By the 3rd Jan, as the fire got even closer, we were all getting a bit jumpy and uncomfortable. Plans that seemed robust a week before seemed a bit futile now.
Having the donks just the other side of Bundy also started to feel a little close and Andrea and Jason, who had already evacuated their animals, asked us to move Freddie and Mr P as they felt they were not in the best of positions.
Initially we felt a bit lost and helpless; 2 donkeys on leads and no real plan. Fortunately, we were again reminded that people are wonderful, and we quickly got support. Andrea’s horses had been evacuated to the very exclusive Vine Lodge stud and she had mentioned Freddie and Mr P to the team there, so as we walked the donks in to Exeter for a coffee, we gave Andrew a buzz (in the 2 inches of Exeter that has phone signal. We immediately felt better when he offered to take them in without missing a beat. So, after our coffee (and the donks making new friends), we kept walking to the other side of Exeter to the donks new home. I think we were all a bit blown away, walking up the tree lined drive with huge and elegant thoroughbreds freaking out either side as these two rather scruffy little things strutted into their neighbourhood. It all seemed rather more grand than the donks normal home – it was a bit like if a couple of East End market traders ended up having dinner with the Queen… although I don’t think the donks will ever care which knife and fork they use.
Horses and our mini donks have strange interactions, especially with Freddie. The confidence of our little furry friends compared to the skittishness of the statuesque horses makes me think of a situation where a tall, beautiful and aloof model is in a nightclub, looking all glamourous, sipping on a vodka, lime and soda, totally composed and unapproachable is approached by a very confident, slightly pissed, scruffy beer drinking, short-arsed tradie. The former backs away looking most uncomfortable and confused whilst the latter just wants to lick her nose and give her a general sniff. All very odd and very amusing.
Andrew, getting the measure of the little hooligans didn’t put them in with the models….. No, he put them in with the weirdos.. He put them in with the sheep and lambs.
“They’ve never been in with sheep” I muttered nervously.
“Don’t worry, they’ll work it out”.
And they did. Rapidly. Freddie, in drunken confident tradie mode went hurtling after them sending the flock into panic mode and they took-off as quickly as their tiny little minds and rather delicious legs could manage. Freddie was shortly followed by Mr P and I thought “Fuck. This is going to be carnage and we will be sent packing to try to find another home”.
After about 2 mins of herding sheep, which had J and I alternating between concern and laughter, Freddie needed a breather (too much booze and fags perhaps……) and stopped for a break. At this point the sheep has time to get a good look at their assailants, all 90cm of fluff that they are, and worked out that there were 80 of them and only 2 donkeys….. and all of a sudden, the chase was reversed and two very confused and worried donkeys could be seen being chased by a dust cloud containing some angry sheep. Two mins later J and I had two nervous donkeys sheltering behind our legs, trying to look unconcerned and calm, as if it was just a coincidence that they chose that part of the field to stand in.
They did work it out though. It was a big field and Freddie and Mr P decided they were happy within about 30 meters of the gate….. where the sheep weren’t. Cowards. Cute cowards.
The following day, the 4th of Jan, promised to be a big one as the wind was going to blow from the south and it seemed that the containment line at the Shoalhaven River was breached. After a very nervous day, during which other than lots of people being nervous, just before 10pm the RFS suggested that there was a low likelihood that the villages would be impacted that night (impacted is a RFS term for bits being destroyed by fire….) and we should reassess in the morning. Armed with this view. the neighbours WhatsApp group discussed if bed was appropriate. At 10.05, I confidently declared I was off to bed soon.
Then, at 10.10pm our ‘Fires near me” app buzzed and indicated that there was a new fire in the north end of the village. It seemed odd and we had experienced many false alarms and short lived isolated fires over previous days so didn’t amount to anything but to be on the safe side we decided to turn on the sprinklers, hose down the veranda and ‘man our positions’. A few minutes later, another buzz and another fire in the village, then another and I concluded that my plan had gone to shit. The new fires were on the main route out to the north and the main fire was reasonably close to the southern route out about 15 km south. In the forces we say that ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy’, so we need to be able to adapt. When the app suggested the fire was getting close to the Folly and the town was in danger of getting cut off, I suggested we adapted and fucked off sharpish.
There was no argument from J and by 10.42 we were driving away to freedom……. kind of. Unfortunately, by this time the fire was ‘impacting’ the north end of the village quite hard and had also hit the villages to our south, so the police and emergency services didn’t think it was safe to leave so as we attempted to leave we were redirected by rapidly deployed road blocks and herded to the towns oval (for my Brit friends, the oval is the cricket pitch that every Australian town and village has). I quickly got my mind around the situation, fully expected to spend the night there and was extremely disappointed that we had forgotten the gin.
The oval soon had about 200 cars on it and lots and lots of people wanting information. For some reason many of them decided I was the person to ask and it took a while for me to realise that wearing an old army uniform was not a great idea; I was obviously a man in the know…… who was a clueless as everyone else and very much regretted his wardrobe decisions. I was hugely relieved when the police told us that they decided that 200 cars on oval in a village that was getting increasingly fiery was not that hot an idea either and, with a couple of fire trucks, would escort us out on some dirt roads to the highway…… very rapidly. From there it was up to us.
Off we zoomed, us and half the village, through the night and into dust clouds thinking that this was all very surreal and rather nervous about what the night would mean to us all.
45 minutes later we found ourselves pulling up outside our lovely friend Lynne’s house in Burradoo who had immediately answered our call for help, offered us a bed and popped open some champagne at shortly after midnight on the 5th. Hurrah for Lynn!! The booze was good. It helped us relax and it helped me sleep.
The next morning we woke and looked at the news with trepidation. We learned that the previous night the Currowan fire had leapt forward 14km in minutes, setting off spot fires as it travelled north and forming what was named the Morton Fire (that then threatened us for weeks). Bundanoon lost 4 homes and Wingello lost 12, and both had significantly more damage as outbuildings, fences and cars were consumed. It is a testament to the work of the RFS and the retained fire services that more were not lost and it was fantastic to know that no lives had been lost. There had been a few close calls though. One family had been watching the fire approach from the back of their house when a neighbour called to say the front of their house was on fire. They literally escaped through fire, in a car with few possessions and they lost everything else.
The fire also ripped through the paddock next to the one Freddie and Mr P had been staying in until the day before and the RFS had been active all night protecting the local properties. I am glad we moved them – they would have had a very frightening night. Good call Andrea!!
As the local fires were tackled by the RFS, roads were cleared and dangerous trees removed, Bundanoon, and access to the donks, remained closed and refugees from around the effected villages could be seen wandering in a state of bewilderment around the streets and cafes of Moss Vale and Bowral, some of whom were not sure if their homes were still intact. We were lucky to have Lynne’s hospitality and I have to say, there are worse places to be evacuated to.
After two nights at Lynne’s, and in the knowledge that we may be evacuated at short notice at some time in the future, we left and checked in to the lovely Peppers Craigieburn on the edge of Bowral, who rather than viewing large scale evacuation as a business opportunity, offered fantastic rates and looked after us and the other evacuees that were lucky enough to get there extremely well. That night we joined our neighbours, Jessie and Wayne, in the restaurant for a very relaxing and slightly boozy dinner.
Part 6 will cover the return to Bundanoon and being reunited with our donks.