‘Bushfire ravaged our family’s special place and destroyed a community’s history’

Jan 04, 2020
Rod writes about the devastation bushfires are having across Australia. Source: Getty Images

Something terrible happened between Christmas 2019 and New Year 2020. We woke one morning to find that the small New South Wales far South Coast town of Cobargo had been virtually destroyed by fire. It was terrible for the people affected; it was shocking for those family members who lost loved ones in the unexpected firestorm. But it was also saddening for those outsiders who had loved Cobargo as it always was. And as it always seemed to be.

Let me assure you that this isn’t another low-life, egotistical intrusion into someone else’s heartbreak — we see enough of that in other quarters, from people who ought to have the good manners to leave well enough alone — but I thought some readers from elsewhere in Australia might like to know something about this little town which filled their television screens for 12 brief hours, before being swept off the front page by more pressing events.

Cobargo had an important place in our family’s annual vacation plans. For more than 20 years, we holidayed in the nearby coastal town of Bermagui. We swam, we dipped a line in the estuary, we bought oysters from the local oyster farmers, we ate fish and chips that were actually fresh, and we wandered up and down the main drag, Lamont Street, as if we were genuine locals, not interlopers, and that this was our town.

Eventually, even the addicted need a break from what they have craved for the past 48 weeks in the year; and it would be then that we went to Cobargo.

Cobargo, frankly, had seen better days. I am sure that in the era of the timber cutters and the bullock wagons, it was a significant regional town. Located where the access roads to the coast met the Princes Highway, all the old infrastructure of the past is there — pub, post office, pharmacy, bank, parish church, and so on — but as Australia has aged and become more urbanised, the coastal settlements, like Bermagui, have shed their fishing village apparel and become retirement/holiday centres. And in becoming more substantial places, they have inevitably taken the regional infrastructure with them, to the detriment of places like Cobargo.

But we always loved Cobargo as a brief change from the seashore, so much so that from very young ages, our two boys learned to sing ‘The Cobargo Song’ in the car as we drove the 20 kliks from Bermagui. To the tune of ‘Volare’, it didn’t go much beyond “Cobargo, oh-oh, mumble mumble, Cobargo has given me wings …” But it probably didn’t need any more lyrics than these to convey the excitement of having a meat pie instead of fish and chips or browsing through the well-stocked shelves of Well-Thumbed Books, (where I once found a rare copy of a Bertolt Brecht play).

Usually, within half an hour of arriving, we would head for a modest little café on the Princes Highway that was, actually, a retired passenger carriage from the NSW Railways, which had been converted into cubicles, etc., for the Devonshire Tea set. Whether it was called the Toot-Toot Teashop or the Chuffer-Chuffer Coffee Lounge I cannot recall, but it was a regular part of the fabric of our annual vacation. Despite the pesky flies. Despite the heat.

Next door was the old Cobargo Post Office, a beautiful example of optimistic late Victorian architecture, solid and cream and comforting and a mecca for all the locals in town for their daily or weekly necessaries. A few years ago, the site and the living, went on the market for sale. Neither I, nor my wife, have an entrepreneurial bone in our collective bodies, but I have to say that the only thing that stopped us putting in a bid was the open derision that our piffling offer would have brought from the competition.

Now, I haven’t had the heart to look on the net to see whether the post office, the Toot-Toot Teashop and Well-Thumbed Books survived the conflagration — for the rubble seen briefly on my television screen seemed only to show what was left of structures on the other side of the Princes Highway.

But my recollection of the rest of the shrunken shopping strip of Cobargo is that it was built from the finest building materials available in the 1890s — that is, timber. Single storey, double storey, I realise, with the wisdom of hindsight, that weatherboard Cobargo was a sitting duck at a time of drought, overburdened fuel loads, turbulent winds and flying embers.

I haven’t had the heart to check a rumour that the town ran out of water just when its moment of truth had arrived. Without labouring the point, I hope that if we do have a fair dinkum inquiry into why these fires were so extensive, so intense and so prolonged, the finger will be clearly pointed at an attitude that puts the turning of a buck now above all other considerations. That, in my opinion, is the only way we are truly going to recover from this appalling wake-up call.

Meanwhile, the poor people of Cobargo will bury their dead and patch up their lives. If Well-Thumbed Books has survived, I hope that they will not be discouraged and will hold another ‘Light up Cobargo’ (no smart-arse irony intended) festival as it did earlier last month.

Australia needs places like Cobargo. They are not quaint little tourist haunts where you go for a change from fish-and-chips or a dose of Ye Olde Worlde Shoppe. People, good people, have made their homes there, putting down roots, filling in the gaps in the vast Australian continent, and they need to feel that their lives matter.

I am dreading my next visit to one of our local bank branches, here in New England, to meet eye-to-eye one of the tellers, the only person I know who has ever lived in the next town south of Cobargo (and even smaller), that of Quaama. She will know what I mean and so to her the loss of Cobargo will not easily be brushed aside, with a “ho-hum”, by the next piece of fleeting stimulation to appear on our smartphones.

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