How the Pasha Bulker storm almost sent us deaf

The ‘Pasha Bulker storm’ has a certain ring to it.

In our case, the ‘ring’ sounded like five fire engines wailing inside our house.

Australians have been remembering the day, just over 10 years ago, when an east coast low grounded the coal ship, ‘Pasha Bulker’, on a beach at Newcastle north of Sydney.

The storm that drove the 76-tonne bulk carrier ashore brought flooding, gale-force wind and high seas – and claimed nine lives.

And almost sent us deaf

No power

After navigating tricky flooded roads, we made it safely to our Newcastle home, only to find that the electricity supply had been cut.

Without lights, TV or stove, we adjourned early, completely forgetting about the house burglar alarm that (you guessed it) was electrically-operated.

The back-up battery ran low during the night, triggering the alarm at about 3am, when a near-deafening siren bounced us from our bed.

Disoriented by the ear-shattering wailing, we ran from room to room in the dark, desperately trying to remember where the alarm’s main controls were located.

“Get a torch and check the closet”. Of course, even at a time like this, Sue made sense.

The control box was locked.

Through curses, I remember briefly appreciating the logic of that. Otherwise a thief could simply open the controls and disable the alarm – exactly what we wanted to do.


“Where did you put the key”?


The alarm had been installed nine years before, yet somehow this was now my fault.

I forlornly tried to smother some of the sound by putting a cushion over the ceiling speaker. It didn’t work.

As we continued to frantically search for the key, Sue’s look suggested that, if given a choice, she would willingly smother me.

As is often the way, the key had never been used – so it had been misplaced.

In frustration, we used a mobile phone to call an emergency locksmith – and sat in the dark with pillows over our head awaiting his arrival.

He silenced it in seconds. Our ears continued to ring for hours.

We didn’t dare face the neighbours for quite some time.

Tragic and costly

Although our personal experience is humorous in reflection, the Pasha Bulker storm was a tragic and costly event.

East Coast Lows have been a key feature of Australia’s eastern seaboard for centuries, with the first case studies published in 1954.

However, in June 2007, much of the Newcastle area was in the grip of one of Australia’s regular droughts and the thought of heavy rain was remote as people prepared for a three-day holiday weekend.

Then came a reality check.

It started bucketing down on the Friday morning and, within a few hours, the area was being pummelled.


A friend lost her car to rising water outside our office while another colleague was forced to transfer her wedding location when the bushland setting became a river.

However, the grounding of the Pasha Bulker stole the show, made international headlines and weaved itself into the already-rich folklore of Newcastle.

A decade on, visitors to the city are sometimes puzzled by a red lump of metal on a pathway adjoining Nobby’s Beach.

A piece of public art, the metal was taken from the rudder of the Panamanian bulk carrier and is significant indeed for those who lived through the Pasha Bulker storm and its aftermath.



Aussie stories

A forgotten train

Australia Day is held each January: a time for Aussies to, once again, reflect on the country’s achievements.

However, at about the same time, an important milestone in the field of Aussie transportation usually slips by unnoticed in our home city of Newcastle, New South Wales.

It’s headed for 190 years since the railway came to Australia – not far from where we’re now standing.

On December 10, 1831, the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened the continent’s first rail line on high ground overlooking the fledgling British settlement that is now the bustling eastern sea port of Newcastle.

A gravitational railway

Australia’s first railway was established specifically to carry coal Newcastle’s A Pit to ships awaiting loading in the Hunter River. Cast iron rails carried wagons on what is technically known as an ‘inclined plane gravitational railway’.

Today, this would probably be called a ‘cable railway’, where a trip downhill is powered by a wagon coming back uphill on an adjoining track.

On a gravitational railway, the weight of the loaded descending cars is used to lift the ascending empties. A well known Australian example is the scenic railway – shown in the main photo on this page – at Katoomba, west of Sydney. This railway was also initially used to haul coal.


Another example is the Monongahela Incline, at Mount Washington, Pennsylvania, in the US (shown above)

After the railway arrived in Australia at what is now Brown and Church Streets, Newcastle, it was another 23 years before the first steam-driven railway appeared between Melbourne and Port Melbourne.

From then, the railway systems of the various colonies developed rapidly.

Meanwhile, the humble beginnings of rail at Newcastle also played a key role in the development of the nation’s coal industry and Newcastle as Australia’s biggest coal port.

A load sent from Newcastle to India was Australia’s first export shipment – and in December 2016, for example, coal shipments from the port of Newcastle hit a record 15.9 million tonnes.

Credits: Main photo courtesy Flickr, Wikimedia and Charlie Brewer; Mt Washington photo courtesy Wikimedia and pennsyloco

Aussie stories

Earthquake memories: a Christmas feature

It sounded like a train passing outside the office.

And it felt like one had passed clean through the office.

Anyone who has been in a big earthquake will, I’m sure, remember the feeling of helplessness as the movement and shaking becomes more and more violent.

