A true life account of being stranded in the Australian 1994 NSW Bushfires
Bushfire Diary is my account of how I became trapped on a highway with my boyfriend, our three legged cat and hundreds of other car travelers during the devastating 1994 Australian bushfires. This 7,500 word memoir describes the personal and social impact of a catastrophic bushfire while having to bunk down with displaced strangers who couldn’t get home. It includes 26 colour photographs and a map of New South Wales showing the extent of the fires.
The Australian 1994 Eastern Seaboard Fires
Two days after Christmas in 1993 a bushfire began to burn along the east coast of New South Wales in Australia. From Queensland to Victoria, a distance of about 1,300km, bushfires were fanned by strong winds and 40 degree heat. They raged out of control until the 16th January.
The belt of fire threatened bushland, farms, towns and major cities including Sydney and Newcastle. Sydney was almost isolated by road as major highways became impassable.
On highways and in make-shift refuge camps travelers were stranded in their cars where they anxiously waited for the inferno to pass.
By the time the fires were extinguished four people had died, over 8000 square kilometers of land had burned and 225 homes had been destroyed. For days afterwards ash from the fires was blown on the wind creating wild sunsets of red and orange.
This is my account of how I became trapped on a deadly highway with my boyfriend and our three legged cat. It’s a story of how our summer holiday became a journey of survival. Terrifying, yet often humorous, it recounts how we made the best of what we had as we lived through one of the worst fires in New South Wales history.
All the events in this journal are true. The photographs were taken by me, except the ones of me which were taken by Martin Freed.
5th January 1994Above: Map of NSW bushfires including the road we drove down.
Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia
When I woke this morning I was very careful not to disturb Marty. I couldn’t sleep. Outside the window the rolling Byron Bay hills were grey and eerie – not with rain clouds but smoke from far away fires. Even sounds were slightly muffled and the morning birdsong sounded distant.
Bushfires have been on the front page of the newspapers ever since we got up here for our summer holiday. We are sharing a country house with several other couples including my sister Melodie and her husband Bevan. It has been great fun, beach every day, big cook-up at night. Lots of dancing, volley ball and drinking games. We are relaxed and happy.
But now it seems the fires are getting close. I could smell it from bed where Marty snored next to me. Smoke hovered on the mountains and seeped down into the valley, the smell was very strong like a bonfire.
It all blew away by dark.
7th January 1994
A ringing phone woke us all up early in the morning. It was Mum. Bevan talked and talked to her until Melodie got in such a bad mood that she kicked me. She has never been a morning person.
Sharing a holiday house has its ups and downs. This year has been mostly ups. I wish we had another week…
Marty and I packed to go home. I couldn’t find my new gold ring but Mel says she will find it and bring it down for me. Mel and Bev have another three nights up here and are flying down on Monday.
The others left for the beach at 11am, we sadly packed the car and left for Sydney at noon.
I have had a really relaxing time in Byron this year even though I did turn 30 up here. 1993 was an incredible year but I didn’t realise how much I needed a break. I don’t want to leave, particularly when there are fires along the highway but we are out of money. Story of my life.
We put the Ellie the cat in the back seat of the car and started our ten hour drive home.
It is now 7:09pm and we are half an hour out of Taree, which is about three and half hours north of Sydney. We have been listening to the radio for the last five hours to keep a track of the fires. To our horror it has become apparent to us that we are going to have to drive right through the fires if we want to get home tonight.
For several hours we have been driving through thick smoke. You can see the road but everything is misty. It is really hot. I would guess around 35°C (95°F). There is a very strong wind blowing and when you wind down the window it is like turning on a heater.
According to the radio Sydney resembles a war zone. It is surrounded by fires and the Pacific Highway is closed at Gosford. There is no other highway into Sydney from the north. We can’t drive west because of fires, we can’t go back north because the Hunter Valley fires (which we just drove through) are being fanned by winds and are out of control. We have only $40 so this should be an interesting night.
