Australian road trips are long and often arduous affairs, depending on your view of the world. In our recent getaway after Melbourne’s ‘Ring of Steel’ was removed, which allowed Victorians freedom of movement within their own State after many months of hard lockdown, we travelled way out west to visit a friend who lives in the Wimmera, then headed to Portland on the south west coast, returning home six days later, a total journey of 1110 kilometers, not counting side trips. There are two schools of thought when it comes to planning a road trip. The old school approach plans on getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It involves travelling along major routes and highways at the speed limit. Fuel stops, lunch and toilet breaks are hasty, usually consisting of take away food from huge highway service centres, soulless and treeless places. The second approach focuses on back roads, with preference given to minor C or D roads for most of the journey, stopping along the way to walk around small towns, visiting historic sites, and taking photos along the way. Back roads are rarely frequented by trucks, speed demons, or people attached to a time frame, a construct that is based on the idea that the destination is more important than the journey. In a back road journey, a country town’s bakery might offer a tasty pastie for lunch while a packed thermos of hot water provides a cup of tea along the way. There’s always a park with picnic tables under a shady tree, a gazebo or picnic hut in an Australian country town.
My preference for back road journeys began at some point during the late 1980s after reading the iconic road trip story, ‘Blue Highways’, by William Least Heat Moon ( born William Lewis Trogdon). Travelling around the USA in an old van, Heat Moon chose only the “blue highways”. He coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America: these roads were drawn in blue on old maps. During his three month journey, he visited small towns with interesting names, meeting quite a few characters and documenting the history of each place along the way. He took along a copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, considered to be the quintessentially American book, published in 1892, poetry which had little appeal to me when I was obliged to read it back the 1970s. I’m wondering what the archetypal Australian book might be to take along on an Aussie road trip in a van in 2020?
Travelling around Australia’s back roads that connect old towns, there’s more chance to collide with history. These old towns were important markers along the way before the major highways bi-passed them, cutting them off from passing trade. Nowadays, many are struggling to survive though quite a few are having a renaissance too. By revisiting them, there’s a chance to relive a long forgotten childhood memory of a trip taken so many years before, or to find ancestral farms and burial grounds, or to discover the importance of agriculture in the life of the Australian economy, a thing we often take for granted. Many small towns are graced with marvelous bluestone buildings, constructed by skilled Scottish stonemasons in the 1850s, as well as a surfeit of churches, most now obsolete, shrines to the many sects that divided the Christian religion during a previous era. Many Australian small towns were built after the success of gold mining or the sheep boom or during the grand building era of the 1890s. In each small town there’s a war shrine listing those who had died in the Great War, a reminder of how war devastated farming families and communities. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial avenue of large trees, or a bank of a river by which to loiter, or a country pub with a counter meal to distract you totally from your trip.
Driving along major roads you’ll miss this wonderful exploration of the past as well as the present so peaceful and appealing. But peel away this colonial veneer, the buildings, the churches, the old houses and quaint statues, the white history of our country places, and you may begin to see, perhaps for the first time, the indigenous history of the land, spelt out in land forms, native flora, in hidden billabongs and creeks.
On our recent road trip, the first leg took us to Woodend, a 99 km trip, via the country C or back roads towards Wallan, Donnybrook, Kalkallo, a most convenient and gentle way to leave the city without meeting much traffic or speed. This route skirts just beyond the outer fringes of Melbourne’s large suburban sprawl, the route notable for the beautiful ancient red gum trees, some believed to be 500 years old, that are dotted in paddocks along the way. Looking towards the horizon near Kalkallo, Bald Hill, the well worn hill of an old volcano, dominates the flat land. Bald Hill was noted in the diaries of our colonial ancestors who settled in this area in the 1840s. The large hill, seen from every road and angle, would certainly have been a significant marker for the indigenous people, prior to white invasion. The Merri Creek rises nearby. This creek was formed over many years by incising through the lava surface near Wallan, and then flows in a southerly direction for 70 km until it joins the Yarra River in Fairfield near Dight’s Falls and subsequently flows into Port Phillip Bay. Many Melbournians are familiar with Merri creek, given that it passes through many of the older suburbs of Melbourne, but few are familiar with its source. The Merri Creek was also vital for the first nation people of Melbourne.
“The Wurundjeri-willamhad regular camping spots along the Merri Creek which they would visit according to season. In winter the low lying land next to the creek was subject to flooding and the general dampness made it an unsuitable place for camping. At this time they would move to the hills. In summer time when food supplies were plentiful along the creeks, clans would visit one another and host meetings and ceremonies.
Women were responsible for 90% of food collected, of which the staple were plants. All Wurundjeri-willam women carried a long fire hardened digging stick known as a kannan. They used their kannan to dig up the root or tuber of the murnong or yam daisy. It had a bitter taste in winter but became much sweeter when spring arrived.
The creek supplied the Wurundjeri-willam with an abundance of food such as eel, fish, and duck. Women waded through the Merri with string bags suspended around their neck, searching the bottom of the stream for shellfish. Emu and kangaroo were hunted in the surrounding grasslands.
In the forests and hills, possum was also a staple source of food and clothing, The flesh of the possum was cooked and eaten, while the skin was saved to be sewn into valuable waterproof cloaks.
