By air or water, school show goes on

Widespread NSW flooding has seen staff and students use innovative transport solutions to get to school. Linda Doherty and Kerrie O’Connor report.

Image: Burren Junction Public School students and siblings Maggie, left, Harry and Rachel wade through the water to get to school.

When Kate Slack-Smith, relieving principal of remote Burren Junction Public School, got stranded by floodwaters, a local farmer and former student came to the rescue to fly her home in his six-seater aircraft.

Mrs Slack-Smith touched down on a farm airstrip to lead her school of 35 students, most of whom have kept attending - rain, hail or shine despite the tiny town, 50 kilometres west of Wee Waa, being surrounded by floods.

Teachers have been hitching a ride on the Wee Waa SES boat to cross the Namoi River and reach the school bus. For farm kids, gum boots have been at the ready to wade through paddocks or into town. Four-wheel-drive buggies are the only way for many farming families to get to school.

“I had one staff member come by four-wheel-drive to meet the SES boat to get into Wee Waa. She then joined the other two staff to come to Burren Junction in the SES Unimog ‘monster truck’ as the kids call it,” Mrs Slack-Smith said.

“We do this due to massive efforts supported by the SES and our families, and today we have 30 of the 35 students at school and all staff on deck.”

Mrs Slack-Smith travelled to Sydney last week with four students – William, Bridie, Frank and her daughter, Sophie – who were competing in the small schools’ relay in the NSW Primary Athletics Championship where they placed sixth in the final.

As she was about to leave Sydney, 90 millimetres of rain fell around Mrs Slack-Smith’s farm, 30 kilometres from Burren Junction, and roads were cut through north-western NSW. With no way home, Mrs Slack-Smith diverted to Armidale to visit her older children at boarding school.

Word-of-mouth reached former student and local farmer John Stump, who was returning in his plane from Armidale, and he turned the aircraft around to pick up Mrs Slack-Smith and Sophie. They landed on a farm airstrip and travelled the remaining 30 kilometres in side-by-sides (four-wheel-drive buggies with seatbelts) so Mrs Slack-Smith and Sophie could get to school today.

“That’s what our community just does, everyone helps everyone,” Mrs Slack-Smith said.

The other three students, who live in Burren Junction, returned safely before the latest deluge.

Mrs Slack-Smith said locals were resilient to rain, but the constant downpours had made training for the state championship difficult.

“We haven’t had a dry 100 metres of land to train on for months and our oval isn’t even 400 metres, so we were so proud of the kids; such natural sporting country kids. They won their heat, came fourth in the semis and sixth in the finals,” she said.

Image: Marra Creek Public School student Amelia Dowling and family just keep on paddling.

Meanwhile, Marra Creek Public School’s students have also found innovative ways to attend school in the big wet.

The tiny school west of the Macquarie Marshes has just 11 students, with the closest living 12 kilometres away and the furthest 80 kilometres.

That’s some trip in the dry, but well-nigh impossible when the famous black soil of the region is soaked, principal Marnie Hibbins said.

“It’s black and heavy and you just get bogged straight away,” she said.

She should know – Ms Hibbins farms nearby and said the region has been flooded for six weeks.

“I have kids on kayaks, kids on side-by-sides,” she said. “If they can come, they will.

“I have one family on the Macquarie who are right now on an island; the peak has just come past. They bought an amphibious vehicle so they could get through the water.”

On days when none of these options are suitable, the school reverts to home learning.

However, no one wishes the rain back into the sky.

“People are reluctant to complain about it after the drought we had,” Ms Hibbens said.

“We had years with hardly any rain, it was pretty bad.”

And when the students do return to Marra Creek Public School, their journey will take them through plains alive with wildflowers and skies full of birds.

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