Easter and Bushfires

Australians take a four day weekend for the Easter holiday, which I didn’t pay much attention to until it was nearly upon us. But a chance to go out of town for more than one night was too good to pass up, so I searched for romantic getaway places on AirBnB. I found and booked an inexpensive but nice-looking one with excellent reviews on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, a couple hours south of Canberra where we hadn’t yet been. After a day or so, I realized the reason that property had still been open when everything else – as is so typical during school holidays – was already booked solid: our AirBnB was in the coastal town of Tathra, which had headlined national news a couple weeks earlier while being ravaged by bushfires.

Bushfires in Australia might sound quaint, but they are a legitimately terrifying part of the landscape. Australian land is mostly dry and rural, and the summer months’ punishing heat, wind, and lightning create high-risk conditions for fire in both forested hilly areas and grasslands. All around the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) are fire advisories noting the Fire Danger Rating (FDR), a standardized system that went nationwide in 2009.

Since records began in 1851, bushfires have been responsible for 800 Australian deaths and have caused more than a billion dollars in damage. It’s only fortunate that most of the bushfires take place outside of cities, or the damage would be even higher.

The Canberra bushfires in 2003 started in the rural areas of the ACT, but then jumped into the city. That fire destroyed 70% of reserved parkland and green space, killed four people and injured 490 others, destroyed close to 500 homes (including my consular local staff colleague C’s home), and even came damn near to burning down Parliament House itself. All inbound embassy staff have a security briefing on bushfires, use the Fires Near Me app, and conduct regular walkie checks. Apparently bushfires are so much a part of Australia’s history that certain plant life here has even evolved to rely on bushfires as a key reproductive mechanism.

The 2018 Tathra bushfire ended up burning 3,000 acres of land, destroying 100 dwellings, and damaging almost 50 more. Just over 800 homes were saved, demonstrating the scope of the loss for such a small town. The NSW Rural Fire Service later said downed power lines or energy infrastructure was likely to blame, and residents criticized the lack of government coordination and messaging around the evacuation.

I contacted the hostess to see if the property we’d reserved was still as advertised (and to check whether she and her family were OK). She confirmed that the property had escaped unscathed, and that although part of the neighborhood had burned, the beaches and some local businesses had reopened. A check of news reporting confirmed that Tathra residents and officials alike were pleading for tourists to come back.

So we decided that we would keep our trip on, enjoy Easter weekend on the Sapphire Coast, and do our small part to help Tathra’s comeback.

On the Friday my husband had to work to support the embassy’s participation in the 2018 National Folk Festival in Canberra, so we made an evening of it.

On Saturday morning we headed out early, stopping at the halfway point in Cooma (where I’d visited before, linked with my consular work on behalf of American Citizen Services) for breakfast. Then we made our way to a small local bird park in Tathra called On the Perch, which had just reopened after the bushfire.

The bird park was small – we really only needed an hour or so to see it, from kingfishers to peacocks, but it was worth a look for bird-lovers.

Afterwards we made our way to the town and grabbed some lunch at the Tathra Hotel’s busy restaurant right on the coast. The food wasn’t bad, but overall the experience was somewhat disappointing.

I do have to give a little leeway here, as it was one of the only restaurants open on a holiday weekend after a major disaster and there were tons of customers and limited staff capacity. But one of the things that annoys me about many Australian restaurants, and particularly upscale ones in popular areas, is the common setup where you have to stand in line to order your food, and in many cases go back to get it yourself. Not to mention drinks must often be ordered separately from another line at the bar. On top of that, you have to find your own table, which can be more of a ruthless business than you would expect.

The optics of a business wanting all the money for none of the service I find peeving. I want good service and I am willing to pay. In a similar setting in California, for example, these circumstances would warrant table service. Hence I have totally adjusted to the Australian reality of *not* tipping. (The high salaries of wait staff here who are perfectly comfy not to trouble themselves with you is another rub.)

So, it was a good 90 minutes of waiting for an overpriced fish and chips and a salad that wasn’t much to eat as far as portion size, but it was a sunny, warm day and the view of the ocean was great. And we supported local business and that felt good. Across the street, someone had spray-painted across a burned-out structure: TATHRA STRONG – WE GOT THIS!