Photo: Driving into a red sunset
Radio 102.1 FM says that 30 houses are on fire in Chatswood! My old university, Kuring-gai College, is burning down too, now I’ll never be able to finish that Bachelor of Business Degree I started ten years ago (yippy!!) Actually, only the bush around the campus is on fire, I hope the College is OK.
I can’t believe this is happening. We have reached Myall Lakes and we stopped to phone Mum and Dad but no one is home. I know that they are safe but I’m concerned they will be worried about us. I left a message on the answering machine. Everything is smoky and weird. I keep expecting to drive into the fire. This is scary.
Photo: A blood, red ball
As we drive the southern sky gets darker and darker. The sun looks like a blood, red ball and everything smells of smoke. It is very hot and windy.
We hit the road block about three quarters of an hour ago on the highway just north of Gosford. It is now dead dark and we are in a silent, still convoy of several hundred cars.
Don’t know how long we will be here. As we wait people sit in the open doors of their cars, it is still extremely hot. The radio station is just constant re-reporting about the 185 fires that are burning from Woolongong to the Blue Mountains to Gosford. There are no advertisements at all, just news. Chatswood is in real trouble by the sound of it. The shopping centre is under threat. The temperatures are predicted to remain high so we could be here for a long, long time.
We got out and walked along the cars to see if we could find out what was going on. Everyone is mellow and I think a bit scared. It is a six lane highway and we are at the top of a mountain, on either side of the road is bush. The news reports are saying that further south a fire jumped an eight lane highway and with these winds it doesn’t surprise me. We met one man who once got caught in his car as a fire passed over. He said it was the longest four minutes of his life. Apparently we have to lay down low and put a blanket over us. We don’t have a blanket so I’ll dig up our beach towels.
There is a mini-van full of drunken yobbos. They seem to have plenty of beer and are staggering everywhere waving at people and singing. They lurched out at our car as we moved into a better position and we almost hit one. I’m glad I’m not drunk but I would kill for one of their cold beers.
Ash is falling like very soft snow. The Honda, once black, is starting to go grey. Martin and I play Acey Duecy (a form of Backgammon) because all we can do is wait. Now that the air conditioning is off we are very hot. We shouldn’t leave the radio on because of the battery but we are glued to it. The announcer seems overawed at the situation and he is making me very nervous. The cat seems to be taking it very well.
8th January 1994. Saturday
I haven’t slept in a car for a very long time and now I remember why. I kept on waking up in case the road opened. It was more like dozing. Marty slept quite well after his nine hour drive. I swapped seats with him at one stage because he is too big to be comfortable with the steering wheel in his lap. I am so glad I brought our pillows. The seats can’t go back all the way because we are loaded up with luggage. I was awake at one stage for about two hours. I just waited and watched. There are no street lights so all you could see were smoky coloured stars. The bloke in the car next to us got up (was it 3am?) and had a cigarette. Somehow this seem hilarious to me. All I could see was this little orange glow floating around in all the smoke. Why waste money lighting up when all you have to do is breath in. Free!
We woke at about 5am to the sound of a donkey braying (?) We are surrounded by bush so God only knows where that donkey is!
People are moving around trying to getting comfortable. Groups are forming and everyone is chatting. The people to the side of us have a small baby. She is having a ball. How do people find time to have babies? Must try one day.
The smoke is all around us in the mountains. It looks like that scene out of ‘Brigadoon’ when the town appears out of nowhere. I try to imagine the poor fire fighters over the hill. I bet they don’t think it’s Brigadoon.
It’s going to get really hot soon. Fancy having to sit on a highway in 35°c heat with a whiny, three legged cat in a cat box. Trust her to come on THIS trip. We’ve got plenty of food for her, she’ll eat better than we will.
All I had to eat yesterday was a Big Mac and chips. We tore through one of those McDonald’s Drive Thru places to save time. We could have sat all day eating oysters at the beach if we had known about this. Byron Bay seems a long way away now.
We rang you know.
