Residents in New South Wales’ Shoalhaven had a sense the summer of 2019-20 could spell disaster, but none were prepared for the scale of devastation they would be left to deal with.
The South Coast region was at the “forefront” of the Currowan blaze, which razed half-a-million hectares, destroyed 312 homes, damaged 173 others and took firefighters 74 days to extinguish.
“We all felt that this wasn’t going to be a good summer, you know, with the prediction of really hot weather,” Cupitt’s Estate’s founder Rosie Cupitt said in an interview for a new video series supporting bushfire-affected communities, Open for Business.
“And, you know, during that December, January time, just hearing what was happening in the district was something that we didn’t expect.”
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With over 80 per cent of Shoalhaven’s land mass destroyed, Peter Dover, CEO of Salt Ministries, said the aftermath was “devastating”.
“The trauma that people were left with and are still left with has been catastrophic,” he added.
“But in that, there has been hope and resilience. People have stood up together, people have come together from all over just to help each other. It’s just been an amazing time, yet a very tragic time as well.”
The region kicked off its recovery “fairly early” in 2020, Shoalhaven City Council Mayor Amanda Findley said, dealing with “massive amounts of land damage … and people’s homes that needed to be removed and sent off so that they could start their lives over again on their blocks”.
“And we could see in that six months the very new shoots that were coming back in the forests around us, so now the landscape looks, in some places, you would maybe not pick that there’d been a fire. But in other places, of course, it’s still very obvious – as it should be.”
It hasn’t always been easy, Mr Dover said, describing the months since the fires as, at times, “long and hard”.
“And so it was very frustrating, that whole recovery process. But it has started. Recovery is going on, houses are being built, people are moving into their houses,” he said.
“What we realised is that people had to know they weren’t doing this alone, that there were others that would shoulder that recovery process with them.”
What came out of the fires, Ms Findley said, “has been an amazing amount of community spirit”.
“That sense of community really tightened up, I believe, so it really has been wonderful to see those bonds and those connections be made,” she added.
“And our community feels stronger in many ways, after the disaster that was.”
While the region is bordered by mountains, coastal plains and 100 magnificent beaches, it’s also that sense of community that locals say make it such a special place to visit.
“If you had asked me what’s the best thing about this region a year ago, I would’ve said we’ve got a hundred beaches and they’re the best beaches in the world,” Mr Dover said.
“We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got the quaint little towns and villages that are beautiful. But I suppose if you asked me today, ‘What is the greatest thing about this region?’, I think it’s the people. Collectively it’s an amazing group of people that know what community’s about.”
Ms Findley agrees. “When visitors come to this area, they do note that people here are really very happy. You would walk down our street and you’re greeted with people who are smiling, because the place where they live is fantastically gorgeous,” she said.
“Of course, my favourite thing about the Shoalhaven is the landscape. Where you can rock up to the beach in the morning, or go for a walk in the mountains in the afternoon, and it’s really got everything for families, for walkers, and it’s just a fantastic laid-back feel.”
If food is more your thing – fear not. The region is famed for its fresh produce – including seafood, garden produce, wine, dairy, coffee and olive oil – that’s farmed and harvested locally year-round.
“The Shoalhaven region is really famous for its hospitality,” Ms Cupitt, whose estate serves as a restaurant, bar, winery, brewery and fromagerie, said.
“While we’ve got the natural product … it’s not all that makes the difference. You really have to have the right service to display that great natural beauty that we have in our area.”
It’s because of the Shoalhaven’s unbelievable beauty that there’s not only “great people”, she added, but great people who are “proud of their region”.
“We’ve got great pride in what we have here and what we want people to see. When they visit, we want them to feel as if they’re a local, as if they’re really welcomed, and you know, come again, any time,” Ms Cupitt said.
As well as your appetite and your sense of adventure, those visiting for the weekend – or even just driving down from Sydney or Canberra for the day – should also “come with a warm heart for our people”, Ms Findley said.
“Because they have been through a lot. But our people are ready to take visitors,” she added. “They love seeing our visitors smile, and it makes us smile too.”
For the next 14 weeks, news.com.au in partnership with Tourism Australia and the National Bushfire Recovery Agency will showcase bushfire impacted regions that need our support. For the full video series, check out Open for Business