Jenny and I have just spent a week in Newcastle, the city where we grew up and met, and where many of our loved ones still live. We have a vague (but increasingly less so) plan of shifting back there some time late this year.
Thus, we were 1000 kilometres away during the worst of the fires in Victoria over the weekend. When we're up in Newcastle, we tend not to be spending time watching TV or listening to the radio, or keeping abreast of things on the Internet, so we can get quite a few hours behind with the news. Although we knew that there were bushfires in Victoria (and, indeed, in New South Wales), we had no idea of the scale of what was happening. Of course, no one outside the affected areas really started to grasp the enormity of it until Sunday morning as the confirmed death toll started to mount.
On Saturday, we visited my father for a long chat over morning tea. Afterwards, we checked our emails and did some business over the net, then spent a while looking at houses in our current quest to get a good understanding of the Newcastle property market. We had a late lunch, spent a relaxing afternoon avoiding the summer heat, then went out in the evening, accompanied by lovely Amanda Pitcairn, to a local Japanese restaurant. During all this time, we pretty much avoided the news. We only started to get an idea on the Sunday morning.
Sunday was our day to drive back to Melbourne. We got past Sydney just fine, but had some car trouble during the afternoon - our old but normally reliable car has been overheating - and the result was that we didn't get as far as Gundagai until late in the day. The morning papers and the news reports on New South Wales radio stations were still not giving us a picture of the full scale of the tragedy that had been unfolding in Victoria, and Jenny's sister texted us a report that the Hume Highway was clear after having been cut at some point. As far as our own safety was concerned, we were confident, but we were getting more of an inkling of how bad things were.
The scene as we drove into the famous "Dog on the Tuckerbox" service station/fast food complex near Gundagai was eerie. The sky was filled with smoke and the western sun - still relatively high in the sky, with sunset at least an hour away - shone through blood red. We were driving into Mordor.
Running so late, we didn't approach the Victorian border until near-dark, the sun transforming to a pale purple-pink - very like a ball of burning gas, actually - as it sank behind the hills. We drove south through Victoria, peering through the dark and the smoke - never thick enough to be dangerous, but enough for us to smell it and see it was there - listening to Victorian ABC on the car radio. By now, we were getting a rolling report on the disaster; our ears were pricked for any warnings that suggested we might be in personal danger as we cruised down the highway (we weren't). At this stage, the worst was long over - temperatures had dropped from their Saturday peaks, many of the fires were under control, and we were travelling through the aftermath of the disaster, not the disaster itself. Still, as we listened to the rising count of confirmed deaths, the lists of school and road closures, the reports on events relating to particular fires and localities (oddly similar to an election-night round-up of local battles lost and won in electorates hither and thither), it was a sombre experience. Again and again, we hummed down long stretches of road without saying a word, just absorbing what the voices on the radio were telling us.
A couple of millimetres of nuisance rain fell. Truckies drove like maniacs on the empty road. Two or three bolts of lightning from a dry electrical storm split the sky near Shepparton. We stopped now and then, taking things easy after the particularly difficult drive between Sydney and Gundagai, what with our distracting car troubles. We were tired but not at all cranky, often communicating with just a hand on the other's knee. Fortunately, the old Integra was now performing just fine in the somewhat cooler air of the evening.
At about 1 a.m. on Monday morning, we arrived home safely ... never having been in any personal danger or having felt any real concern for ourselves. But what do you say in such situations? What can I add to what has already been said many times? Of course, there have been far worse disasters in other parts of the world, with enormously greater loss of life. But there is still something especially sobering when you come close to the disaster yourself (we would have had real difficulty getting home 24 hours before, and we nodded to each other as we passed burnt areas along the road, before it became too dark and we could see no more than the occasional glowing ember). There's something that especially affects your emotions when it's your own society that's been harmed, and the people killed are almost your neighbours.
It's all grim, but for those who've been wondering, we personally were never endangered by the fires, and we're completely safe now, no matter what happens this week, living in the middle of a huge international city.
But of course, we're keenly aware of all the less fortunate people, out in the countryside, not that far away from us city mice. So many have lost loved ones or family homes, lived through unimaginable terror or survived with awful burns or other wounds. My thoughts are with them this summer morning.