Lamb chopper airlifts flock to safety as inland sea surrounds Condobolin

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

On a dirt road snaking south towards the swollen Lachlan River, just outside the small town of Condobolin, Peter Wiggins stands by his farm gate watching a surreal scene play out overhead.

A trio of helicopters are, with military-like precision, airlifting his sheep from flood-stricken paddocks.

Related: Deniliquin evacuates ahead of major flooding with severe weather warnings across NSW

The bewildered cargo bleats and sways, suspended mid-air in steel cages.

Wiggins’ relief is palpable as each helicopter thunders in from the south, unloading 20-odd sheep and lambs at a time, before disappearing back beyond the horizon.

“Normally speaking, we’d go along and we’d move them all to higher ground, but that part there has never gone under before,” Wiggins says, pointing southward.

“Once in every hundred years, this is what happens.”

An airborne helicopter transporting a cage holding sheep and lambs
The animal rescue near Condobolin. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Many farmers around Condobolin, about 100km downstream of Forbes, have suffered catastrophic damage. Dozens remain cut off by flood waters, relying on airdrops from emergency services.

Wiggins himself lost 200 sheep. About 650 survived. Huge volumes of feed have been lost, and the cost of repairing roads, bridges, fences and equipment will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says.

He whips out his phone to show footage of what looks to be an inland sea.

“That’s our farm, and I’m on a boat,” he says. “I can’t believe that it could go 1.5 metres underwater, and it’s just like a lake.”

Sheep and lambs in a cage about to be airlifted to safety from Peter Wiggins’ farm
The sheep and lambs about to be airlifted. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Fives minutes away, in Condobolin proper, residents were fighting their own battle to keep flood waters from inundating the township.

Last week, when the warnings came that a huge glut of water was travelling downstream, the locals banded together to build a levee from dirt and sandbags.

In two-and-a-half days, they created a protective barrier spanning roughly 3km around the town. The locals dubbed it the “great wall of Condo”.

Related: Authorities warn of flooding impacts for ‘months’ as second death recorded in NSW

When the floods arrived much sooner than expected, the levee held.

Some homes were flooded, but the local State Emergency Service unit commander, Susan Bennett, is under no illusions about what the levee achieved. Speaking from her unit’s base, just off Condobolin’s main street, Bennett says the wall of dirt and sandbags saved “a lot of the town from that higher water level”.

The worst of the danger is thought to be over here.

Flood waters surrounding Condobolin
Catastrophic damage: flood waters surrounding Condobolin. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The predicted peak of 7.8m, thankfully, did not eventuate. The SES believes the floods peaked at about 7.6m.

On the town’s southern edge, where homes sit precariously close to a bend in the Lachlan, local publican Fred Bella is standing at the famous levee, watching the flood waters recede back from the fence-line of a row of houses.

Across the river, the local showground is almost completely submerged.

Condobolin publican Fred Bella stands on a levee wall protecting Condobolin
Fred Bella on the levee wall – dubbed the ‘great wall of Condo’ – built to protect the town. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

By his feet, Bella points out a row of rocks he placed as a marker of the water’s edge during the worst of the floods on Sunday. The water level has receded several metres from where they lie.

“It’s all over now,” Bella says.

The levee, he says, saved a lot of angst, and a lot of damage.

“They stick together,” he says of the locals. “They’re good people. Good people, mate.”

The worst may have passed for the town, but for farmers and property owners around Condobolin, the crisis goes on. Many are still underwater or trapped completely.

Farmers reach their homes via motor boat east of Condobolin
Farmers reach their homes via motor boat east of Condobolin. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“It’s business as usual for probably 95% of the community,” Bennett says. “The people who I see affected the most are the outlying properties to the east, west and south of us, because their lives have been disrupted now for months, if not a year.”

A steady stream of helicopters is also being sent from Condobolin to to help residents now trapped or cut off in Euabalong further west. The SES issued an evacuation order for Euablong on Tuesday amid warnings that the Lachlan could peak at a record 8m on Thursday.

Back on his property, Wiggins is adamant that risk could be mitigated by better water management. If property owners were able to store more rainwater in dams, it would help mitigate flood damage and set them up for times of drought.

“They only let you harvest 10% of the rain,” he said. “We could make our farms drought-proof, and we could stop this, if they just gave us 30%.”