These cloaks were fastened at the shoulder and extended to the knees. Clan designs were incised with a mussel shell tool into the inner surfaces of the skins. Wearing the fur side next to the body showed off the designs which were highlighted with red ochre.” *
As Melbourne’s Northern Growth Corridor begins to swamp this area with more suburban subdivision, cultural mapping is taking place in these areas near Wallan and Kalkallo. The Merri Creek was a significant route for the Wurrundjeri-willam people. Archeologists may reveal stone sharpening tools and middens along the billabongs and creeks, and perhaps not come across any sites of significance, but intangible indigenous history can be felt in these areas. You don’t need intact evidence, a birthing tree, a canoe tree or ancient fish traps to know that this land is culturally significant. And you don’t need a history book to tell you that massacre of the indigenous people took place nearby.
I’ll be returning to this area, which is not too far from home, next time to take photos of a land that reveals many surprises if you just take the time. I’m afraid that if I wait too long, the area, and the signs you can still read, will be buried under new housing estates.
A few holiday questions for you Dear Reader. What book would accompany you on a road trip in your country? Do you prefer to take C roads when travelling, assuming that you have all the time in the world? What makes a road trip special for you?
This is part one of my recent road trip. There will be more legs offered soon, I hope.
There’s no shortage of good quality fresh fish and seafood in Melbourne, but getting your hands on it at a reasonable price is another thing. Under the State of Victoria’s present regulations for controlling the spread of Covid-19, there’s a 5 kilometre rule in place which limits the distance one may travel to do essential shopping. My nearest fresh seafood market is around 30 kilometres from my home; it has been 2 months since I’ve enjoyed good fish ( sounds like a confession opening) and I’m beginning to feel like a deprived fish junkie. There was one small window of opportunity back in late July, when my favourite fishmonger offered a fabulous home delivery service: I promptly formed a local group, placed a huge order, then shared the $20 delivery fee. Sadly this fishy opportunity came unstuck when my trustworthy fishmonger closed due to Covid issues. We all cried. In the meantime, I can honestly say that the fish and seafood offerings at my local major supermarket are disappointing. Here’s what’s on offer:- flabby farmed Barramundi, farmed Tasmanian salmon, with its bright pop of pink synthetically dyed flesh, chemically dyed and smoked imported cod, ordinary defrosted New Zealand ling and nastiest of all, Vietnamese Basa, white, bland tasting catfish farmed in suspect ponds around the Mekong river. If local fish turns up at all, it’s ridiculously expensive, grey and tired looking. Shopping for fish at a supermarket is a frustrating business. There are only two questions you may ask: has this fish been defrosted and what is the use by date. The staff behind that deli window display are not fishmongers. Most of the other seafood – prawns, scallops, etc- are thawed in trays daily, the stock trucked in from a national depot somewhere in Australia. None of the offerings reflect locality or season.
But there’s one option on a lucky day that warrants a quick sideways glance when scuttling past that fishy display – the vacuum packed bag of fresh mussels. ( Yes, I know, more plastic). Local black mussels are a sustainable choice. Farmed on long ropes in pristine seas around Victoria, mussels cannot be fed or fertilised; this means the whole production process is totally natural. The only important thing to check is the use by date on the bag when purchasing. Try to obtain mussels that have just been harvested- the longer they’ve been in the bag, the less appealing they become, even if they haven’t yet reached the magic use by date.
Mejillones a la Gallaga – Galician Style Mussels.
1 kilo of fresh black mussels
1/4 cup white wine for opening the mussels
2 tablespoons EV olive oil
one onion, finely chopped
two garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 heaped teaspoon of Spanish smoked pimenton/paprika- hot or sweet
1/4- 1/2 teaspoon of saffron threads
one can diced tomatoes, including juice
In a wide, deep frying pan or non stick wok, heat the oil and add the onions. Cook on medium heat until they soften, about 6 minutes, than add the garlic, and cook for another minute.
Add the saffron threads and pimenton. Toss through the onions then add the can of tomatoes. Turn the heat down low and cook slowly to thicken.
Meanwhile in another large lidded pan or pot, open the mussels with the wine. They should all open within a minute or two so stand by with your tongs, ready to remove them as they open. Place the opened mussels in a bowl. Pour the remaining mussel juice through a muslin cloth lined strainer, over another small bowl to catch the juice.
Add one cup or so of the strained juice to the tomato mixture. Turn up the heat and bubble the tomato mixture/mussel juice to thicken. You my wish to add more juice as you go.
Remove the top shells of the reserved mussels. After cooking and reducing the tomato mixture for around 10 minutes, check it for seasoning. when its ready, add the mussels and turn through the sauce to heat them.
Add chopped Italian parsley if you wish and serve with crusty baguette, or cooked bomba rice or small shaped pasta.
If you like eating fish, support a fishmonger before they all disappear.
Put away your trumpet, there’ll be no fanfare for the dawning of Spring. In Melbourne, the month of September is changeable, windy and unpredictable. Sunny days are often preceded by blistering cold. Gale force winds rip through the hills, bringing down branches from bare winter trees while the ‘darling buds’, the blossom on fruit trees, bravely hang on. There’s nothing especially attractive or romantic about Spring: the arrival of Primaverais invariably disappointing. Early Spring is like a moody teenager: all that white and pink confetti blossom helps to create a sense of hope and promise, yet the new season is accompanied by immaturity and mood swings. It’s a season on hormones. I’ve often returned to Melbourne in late September to be disheartened by the cold and windy weather.
