There’s a sign leading into Mallacoota; one of those government warnings dotted along the highway. I can’t tell what it’s about because half of it has been burnt away by fires that ravaged the town last year under a blood-red sky.
All that remains is ‘…could save your life’, which feels unfair not to know. Seatbelts? Getting out early at the first sign of smoke? Not drink driving?
We wend through the arterial road cutting through thick bush with blackened trees sprouting fuzzy bright-green growth, like pipe-cleaners. Eucalyptus trees are unique in their response to fire-damage, able to regenerate growth all along their trunks which thicken into new branches.
A swell of green ground-cover spreads along the ground in amongst the black stumps; a proliferation of new life.
It’s difficult to imagine the intensity of a fire ripping through bush unless you’ve seen it. In this case, a 10km wall of flames swept through in December, culminating on New Year’s Eve 2019, cutting off Mallacoota to the rest of the world.
Photos of families huddled on the beach travelled around the world, symbolising Australia’s personal Hell while the Navy was called in to whisk people to safety.
The country that burns. All the drama and chaos promptly swallowed up with the advent of COVID-19.
Monty had always wanted to see Mallacoota and after a quarantined Christmas and cancelled travel plans, we packed up the camper van and hit the road. This quiet coastal town, which swells from 1,000 to 8,000 residents over summer has the reputation of keeping its small-town vibe even amidst the arriving holidaymakers.
We set up in a caravan park overlooking a river mouth teeming with pelicans, wharves and boats. The air is fresh and clean with wafts of raw scraped fish guts coming in from recently returned fishermen.
Caravan parks are an organism in of themselves, every patch of grass packed with pockets of life; deck chairs, vans and tents with clothes strung up around people in loose linen shirts sitting, reading. It’s strangely intimate, like peering in someone’s window.
We walk into town for a coffee; the pub is bustling with patrons sipping ale in the beer garden while the telly plays cricket flashbacks. Shopkeepers stopping by each other’s shop for some change and a chat.
I’ve got hardly any reception which I don’t mind. It’s refreshing being relieved from the burden of connectivity. We catch snippets on the radio. Something about a new strain of COVID-19. American politics imploding even more in a fiery clash. It feels good to be on the other side of the world. At least natural disasters come to an end.
Huge signs are strung at one end of town stating: ‘We are survivors of the bushfire. Please respect our privacy.’
Other shops have a sign out the front telling people not to ask questions about the bushfires. You can imagine the intrusion of info-hungry journalists elbowing their way into people’s lives. It’s hard not to wonder what people went through after driving past burnt-out houses, construction sites and charred trees.
I order a coffee from a caravan from a man who sells tiny origami roses.
Nearby, a bunch of milk crates are scattered around a grassy knoll and a scruffy man with a feather in his Akubra positions a violin on his shoulder with a grin. A small crowd is sitting around, waiting for their coffee. He plays a haunting tune. The kind of lament which belongs in colonial Australia; perhaps a swagman grieving for his dog.
It never fails to amaze me how music can transcend time, lift you out of your body and transport you to someplace else. The storyline unfurls with the music. I’m right there, grieving with this man who just lost his best mate.
We head to the beach, a crystal blue-clear water and sky kind of day. My mind flashes with images of thousands of people huddling together, ready to jump into the ocean if the fires get too close, shrouded in darkness.
We find a network of rock pools spilling into each other and overflowing with speckled shells and darting fish. Matilda investigates each rock one by one.
I’ve always loved rockpools; the oceans powerful surge contained in small pools. Each a microcosm of a much larger system, inviting you to explore. Fish and crabs on display.
We find a skinny transparent fish, the size of my pinky doing laps in one pool. ‘Ish!’ She exclaims with glee and follows it with her eyes. She slowly reaches out to touch it as it flutters away. She giggles and moves towards it again.
I sit in the sun-warmed pool watching her glee and have a moment of complete contentment.
I wonder if I should feel bad for finding so much peace in a place which was host to such chaos only a year earlier. I’m a tourist, passing through. I tell myself that we’re helping the local economy rebuild.
Night rolls in at the caravan park and people are lulled into a state of relaxed conviviality. Incense burns, that bottle of whisky which had been saved comes out and cards are shuffled and dealt. Kids stay up late on sugar highs running wild in the darkness. The local pub thumps; a band covering Aussie hits from the 80s.
Matilda’s finally asleep so Monty and I put the seats back in the car and sit and chat. Having a toddler on holiday is a lot like having a toddler at home, just in a nicer location. Both involve a lot of shooshing and rocking and playing and distraction. We breathe easy knowing she’s asleep. Monty cracks open a beer and some fresh oysters.
Morning light creeps in with heralding birdsong. Practical considerations are faced in the cold light of day; hitching boats and trailers, consulting maps, washing last night’s dishes and venturing into town for a coffee and fresh bread rolls.
After a few days here we hit the road once more with lungs full of sea-air. We travel across the state of Victoria in a blur of small towns with historic signs and fresh fruit stalls roadside.
We leave confident in the knowledge that Mallacoota will rebuild. It’s a strange feeling being in a place that went to Hell and back but along with the sand on our feet, we’ll take home images of regrowth, those bright green sprouts of hope.
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