I’m ready for some fun! A warm Spring day arrives on cue, accompanied by sounds of the surf and the birds. What a year! Evacuations, floods, two lockdowns, job lost due to covid, kids at home for months (actually that was pretty special), and a community at multi levels of reconnecting. For joy, today I’m meeting a group of women, aged 40 to 75ish, and we’re venturing out on a dragon boat, setting off on Mallacoota’s lower lake this morning. We launch from Karbeethong Jetty and glide out into a vast expanse of water that ebbs and flows as it has for millennia. Paddling along, laughing and giggling, the covid safe group slowly finds its rhythm, rocking and splashing against a wind that’s pretty much in our faces. But paddling upstream is par for the course for we of Mallacoota this year. Out there with these women arises a childlike delight, no phone, no social media, no cameras, no worries. Suddenly I, we all, are feeling empowered, a part of a group of strong women, on the wild, yet desolate and tranquil lake. Paddle up, paddle in, lift up. I’m a world away from a year defined by trauma, with no one to advise me to be more resilient, not while I have this paddle in my hands, anyway, just the wind and waves to make me feel alive.
Christmas songs on the lake was my last voyage on this dragon boat, closing in on a year ago, when the approaching summer was a portentous threat to be dealt with as it arrived, when that threat could be foregone in a brilliant evening singing to all around the foreshore from our colourfully lit, floating gazebo. A riotous evening on the lake, voices raised and warbling Christmas carols as we paddled about in a sea of belly laughs, astonished campers watching on, (who, we all presumed, were delighted by our raucous performance). None of us were imagining that just a week later images of this very lake, strangely alive with glowing red smoked-out skies and drawn ochre coloured faces, would be beamed into lounge rooms around the world, a symbol of Australia on fire. ‘The fire’ raged towards us just a few days later, this lake was one of the places people were ready to jump into as a worst case.
Looking back now, I feel again that sense of foreboding in late December when ash from far away fires started to sprinkle down on me, my family, neighbours and friends, as I pottered in the garden.
For months, right back into winter, we had watched the east coast of Australia fight a series of burns as bushfires tore through millions of hectares – of bushland, homes and properties. News came that there were not enough “assets” to stop the lightning fire at the Wingan and a wind change was on the way – it was our turn.
We all knew what was coming, well, not all the tourists apparently, but when a friend confirmed the projections when the fire was about 50 kilometres away, and Mallacoota unavoidably in the firing line for the cold front to move across the Great Australian Bight. The fire would arrive with it and predicting the time of its arrival became a matter of life – the alternative was not in our options. Our bags were packed by the door, and fire plans firmly in place to walk to the beach when needed. A few realities unsteadied us late in the piece. Best laid plans do seem to change as threats solidify into life and death situations. The “official” advice by now was that it was too late to leave – and the idea of being stranded in south east Australia’s largest wilderness with no chance of rescue and a catastrophic fire on the way, meant we felt we had to find a way. Close to midnight, with elderly parents who would be with us and our primary school aged children sleeping soundly, came a phone call – close friends offering a convoy in two hours’ time. Destination Eden, Pambula, Merimbula, or just somewhere in the Bega Valley, itself ringed by fires, but with a few more facilities than the beach. Two hours later, with our house readied as best we had been able, we carried sleeping children from their beds and left in a convoy, some time after 1am, defying the official advice to stay. In a fleet of dogs, chickens, kids and teddies, adults and elders, we drove out of the Mallacoota we then knew. The terrifying drive was slow in the night. The ever present threat of collision with deer or roo or wombat had never had such serious consequence. Slowly slowly we inched out of the winding Mallacoota road towards the highway. A warm night and the road was a zoo– we worried for how every one of them would fare. Close to 4 am we arrived at our home for the next 8 or so hours. We would have three more homes in the next week. We would not see those forests as they had been again.
Our time in the Bega Valley is a story in itself for another time. Fires ended up threatening us there days later, and with 25 Mallacoota people in one house trying to prepare it better than we had our own homes. And when we had to leave, we had to run the gauntlet of fires to escape the Bega Valley. By then, there was no going back to Mallacoota – a home we were twice assured had burned. Smoked and ashed, it survived. Not so the homes of some with whom we had left. We all know many people who were left with nothing except the most precious thing of all. We lost one person in our district, whose body failed him while resting up after battling the fires around his bushland home.
The hardships for those who stayed at home included fear for family as the terrors of the fires roared through, of surviving with few services amid the loss and heartache and then of the evacuations. For those who left, it was the ongoing fear of keeping ahead of the fires, or driving through them, or in our case, both. Our grievings were for mother earth, for our lives as we had known them, for the heartache and losses that friends suffered.
Almost a week went by before we felt we were out of immediate harm’s way. Little did we know that it would be 37 days before the road home was to officially re-open. Croajingolong National Park – 87,500 hectares of forest which along with the lake and the ocean, surrounds our town – is home to 26 reptile species, 52 mammal species and more than 300 bird species. I come back again to the night we left, often, when for me, the park had never felt so alive. It seemed that around every twist and turn in the road, animals were out and about – possums, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, owls, a python, lace monitors, all bustling around, doing their warm summer night thing. These are some images that haunt me most. Feeling so helpless for all these creatures, whether they knew danger was approaching, or were just quietly going about their typical nocturnal activity, I felt we as a human species, had failed them.
Driving back into town under escort nearly a month later, it was clear that chances of survival for most of them were almost zero. From north of the border to our town, the landscape was a parched grey pencil sketch – the sheer scale of monochrome was unfathomable. One-hundred and twenty-three homes lost in our area – but how many homes of animals, how many animals?
