A fat raven hops about on the neighbour’s verge as we prepare to leave for our motorbike holiday, a foreshadowing of things to come. Our north-west Sydney neighbourhood is quiet, except for the squawking cockatoos and the occasional dog walking its human, as we set off in air tinged with bushfire smoke.
By the time we cross the Nepean River the air is a thick, dirty brown, and it holds its relentless choke for our almost 450km trip to Jindabyne in the NSW Snowy Mountains. It’s hellishly hot, too: this week has seen Australia’s hottest average temperature records tumble. Twice.
Our Jindabyne lodging is without cooling air-conditioning, not uncommon in this typically winter destination, so we leave the window open and are plagued all night with smoke from bushfires more than 100km away.
The air quality is worse the next day as we leave for a return day-trip Jindabyne to Khancoban along the Kosciuszko National Park Alpine Way, with the mostly pleasant scents of the forest and mountain gullies bringing a bit of respite.
The next day the Alpine Way is closed due to fires south of Khancoban, as is the Barry Way, which we had planned to ride to our next stop, Bairnsdale, VIC. Instead we head off on the Monaro Highway via Bombala.
The route we’ve taken through rural NSW so far presents a disquieting spectre: a denuded landscape of low grey and yellow shrub, scarred with vast tracts of soil erosion and bare earth. Willows weep into parched creeks and gullies, empty riverbed rock the memento mori of dying farmland. Rusted, broken windmills and the black cracked beds of long empty dams are a common sight.
Lichen on ancient rocks and small copses of perennial trees are almost the only green in this scene, its atmospheric smoke and dust conjuring up a Martian astroblemed vista.
If you’re wondering how Australian farmers are surviving in these conditions, many are not: In 2018, The Guardian reported that the suicide rate for Australia’s farming men is about double the general male population.
From the town of Bombala, we take the C612, passing through Delegate, a village of derelict buildings and empty shopfronts. Mental health issues are rife in the country: hoarded burdens, having breached their hidden spaces, are stacked to the overhangs of one house’s veranda, a common sight in many of the towns we ride through.
We take the spectacular McKillops Road, crossing the Snowy River via McKillops Bridge in Deddick Valley. Outside Tubbut, near the aptly named Graveyard Creek, we pass a number of fox skins hanging on a fence to dry.
The next morning, Christmas Eve, after overnighting in Bairnsdale, VIC, we head for Marysville, VIC. After a stand-off with a mad goat in the Mitchell River National Park, our ride takes us via the beautiful Tanjil Bren forest and Mt Baw Baw tourist roads.
From Healesville we ride the stunning Black Spur forest road and arrive at our accommodation for the next four nights, the gorgeous Marysville Garden Cottages. Built by owners Tracy and Anthony, they occupy the site where a lovely, old homestead once stood. In the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, it was destroyed along with 90% of the town.
Christmas Day we take a break from riding and do the return Tree Fern Gully bushwalk to the Steavenson Falls. Later in the day, we see a CFA rescue vehicle and a helicopter head to the area of the falls. A siren sounds in the town, and we start to wonder if Marysville is once again in the path of a firestorm. While having a meal at the convivial Duck Inn, we hear that someone has fallen 20m down the waterfall and has been rescued by helicopter.
Boxing Day, we do the loop via Taggerty and the Eildon Skyline road, another exhilarating ride. And then we take another break from riding until we head back to Sydney. We overnight again in Bairnsdale and travel through the beautiful East Gippsland forested region a day before much of it becomes an inferno.
A day after we arrive home, many of the towns we’ve ridden through burn in the catastrophic bushfires currently engulfing Australia: the day before the main road closes and those apocalyptic visions of daylight turned to night by firestorms fill the news, we ride to Moruya through Lakes Entrance, Orbost, Cann River, Mogo, Genoa, the Mallacoota turnoff, Bega, and Cobargo.
The next morning, in anticipation of road traffic due to the evacuation order, we leave early, travel through Batemans Bay and Nowra not long before they, too, become towns evacuated to the beaches.
Millions of hectares of this beautiful country razed to the ground; many human souls lost; an estimated 450 million wildlife creatures burned to death; towns, properties, livelihoods, economies erased. A catastrophe of mind-boggling proportions.
And during this disaster, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, left the country, taking his family to Hawaii for a holiday, a rather severe error of judgement. What might have been more politically astute, seeing as he loves putting on the daggy dad act for the media, is piling his young family into the car and, without his political entourage, taking the iconic daggy dad holiday: a road-trip across the country he’s supposed to be leading. See the devastation of drought firsthand. Talk informally to the farmers on the ground without the TV cameras. Spend his dollars in the small rural towns hard-hit by drought. Learn that the Australia people are not his flock, followers of some cult, his children to be patronised and told to “stay calm”. Cultivate self-awareness and empathy; get a grip; grow a backbone.
But it’s too late for that now. Along with much of the country, his standing is in cinders.