Before we left Byron we phoned the State Emergency Centre, then the Police and finally the NRMA. They all said “Don’t worry, the road is open!.” I wonder if all these other drivers rang too. I wonder if those in charge are looking down at us at this very moment from one of the helicopters overhead and thinking, “Oh no, we did this!”
Not that I’m blaming them in anyway. If they had said don’t come and nothing had happened everyone would complain about being delayed for nothing. It’s all a gamble with bushfires. Just like the cricket. One second we had it in the bag and the next the South Africans walk away laughing. (Martin is still a little touchy about that one.)
State Emergency workers dressed in heavy orange overalls came down the line of cars refilling water bottles a short time ago. They said sandwiches were on their way. Isn’t that nice of them? We have a packet of Cheezels (yuk!), four uncooked meat pies, a bottle of oil (olive) and 1.5 litres of water. Oh, and I just found some PK chewing gum in the glove box.
Photo: Refilling water bottles
I wonder how that minibus load of Yobbos are getting along. I’ll bet this’ll be the worst hangover they every have!
Everything is hazy and misty. I took some photos. The news isn’t encouraging. We might be here for another day. North Sydney, Lindfield and Warriwood are still alight, as is Gosford. I really want to go home. The cat has done Number 2’s in the bush and had her usual breakfast of dry biscuits. She seems to enjoy it all.
Photos: A long line of still cars on the highway
My biggest worry is that Mum and Dad will be worried. We will try to find a car phone to contact them.
Nothing to do but sit and wait. (Sounds like a war movie, ay?!)
Marty just told the cat she could become dinner! I hope we are not still here at dinner.
It’s hard to wait. I keep straining my eyes down the rows of cars to see if anyone is moving. A tennis ball has been found and a cricket pitch has been set up. The pitch is between the white dotted lines on the road. People are enjoying watching the game. I must be in some crazy dream.
We walked down the road and found some Salvos. They are giving out the sandwiches – what a surprise, these people are angels, they must be – how else have they appeared here? I asked them if they knew of a phone we could use. One tired looking guy with the sweetest smile you‘ve ever seen said “Wait here” and ran off like he had a surprise for me. He climbed across the median strip to the other side of the road and flagged down the only car on that side, an orange juice truck with a make shift Salvo sticker on the side. They had a mobile phone and we called Mum and gave her Martin’s parents number. I gave the Salvo $5 as a donation. He tried not to take it but I stuffed it into his hand. None of them said “Excuse me but did you donate generously during our Christmas Appeal?” before they gave out the sandwiches. I feel very humble.
As we walked back a huge convoy of red fire trucks zoomed towards us away on the other side of the road. They were full of grimy, tired fire fighters. I ran to get my camera and we waved like crazy as they went by. They blasted their sirens to us and I felt like crying.
Photo: Our heroes appear out of the smoke
We are a few minutes north of Gosford. Gosford is in big, big trouble if all this smoke is any indication.
We are now at the Wyong Racecourse. At about 11am we noticed cars disappearing in front of us so we started up the engine and followed them. We were told to proceed to the Refugee Camp(!) at the Race Track. Off we went and quickly got lost because Marty thought he could turn off the main road to beat the traffic. We ended up at a very posh golf club instead.
Dusty, hot and exhausted as we were, we plumed up and strutted into the glorious air conditioning inside. I waded over like I belonged there and had a bird bath in the Ladies Room. It was the best bird bath I have ever had. I made a reverse charge phone call to Mum and Dad. Dad told me in no uncertain terms to stay put where we were safe. He cheered me up by telling me that things were lovely at home, air conditioning and cold beer…
We found the Race Track. It has been turned into an emergency area. We were one of the first to arrive after all and got a good spot (though not in the shade) and the place is really becoming packed with cars. 1000?
Photo: Wyong Racecourse, our Refuge Centre
We registered our names at the Refuge Registration Desk and helped ourselves to lots of lovely food and drinks. All donated. Even McDonalds! The Salvos are working like crazy getting all this stuff to us. People are so kind! I went into the kitchen and offered to help but they said they were fine and to try again later.
