It was the worst of winds. It was the kind that makes sleep an impossibility. It was the kind that roars incessantly in varying degrees and drives at the walls, roofs, and windows, intent on finding their weaknesses and tearing them asunder. It was the kind that produced occasional rain and threw it horizontally in the inky blackness at anything in its path. It was the kind that caused trees to have a disfiguring twists, a permanent reminder of the wind’s power.
It was the kind that motor-homers and caravaners dread.
Sunrise arrived to reveal a million white horses prancing across the notorious Bass Strait, whipped along by gale force winds, not unlike those responsible for the April Fool’s Day fire.
Yes, it was just this sort of wind that tore at the heart of Wilson’s Promontory National Park and fanned the flames of destiny that stirred the preventative-burning debate as it hadn’t been stirred for years. National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) were in panic mode. Twelve days after a 20-hectare burnoff on March 21st, remaining embers were ferociously taunted by 100kph winds, and the blaze from a sparking ember that ensued sent Vesuvius-like palls of smoke into the atmosphere, momentarily hiding the awful reality of that which lay beneath.
Nothing was spared--neither flora nor fauna. The scalded remnants bespoke the inferno’s intensity. A grim reality quickly dawned. The scenario was of the worst-case type. Spin doctors were called in to blur reality, yet, as so often happens, only made matters worse.
One of the first statistics they produced was that 87% if the park’s 50,612 hectares were untouched. This conveniently sidestepped the reality that over 13% of what had been burned was where the huge majority of the visitors could see it, as the original 20 hectare burn was taking place next to the camping area and progressed from there, particularly up Mt. Oberon, the park’s most visible, most visited, and most well-known peak.
Reading the almost embarrassing spiel put out by the NPWS, and I quote, "The natural environment is far from devastated..."; "In areas which have not experienced fire for a long time, particularly heathland areas, many species not seen for years may appear"; "If you return in six months during spring, you will see how the bush has survived and flourished"; "Unburnt areas will serve as refuges for wildlife." The classic for me is this – "Parks Victoria established a recovery and rehabilitation team before the fire was extinguished." Which, to me, is bureaucratic speak for "The shit’s hit the fan, what are we going to do about it?"
Now, if someone had stood up and said, in common terms, "We stuffed up," then all would have been forgiven, and everyone would have resumed normal life because we all realise that mistakes are made. It’s only the Watergate-style cover-up that keeps people interested in what really happened. One of the things that did happen was the successful attempt to save the lighthouse on the southeastern point. Firemen were choppered in protect this valuable asset and the flames were halted within a good rock’s throw of the perimeter.
Interestingly enough, it was a 15-day return walk to this very lighthouse in 1884 by John Gregory, Arthur Lucas, and G.W. Robinson that led to the area being declared a national park. As the lighthouse keeper at the time remarked, "You are the first people to walk in to here." Their lobbying led to the park, although the original proposal excluded a half-mile strip all around the coastline, obviously with future tourist developers in mind. This was later overturned and, in 1908, most of what you see today came into the boundaries, coincidentally with the worst recorded fire of all having just taken place when much of the tall rainforest was destroyed.
Though utilized as a training base during WWII (the scars of which remain), it hasn’t really been interfered with since, only expanded. The unfortunate NPWS found conditions on 1st April 2005 part of their worst nightmare. The second hottest April on record, plus-30 degrees temperatures and just 13% humidity, set the scene for a mass evacuation of the camping and caravan site. Five hundred sixty-six persons were evacuated to see the flames race up Mt. Oberon in just 20 minutes. The NPWS story of people sitting in deck chairs, calmly enjoying the spectacle, conflicts markedly with the media’s perspective of people being thrown out of their beds half naked onto the beach.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.
We chose to join the escorted walk to Mt. Oberon with Rosemarie’s rels (Merrick and Cheryl), which meant, in reality, that you went in a NPWS bus to the carpark and walked about half a kilometre up the trail with staff members Kim and Nick explaining the meaning of what was happening to the bush and how it had arrived at this state.
Soaking your feet at the carpark before and after in anti-fungal wash to prevent the spread of Cinnamon Fungus was an eye-opener for some and promoted many skeptical comments, but another amazing fact I did learn was that hog deer from Indonesia are prevalent in the park. This small deer is plainly an introduced species, and they want to eradicate them, but there are, on the other side of the coin, deer lovers who are lobbying to save them.
As with the to-burn-or-not-to-burn issue, I have much sympathy for the NPWS. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
The tour also mentions the other great fires of relatively recent history, particularly the 1951 episode that was far more devastating than the 2005 one. It is always important to remember also that, sooner or later, the bush is going to burn, yet the NPWS have, by nature of their charter, to put out lightning-strike fires. A reasonable amount of water can be conveyed in this largely roadless area by helicopter. During the latest burn, 99 chopper loads were dumped on the flames. Some of the native survivors are the blackboy trees, whose bulbous rings indicate the age of the tree, if you know when fires occurred, as the rings indicate fresh growth.
The fire has also exposed the coarse biotite granite tors that once formed part of the land bridge to Tasmania during the last Ice Age. The islands in Bass Strait today are the remnant tips of the bridge. Mt. Oberon is the most prominent of the peaks next to the carpark, and the sad fact is that there have been mass cancellations of holidays because of the fire. Personally, I thought it added to the trip, but the place we stayed, Tingara Cottages, said that they were down $4,000 on the corresponding month last year, and talks with the NPWS confirmed the downturn in visitor numbers.
I mean, you could take your pick of motorhome sites when we were there.