This year I experienced my first Melbourne winter for 10 years and was surprised by the vibrant colour in the garden and the calm weather throughout late July and August. It isn’t surprising to learn that the Wurundjeri – Melbourne’s indigenous people who have lived around what is now Melbourne for thousands of years- have a calendar consisting of 6 seasons. The period from late July to the end of August is a distinct season in the indigenous calendar: it’s the time of nesting and first flowers. This year, this pre-spring season has been remarkably clement, sunny and still, with many joyous picnic kind of days.
” The division of the year into four seasons comes from Northern Europe, and does not fit Melbourne. We still think of winter as an unfavourable season for plants, when northern European trees drop their leaves and become dormant, but for our native plants, especially the small tuberous herbs, winter is a season of growth. At this time the bush is green, and the temperatures are rarely low enough to stop growth. The unfavourable season is high summer, when water is scarce, and much of the ground flora becomes brown and dies off. “¹
In the last two weeks of winter, I’ve observed new seasonal birds in the garden, attracted by the early pink/mauve flowering Echium. New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spine Bills and Wattle birds have feasted on this large bush while on still days, hundreds of bees have had their turn. Once the honey eaters arrive, a seasonal indicator of sorts, I start sowing seeds, knowing that the sun’s angle will be perfect for germination inside my north facing window.
Native wattle trees have been in flower for weeks, with different species taking turns to paint the distant landscape with bright yellow patches of mini pom poms. The blue green leaves of the eucalypt drape and sway gracefully from tall healthy trees. They are in their prime in late winter. The native purple flowering creeper, hardenbergia violacia spent winter snaking its way along a fence while the mauve flowers on the tips of the silver leafed Teucrum Fruticans hedge have enjoyed this pre-spring season. Some non- native plants have also thrived in late winter, especially the euphorbia, a startling lime green show off, while the jonquils and daffodils, now spent, are a late winter pop up. One lone flag iris emerged under a pear tree. The citrus trees fruit in this little wedge of time between winter and spring- Navel, Washington and Blood orange fruits brightened the season. Now that Spring has arrived, they’ve finished their fruiting cycle, with energy directed to leaf and flower.
The late winter vegetable patch has supplied us with bitter salad leaves, chard, kale, turnips, green onions, leeks, broccoli, fennel and parsley. Spring will push these plants sky high: it’s now a race to eat as many of these liver cleansing greens as we can before they bolt to seed.
Picked greens for a Pizza di Verdure Pugliese.
This year’s pandemic and subsequent isolation forced me to regard winter with new eyes: I can honestly say, it wasn’t so bad. And now, let’s see what this season throws at us. Life has become as unpredictable as Spring.
¹ There are many diagrams and charts illustrating aboriginal seasons, each one varying from place to place. The diagram above best illustrates Melbourne’s seasons. Diagram and quotation from http://www.herringisland.org/seasons1.htm
This month, I’m inviting you to step inside my kitchen. No one else can come inside these days, but you’re all welcome. It’s one long narrow room that incorporates a kitchen, a small pantry, a long table of 2.8 metres, a wood fired baker’s stove and two old sofas. Above are high beams and clerestory windows and plenty of natural light from the windows facing north and east. All are double glazed making the room easier to heat in winter and naturally cooler in summer. I would argue that retrofitting old windows and upgrading to double glazing is one of the most important energy saving moves you should make, regardless of where you live. Although we have other rooms in the house, we have chosen to live in and heat this single space, along with our bedroom which has a heater set on 17º c for 8 hours overnight. Our kitchen/living space heating consists of one small but very efficient wood stove and one split system inverter. Things are nice and toasty, even on days when the temperature ranges between 0º c and 10ºc outside. We monitor our power usage and note that the winter costs are much lower since adopting this single living space approach. Sig Tranquillo chainsaws fallen trees from the forest on our property which supplies the wood heater, another major cost saving and a gym workout for him.
Melbourne is now in stage 4 lockdown, due to the surge in numbers of corona virus in the state of Victoria. This is one of the most stringent of all lockdowns, and the world will be taking notes on the effectiveness of such a move. Mask wearing is compulsory, no one can travel more than 5 kms to shop, only one person from each household may do this and only for one hour, a night curfew operates from 8 pm to 5am, exercise must be undertaken locally, and only essential businesses may stay open. The vast majority of Victorians are doing the right thing and are determined to make this work. Of course, the media will highlight those who break the rules, and give way too much oxygen to the Karens and Kens of this world: anything newsworthy to feed the coffers of the Murdoch Press.
In My Kitchen is Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, who appears at 11 am, or later on really bad days. Dan has been doing these updates for months: most Victorians admire and respect him. I moved the TV into our kitchen/everything room at the beginning of the pandemic to save on heating. Before the pandemic, we weren’t so glued to the big screen in the daytime.
french onion soup, vegetarian.
old fashioned soup mix soup.
In my kitchen is a Nectre Heater, an Australian made wood heater that is very environmentally efficient and effective. We use it primarily for heating, but also to cook stock and soups, heat the kettle, and warm leftovers and puddings in the little baker’s oven below. I often use the top to toast bread for bruschetta.