Photo: Registering our names
I’m back in the car again. The radio news reports, as I write, are horrifying. The blazes have reignited and there is talk of a huge ‘fire storm’ that could devastate more of Sydney. Parts of North Sydney are being evacuated. Gosford’s a mess. Everything is out of control. This is all so surreal that I find it hard to believe it is happening.
We wondered over to the closed betting area and Marty watched a boxing match on the line of TVs usually used for horse racing. He said it was a very disappointing fight. I wonder how the Salvos feel having to work at a race track. I read my book. There is a sausage sizzle and more cold drinks. Marty’s most favorite food in the world is sausages so he is in heaven.
This afternoon a man with a megaphone announced that mattresses and blankets would be provided at the school and the RSL in town. No contest at all, we chose the RSL and quickly drove there. The bloke at the front desk of the RSL didn’t know anything about it. He rang and inquired but it was news to him too. He was really nice to us and snuck us into the staff area for a shower. We showered together to save water. Even so, it was the best shower I’ve ever had. I told Marty that, as interesting as this whole experience was, sometimes I just want to sit down and cry. I was surprised when he said he felt the same.
Back at the front desk we waited, heads bowed, as our new friend recited the Ode of Remembrance over the loud speaker to the darkened and quiet RSL.
“They shall grow not old-as we that are left grow old Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them Lest we Forget.”
These fires could burn New South Wales to a crisp and I’ll bet they’ll still say that Prayer until there is no one left. I guess they respect the diggers the way we respect those fire fighters at the moment. I must remember that. We thanked him for the shower.
We wondered around the RSL to waste time but didn’t spend any money though.
The Memorial Hall across the road was buzzing so in we went. This was the place!
Just one small thing – no mattresses. And to think I was worried about the condition they would be in! I chatted to an out-of-uniform Salvo lady who had been caught in the fire coming home from holidays like us. She had just put on her badge and got to work. (I’m glad that I’ve offered my help in the kitchen a few times back at the racecourse or I would have felt really guilty!) She and her husband were really nice. I tried to ask her some questions I’ve always wanted to know about the Salvation Army. It’s a church! They all have ranks. Did you know that the woman takes on her husband’s rank (if it is higher than hers) but not the other way around? “It gives me the pip” she told me. They are Lieutenants. And yes, she thought that ‘Guys and Dolls’ was wonderful!
It was very nice in the hall but the floor was polished wood and without mattresses the car is a more comfortable alternative. So we left and drove around a bit listening in case the F3 Highway reopened and we could make a dash for home.
Ellie, our three legged cat, is starting to act strange. She has become anti-social and vibrates slightly. Martin is very worried. We drove off to find some canned cat food. MUST be Dine and MUST NOT be fish. No luck. We got some sliced corn beef which we tore up and gave her. Nope. Martin went back into the shop to look for something else and the cat used this opportunity to squeeze in her head and slip out of her leash. She escaped through a fence and under a house. I yelled for Marty who vaulted the fence and followed her. After a few seconds I heard screams. I thought there may have been rat-traps under there but it was just spiders. Marty emerged with Ellie tightly under his arm. Boy was she frowning. As we were putting her in the car she escaped again. As Marty dived over the gate again I revved up the car ready to leave in case someone thought we were trying to break in.
Photo: Not a happy cat
We only had a few dollars left (thanks to the cat) and we had noticed that the RSL had a three course dinner for $8. We HAD to have it. So, we went in and played the poker machines until we had enough money for two. It was the best meal I’ve ever had. Sitting upright at a table. With cutlery. Chicken Schnitzel. Mmmm.
So here we are back at the Racecourse. Would you believe we got our old spot back? What luck! I’m so tired that I can’t think and the huge decision is do I sleep on the grass, on the sun chair, in the boot with the seat leaning forward or in the front with the seat leaning back?
