Passing through dairy country I watch the cows heading to the milking sheds across green pastures. Further south I come over the rise of the highway and spot the stark mass of burned trees for the first time. It is breathtaking. You cannot imagine the scale of the destruction. For as far as the eye can see there are burned trees and no visible grass. A strip of green protecting the major infrastructure power lines is surrounded by blackened trees. Like an odd welcome carpet in the endless blackness.
We had booked this holiday long before the bushfires hit and wondered if it would be safe to come to the south coast of New South Wales. Then the rains came, the east coast low settled in and sent them 400 millimetres of rain in two weeks. The people who were fighting fires were now facing flood. Nature can be so cruel.
Everywhere there are signs thanking the firefighters while road signs are just a molten mess. Every community notice board informs us of the disaster relief resources available to local people. We drive to the burned-out towns to buy lunch, a coffee, some petrol and some roadside fruit from the peach orchard. We buy anything we can to get some money flowing back into the community.
Chatting to the locals we hear they’re heartened by the support of the visitors coming down to do exactly what we had done. A check of my social media reveals two other friends are doing the same thing with the same intentions, staying a few days and spending some money to help people get back on their feet. We all deliberately drove to the worst affected areas to spend our money.
ABC Radio ran a broadcast out of Mogo with Simon Marnie when Atco donated portable buildings to house some burned-out businesses and the locals were thrilled. It was one of the worst-hit villages. A small strip of shops was destroyed along with the livelihoods of the locals. We had only been there a few months earlier when it was postcard perfect. The Mogo Zoo is temporarily closed, but will reopen.
Driving around the coast I am shocked by the devastation. Normally a keen photographer I can’t bring myself to photograph the ruins. It is someone’s home and to do so seemed intrusive and disrespectful. Even though they can’t live there all their memories lie in the ash and twisted metal. It’s overwhelmingly sad and it makes me cry.
The woman at the fruit stall tells me business has been good. She’s had lots of visitors. People are showing up to spend money. Kids are getting back to their normal routine.
As I look at the blackened skeletons of the trees that stare back, I just can’t imagine how terrifying it was to see the hills ablaze racing towards you driving you to the beach as the last point of refuge. At the petrol station I meet a man from Cobargo who tried to drive out the 4 kilometres from his property. He tells me he was beaten back by the wind-driven fire racing him at 80km/h. He is lucky, his house survived.
Standing at the edge of the carpark of the local bowlo I observe that everything surrounding it was burned out on all four sides. The Rural Fire Service saved it, they saved a much-loved community resource, a place to gather to commiserate and celebrate, a place to belong, the local refuge.
At Lake Conjola where the floodwater still sits in pools around the houses, there are two lonely caravans in the holiday park and a handful of relaxed eastern grey kangaroos on the campsites. The maintenance crew is cleaning up the flotsam in the playground. Cruelly the sun is shining as they clean up the mess.
Taking a kayak to the waters in Sussex Inlet paddling past the bush I spot black cockatoos, crimson lorikeets, swallows, kookaburras and king parrots. I even see a lazy blue swimmer crab in the weeds and spooked a flock of water birds just by being there. The sand is fine white and beautiful under the ash stained water.
There is so much natural beauty on the south coast of NSW. When travel restrictions ease, and if you can afford a short trip to this region, take it and help this lamington led recovery. The locals will thank you with a wide smile.
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