In the summer of 2019/20 uncontrollable fires devastated over 19 million hectares of Australian bushland, over 2,700 homes were destroyed, and 34 people lost their lives.
To put the catastrophe into proportion the area affected equates to about the area of Hungry and Austria combined, or 20% of Australia’s forests.
However those figures mean nothing to the families whose lives have been changed forever by the loss of their homes and loved ones. Not to mention the pets and animals that have perished. An immense loss.
Storms had since put out most of the fires as we passed through the South-East Coast on the A1 highway in February. As we took a side trip to Cape Conran we were first faced with some of the destruction ourselves.
We left Willow in the van as Steph and I scrambled over the rocks in a sheltered bay to where the waves gently lapped the rocks. We watched the little fish in the rock pools through the crystal clear water. By the boat ramp some commercial fishermen were bringing in their boat and organising their catch, and sightseers walked along the sand dipping their toes in the water.
But behind us was a very different scene.
The once vibrant coastal scrub had been left blackened and barren by the recent fires. On the ground only ash remained and the only sign of life the regenerating fern fronds that pushed through it.
Further East we stayed the night at the Genoa rest area beside the river. We were saddened to hear that the historic bridge had been lost. It was built in 1928.
The following day we drove into Mallacoota, a place where thousands of residents and tourists were left stranded as the fires blocked the only exit road. It dawned on us that the piles of rubble on the side of the road had once been people’s homes. I did not photograph them, it was too heartbreaking.
We arrived in the main street and passed a strip of the usual seaside shops. A butcher, a bakery, the pub, restaurants, and gift shops.
Down by the wharf the pelicans were putting on a show, lining up along the jetty. A fisheries officer was giving an interview to a small film crew.
“Mallacoota is open for business”, I think I overheard her say.
Two months had passed since the peak of the catastrophe and many of the eucalypts and ferns were sprouting. The contrast of the greenest of green foliage against the blackened trunks was intense.
Although the fires have been controlled difficult times are still ahead for towns like Mallacoota. With 5 weeks of trading lost in the height of the tourist season many businesses will be struggling.
A further knock to the area is that the local abalone processing plant was lost, an industry that employs a significant proportion of the townspeople.
We walk the main street and browse the shops, Steph found a nice hat in a gift shop and I found a pin for my collection.
It is easy to feel anger, frustration, to wonder why something so horrible could have happened to such a beautiful place. It is easy to feel helpless.
But there is still beauty to be found here, in the forest and beaches, and in the strength of the people including the heroes, those who fought the fires.
This is the reason we decided to travel through this area, as the smallest gesture of support, to spend our money where it’s needed. I hope that those considering their next holiday destination could add an Australian town to their list, a town in need of our support.
The next day we continued North.
We made it across the Vic/NSW border on the A1 highway – one of our more solemn border crossings. Willow and I posed for our usual border photo next to the ‘Welcome to New South Wales’ sign.
We would be many kilometres North before we were away from the burnt out forests and buildings reduced to rubble, and again I thought about what we could do, to not feel helpless, useless.
For three days in January we donated the proceeds from our book to help those helping the animals affected by this disaster: Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, Wildlife Victoria, and NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service. I am proud to say we raised a total of $1,984.
There have been two organisations in particular doing incredible work to help humans and their companion animals during these disasters. They are Animal Aid and RSPCA Victoria.
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Thanks for reading. I know this has been a sad one but please know that there is hope, and if you are from one of these areas please know that we all stand with you.