After lunch we went to check in to our place and as we turned onto our street, we were stunned to see house after house burned out as we drove downhill. Fortunately, starting with, I believe, a house or two to the left of ours, houses had been spared down the remainder of the street towards the ocean. I didn’t feel right taking pictures of their burned up homes and so I didn’t.

Our hostess showed us around our place (which was great but honestly smelled a little smoky inside) and we went out on the back deck.

Although the deck was beautiful, we were dumbfounded to check out the view and see that the fire had literally burned up to her back garden. Our hostess said that her downhill neighbor to the right had refused to evacuate and had defended their homes with a hose. Perhaps ill-advised, but as the Aussies would say, good on him.

As we marveled over the close call and the burned wood in the backyard, a wallaby (or a small roo) picked its way gingerly through the brush, stopping every few feet. The birds in the trees sang out their rhythmic calls. That afternoon and evening we stayed in.

The next morning we cooked ourselves an Easter Sunday breakfast and then headed to the beach, a less than 5 minute drive away. It was a great beach day, warm and slightly overcast. I’d forgotten to pack the REI camp chairs, but luckily we had been able to borrow some comfortable folding wooden chairs from the house.

V went for a three mile run through the sand while I read and put my toes in the water. We ate some take-out for lunch and watched the occasional dogs and their owners run in and out of the waves.

That night we barbecued on the front deck and enjoyed another peaceful night.

The only problem for me was that the bed was so soft, I wasn’t sleeping well and had soreness and difficulty getting up and down.

The next morning we made ourselves breakfast and packed up to leave. After checking out and thanking our gracious hostess, we headed north up the coast to a campground with what we hoped would be a beautiful beach and walking track. Although we had to practically off-road for 15 minutes to get there, we were not disappointed by Aragunnu, part of Mimosa Rocks National Park.

On the inland side was a marsh chock full of black swans and pelicans, and as we walked through the brush trying not to scare them, we unexpectedly came about eight feet from a pair of kangaroos and we four just stared at each other, barely breathing. My pictures of this weren’t great, but after one bounded away, V got a video of the other twitchy-eared roo just looking at us, eventually deciding we weren’t a threat, and laying down in some shade to ignore us.

On the other side of the track, a gobsmackingly beautiful beach, literally almost entirely deserted.

After an hour or more of strolling, it was time to get on the road towards Canberra, but I found it difficult to leave this place. I figured it was probably the last glimpse of summer I’d see for quite some time, and saying goodbye sucked.

On the way home, we stopped off in the town of Bega, home of a big cheese business, and ate some of the most fabulous Thai food I’ve had in ages.

One of these days we’ll have to go back for the cheese!

As we were leaving Bega, we were surprised by a sobriety checkpoint. I was sober as a judge, and these are common in Australia, especially around holidays, but it still made me a little nervous just because. Stopping for law enforcement in Australia is 180 degrees different than stopping for law enforcement in Uzbekistan (where it’s best to not), so I’m still adjusting to “having to” stop.

As we pulled up to the officer, he immediately launched into a rant about what an idiot the driver before me had been, driving around in Bega on fumes looking for diesel on a holiday.

“Oh, sure,” I agreed conspiratorially. Then added politely, “What do you need from me, officer?” He had noticed my diplomatic plates and was suddenly all business. “Count to ten next to this device.” He put it in my face and I blew on it. He yanked it back – no, don’t blow or put your mouth on it. Count. I tried again. After number five, I inexplicably switched to Russian. By the time I got to nine he pulled it away, laughing and accusing me of swearing at him. He told us to have a safe drive and waved us on. An odd experience all the way around! Drinking and driving in Australia is a no-go, kids – any BAC above 0.05% while behind the wheel (and 0.02% for taxi and bus drivers) will be a big bummer.

We loved Tathra and the beaches of the Sapphire Coast and will definitely be back! I would like to try out the new 6 man, 2 bedroom tent that I ordered with my ginormous REI annual dividend before packing out of Tashkent at Aragunnu as soon as the weather allows…

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