In my kitchen, there’s plenty of research happening. Sig Tranquillo is working on a Scottish history project. Sometimes his clutter fills the large table. Meanwhile, I’m finally back into full time reading and the books are piling up. I can highly recommend, Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water. A memoir of sorts, Flyn journeys from Scotland to Australia to investigate the travels and massacre of the Gunai indigenous tribe by the explorer, Angus McMillan. It is essential reading to all those who live in Gippsland, Victoria. More about this book in a later post. The local library sent my books by post but I feel that this is one book I must own. Books, computers, phones, diaries,and notes get swept to one end of the large table at meal time. Oh the clutter.
On sunny days we venture outside for lunch and have now established the routine picnic day, every Friday, on the platform under the old half built chimney. Picnic days can be dangerous, especially when the musical instruments appear.
Tranquillo and the cowgirls
Somedays it’s wine for lunch and a loaf bread. anything else is a bonus.
I’m adding my post to Sherry’s In My Kitchen series this month, despite it’s lack of novel kitchen stuff. Life is up and down here. I hope, dear reader, wherever you may be, that you keep safe and wear a mask.
Header photo. Turnips from the garden. Despite their vibrant colour, they always remind me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Day 26. Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.
It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.
One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.
I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off. And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.
Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.
Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.
My annual family holiday, from the end of January through to the end of April, involves maintaining two kitchens. It’s a schizophrenic life involving a disciplined routine. Three days by the sea, four days back at home, or vice versa, is very manageable now that the drive takes only 95 minutes or so along two freeways.
After the trip, we unload a few things from home and then drag our chairs down to the beach. The sea is so calming and hypnotic and instantly relaxing: it’s worth the effort. On warm nights we set up the dinner table on the sand or in front of an old boat shed and watch the ships cruise by. On cooler evenings, we have a quick aperitivo and a snack by the sea, watch the sunset, then return to the warmth of the caravan annex.
The food is simple: we eat a lot of locally caught fish and Mt Martha mussels, supplemented by my vegetables and preserves from home. I’ve found some lovely fresh fish sold in a seaside van at Safety Beach. The caravan operates from Friday afternoon through to Sunday. I always end up choosing the sweet gars, a fish that is overlooked by many Victorians who are scared of bones. There’s a trick to bone free garfish eating. Once they are cooked, prise open the fish, grab the head and lift it gently towards the tail. The whole bone structure will come away, leaving the sweet fish fillets on your plate. The other trick with gars is to coat the fish in seasoned rice flour and gently fry them for only two minutes on each side. The flesh is so delicate, it only needs a simple sauce. Once cooked, remove fish onto a serving plate, add some butter to the pan, turn up the heat, scraping all the fishy bits into the butter, add lots of lemon juice and parsley, then pour the sauce over the fish. Buon appetito.
The local mussels are readily available in fish vans as well as at the Dromana supermarket for around $8 a kilo. I love these mussels and limit myself to a kilo a week. The classic French Mouclade is my favourite recipe at present. There’s just a hint of old-fashioned British curry powder- think Keens or Clive of India- and some creme frâiche /sour cream, shallots, butter and all that salty strained juice. Did you know that Mouclade hails from the seaport of La Rochelle? These days when I eat Mouclade, I can’t help thinking of Das Boot! Have you seen the original film and the new series?
My beach kitchen is not entirely basic. I have everything a girl could want in terms of implements, gadgets and serving ware. There’s a small stove top inside a caravan which I never use- cooking and sleeping in the same space doesn’t appeal. There’s a canvas annex with a two burner stove top, and a small Weber BBQ outside. I’ve finally mastered the art of making pizza in the Weber. It’s amazing how good food tastes when you cook and eat in the open air- even when the nights are chilly.
I’m looking forward to the next two weeks down at the beach, with lots of hungry grandchildren in search of their favourite soups. The cooler weather will be accompanied by spectacular sunsets: the slow cooker will come out of hiding for the Easter season by the bay.
Sunset views and Pinot Grigio.
I love shells
Making decor in my kitchen del mare
Local garfish, simply sauteed, then sauced a la meunière with butter parsley and lemon’
Portsea hotel. Great view. Which table will we choose?
Portsea hotel Pizza
Thanks Sherry once again for hosting this monthly series. Participating bloggers all have a very different take on their approach to life in the kitchen. These can be found at Sherry’s Pickings.
I never sent my thank you letters to all who donated so generously after the Black Saturday Bushfires. This is a sign of ill breeding, I know, but the task seemed overwhelming at the time. For the first year I had difficulty concentrating on defined tasks, looking for addresses, remembering phone numbers, handwriting, and finding things. I was always distracted, anxious, tired, alarmed or annoyed. Burnt out.
And so my thank you letters are rather late. Ten years late in fact, but I have chosen to write the letters today, February 7, 2019. The list will be rather long, dear reader, and so you may want to stop reading here. I remember every gift, donation offer of kindness, and all the faces of every volunteer I met in the weeks and months that followed the Black Saturday bushfires. These memories are very clear. It’s never too late to express my enormous gratitude to the Australian people who volunteered and donated money or gifts during that time. It was a tidal wave of kindness, to which I owe my recovery. If I have forgotten you by name, forgive me.
People Making a Difference.