People are getting ready for bed. Many have blow-up mattresses, others are just lying on the grass with blankets under them. The grass is very soft but we don’t have any blankets. Some people have camper vans and in our small community they are the elite. There are a few tents set up, we have a tent at home…
All this waiting is very tiring especially when you are always alert in order to catch the latest news. Everyone chats to each other like they are old friends. It’s a shame that things aren’t like this all the time. I wondered off at one stage and played with a ten month old champion Bulldog called Daisy who has her own camper van made for dogs. Her best friend is a little Sydney Silky Terrier who bosses her around until Daisy (who is five times larger) gives her a nudge with her head to shut her up. There is a sticker on the back of the van saying “Love is a Bulldog” with an ugly Bulldog face on it. It must be true because Daisy gets to stretch out and sleep in luxury while the family of four have to crowd up together in the car. She makes the most disgusting noise through her nose. Apparently Bulldogs die at about eight years old because they can’t breathe properly through their scrunched up noses.
We are surrounded by three fires. You can see the glow of the fires behind the mountains and of course smell it like it was already here. Everything is covered with ash, it’s on the car, it’s in the car, in my mouth, ears, nose. I feel trapped and suffocated. I want to go home more than I ever have before.
Photo: Sky of smoke
We are called Refugees. I don’t like that. But at the moment I don’t like a lot of things. I’m in a bad mood. Most people are behaving like it’s some sort of party. They must have slept in a bed last night.
Guess what? I think the mattresses have arrived. Marty has gone to see.
I wish we had the money to stay in a hotel. If you sleep in a hotel you are a guest. If you sleep in the car you are a refugee. Remind me to make lots of money when we get home.
I’m reading a book called ‘American Star’ by Jackie Collins, trash reading. Everything seems so surreal. As usual when I read I find myself in some ‘other’ place, time, circumstance, but when I put the book down I’m still caught up in some weird dream.
Martin spends his time looking up road maps to keep a track of the fires. The radio station is FIRE 24 hours a day and every time he hears a street name or suburb he looks it up and shows me where the edge of the fire is. I wish he had one of those maps with the coloured flags. He would have it all mapped out. He is very clever that way.
The mattresses are here but they are being taken to Memorial Hall… Marty’s gone to get some blankets that have just arrived. It seems cooler tonight.
The cat is very quiet. I keep checking to see if she is dead or something. I think she is just sulking. There are plenty of dogs here but we’re the only one with a cat. I personally would prefer a dog.
I went over to the loo. Would you believe that after spending almost all of our money in the town they had had KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut here feeding everyone? The rumour is that we will have to stay another night so maybe tomorrow… I went to check out the story with the State Emergency bloke. He was sitting in his bright orange overalls and helmet behind a trestle table with a piece of paper sticky taped to it saying ‘Enquires’. He looked at the black board behind him and read me the weather report and looked back at me solemnly. OK, I said, so how about they arrange for McDonalds for lunch tomorrow just in case we get out before dinner? He said he couldn’t promise so I told him that it was outrageous and the last time I stayed in this hotel and that I was going home. Nup, couldn’t cheer him up. He just shook his head gravely.
In the crowded Ladies Room I was waiting for one of the two cubicles to become free. A little girl told me that the one behind the curtain was vacant. I had thought it was a shower. I went in and said to her through the curtain that I thought she had said it was vacant. She said it was because she had just been in there so I said what about the great big hairy spider. She screamed. That made me feel a little better.
9th January 1994
I slept! Well, I woke twice when Marty was mucking around with the cat. He was sleeping in the back with the hatch open and Ellie decided to make another run for it in the dead of night and dived out the hatch. Unfortunately for her the leash was tied to the coat hook and she ended up hanging herself about four inches from the ground. Luckily Martin woke up and saved her or we would have a dog by now. She didn’t try that again.
The other time was when I woke screaming because my throat was being slashed. Ellie apparently was trying to move as far away from the hatch as she could and was climbing over to get in the front with me. Marty didn’t want to wake me up so he grabbed her one back leg and slowly dragged her into the back but as she went she dug her claws in and the first contact she made was with my neck. Blood and everything!
