Camping was off. That much was clear as we took our flight from Heathrow to Australia on the last day of 2019. Our first destination, a campsite at Cape Conran on the coast of Victoria, had declared that the risk of fire was too great.
By the time we arrived in Melbourne, the risk had become a reality. That part of the state, near the border with New South Wales, was where the worst of the brutal bushfires were now burning, and were being spread fast by the wind.
Soon the full horror which was to make headlines around the world became clear. Over a vast and spreading area of forest and farmland – the equivalent of Lincoln down to the south coast and increasing every day – was devastated by fire. Human lives were lost, hundreds of houses and businesses destroyed, millions of animals have been killed.
The world knows the story well enough, but being here provides a different perspective – and one that is rather surprising.
While the global reporting has been, from what I have seen, apocalyptic in tone and political in content, the emphasis here (and the full strangeness of this is hard to convey) calmer, more practical, less – dare I say it? – doomy.
It’s a crisis. The task for the moment is to get through it. Interviews on the TV and in the press with those who have lost everything have been remarkable. There have been a few slightly embarrassed tears, brushed aside quickly, but no despair or hysteria. The word ‘rebuild’ comes up a lot. And community – one man whose house had been burned was so amazed by the support others had given him that he said he had emerged from the fires a better man.
Again and again, people have said that life is what matters. They are grateful to be alive and are ready to rebuild.
You can tell a lot about a nation by the way it responds to a disaster. My admiration for Australians – their humour, toughness, their support for one another, their optimism – has grown every day while I have been here. I find myself wondering how people back home would respond under these circumstances.
The practicalities of managing the crisis have been impressive. Throughout the day, the ABC provides updates on the progress of the fires on the radio and TV. The levels and danger from ‘Watch and act’ to ‘Emergency’ seem to have worked well. As a result of apps being available to track fires, there have been far fewer casualties than in the last great bushfire, Black Saturday in 2009.
Local politicians and fire leaders have been a sensible and reassuring presence on the TV screens, with remarkably little politicking or name-calling.
It has been another story with national leaders. From the moment when he scurried home from his ill-advised holiday, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has seemed out of his depth. He has attempted to shift blame on to state governments, or the opposition, or the greens. He has taken political advantage of the crisis, posting a boastful ad on Facebook, complete with a donation button.
One of his cabinet minsters announced that climate change protesters should be ashamed that they were not out fighting fires. The lack of character and leadership in government has made sorry contrast to the attitude of Australians whose lives have been devastated beyond measure.
I’m writing this in Albury, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. The temperature this afternoon is 37 degrees but there is a fog-like haze everywhere. It has been a strange holiday, but one that has given me hope as to the way humans – in this part of the world anyway – can rise to the challenge when tested to the limit.
Now all we need is politicians who are worthy of them