Most of the large gifts and monetary donations were distributed in a coordinated and egalitarian way. The large donations collected through Red Cross were distributed through government agencies: the amounts varied, according to loss, and were apportioned in parcels over a 12 month period. A significant amount of this fund was set aside for whole community recovery such as town infrastructure, small grants to artists, film makers, workshop providers and so on. Those who lost their homes were appointed a case manager to assist in negotiating the applications for these funds, other services and information: they eased the pathway through the mire of administrative and bureaucratic nightmare facing those who lost everything. I never formally thanked our case worker, Linda Fabb, though I did along the way I am sure. Linda visited and rang us often to see how we were travelling. She stayed with us until we finally re-settled one year later. She visited armed with information, tick sheets for grant applications, forms to fill in, and discreetly checked on our psychological well-being as well. She was on our wavelength, we got on well. Not all survivors were so lucky with their appointed case managers. After we found our new house, Linda visited twice with boxes full of little plants made from cuttings. These were made and donated by her mother. Through these random gifts of kindness, I also learnt how to strike cuttings in recycled plastic containers just like Mrs Fabb senior. I have one garden in your honour. Now I strike, grow and give away plants. Thanks Linda.
Not long after the fire, a wonderful association emerged, thanks to Catherine Lance of St Andrews North. As Cathy’s house survived the fire, she decided to establish a regular morning tea venue for other women in St Andrews who were affected. 65 houses were destroyed overnight on February 7, 2009, and others lost shedding, crops, and outbuildings. We went by the title of “Ladies of the Black Belt”, a geographical reference to the area burnt in St Andrews North but also with visual and psychological connotations too. St Andrews North was black and treeless, as was the outlook of those affected. After the first get together, it became necessary for Cathy to limit the membership of the group to those within a defined boundary to protect the vulnerabilities of its members. We grew as a community over a two-year period and shared enormous friendship and a common bond. Cathy’s neighbour, Barb Barbetta, also offered her house for similar get togethers, morning teas and shed nights. The shed nights started as bloke nights but were soon converted to family nights. Tony Barbetta’s shed became our local town hall, complete with its own clock. These gatherings also defined us as a community, albeit a traumatised one. Cathy Lance was also a font of information along the way, with reminders of grants, events, warnings, funerals, and organised a fine Christmas party catered by Maree and Rodney Adams, restauranteurs at Latrobe University. She also connected us to a caring group of folk in Inverloch, who hosted us for a fine luncheon and then kindly donated home-made little Christmas puddings and cakes for the Black Belt Ladies’ first post fire Christmas. Thank you friends from Inverloch. Through this umbrella, we also enjoyed several women’s’ getaways to Phillip Island, offering us a chance to chat in a completely different environment. To balance this, men’s getaways ( otherwise known as fishing trips) were funded and organised, mostly through Helen Legg. Thanks Cathy and David Lance.
Helen Legg and all the friendly volunteers at the Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre, Fiona, Jane, June, Annie and so many others. I’ve written previously about the extraordinary efforts of Helen here .Volunteers also go through enormous trauma during times of national disaster and I am aware that Helen’s team was emotionally exhausted after a long two-year stint. Thank you for making such a difference.
Thanks to the owners of the building which became the Hurstbridge Centre, in main road Hurstbridge, who donated the property for a lengthy period.
All the volunteers at the Hurstbridge Church Hall, the St Andrews Bushfire centre, Diamond Creek Sporting Stadium, the Whittlesea Bushfire Centre on the showgrounds, and the Clayton Warehouse Bushfire centre. We came to collect wonderful new and second-hand goods from your vast emporiums which only functioned because of your time so freely given. Thank you.
The guys from Hurstbridge, friends of Helen Legg, who came up to our burnt landscape and helped clear the mess, and Sunny Cross who helped clear the toxic stuff on the block. Of course, my immediate family also attended working bees on and off for months. There were many others, too many to mention all by name.
Terese, a local landscape gardener and teacher, who designed a garden for me, provided a colour coded plant list and helped me begin my new garden once I resettled. My love of gardens developed further thanks to your inspiration.
Louise Ferguson, of Ferguson winery in the Yarra Valley, who voluntarily gave a series of simple cooking lessons to groups of women in the months after the bushfires. We loved going out together and eating your samples. I still make your toasted muesli.
Chris, an amazing teacher of mosaics, who freely volunteered her time to organise workshops in the old St Andrews School. She ran these workshops for years after 2009, such was her dedication. You can visit the amazing mosaic bench chair, a masterpiece of history, coordinated by Chris and completed by the bushfire affected in the area. Those who lost their homes added small fragments of old plates and vases to the work. The chair is near the St Andrews hall on the market site. I attended a few sessions but found my artistic skills were sadly lacking after the fire.
Jenny Cox, whose name became synonymous with the Knitted Chook for a few months. Jenny and her crafting friends began knitting colourful and exotic knitted chooks ( hens) after the bushfires. These were entered into a grand final competition and comedy night, hosted by Denise Scott. The funds raised from that event were used to gift knitting baskets and hand spun wool to the women who had lost their homes ( and their knitting supplies). This hilarious event, along with the chooks themselves, lightened the mood along the way. It also helped forge a bond between the two burnt communities of St Andrews and Strathewen. Giving comedy, a craft outlet and joy. Thanks Jenny.
