Peter Woodhead | Environment Victoria

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Peter Woodhead: Surviving a river whirlpool

Snatched from the surface by an angry and swollen Latrobe River, Peter Woodhead could only hold his breath and hope the raging whirlpool would spit him back out. With his lungs at bursting point, the Kilmany farmer thought only of the advice from his parents: don’t panic.

“A whirlpool is a very unhealthy place to be because it takes you straight under and if you fight it you die,’’ Peter says. “I just had to roll with it, keep my mouth closed, hold my nose, and if my lungs didn’t burst in the meantime I knew I’d eventually get washed out. I was probably half lucky because I didn’t panic’’.

Peter had been in the river rescuing cattle that had walked into trouble as the flooding waters rose. Despite the flow of the Latrobe almost bringing about his death, Peter owes his life on the farm to its constant presence.

His 600-acre Kilmany property, bought by his parents in 1912, has relied on the river’s water supply for almost 100 years of successful production.

“My parents started off with sugar beet but I eventually took it to potato and cattle farming,’’ he says. “It was a great place to grow up and a wonderful lifestyle. I didn’t want to do anything else but take over the farm.’

“Water is the lifeline of the community. In the older days, if people didn’t have capacity to water their stock they’d bring their mobs down from other properties and water them during the day on our property’’.After selling the farm to friends in 2003, Peter can reflect on the massive changes he witnessed while living on the river’s banks. He remembers learning to swim and catch eels in it as a child – recreational activities that soon became impossible.

“It was treated virtually like a sewerage channel so it got totally polluted and all the life disappeared,’’ he says sadly. “The eels had more sense then to hang around.

“One thing you noticed when you were working in the river was that if you got any cuts they’d heal in 24 hours. The chemicals would give instant healing.”

“It was a shame because a lot can be repaired but when you alter something, for every action there is a reaction’’.

Despite the mistakes of the past, Peter has faith that the health of the Latrobe River can be turned around. “The future is in the hands in the people who can do the right thing. I think in a matter of time it can be cleaned out’’.

He now enjoys a “bloody busy’’ retirement in the quaint town of Noojee, near the river’s head. His daughter still lives on the Kilmany farm and he often visits his old stomping ground when he can find time.

“It’s good to get back down there but I chose Noojee to live because this is the clean end of the river. I occasionally do some fishing on it if visitors come round. You can always catch half a dozen trout. It’s a beautiful bit of river”.

By Daniel Clarke, Environment Victoria, May 2009

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