Emblem transpoзиция by Sarah Bell
I’ve done this drive so many times, I’ve lost count. How many kilometres it is, god I’ve got no idea – we always just talk during the hours of driving. It’s about six I reckon, more or less. I pretty much know every bend, pot-hole, distinctive looking tree, kangaroo hang-out zone, oddity worth pointing out to visitors, pie-shop and public toilet stop. But again, I couldn’t tell you the exact names of the highways, and definitely don’t know their letter-number code, which I know the French and the British are so very keen on.
The last time I did this drive, it was early autumn, travelling from South to North. From where the emerald lake system meets the sea, up through the tangled temperate rainforests of East Gippsland, crossing the Great Diving Range, onto the pine plantations south of Bombala and then the home landscape of Cooma and my hometown; bleached golden plains ringed by blue-purple hills – Ngunnawal country – the Brindabellas and limestone plains. The sky feels never-ending and I always have to say out loud with a sigh, “Those big skies.” Home country is sheep grazing paddocks mixed with flat orange and grey suburbs and topped with glass shopping malls.
By doing the drive in autumn, what kind of weather you might get is really anyone’s guess. There are big patches of the drive without a single bar of mobile reception, but you’re always on the highway, we would never stray far. This last time, we had no air-conditioning so we were praying for cooler weather. It had been a long, hot and dry summer. Which isn’t so unusual for these parts of Australia but it had been drier than most. Comments, on the need for rain, increased. People not hooked up to the mains found their water tanks were getting low.
The winds picked up after we’d set off. For those unfamiliar with bushfires and what makes for good – or bad rather – bushfire conditions, it’s heat, sure, but big gusty winds are also necessary for fires. On the outskirts of each town, as you approach, there are road-side fire warning gauges, with colour-coded sections and an arrow. Fire Danger Warning Today, they read. These are colour-coded from cool blues and greens right up to angry bright danger red and black stripes. “Catastrophic” on some, “Code Red” on others.
One by one they crept up from the calm “Low-Moderate.” The wind was getting stronger. The radio began reporting fires in the west of the state; hundreds of kilometres away. But still.
The news at the next top-of-the-clock tells of people losing their homes to fires out west. We have another four hours of driving to go, through some fairly remote country. I’ve driven near bushfires before, had ash fall gently on my windscreen. I’ve witnessed thick, terrifying towers of smoke bigger than any skyscraper. But my travelling companion and partner is from the British Isles where squalls of rain are never far away and water is the most familiar element.
The heat is creeping up, and so is the wind. We stop to have a break from the car; the sweat and the heat, and buy ice-coffees. In Cooma we are surrounded by paddocks that were cleared of nearly all the trees around 150 years ago, and the blonde-shaded sharp grass whips and shakes in the wind. Not far to go now, we are on the well-trodden road from one town to my bigger hometown. We drive north along the plain between the two smudged-green mountain ranges, the Snowy and Brindabella Mountains lie to the West, their familiar curves a symbol of home. Just under two hours to go.
I stay calm when I spot the sooty grey smoke curling up into the brilliant blue sky. The nearby Namadgi National Park has obviously had a fire break out; it was inevitable really. As we drive closer I am able to see that it must be a fair-sized area burning, being fanned westwards by the persistent wind. The dry bush floor and crackling leaves, naturally laden with eucalyptus oil, further encourage the fire. We keep on, foot to the floor in our white hot-box car. I break off a phone call to re-assure my partner that the fire is too far away to be a danger to us, as this would not be apparent to someone unfamiliar with bushfires. I am far from any kind of expert – and more of a city-kid at heart – but growing up surrounded by this country, knowing about bushfires is just something you absorb. I mentally calculate quickly that the fire would need to cross an entire mountain range and cross the plain to get anywhere near the road, and despite this wind, this distance would probably take longer than we will be on the highway for, travelling at 100 kilometres an hour. With sparks likely to be carried ahead of the fire, creating new spot-fires, I am uncertain we will definitely miss this fire, but I use my best-guess, I try to be reassuring and calm. I know what we have both heard on the radio today, I know people have lost their homes to fire today, and I have the fear and respect this element deserves.
We can smell the distinctive burnt eucalyptus oil of the bushfire in the car as we leave the grey billows in the sky and finally reach our destination safely. I silently thank the heavens once the fire is behind us. Later, on the radio and the television, we hear of a township; on the other side of the mountains to the east, which has burnt to the ground. We hear Tathra lost around 70 homes and a school that day, with embers starting spot fires as far as the eye could see. Many people lost everything. The car is unpacked, beers are opened, I take a cold shower. “No one was killed though,” we all say about Tathra. “Thank goodness no one was killed.”