A big thank you to all the bands who played at SOUND RELIEF, a huge benefit concert held in the MCG, Melbourne. The highlights included Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, Jett, Kings of Leon, Paul Kelly, and many more. There was a similar benefit concert held in Sydney with a different lineup of bands. The funds raised from this event were huge and were added to the Red Cross funds for equitable distribution.
Sunny and I at the Sound relief concert
Sound Relief, the crowds gather
Sound releif 2009
sound relief benefit concert 2009
Sound relief 2009, Peter Garrett, Beds are Burning.
Some people have commented over the years on my resilience. I don’t think I’m resilient, just very fortunate. In the early days after the fire, all sorts of offers of short-term accommodation became available. I could have stayed in the city, but felt it important to be near my tortured land, my burnt out home, my community, and to own my recovery in the place that I had always lived and loved for the previous thirty years. Community and support came through being among those who had experienced the same catastrophe. During those early months, I found new neighbours and rejoined with others with whom I had lost contact.
Within three days of the bushfire, a large and comfortable caravan arrived in the front yard of my daughter’s house in Hurstbridge. We stayed there for a while, and the van was left there for months for when we needed it along the way. Thanks Rachel Brown and Jason.
Tess Baldessin offered us a little cottage on her bushblock. It was simple, beautifully crafted and quite monastic. It came with its own bathroom but no kitchen. Her partner Lloyd soon installed a little gas stove which enabled us to cook simple meals there. My friends, Diane and Brian Gilkes, stayed in another nearby cottage. Together we became a little commune and stayed for three months. Thanks Tess and Lloyd.
As winter approached, we needed a warmer environment and were delighted to be offered a house in St Andrews to care for, along with an aging cat, Bonnie, while the owners were travelling. Thanks dear friends, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner. Since then, our friendship has grown, and Chris and Stuart now share a regular music practice together, a sort of musical men’s shed for two.
We were also given a large, 1970s unroadworthy caravan, donated by a woman from Anglesea. The caravan was moved by tilt tray truck to St Andrews, the 160 kilometre journey courtesy of Nationwide, who donated their trucks, drivers and time to move old unwanted caravans to bushfire sites around Victoria. The caravan adoption movement was coordinated by Helen Legg at Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre ( a year later, she also coordinated the distribution of loaned shipping containers). Our Caravan of Courage provided shelter on our burnt out block for 9 months. It was a place to escape the howling winds, which were horrific due to the absence of trees and bush, nature’s windbreaks. After we sold our block, my son-in-law, Kyle Bradley, renovated the van at his own cost: it’s now roadworthy and spends a few months at the beach, providing retro accommodation for my children and grandchildren. Another tiny van was also donated: this was gutted inside and served as a lock up shed for our disposable safety gear, overalls, tools, buckets and so on. We called it the Kebab van. Thanks Matt O’Connor.
Organisations and Charities
While thousands of Australians donated money to the main fund-raising body, Red Cross, many other organisations and charities collected funds and directed them to those displaced by bushfire. The Salvos distributed shopping vouchers for the IGA supermarket and Kmart, Sussan and Sportsgirl. Vinnies offered vouchers for petrol and the local hardware chain, Mitre 10. The Holden Car company gave us a new car, free of charge to use for one year which included servicing. The Country Women’s Association provided a farming grant which we used to buy a ride on mower, ( thanks once again Cathy Lance for coordinating this) while the RSPCA provided an animal focused grant. We used this to re-establish a chook house and run, along with 6 chickens. ( 50 or so of my chickens perished during the bushfire ) An organisation emerged for the replacement of musical instruments: a rep from Resound personally delivered a beautiful new electric guitar to Mr T, who lost 9 collector guitars in the fire. For guitar aficionados, it’s an ESP LTD EC-1000 with Seymour Duncan pickups. There was also library grant replacing some of my books, including an academic Italian dictionary, gardening books and classic novels.
Salvation Army ( the Salvos )
Holden Car Company
St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies)
The Country Women’s Association
Small Business grant to buy computer equipment
Library, new book donation
Musical instrument grant from Resound
The personal gifts of money and/or items were many. My immediate family, my parents and siblings were all very generous. My niece Louise replaced my Stephanie Alexander book, her friend sent over a bowl made by Leon Saper, local potter, a platter came from a lady in Cockatoo ( Jan?). There were gifts of books and a book voucher. Beautiful hand-made quilts were distributed by key women within the community. When my grand children were little, they could pick one to cuddle each night when they stayed with us. These quilts are our heirlooms and will be handed down to them one day.
Some quilts were numbered. This beautiful quilt, no 41, was sponsored by Ursula Thornton and quilted by C.J Quilting. The Fabric Palette, Gladstone, Queensland and friends.
Quilt no 58, The Fabric Palette, Gladstone Qld and Friends, sponsored by Irene Dudley
Made by the Wednesday Quilters
Those who sleep under a quilt sleep under a blanket of love. We send ours, June Hazell, Narrawong Patches and Craft, May 2009
Cot sized quilt with heart designs,
Companies donated linen- new sheets and pillow cases, often remainders in odd colours which are still in use 10 years later, tea towels and a doona. These company gifts came through the Bushfire relief centres in Diamond Creek and Whittlesea. Enormously valuable in the first month was the donation of safety protection gear, full suits and masks, as well as wheelbarrows, spades and tools. A brand new generator arrived from another company. New socks and underwear came from another.
