Lyall Willis was wading through waist-deep water, trying to rescue a calf stranded in the middle of a paddock at Murray Bridge, when the reality of the once-in-a-century flooding event set in.

It was just after sunrise and Lyall and a farming mate had already moved 300 cows to safety, as water swept across their grazing flats.

‘’The calf was only a few weeks old, but he’d given up and was just sat down in the reeds,’’ said Lyall, a family practitioner at Centacare.

‘’I was up to my waist trying to get to him, thinking I’ll have to take my boots off soon because I’ll need to start to float.

‘’The water was flowing so fast, I really had to keep my wits about me.’’

Lyall worried he would spike a foot on sticks or get caught in fencing wire concealed beneath the water, or worse, stumble into a bay drain.   

‘’By the time we got the calf out, we were going across ground which was completely submerged but had been bone dry when I came through 20 minutes earlier,’’ he said.

‘’The flow was slow and then all of a sudden it was here on top of us, and that’s when we realized, this is big.’’

Nearly three months on from the Murray River flood peak, Lyall, who has lived in Murray Bridge for the past 30 years, says community spirits are lifting as the water recedes to reveal stark changes in the landscape and the local way of life.

Standing on high ground overlooking the usually bustling Mobilong and Toora Reserve recreational hub, Lyall points to a 50-acre forest on the vista. The trees were planted after the 1992 floods and are now swallowed by water.

‘’The forest will probably die, and the walkways and trails that have been developed over the years will be gone, so we won’t be seeing the area restored to full use for at least another 12 months, and who knows, maybe longer if we get big rain again in Victoria,’’ Lyall said.

‘’Looking at it now, it is spectacular and I guess that’s my philosophical take on it. You don’t get to see this view very often. This is mother nature, and you can’t stop mother nature when she lets rip.’’

The loss of recreational facilities is among the many changes the community is adjusting to in the wake of the floods.

For Lyall, the inundation meant putting Centacare’s popular Beyond Kayaking program on indefinite hold.

Funded by Communities for Children, the program has engaged more than 1000 adults and children since it began 10 years ago to reach families experiencing social isolation and other barriers to community participation.

Even with restrictions lifted, the risk of mosquito-borne disease is keeping kayaks off the water.

Instead, Lyall has been engaging with families through geocaching and scavenger hunt walks closer inland, and at Wellington and Monarto.

He expects demand for community services will spike as the impact of lost livelihoods, homes and businesses sets in for families across the Murraylands.

‘’The farming and dairy communities that had property or stock along the river have really suffered,’’ he said.

‘’I know of three farmers who had their levees break between Mannum and Murray Bridge.

‘’That’s a couple of thousand hectares that have been washed up and not usable and probably not productive for two years.’’

Lyall said some families had been forced to move their children from schools in Mannum to Murray Bridge after ferry closures added a 120km detour to the school run each day.

‘’The prevalence of mosquito-borne viruses is anxiety-inducing for parents and children so a lot of parents are keeping their kids away from the playgrounds for that reason.

‘’For other families it will the financial impact which creates stress, anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

’’That might slowly increase with the realization that we are stuck with this: we are stuck with the smell; other issues that are related to the impact of the flooding; what we see, the vistas, the walking trails, the grassland is going to take a while to bounce back.’’

But as the flood recovery picks up, so does the community’s spirit.

‘’The community resilience has come from everyone supporting one another; the realisation by people who have been affected that they are not alone in all of it,’’ Lyall said.

He adds that the floods have sparked conversations around mental health and where to access crucial supports in Murray Bridge and surrounding communities.

‘’We can’t control natural events, so we have to learn to live with it and be resilient,’’ Lyall said.

‘’I’m proud of how the community has come together and done that.’’

*Centacare offers a range of individual and family supports in Murray Bridge. For more information about how we can help you, phone (08) 8215 6320.