Floodwaters surged through Chinchilla earlier this year, ruining the all-important melon crop, but the community was determined its celebratory melon festival would go ahead.

Story By Chris Pritchard

Mention melons in Chinchilla and people know you’re discussing something important. Strangers strolling down Heeney Street, the main drag, inevitably overhear chatter laced with melon references. Melons are big here. They’re the area’s lifeblood. The Queensland town and its environs produce one in four melons eaten in Australia. While the crop is overwhelmingly watermelons, rockmelons and honeydews are also harvested.

Twice in the past year, nature pummelled Chinchilla but the town refused to curl up and die. Instead, it triumphed and emerged smiling. “Nature and human nature were ranged against each other,” Ray Brown says. “Human nature fought hard and won. It was wonderful. People refused to be cowed. They picked themselves up, brushed off everything flung at them and ended up with a greatly strengthened community spirit.”

As the mayor of Western Downs Regional Council (which includes Chinchilla), Ray describes the outpost as “a place I love visiting” and agrees it was widely assumed that the town’s quirky Melon Festival would be deemed inappropriate in the wake of the wild weather. “But negative assumptions were a big mistake,” he says. “People didn’t factor in Chinchilla’s can-do attitude.”

Charleys Creek burst its banks at the edge of this Darling Downs town last December and then again this January. Floodwaters surged through Chinchilla, 300 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Residents struggled to save possessions and livelihoods. Ronald Thompson, the president of the festival’s organising committee, remembers walking down Heeney Street soon after the floods and encountering people shell-shocked by what had happened. “But amid this down-in-the-dumps mood, I was buttonholed by residents aware of my links to the festival,” he says. “They confided sadness that it wouldn’t be held, believing it was needed, more than ever, to help lift spirits.”

In reality, no decision had yet been taken about whether to go ahead. However, Ronald acknowledges, the event seemed doomed until the appeals grew more insistent. The festival’s history swayed the committee in the end. “It was born in 1994 as a once-only event, designed to divert attention from an economically disastrous drought,” Ronald says. “However, it proved such a success that it’s been held every two years. It seemed appropriate to let the festival fill its original role. People would become absorbed in preparations and their own problems would seem less worrying – though this time the enemy was too much water rather than too little.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #79

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011