MARTY woke ME at quarter to 7. There’s a turn around! He had not slept too well (what with the cat and all) and when he heard the breakfast call he was eager to get going.
Half my body was still asleep. My left knee was numb so I hobbled to the food/supplies/info/drinks/blanket hall. I felt tired, sore (especially my neck) and unhappy. The hall was full of people milling around the trestle tables. Breakfast was fried tomatoes, cereal and fruit. Fried tomatoes? Marty and I decided there had to be bacon and eggs to go with it but we searched and searched and didn’t find any. I had some cornflakes in a re-washed paper bowl.
Next was a call to Mum. We waited in one of the eight lines to use the free phones set on milk creates. The lines were long but there is nothing else to do so it didn’t matter. I dialled. Engaged. Martin got through to his mother and made the people behind us mad because there is a two minute time limit and she wouldn’t let him get off the line.
I went to see Daisy and found her by herself. The cars around the dog van had moved away because apparently she had kept everyone up all night with her snoring.
I repacked the car because we had taken everything out so we could sleep in it more comfortably. No radio today. It’s too much to listen to. Too depressing.
Marty and I sat on a towel behind the car out of the sun and for once I ‘pantsed’ him at Acey Duecy. That’s when someone wins before the other person has taken any of their pieces off the board. The loser has to take off their pants and run around naked. We were casually arguing the logistics of his punishment when a young man with a very cute puppy lopped past. I jumped up and brought them both back. He is very nice and his dog is called Jessica, a ten week old Rottweiler/Collie cross.
Photo: Marty chatting, our car reflects the red sun
The guy’s name is Tony and he is 22, married and in the army working as a fully qualified engineer. During his training he was sent to Westpoint in the US for about a year which he says is really slack and run down and not at all like you see on TV. He says he loves the army and even likes the ‘bastardisation’ that goes on. I couldn’t believe my ears. He said it was character building and that if you took it with good humour it could be quite fun. Our jaws swung from our faces. I couldn’t stand it, I said “You LIKE it?” He fell on the grass laughing. We just looked at each other. He told us that ‘bastardisation’ is a term used for pranks that soldiers play on each other like hiding their clothes all over the barracks so that the soldier has to knock on thousands of doors and do lots of tasks to get them back. One time they filled his room with water while he was tied to the bed.
I think the army sounds a little dubious.
He looks like he could be 15 years old. He was very gentle with his new dog and I can’t imagine him blowing up bridges or some of the other things he told us he has to do for the army. You know those men dressed up like Koalas who collect money for rain forest? He says when he sees those guys he tells them that his job is to rip the forests down. Poor Koalas.
His wife came along (all of 22) and we chatted with them and the couple in the next car for a few hours until we got hungry. Martin had seen some Big Macs in a food heater in the TAB Office but they had been covered up and were hard to get to. We all snuck in and someone (not naming names) jumped over the bench, crawled along the floor and popped up right next to the burgers. Marty then passes them out one to each of us and we slunk back to the cars.
They were HORRIBLE. Just meat, sauce and stale bread. Served us right! Jessica wouldn’t even eat them.
There had been rumours all day about the F3 freeway opening again and some cars left the race track to try and make a run for it. The radios and even the TV (apparently) were saying it was open but our man on the speaker system came through and told us it wasn’t true.
Some kids got at the PA system and were mucking around burping into it and singing. Any other time that would have annoyed me but everyone thought it was pretty funny.
Some guy was training his horses on the race track again today. We watched him from the grandstand for awhile. There wasn’t a lot to do.
Photo: Wyong Racecourse with smoke all around
Photo: Sitting in the grandstand playing games and trying to cheer up Ellie
Tony said that there are so many cars stuck north of Gosford that we will be moved out in relays. Our refugee camp will the first to go because we have the least facilities ie mattresses – so it was good not getting the mattresses after all!