In recent months we have plied the border pandemic checkpoints. But coming home from our evacuation all those months ago, army checkpoints were like something on some foreign news bulletin. Camo trucks, easy to spot against the charcoal landscape, giving evidence to what we knew but had not seen for ourselves. Surreal for a 20-year-old soldier in the middle of the apocalypse, near the NSW/Vic border in the middle of nowhere, who glanced in at our kids in the back and our escapee luggage and said with genuine, gentle and beautiful sincerity, “Welcome home”.
Our emotional return to our home was cut short on learning that asbestos buildings once around our back yard, had burned almost to our back door. As enormous as finding a safe place to live while so many others with no home at all were also looking, was not my most immediate concern. I was, until losing my job to the pandemic, editor of our local newspaper, and I had been dreading since the fire, what to write in the year’s first editorial. Our community, as diverse and distraught as it was, came up with the answer. The spirit, good humour and ‘let’s get on with it’ spoke clearly and all I had to do was capture it, and hope that I had it right. It was not the time to be conservative, it was not the time to be careless, it was time to be with our readers both high and low at once. That the feedback said it was just right is testament to great ways people supported each other and me in helping know what to write. In amongst finding a place to live while lodged in a motel words came to me, amid the tears and laughs of a roller coaster existence.
And so it came to be that the first shoots of green were pounced upon by the community as a real symbol in the recovery process, with the word “epicormic” becoming Mallacoota’s word of the month, maybe even taking out resilience for word of the year. Kangaroo Apple and many wildflowers sprung up from long-dormant seeds in burnt ashen forest floors. And in the open plan forests now, we ogle at the flying duck orchids that we can go years without noticing, now standing out against the burned trees. It looks like nature is embracing the rejuvenation process, with soft, fuzzy green growth wrapping around torched trees and turning some forests into a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. Seas of grass trees are easier to see and perhaps more prolific without the canopies to steal their light. Colour and texture in an otherwise foreign landscape.
Artists in the community latched onto this epicormic growth as a lever to express the trauma and recovery journey. Currently and into the summer is a wonderful exhibition at our beloved community gallery charting the emotions of a bushfire-impacted community. It is moving, profound and vital, which could seem strange for pieces made from home debris and other burned objects, but it really is. We still talk about the fire. Sometimes in a practical way, sometimes heavy. It still defines us. For some it’s as raw and as vivid as yesterday, for others a trigger may come in a puff of smoke on the breeze, the crack of a falling branch in the forest, an app alarm going off. The bright yellow sign in the main roundabout in town is hard to ignore. “We are bushfire survivors, show respect” it pleads.
And what about taking charge? A grassroots process created and supported a community-led recovery and future looking group with 800 members in a town of 1,000 adults supporting a way forward through a bureaucratic maze and a myriad of wonderful people and groups offering us help in uncounted different ways. Projects getting under way over the coming summer to better unite the community and create new connections with the landscape include a drive-in cinema, wilderness clean-up projects and multimedia training opportunities – some of the first offerings to the community. Steps forward are so important.
As coronavirus restrictions ease, and gatherings take place again, stories continued to emerge of anguish, hardship, pain and terror; and also of heroism, bravery, humility, humour and compassion. Everyone has a story to tell. But sometimes words are not needed.
For now, being out on the lake with a group of women who are in tune with nature, I’m content to stop thinking, and fall in love with where we live all over again. Mallacoota is one of few surfside towns that has avoided the fate of development, on account of it being just a bit too far from Sydney and Melbourne (both roughly seven hours drive away). It’s a one fish and chips shop town, alongside two small supermarkets and Victoria’s biggest campground stretching around the lake, all framed by wilderness coastline. It’s the kind of place families come back to year after year, where magical Christmas holidays are spent prawning, snorkelling, and searching for lost treasure in secret coves.
For us, after school and weekends are spent watching humpbacks breeching, riding waves with friends, and being surprised at the gruff sound koalas make when they are feeling frisky, or burping maybe. And just sometimes I can forget the bushfires, and remember that the beauty of Mallacoota is the timelessness which envelopes you through a landscape that entwines with the community ethos to produce a joie de vivre louder than the currawongs who seem delighted to wake me at sunrise. Here, Twitter is really about the wonderful trills, chimes and songs of birds who know nothing of hashtags, and followers are kangaroos grazing nearby completely uninterested in timelines and trends. Here, instead of spending time on Facebook, spending time face to face or by the fire with a book is warming, both inside and out. Here is a world that Instagrammers love, often posted the next day because we are so devoted to the moments – or we are out of range.
In the evenings we are reading the kids Famous Five adventures, though in the age of covid they have become prolific readers by themselves, inspiring lashings of cream on homemade ginger cake! We all know fresh air makes everything taste better. Spending the days outdoors, exploring, playing and chatting with friends is a magical kind of time travel tonic – ways forward with the memories of last summer if not beyond them. If some of this sounds appealing, and you think you can deal with the charcoal forests and recovering people, come add to the positive vibes. People are seeking to rebuild layers of what we have lost, and on our journey forward, I won’t stop until I find success in my quest for the joie de vivre – and paddling on the lake with a group of inspiring, strong women, and seeing a kaleidoscope of colours, I think I may have found it. Once this pandemic frees up a little more, the dragon boat is always on the look-out for fresh and keen participants, so perhaps I’ll see you out there too.