I certainly remember feeling that way in Australia’s Newcastle earthquake.


The quake – Australia’s deadliest – killed 13 people when it hit the east coast industrial city of Newcastle mid-morning on December 28, 1989.

I was on the third floor of an office building in the heart of the city. It was the first day of work after Christmas and many were away on holidays.

The 40 or so people in the office mostly froze in their seats at 10.27am as the walls shook, swayed and cracked around us – and the rumble of the quake gave way to the crunching sounds of breaking masonry.

Neither the lightweight desks nor flimsy partition doorways offered much protection, so we rushed from the building down damaged stairwells into streets littered with bricks and swelling crowds of bewildered office workers.

No one had dared take the lift and, in the confusion, there wasn’t time for a headcount.

So it was that, after making it out of our office unscathed, I joined two colleagues in venturing back to free a woman trapped in the restroom and help a tradesman who had been working in the ceiling and had been temporarily knocked unconscious.

Minutes later, the building was declared structurally unsound.

Some inner-city buildings had disappeared in piles of rubble. Others had lost their facade, or had huge jagged cracks through the brickwork.

Royal Newcastle Hospital had been evacuated, with patients taken to the adjoining beach; the Returned Services Club was flattened; and people were trapped inside the damaged Newcastle Workers Club, where nine people eventually died.

The Newcastle earthquake caused damage to over 35,000 homes, 147 schools, and 3,000 commercial and/or other buildings, with significant damage caused to 10,000 homes (damage worth over $1,000) and 42 schools (structural damage), within the immediate Newcastle area.

Damage to buildings and facilities was reported over an area of 9,000 square kilometres.

With public transport halted , pay telephones mostly out of operation, mobile phones yet to come into general use, no electricity in much of the inner-city, and roads blocked by debris, I then walked out of the heart of Newcastle.

A few hours later, the Australian Army arrived to seal off the most dangerous areas.

On the way out of the crippled city area, I discovered yet another unAustralian impact of the quake – without electricity, even suburban pubs that had escaped damage were unable to serve cold beer.

Our home in the Newcastle suburb of Charlestown had suffered several thousand dollars worth of damage and large parts of the metropolitan area became a sea of scaffolding for many months as the city underwent massive reconstruction.

Aussie stories

Review: Hunter Wetlands Centre, Australia

A wetlands centre at Newcastle, Australia, continues to play an important role in bird conservation.

The Hunter Wetlands Centre Australia has helped reverse a decline in Magpie Geese across the north-eastern areas of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state.

Although black-and-white Magpie Geese are abundant in Australia’s northern regions, they became less common in the south, where habitat reduced. P1010403Keen to tackle the decline, Hunter Wetlands Centre obtained 41 Magpie Geese in 1987 – and increased the flock steadily over the next five years.

The geese at the centre bred for the first time in 1992 and new juveniles can now be seen almost every year as a clear indication of the success of the re-introduction program.

Helping threatened ducks too

The centre also works to conserve threatened Freckled Ducks.P1010411Helping save these vulnerable bird species is just one of  many achievements at Hunter Wetlands Centre, which is set to celebrate three decades of operation in 2015.

Set to celebrate 30 years

In those 30 years, the centre, which is located in the Newcastle suburb of Shortland, has come from a former landfill rubbish site to an internationally recognised wetland education facility.P1010402At one stage, more than 2,200 trees were planted as the site was rehabilitated and landscaped.

Hundreds of bird species

A total of 217 bird species have been recorded at the centre.

This includes 72 typical wetland species, including 67 waterbirds and nine migratory waders.

Honking geese a hit

When we visited the centre, the colonies of Magpie Geese – with their distinctive honking call – were just one of the many fascinating attractions.

P1010409With grandchildren in tow, we headed firstly for the visitor centre, which contains in interpretative display area and a popular cafe.

Live reptile display

The live reptile displays and interactive reptile talks went over a treat – even if we were a little tentative handling the snakes.

Next, it was time to watch the bird feeding and explore the adventure playground before we held our own picnic close to the wetland area and the ever-popular geese.P1010415Plenty to see and do

Hunter Wetlands Centre boasts plenty of activities, including walking trails and guided walking tours; canoe hire and guided tours; Segway tours; a bush tucker garden; bike hire; and special activities in school holidays.

It also stages a popular ‘Breakfast with the Birds’ program each Sunday, as well as night visits to the wetlands area and canoeing with experienced guides.P1010404Love to return

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the centre and hope to return at some stage to review one or more of these innovative activities.

The wetlands centre is also rapidly gaining a reputation for its nursery, which boasts the capacity to produce over 100,000 plants a year.

How to get there

Hunter Wetlands Centre Australia is located at Newcastle, New South Wales. The centre is about 10 minutes from the heart of the city and is about two hours north of Sydney. You can get there by car train and bus.

Check these directions.

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