The rumours were getting stronger all the time so I went off and filled up our water bottle and grabbed some bananas and apples just in case we got stuck again.
When I got back Marty was pining for a cigar and after some debate over the $1.20 it would take to buy one he wondered up the road to find a shop.
It was 1:35pm and I settled in the car to update this diary when our man on the speaker system announced that the road IS open and he asked us not to run over any children on the way out.
I jumped up and started shoving everything into the car including the sari we had draped over the front wind shield for shade.
Then I saw him! In a cloud of dust and pebbles Martin pounded down the road like a man possessed. He had missed the announcement but had heard the cheers go up and put two and two together.
Everyone started their engines like a race track meeting (we were on a race track after all) but could only edge around slowly into the enormous bottle-neck. Marty made the comment that one second everyone was friends and the next they were fighting to beat each other back onto the road.
Photo: The road is open! Mad dash to the highway
We are now at the roundabout that leads to the highway. We are perfectly still. Don’t know why. After much debate we have decided to go straight over the roundabout instead of going right because we both think that the road will take us to a ramp further down the road.
We were right!!! We have left all those people behind and are finally on our way. Looks like we will be home for dinner after all. I’ll be able to get back at Mum for the “I always hoped you’d amount to more than a refugee” comment from this morning.
Yippy we’re out of here at last. They have been very good to us but we really can’t stay….
OH NO!!! Guess what happened!!! Just as we were slapping palms and telling each other how smart we are we HIT ANOTHER ROAD BLOCK!!!!!!! We are the last car in a very long jam, no wonder we popped out in front of the others, they must have been stopped way back at the round-about. Our man on the megaphone just drove past on the other side of the road to tell us the first group that have been let through have had to turn back because of the fires.
Photo: Stuck at the back of another road block
I got out and walked to the front of the jam. An ACB Radio truck was parked on the medium strip so I wandered over to ask them where their helicopter is. We chatted and I told them I was studying media and they were very interested. I told them North Ryde had fires and that my school probably wouldn’t be there when I got back. I was joking but what if???
I told them I had to get back to my three legged cat and they said that if the road didn’t open at least we would have something to eat. I said how do you think the cat had lost its’ leg in the first place? I can see the headlines now:
COUPLE EAT CAT LEG TO SURVIVE ON HIGHWAY
I wouldn’t do it though, can you imagine anything worse than a case of Ellie Belly?
So here we are again. Marty is sitting on the road playing Patience with a pack of cards. He can’t get it out because there is a card missing but he is trying so hard that I don’t want to spoil his concentration by telling him. I’m glad I grabbed the food and water but I wish I had eaten more before we left. As we were leaving they were giving out frozen family size meat pies that would have gone to waste. We got two.
Why is it that whenever we get caught in a road block we have uncooked frozen meat pies? Maybe it’s a sign. I must remember this. They also gave us two loaves of stale bread. I only took them to be polite.
The air is very smoky and all the cars are starting to look the same colour because of the ash. People are walking around, talking. One kid is flying a kite.
There is a little fast food shop on the side of the road, the only shop for miles. It is clean and friendly and has a craft area with hand painted coat hangers and stuff. They have been inundated. The woman behind the counter has a smile as wide as this traffic jam. She must think it is Christmas to have four hundred cars stranded right outside her little shop!
I know I should have gone before I left. Now I’ll just have to climb into the bush and do a bit of my own fire fighting. Took Ellie too.
We stopped to talk with a truckie after an Irish tourist (who is walking around in a state of amazement) told us that there was a CB radio with the police channel on in the truck. Apparently the police think things are looking grim. After gritting my teeth through the truckie’s mates’ sexist jokes he told us he was two days late with his load and he had a very upset client catching buses around Sydney because his car was on the back of his rig.
Somehow the word ‘pub’ came up and I said that I would love a cold, cold beer. He turned around and pulled out the COLDEST most BEAUTIFUL beer I have ever had It was XXX and I usually don’t like bitter but not this time!!! How kind.
