught in the old days”. The opportunity to have been of “service to the Inverell community”, he says has been “an honour”.
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