And then came the second-hand things, as Australia cleared out their cupboards and donated goods, useful clothing, and toys, a national KonMari moment in history. We wore these clothes with pride. I remember one evening when Mr T went off to work in an odd assortment of second-hand clothes. He thought he looked pretty dapper. Some of his work colleagues thought he looked more elegant in his new attire, a step up from his pre-fire dress sense. Often when I look at our 2009 photos, I am a little amused at my clothing style back then. Skirts, boots, and odd colours, a sort of aging hippy op shop couture. We obtained second-hand towels with plenty of wear still left in them as well as pots and pans, cutlery, an old Kenwood mixer, crockery, books, you name it – we made use of all your wonderful donations.
Thank you to all Australians who responded so generously and with an open heart in 2009. Your money, gifts and clothing found a new home and was valued and appreciated, both big and small. I know I have forgotten a few people. Remind me if you can. And, dear friends and readers, if you recognise anyone in this post, please pass on my personal thanks.
About Donating. If every working adult in Australia put at least $50 aside each year, imagine what a difference we could make during times of natural disaster, either here in Australia or abroad. If 1 million people give $10 tomorrow to a reliable charity, $10 million would become available to distribute aid to those suffering from the floods in Queensland right now. Multiply this by 5 causes per year, and you have a good recipe for giving, and for changing people’s lives. Other ways to give during disaster: volunteering your time and expertise, assisting in clean ups, donating food parcels or meals to neighbours, sending your unwanted goods to charities that arise during these times.
This is my last post on Black Saturday bushfires. It is meant to be a happy post and a suitable finale to my previous chapters. By reading and commenting, you have assisted me and my family during this difficult anniversary. We thank you.
Today I’m sharing a post I wrote 10 years ago. It was written on February 12, just 5 days after the Black Saturday Bushfire, Febrary 7, in 2009. I remember writing this in my daughter’s house in a confused and anxious state. It appeared on Blogger, a platform that I used back then. I have added these photos: the rest is unedited. After 9 months, all my writing just vanished overnight, thanks to a takeover, without warning, of my registered domain. This piece was mercifully preserved by Pandora Archive- National Library ofAustralia.¹ I’m sharing it again today because I want my children to keep these records. They need them more than I do. As I re-read it, I can’t help but think of all those people throughout the world who experience displacement on a much grander scale than I did on that day- refugees from war-torn countries forced to flee to other lands, to live in camps for years, those displaced through flood or cyclone, left homeless for years. I understand how fortunate I am. The gifts and financial assistance offered to us was overwhelming during the first year and deserves a post of its own, simply to document and thank every individual and organisation. It’s a huge list. Here’s that original post from February 2009.
And the Nightmare Continues
” I have been looking back on my previous posts. That life last week, up until February the 7th, seems so distant already, and yet only 5 days have passed. Each dawn brings the fear of more bad news, more neighbours and friends who are dead. My dawns last week took me to the vegetable garden or fruit trees for the day’s picking, or the chookhouse to gather the eggs. So many beautiful dreams for the future of the vineyard, the olive trees. Colourful imaginings of salads of tomatoes in four colours. The figs, although the leaves had already dropped in the furious heat of the previous fortnight, clung bravely to the branches, reminding me each morning that autumn would be along soon and figs would be part of the menu or preserving plan. My partner had planted Albarino grapes, he was excited by this Spanish variety as they are said to be drought resistant. Each morning or late evening he would move water from one dam to another to ensure that these new grape plantings would have sufficient water to survive this summer’s blasting heat. This was our work, these dreams kept us too busy, we had hopes for a small wine making barn, we planned to preserve the tomatoes in the old Italian way, to breed prettier hens, to pickle our young olives, to cart our excess of produce to neighbours, family and friends. It was work, it was our identity. And that’s what we lost in last week’s inferno.
We are reminded daily of the horror that was last Saturday as the death toll rises. We grieve beside our friends, we hug neighbours and are so pleased to see them again as they walk into the Community Centre. We cry as we get over our embarrassment and accept donations. We laugh sometimes as we model our donated new or second-hand clothes. We are overwhelmed by the generosity and the food that comes from unknown people who arrive at the community centres with car loads of items.
We eat food as a matter of course and are very grateful to be offered it from family and strangers. But nothing tastes the same anymore. Like travelling, you are always waiting to eat something that is normal, homely, nourishing. Displacement from a life, from a lifestyle is not about ownership or things. It’s an identity loss.
We are the lucky ones who left St Andrews early. Part of the nightmare puts me back in the house, unprepared for the inferno, like so many other poor souls who have lost their lives. I can’t remove this fear, it’s disabling.”
Memorialisation takes on greater significance and more noble heights during milestone years. After one, five, ten, twenty- five years and so on, commemoration of significant events in history or in our personal lives is important to remember, celebrate, mourn or commiserate and in some instances, to learn. As Victorians begin February, they are being presented with an intensification of 10th anniversary events commemorating the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 7, 2009, the day that a firestorm of unseen proportions killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and left more than 6000 people homeless. These are the figures that scream the loudest. Further facts and figures reveal the impact on the whole State.¹
The commemorative events are many and will appeal to different sections of society: academic presentations at a symposium, a flurry of new documentaries and films, books, interviews, art and photography exhibitions, talks, church services, meetings, newspaper articles and many private commemorative get- togethers. Most of the fire survivors I know will avoid these events. I can’t help thinking that there is a considerable level of opportunism in the timing of some of these new books and films which deal with this national disaster.