The Police have just come past and our man on the megaphone told us that everyone in the right hand lane was to drive up to the roundabout, turn around and go back to the race track on the other side of the road.
Marty has pulled up onto the medium strip. “We don’t want to go back do we?” he asked. “No” I said. There is a policeman walking towards us, I’ll bet he gets us to ‘move along’.
We weren’t made to move. They had asked the people in the right hand lane to go back so that the lane was clear for emergency vehicles who didn’t want to drive on the wrong side of the road. (This is a four lane highway.)
Everyone is jumping into their cars – maybe we ARE moving!
We pulled onto the road in the right lane and drove right up to the front. Nothing was moving up there. A police lady came and told us off about pushing in on everyone which we haven’t done because there was no one in this lane.
She is just being show offy and bullying us. Marty is pretty mad. We moved back onto the medium strip. Hope this doesn’t affect the wheel alignment.
I jumped out to take a photo of the roundabout with two exits blocked with cars and a road block of police vehicles under an arrow pointing to Sydney.
That police woman walked past me as I took the photograph so I stopped her and told her not to go around telling people off for things they hadn’t done particularly when moral was so important in times like this. She looked at me as if I were crazy and said she had done nothing wrong so I said neither had we and she walked off strutting her gun on her hip. The people in the car next to me must have heard because they cheered me as I walked past. When I told Marty he gave me a kiss.
Someone said we are waiting for a police escort to lead us to Sydney. Here it comes now!!!!!!
We’re off! We are right behind the bikies who are right behind the police. Yaaaay!!!
The fire is everywhere. We can even feel the heat as we drive past the flames. The bush is burned black for miles in some areas. Smoke is billowing in several directions in the distance. We often drive past fire fighters who are still fighting blazes near the road so that we can get through. The air is thick and grey. It’s like driving on the moon.
In the other cars everyone is staring out in amazement. I’ve been in bushfires before but this is so complete, so black, so near.
We passed a vehicle with a huge antenna on it. It must have been set up for communication. Although it is on the medium strip you can see that the fire has reached it. It’s black and the tires are all dribbly. I hope no one was in it.
There are a few cars parked on the side of the road with on one in them. I wonder what the story was with them.
It’s getting greener now, although this area has had the fire it hasn’t been burnt to a crisp.
We went under a bridge and there were people waving to us like we were heroes or something, boy have they got the wrong people!
We must be through, we have seen the traffic from the south go past us. They don’t have a police escort. We do…
The trip took just over an hour to Bondi. We were so close all that time. It felt like we were a million miles away. Ellie knew we were home by the time we hit New South Head Road. She must have smelt it. She sat up and looked out of the
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window with her eyes wide open and even seemed to smile a bit. She is now hiding in the spare room in case we decide to take off again.
This morning I joked to Mum to expect us for dinner at 6.30-7pm. Casual.
We got there fashionably late. They were very surprised to see us because the media were still saying the road was closed. It hasn’t been reported that some people got through. (I guess to avoid a stampede.)
We had chicken and salad and told them all about it. It was so odd. It didn’t feel real sitting in the air conditioning, drinking wine. On the news we saw all the beautiful people who had helped us, still working their hearts out. The pictures on the TV seemed more real to me than being at my parents’ home. Usually it is the other way around.
I asked Marty how he felt and he said that his body is here but his head is still back at the Race Track.
As we drove down Gilliver Avenue to go home we saw that people had their sprinklers on their lawns. I finally started to cry. Water is so scarce but these people must think their lawns are more important than someone’s house. In truth, they probably aren’t even thinking at all.
I feel so odd. How long until we get back to normal? I hope we don’t lose the great appreciation we have now for a hot meal, our home, our bed, our family. But I know, given time, we will.
I’ll also bet that Marty’s brother David never lends us his car again…
First published in Australasia in 2013 Copyright©1994 Kimberley Hodge Freed All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers.
Freed, Kimberley Bushfire Diary
Photographers: Kimberley Freed, Martin Freed