A cool, autumnal breeze whips through the coiled wrought iron balconies of country village Berry, forcing Sydney day trippers to huddle into their light jackets as they nibble cinnamon-dusted goodies from a 55-year-old doughnut van. But like a prodigal son returning home after a lengthy absence, the milder temperature is a welcome relief from months of intense, dry heat.
All along the south coast in Shoalhaven and inland in an area of rolling hills and green pastures known as the Southern Highlands, the air is lighter, the clouds a little closer and the sky just that bit bluer than anywhere else.
Up until a few months ago, it was a very different story. Months of severe drought tarnished the landscape with a rusty brown glaze, and violent, raging bushfires tore through forest and farmland, leaving both physical and mental scars. Smoke cloaked vast areas of New South Wales, across Sydney, the Blue Mountains and beyond, suffocating the sun and draining all colour from the atmosphere.
Now the recovery process has started, and businesses heavily dependent on tourism are keen to spread the message that their doors are once again wide open.
Entrepreneurial winemaker Rajarshi Ray, who runs the Silos Estate in Berry, is still reeling from the after-effects. Horrified by events, he transformed his property into an evacuation site, providing a roof for up to 50 families forced out of their homes by advancing flames. “We had some in our hotel and others camped in the grounds,” he recalls when I visit his carbon neutral, solar-powered cellar door, reached by a road sparkling with fragments of recycled glass bottles. “We even had a hundred sheep, horses and alpacas. It was like Noah’s Ark.”
His generosity has been costly, with evacuees staying up to three weeks, but he refuses to put a price on what he deems to be community service. More damaging was the smoke – and recent heavy flooding – which destroyed his crop of white grapes and forced an early and limited harvest of reds; only 10 per cent of the fruit was salvaged.
A committed environmentalist, the former city worker was responsible for installing the first Tesla electric car charging station outside Sydney, and claims to produce only one wheelie bin of rubbish per week. Clearly, he sees the connection between Australia’s worst bushfires in decades and climate change. “I’m utterly astounded by people that don’t,” he sighs, dumbfounded.
But he also has faith in nature’s resilience, reciting the words of Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar: “I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.”
The regeneration is already happening, with charred tree trunks now clothed in a fine down of silky new shoots. It’s the people who have been slower to sprout back up, although confidence is returning.
On the foreshore of the Crookhaven River in Shoalhaven, Sally Wild shucks oysters with the ease of a nighthawk flipping peanut shells at the bar. Jim Wild’s Oysters has been serving the plump, salty morsels for 40 years at a simple shack with outdoor seating. A charismatic character, Jim has appeared on several TV cookery programs, and his trademark, garish Hawaiian shirts hang from the walls.
But flooding has damaged nurseries, and customer flow has slowed by a worrying 70 per cent. “We’ve been a bit all over the place,” admits Jim’s daughter, Sally, who now runs the family business. Her voice trembles as her eyes well up and her cheeks glow pinker than the bowl of sticky prawns she’s peeling. “But I guess that’s part and parcel of farming.”
Any solemnity is soon lifted by chat about oysters. Sally, who says she can shuck 30 dozen per hour, teaches me how to check for freshness (a squeeze of lemon should ripple the fringes) and shares stories of one customer who ‘dump trucked’ a Pacific oyster the size of a shoe. I manage to put away a few smaller servings of my own, tasting fresher than a gasp of sea air.
Driving 100km south, the coastline in this part of the world is revitalising: waves crash onto soft, sandy beaches, creating a playground for surfers up at the crack of dawn. Celebrity chef Rick Stein draws comparisons between Padstow and small-town Mollymook, where he owns a restaurant with rooms, Bannisters By The Sea. The sense of community is similarly strong, although I suspect the larder of ingredients is far more varied and the weather is infinitely better.
Although no homes here were damaged, fires were often seen blazing on the horizon. But as I fall asleep listening to the ocean suck and pop against rocks below my bedroom, a sense of danger feels very far away.
This region of New South Wales is famous for its dairy, meat and wine production – but it’s the idyllic country setting that brings people here. It certainly attracted winemaker, cheese producer and horticulturalist Rosie Cupitt, who started Cupitt’s Winery, Fromagerie and Brewery in Ulladulla (a 10-minute drive from Mollymook). Her son, Tom, accepts this year’s harvest is lost, although they have been able to buy grapes from vineyards in other states, providing an opportunity to try different varietals.
Hank and Katrina Liao of Peppergreen Estate in Berrima (a two-hour drive north, towards Sydney) are also taking advantage of an opportunity to experiment. Many of their grapes may be unsuitable for wine but they can be used for gin and brandy. Even if the flames didn’t reach this country town, their eight-month-old restaurant, cellar door, vineyards and olive groves could easily have been decimated by the fires. But the jovial Taiwanese couple remain positive, and their drinkable no-nonsense wines, warm service and scoops of dairy-free olive oil ice cream have drawn a steady flow of customers through the doors of a former antique shop.
Quaint cafes and rustic vintage stores make every day feel like Sunday in the Southern Highlands, where an influx of wealthy city-dwellers seeking a weekend escape has transformed the region into an Aussie version of the Hamptons. Regardless of income, everyone is part of the community.
“The fires have brought people closer together,” says retired landscape architect Pete, who splits his time between here and Sydney, and has enrolled as a volunteer for the rural fire service.
Bonds have been strengthened, lessons learnt and there’s an even greater appreciation for a place already considered beautiful. “It’s the sky,” says Pete’s wife Adie, wistfully tilting her head upwards. “That blue sky. For a while, I never thought I’d see it again.”
– With PA
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