Meanwhile in Australia

This post is brought to you by a single finger and a mobile phone and an eight hour bus trip. The reason you have an extra Meanwhile in Australia this week is be because so many people have asked me to make sense of what’s happening here. All I can give are my small insights.

On Twitter Tim Richards (travel writer and partner of speculative fiction writer Narrelle Harris) has posted the words to a new song. My mind put it to the tune of “It’s raining men”, but the song is about mud. Mud raining down across vast territories as the clouds of dust that rushed across the west met the rain that came from the southern ocean. That same rain is gently watering the paddocks outside this bus. Earlier in the week my friend’s car (Donna Maree Hanson – another writer) was almost destroyed by hail the size of golf balls. She’s limping around in the dented mutant vehicle because the insurance can’t get to it until March because so many other vehicles can’t move at all. And today, when I’m on my way there, more fires are being fought, this time in Canberra proper.

If all this were put on a disaster movie, audiences would say ’I’m glad this has The Rock starring, but even with him it’s too far from reality.’ ( I don’t know The Rock, but the pun beckoned. If you missed the pun, your life is the better.)

Except it’s all real and it’s all happening in January in a single country. Every report one reads makes it look bigger. Fires have destroyed land the size of a medium country. Smoke has circled across the globe and re-entered Australia. It’s easy to be terrified. To throw ones hands up and give up.

But… Australia is not just a country. It’s a continent.

None of these events are independent of the others. The drought brought the dust and set things up for fire. Record drought with a late monsoon season up north. Outside Oz people forget about monsoon season (‘the big wet’), for Australia is one of the countries closest to Antarctica and our nice cold winds that brought Melbourne rain this morning were influenced by Antarctica. Up north, where we almost grasp the equator, it’s storm season.  Cyclone after cyclone. The rain in northern NSW today comes from the tropics and the rain falling on this bus comes from the far south. When they met… and when they hugged the overheated megafires in a wet embrace… we had the hailstorm to end all hailstorms.

As I read it (and this weather reading is mine alone – not an expert one) what the weather change hit was not just superheated air, it was the whole belt of fire weather. Those big fires grew their own weather and, since the hail hurt Canberra it hadn’t had the smoke that was so dangerous that I had to leave. It now has about the right level of smoke for the amount of fire.

My bus has been travelling for three and a half hours and it’s lunchtime. I’ll finish this later, for Aussie truckstops are fun and I possibly should eat lunch.

I’ve had my lunch break and have ten minutes before the bus leaves. I’m outside, standing under the eaves, for everyone else is queuing for food and drink and I managed to miss the queues due to much bus travel.

Distance travel by bus in Australia is cheap and safe. The fare for today cost 10% of my emergency plane fare just under three weeks ago. Friends and family chipped for the plane, but I could afford the bus myself. I would’ve caught a bus back then, but the Hume highway was partly closed due to fire. Today’s rain is such a lovely thing.

We’re in southern NSW now, and I should see some of the charred land in a little. I don’t want to think about that. I’d rather tell you that everyone at this roadside stop who wants to buy tea has to choose. Both Earl Grey and Lady Grey are in the choices. Chips are quick food and burgers are… Australian . Beetroot, of course, in the standard beef burgers, and four vegetarian burgers to choose from. I stopped listening at that point. This means I can’t offer you the full range of choices at a pretty standard road stop. This one has buses right now, on their way to Canberra and Sydney, mainly. I don’t know if it gets trucks, or how many. I shall take my ignorance back to the bus and continue it later. The only thing of note I’ve missed is that the buses are less full than usual because of the fires. Tourist season, safe travel, burgers with beetroot and even the bus companies aren’t doing so well. These fires have mammoth economic repercussions.

I strolled in the rain (my phone is spattered with sprinkles of glorious wet stuff) and found the trucks. I was right the first time, and this is a truck stop. There is a truck for Viridian glass, one with no labels at all (big and blank and mysterious) and one that is only the front cab.

I chatted with a tourist while waiting in the rain. She’s from the UK, studying in China and is visiting family during the NY holidays. She explained that she missed the worst of it and talked about Australia’s capacity to deal with things. I hadn’t realised that for her, the worst is over. Tourists are often choosing not to come, even though it’s safe, so meeting a young woman who sees that safety made me happy. Living in the middle of a crisis is nothing like visiting the wider country as a tourist.

I am influenced by the bus driver. He’s careful and polite and sounds a bit like a tourist brochure. He and I are thinking along similar lines on this little road trip.

Eight hours isn’t far here.

Now we’re heading into the fire zone. From this point fire has foraged or threatened people since about September. And it’s raining outside. I asked the driver if we could bring the rain with us. He says it’s coming to Canberra. There were three new fires in Canberra itself this morning- it would make me very happy to return bearing the gift of rain. Not giant hail. Not mud. Gentle, gentle rain.

