Some of the happiest memories of my life are family holidays down the south coast of NSW when I was a boy. We’d go to bed early and at about 1 a.m. mum and dad would wake us up, we’d pack the car and set off. Down Mt Ousley in the night fog while us three younger boys in the back seat dozed. If I was awake enough, I’d check progress on the map …., Kiama, Nowra, then as the sun rose over the sea, Milton and Ulladulla.
Then the real adventure began.
Through dense forests to the town of Batemans Bay and a break in the journey as we joined a long queue to cross the estuary on the car ferry. Then on through Moruya, Narooma, Bega, and the villages with magical names: Mogo, Tilba Tilba, Cobargo, Wolumla, with me following on the map and checking all the milestones, until we reached Merimbula in time to put up our tent and have lunch.
They were memorable holidays, and I’ve always thought that area of Australia was the best place on earth.
Today it became hell on earth, as wild bushfires raged through tinder dry forests, unstoppable and often unpredictable. The fires were so intense they generated their own mini-tornados. Embers could be blown kilometres ahead to start a new fire where no-one was expecting.
This is summer holiday time, when thousands of Aussies head for the beachside towns and villages with their tents, caravans, boats, Christmas bicycles and expectations of a break from everyday life.
This time they got more than they bargained for, with thousands forced to evacuate to safe towns or, when roads were cut by the fires, to the beach or into the middle of the estuaries. They report darkness, smoke, skies red with flames. So far three lives have been lost in these fires alone (more elsewhere in Australia) and scores of homes.
Mogo and Cobargo have been devastated. Batemans Bay is like a tomb. Mallacoota was saved by a wind change.
Rage, tears and resignation
This has been an unprecedented summer for bushfires, well not really summer, because they started at the end of winter, long before the usual fire season, and they haven’t let up.
Australia’s climate scientists have been predicting this for years, and now we’re experiencing it – drought (some country towns have run out of water and most farmers are struggling) unpredictable weather, and furious bushfires.
But our politicians, with documented strong links to the coal industry and recipients of millions of dollars of industry funding, refused to admit the problem for years. Now they cannot escape it, they admit the climate is changing, but pretend Australia is addressing it.
A coalition of fire chiefs, and now thousands of residents and holiday-makers, not just on the south coast, but all over eastern NSW, all know it is a pretence. It is fair to say our Government hasn’t a clue.
The lucky country?
Australia was once called the lucky country. We were blessed with abundant land and natural resources, and a high standard of living (for most of us, anyway – the indigenous Australians weren’t always so lucky!).
But our environment is fragile, our water supplies precious and dwindling in the populated south east as the climate changes. And our politicians are scared to act.
And its not going to get any better. I can’t help wondering how bad it will have to get before the politicians will get the message and move into crisis management. Or the comfortable Australian voters get motivated enough to vote in someone who cares.
I’m not holding my breath.
And this New Year’s Eve, I don’t expect all to be quiet tomorrow. I expect there to be grief, exhaustion, fires still burning, and politicians still standing around making excuses.
Right now I’m somewhere between rage and tears.
Photo: Batemans Bay, with the car ferry, more or less as I remember it from those days (NSW State Archives on Flickr – no known copyright).