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Black Summer One Year On: A love letter to the NSW south coast

By Saskia Tillers

Ever since I was a child, NSW’s south coast has been our escape – a retreat from reality that you’d inevitably return from feeling calmer, freer, sun-kissed and salty, glowing from the inside out. On the first day of school holidays, we’d pile into the car and drive two hours from the town of Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains, to the seaside. The smell of salt on the wind as we approached was intoxicating – a necessary antidote for a family accustomed to the drought-stricken plains of the Monaro. From the very first visit we fell hard for the poetically titled beach locale of Mystery Bay. Halfway between the small towns of Bermagui and Narooma, our little slice of heaven was hardly more than a suburb, boasting one old-school telephone box, and not so much as a corner store. Mystery Bay beach was exactly as the name suggested – strong tides and wind shifted the sand so that on each visit the rocks and bays appeared to have moved, transformed by the wild, untameable ocean.

Eventually, we spent so much time there that it made sense for my parents to buy some land. We built a simple but sustainable two-bedroom cottage that was nestled into the dense bushland in our sleepy cul-de-sac. Sitting on the wide deck basking in the sunshine over meals, or even from the snugness of bed, you could hear the melodic calls of whipbirds, kookaburras, king parrots and rosellas echoing through the otherwise dead-quiet air. Possums, wallabies, bandicoots and even the occasional echidna made their presences known, much to our delight. We trawled the countryside for undiscovered treasures and found that 1080 Beach was usually entirely vacant save for a surfer or two far from the shore, sitting atop boards alongside the odd whale or dolphin. Sunnyside Road was our favorite scenic drive, boasting rolling green hills, skinny spotted gums and an abundance of Belted Galloways – sweet and hairy highland cows that would happily saunter over to the fence to nuzzle a hand or accept some grass.

Even after moving to Sydney, I had no qualms about making the five-hour trip to Mystery Bay, often enlisting friends to share the driving. They were never disappointed once we arrived. We’d spend the days snorkelling in the pristine turquoise rock pools, hiking through the rainforest covering the spectacular Mount Gulaga, or exploring the quaint nearby townships. We’d stop in Bodalla and pick up a kilogram bag of succulent ruby-red cherries that we’d devour before we’d even arrived back at the house, spitting the pips out the window of the moving car. We’d stock up on cheese at the Tilba Tilba dairy, namely the Ploughman’s Cheddar or Mountain Ash Camembert – best smeared thickly on wafer crackers with a dollop of quince paste.

 

Writer Saskia on her beloved beach

So when the Black Summer fires swept across the region like something out of a horror film, heralding the beginning of a new and turbulent decade, it hit more than just a bit close to home.

At the time, I was in Berlin, celebrating the end of 2019 with my fiancé, cousin and her girlfriend. We’d been living in Italy for the preceding seven months, and as we awoke each day to updates of the bushfires, we’d never felt further from home. The inferno encroached, ever closer to our beloved Mystery Bay. The Badja Forest Fire swelled and surged, breathing its destructive flames across the south coast. Photographs of stranded residents on beaches beneath dirty orange skies and children steering boats across the water to escape haunted our dreams. The roads from the Snowy Mountains to the coast were closed, so there was no possibility of my parents travelling there to protect the house. Plus, they had other concerns – namely the fires fast-approaching their home in Cooma as well. Instead, we received updates from neighbours, recounting the fifth or sixth evacuation, and hoping it would be the last. When the blaze finally moved on, miraculously, Mystery Bay itself was untouched. The surrounding towns weren’t so lucky. 

We arrived back in Australia after COVID-19 destroyed the rest of our European sojourn, and once travel was allowed, made a beeline to the south coast to inspect the damage, and reconnect with this most beloved corner of the globe. It was a bittersweet journey. Kilometres of eerie, blackened trunks dominated the landscape, and as we snaked along the highway towards the once-vibrant Cobargo, it was impossible not to notice the piles of burnt stone and rubble, decimated corrugated iron roofs and charred fences. Caravans were set up in paddocks, temporary housing for those now homeless. In the main street, there were gaps like missing teeth in between buildings – the ghosts of pubs and shops no longer standing. Of the nearly 800 residents of the historic dairy-farming village, hundreds lost their homes or businesses, and four were killed trying to flee. A family friend, artist John Lethbridge, lost everything – his house, his cars, his studio, his artworks. All diminished to a pile of ashes.

Devastating scenes on Saskia's return to the region

The first sprigs of new green leaves had only just begun snaking their way up the boughs of singed eucalyptus trees when the next tragedy hit in March. The coronavirus pandemic and enforced lockdowns gripped Australia, and tourism ground entirely to a halt. So once again, these towns sat forgotten, desperately waiting for visitors that would never come.

Now, 12 months on, I’m itching to sink my toes into the luscious ecru sand and submerge myself in the sparkling water – an attempt to cleanse myself of the grime left behind by 2020’s mess.

More than anything, I’m ready to retrace my old steps on the south coast, offering support to these towns and their businesses in the best way I can – by emptying my wallet. At the top of my list is dinner at Il Passaggio in Bermagui to feast on blue swimmer crab linguine, wood-fired pizza and the most deceptively delicious cabbage salad. A daytime trip back here will include crumbed fish and chips from Bluewave Seafood, finished off next door with a few scoops from the Bermagui Gelati Clinic (named so thanks to the sign left behind by the former occupants – a veterinary clinic), and a quick stop at Honorbread for a loaf of fig and walnut sourdough and maybe even a salted chocolate rye biscuit, before swinging by the Cobargo Hotel Motel for a schooner or two.

So, as we all adjust to the new normal, forced into a slower mode of operating and perhaps with a new-found appreciation for simpler pleasures, 2021 is the perfect opportunity to schedule a road trip and get to know this unspoiled, exceptionally beautiful strip of coastline right here on our doorstep. And by doing so, we’ll make sure that these magical places never disappear.

The fine print

Where to find it
The NSW south coast stretches from Wollongong (just south of Sydney) to Eden (about 550km from Sydney, near the Victorian border). 

How to get there
Depending on your chosen destination, it will take between 90 minutes and five hours to drive from Sydney. Eden is a six-seven hour drive from Melbourne.

Need-to-know
Always check current COVID-19 cases and restrictions before travelling to regional NSW. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saskia Tillers

My life in travel

My kind of holiday…
“I love exploring a new city – gallery-hopping and wining and dining – but at the same time, I can never pass up a trip to the beach. Give me some sunshine to bask in and an ocean to bathe in, and I’m at my absolute happiest.”

Australian bucket list destination
“Rottnest Island. Embarrassingly, I’ve never ventured to Western Australia but the lure of its white-sand beaches and quokkas is particularly strong right now.”

Global bucket list destination
“My aunt and uncle are in the process of moving to Provence, France, once the pandemic permits, and I’m already dreaming about helping do-up their sprawling, rundown farmhouse in the countryside in the (hopefully) not too distant future.”

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