It’s an hour later and the fire has shown what it can do. The fire was tamed here quickly and most of the countryside here is gold with summer. The cows are black against the gold and even with rain and a moving bus photographs are easy to take. Where the fire bit, the camera doesn’t work. The black trunks darken the landscape in a way the black cows cannot. There was a few hundred metres where the mist softened the black and regrow the created a series of fairy glades. My camera read the scene as dark fae and couldn’t photograph it.

Fire has been here in bits and patches. We aren’t in the Great Dividing Range here, or in the Southern Highlands and we are a long way from the coast. Those fairy glades and the big black eucalypts we passed a minute ago are outcrops, merely. There have been fires in this region (Southern NSW – we passed Holbrook and its submarine a little while ago) but it’s had the usual fires, not the megafires so far.

The usual fires can be pretty bad. Gerogery is near here, and it was almost destroyed a few years ago. One of my close friends lived in Gerogery long before, in one of its most historic houses. That house went in the earlier fires. Not a bone of it left. This year, its replacement was threatened, but escaped.

Now the bus is passing a bigger grove of older trees. The ground is bare and the trunks are scoured black. There is a small canopy of leaves up the top, where the fire didn’t reach.  This fire permits regrowth and restoration. It doesn’t create its own weather systems or murder billions of animals

Southwest of Canberra, where I am now, is a different universe to the east and southeast. I will have to travel to the coast one day, if I can, for my mind still can’t encompass this summer. Dark groves are easy to see and describe. They hurt in ways we all know. Blighted landscapes are different.

I keep thinking that I should cross the mountain into Mordor. Except it isn’t Mordor. It’s one of the beautiful parts of the world and the people belong in The Shire, for they eat, give presents and are just some of the nicest folks I know.

It’s going to require a lot of help to turn Mordor back into wilderness and give the Shire back its prosperity. Finally I understand why Tolkien finished The Lord of The Rings with local destruction. When everything needs an ending there is no escape: we have to all do what we can, together, or the black landscape will endure.

This is making me miserable. I shall return to my photography and leave you to wonder how on earth I conceive of Australia in Lord of the Rings terms.

I’ll be back on Monday for my regular fortnightly post.

In the meantime, I will face Canberra. Canberra, between me buying a bus ticket and me arriving, developed much fire of its own. It’s not near me, but it’s in my home town. Life just got more interesting. Again.


PS Our fires have killed three amazing US firefighters. For this alone I’m giving you a link to a mostly-live update on what’s happening. How I hate these fires.



Meanwhile in Australia — 4 Comments

    • It’s not easy being here, to be honest. I look at the smoke levels every day and calculate what I can do. Today is indoors, but I’m allowed to check mail and put rubbish out, which isn’t so bad. If I cna help others see it, that also helps.

  1. Thank you, Gillian. I am suddenly deep into a family emergency, and am ignoring all but the most crucial things around me. But your reports remind me to remind others that our problems are now worldwide. We can’t always do something to improve things, but we can hold a space open for those fighting a monstrous problem a world away.

    I am holding open the hope that your hail does not get worse.

    Golf ball-sized hail is nasty and damaging–but softball sized hail kills. Softball-sized hail in the Texas panhandle can look like four feet of an ice storm to each side of a road. May you never see that in reality.

    • That hail was the weather system demolishing the strange weather produced by the fire themselves. The fires now are evil (and close to home, so quite specifically bad for the city I live in)but they haven’t yet created their own weather patterns. This means I hate the hail and I love it to. And anyway, it’s days in our past. Right now two groups of suburbs are being counselled on what to do as the fire gets closer. I don’t live so far south, but a bunch of my friends do, and three of them are writers. It’s not as bad now as it was a few hours ago, because the wind has changed direction. We’re going to be on tenterhooks until at least Monday because we’re in a hot weather cycle and when the temperature is so high day after day, it feeds fires.

      I’ve been in dangerous situations before, but nothing as long and complex and bizarre as this. This is why I’m telling people to not push beyond their limits in supporting us. Yes, we need the support, but we also need systems that operate outside our own communities, so that wherever the latest problem is, we can help. The planet is changing and we need to change in order to set up systems for continuing. I focus on income provision because it’s one of the least used of the possible long haul solutions – I see us as needing a range of solutions and this is one I can suggest. Our lives already include so many small choices about books, about art, about food, about gifts, about trinkets. Those choices occur and reoccur in our lives. We can fit help into a form that works even when we are in a bad situation. Helping others shouldn’t be a sacrifice. I wish these crises were isolated, but I can’t assume they will be. It really helps to know that you are reaching out from inside an emergency and thinking of us. This is another thing we should be copying: maintaining community takes work and you are an extraordinary role model.