One of my deepest residual psychological blocks from 2009 is the issue concerning those who overstepped the mark in terms of opportunism and lack of sensitivity. Within days of losing my house, the vultures were out – first came the tourists with cameras, but they were quickly dispelled thanks to the installation of road blocks soon after the fires. Then came the media, artists and photographers. Some behaved appallingly during those early days, eager as they were to cash in on the spectacular nature of the event and, in the process, make a name for themselves. During a time when people were mourning the loss of loved ones, or their homes, their way of life, the ‘recorders of bushfire’ were on a mission to get in early, at a time when the army was still scouring the hills for bones of the dead, when the helicopters above buzzed like a scene from Apocalypse Now, and when ancient eucalypt trees glowed red in slow death, the white ashen ground still hot.
Media journalists at the time lacked an ethical framework for dealing with a national disaster of this size.² They were simply told to go; get the scoop, the best story. Road barriers were often ignored, especially at night if unmanned: in the day time, fabricated identities were used to gain entry. Some behaved like paparazzi, while others, when faced with the enormity of human tragedy they witnessed, revealed respect, restraint and empathy in their reportage.
Now that ten years have passed, I need to purge this anxiety, a sort of PTSD, from my memory. That’s the plan. I did try to do this back in July 2009. I took up the offer of 10 free psychology sessions at a nearby clinic. I had a rather naive plan in place- the sessions would help remove all that adrenalin from my brain, which included this distaste for these bushfire vultures. I lasted only 3 sessions. I wanted to talk about fire issues: my anger at telcos, bureaucratic nightmares, the insensitivity of media: my psychologist was heading somewhere else. I lost faith in the process when I watched her eagerly jot down some notes after I mentioned the word ‘MOTHER’. Just another Freudian obsessed counsellor. I left, not in a huff, but with all my residual angst firmly intact.
I won’t be attending any major memorial events, I won’t be looking at any documentaries or films with bushfires roaring in the background: I have never watched any TV news or documentaries dealing with fire over the last ten years. Some of these blazing reports are now appearing on my Facebook feed: Facebook, everyone’s pocket TV. I won’t be sitting in the local hall watching the latest film offering, and I won’t be attending any art exhibitions portraying bushfire. No churches for me, no gatherings in silence with a cuppa. No trip up into the hills to see how my old bush block is recovering. But I do plan to do a few things on the day and during the following year. I will look out for an eagle in the sky. It was mighty Bunjil circling in the overheated and smoky sky who warned my dearest friend to leave her home on that day. I will also visit a local gathering in Hurstbridge, one being organised by Helen Legg, an amazing and dedicated volunteer who gave most of her days to assisting those who had been affected by bushfire for two years: a drink is on the agenda. I will give thanks, once again, to all those who assisted my family after that National Disaster. I also plan to read a lot more about fire. I’ll start with works by Stephen J Pyne.³ It’s time to learn from sources that are objective and well researched, especially as the reality of global warming makes wildfire more common around Australia and around the globe, in places that have never experienced them before.
¹ Wikipedia Stats included in full here.
450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt
7,562 people displaced
Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including:
59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc.)
12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station)
399 machinery sheds, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds, 729 other farm buildings
Agricultural and horticultural losses:
Over 11,800 head of livestock,consisting of 2,150 sheep, 1,207 cattle, and an unknown number of horses, goats, alpacas, poultry, and pigs
25,600 tonnes (25,200 long tons; 28,200 short tons) of stored fodder and grain
32,000 tonnes (31,000 long tons; 35,000 short tons) of hay and silage
190 ha (470 acres) of standing crops
62,000 ha (150,000 acres) of pasture
735 ha (1,820 acres) of fruit trees, olives and vines
Over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) of boundary and internal fencing destroyed or damaged
7,000 ha (17,000 acres) of plantation timber
98,932 ha (244,470 acres) of parks damaged, 90 per cent of which was national park. It was claimed that 950 local parks, 70 national parks and reserves, and over 600 cultural sites and historic places were impacted or destroyed
3,921 ha (9,690 acres) of private bushland
Over 55 businesses destroyed
Electricity supply was disrupted to 60,000 residents
Several mobile phone base stations and telephone exchanges damaged or destroyed
A film I may consider watching might be Afterburn- in the Tigers Jaws. ‘The Steels Creek community invited the research team to use them as a case-study because they believed that something lasting had to come from this terrible tragedy and future communities would benefit from partnering with the academic and creative industries. Afterburn has the potential to influence future policy development at all levels of government in the areas of collaborative community recovery and the long-term impact of trauma on communities and individuals.’
I have great admiration for a few journalists whose work stood out from the pack during Year 1. Thanks to Ian Munro of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and to Gary Hughes, a St Andrews resident and Warkley award winner, who wrote so poignantly of his own survival. And to Jon Faine, radio presenter from the ABC, whose broadcasting efforts and interviews, particularly in the Strathewen community, were remarkable.