Fires & Floods
When we booked our tickets for this trip, the fires had just started. As September rolled into October, family marked themselves safe on Facebook, and the Australian media began rolling coverage. By November, there were whispers in global media but not much. Just a bit of grimacing and face-pulling at poor old Australia and its bushfires. By December, the east coast was burning, two firefighters were dead and the Prime Minster was on holidays in Hawaii. The world tuned in a little more. It had become terrifyingly clear this wasn’t a case of poor old Australia and its bushfires.
It was a strange thing to watch it unfold from the other side of the world. To see the pictures – the charred kangaroo corpses caught in fences, the firefighters walking into the jaws of hell, their trucks rolled by fury. To see the storm clouds of smoke big enough to create their own weather, the thousands of people standing on a beach looking at the belly of a dragon as it swooped low and malevolent. To read the relentless evacuation notices, the stats that changed by the hour, that keep changing by the hour – millions of hectares burnt, more than a billion animals lost, 34 people dead, thousands of homes gone, an untold number of habitats reduced to ash. To know that an ancient country with its ancient history, in a handful of months, had been irrevocably damaged. And to know that the people charged with leading this country – successive governments over decades – knew it was going to happen and looked the other way. Took the hands of its people and led them into the belly of the beast.
All through November, December and January, I kept the bushfire updates open on laptop and cried as the animals died, as people peeled koalas off trees and drove with them out of the flames. At home in Germany, parents on the kindy run started asking me daily about what was going on back home. How could this happen? Why was climate change so divisive? It is impossible, often, to make Europeans understand Australia – its size, its weather, its land, its wildness. As impossible, often, as making the people within it understood. We’re too big, too far away, too young and, in the grand scheme of world powers and all of that, too small. (We pack a punch though with our emissions, so that’s something.) Yes fires are normal, no these are not. Yes our government failed terribly, no not all of us think climate change is a beat up. Yes we’re angry. No you can’t put them out. No one can quite fathom it because they live in countries the size of these fires. Belgium burnt. Bulgaria burnt. Five times the German state I live in burnt. Five Schleswig-Holsteins. But. What the Germans got from the get go was that these were fuelled by climate change, that climate change is here. It wasn’t offered as a ‘maybe’, it was spoken as fact.
As the new year was rung in and the hectares disappeared, the townships kept fleeing and the fire pushed farther south. It was no longer just Queensland and New South Wales, now it was Victoria and South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory too. The air was choked with smoke. People were advised to stay inside, particularly kids and older people, or those with breathing issues. We began wondering if we should go at all. It seemed safe enough, the coastal area north of Sydney we stay in when we’re out, but the smoke was a worry. Ten days before we were supposed to fly out, rain came and so did the flash floods. Ash flooded the rivers and killed the fish. A week later, Coronavirus hit the news. As we packed our bags, I googled how to take precautions when travelling, bought extra hand disinfectant for the plane.
We landed a couple of weeks ago. The first week was hot and bright, or warm and muggy. There were no signs of the fires, although my asthma knew something was amiss with the air quality. We fought with jetlag for the first four or five days, trying to hose it off with big doses of sunshine. It was a week of blue water and kookaburras, huge old red gums and mozzies, the beach everyday, the kids released like birds. They buzzed around the shore for hours, darting into the water and surfing tiny waves back in. This is their paradise, their other half. Then came the storm.
As Sabine neared Europe, we got our own warnings – a massive east coast low was on its way. It would start up north and move its way down, bringing with it the biggest rainfall in over twenty years. It arrived on a Friday, furious, and for three days in our little beach village, surrounded by bush, branches and power lines fell, the ocean consumed the beach, trees uprooted and roads flooded. The kids got restless, we all got restless. Fires went out, including on that had been burning nearly 3 months. We went out a few times in the hammering rain, to see what was happening on the beach and up at the headland. The sea snarled and thrashed, the wind nearly blew Mum away. Driving to the shops one day, we had to turn back – the road was underwater.
Then it was over. The air grew still and muggy, the birds came out and sat on the power lines to dry off. We took the kids out to inspect the damage. The sea was still roiling, but the water had retreated at least a little, leaving mountains of weed and dead or dying sea creatures and piles of shiny mussel shells. Plenty of plastic, too, huge branches and a tree stump, tennis balls and a dead seagull or two. We found an uprooted tree, its roots dangling like gnarled fingers, and Eucalyptus branches taller than the kids criss-crossed the street. For the days to follow, the surf was too dangerous – still is too dangerous, courtesy of a cyclone – and so we beachcombed instead. The kids have looked in the weeds and the sticks, in the detritus of a storm, for all it regurgitated: leopard-spotted sea snails, a dead baby shark, huge crab shells, bucketfuls of shells. The rock pools are under water at high tide and sand at low. The tidal pool has seaweed clinging to its handrails.
In the wake of the storm that put out so many of the fires, that filled desperate dams, it all feels so wild and in flux: but that feels right.