Australia after the bushfires: Ray Mears returns to Kangaroo Island

In the aftermath of the wildfires of early 2020, the British bushcraft expert travelled to South Australia to document the impact on the landscape and wildlife — and the astonishing resilience of the local community.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020,
By Ray Mears
The signpost to Flinders Chase was scorched by fire, but it’s a rare survivor: the heat ...

The signpost to Flinders Chase was scorched by fire, but it’s a rare survivor: the heat of the fires was so intense that most road signs simply melted.

Photograph by Ray Mears

Earlier this year, Australia saw unprecedented damage from its seasonal bushfires, leaving populations homeless and wildlife devastated. In the days following the fires, bushcraft and survival expert Ray Mears travelled to Kangaroo Island, on Australia’s fire-ravaged south coast, to document the destruction and help with the recovery. What he found was a community that, despite being faced with almost impossible odds, had banded together to support each other and begin the rebuilding process.

Aided by generous donations from people worldwide, Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park and its hastily constructed rescue centre has made valiant efforts to save and rehabilitate its titular marsupials along with koalas, echidnas and the many other animals and birds that make the island such a popular spot for wildlife-lovers.

Here, he talks about his love of the island, its local heroes and the indomitable community spirit.

Ian Larcombe surveys the wreckage of his soldier settler home, destroyed in the fire. Describing the evening of the fire, he says: “And then it went pitch black, and the embers were coming, and we thought, ‘we’d better get out’... later, I was told we had had about five minutes to spare."

Photograph by Ray Mears

What was it like landing in Australia in the immediate aftermath of the fires?
When I arrive somewhere, I always sniff the air. It tells you a lot about a place. In Beijing earlier this year, all I could smell was burning coal. Getting off the plane in Kingscote on Kangaroo Island in February, I wondered what I might find. But the air smelt exactly as I remembered it; this eastern half of the island was completely untouched. What I hadn’t realised was how much misreporting was going on: the media was showing maps of Australia almost entirely on fire, which is just absurd. But when I drove further west, it was like entering a war zone.

Around Flinders Chase National Park, I found a landscape completely burnt. People had lost everything they possessed. In the epicentre of this displacement, in a town called Parndana, they were still in shock and only just beginning to pick up the pieces. And Flinders, which had been dense woodland when I’d visited three years ago, was now sand dunes.

Has Kangaroo Island battled with bush fires before?
Yes, many — but this fire was unprecedented by local standards. It moved across a 30-mile front at 60mph, with flames 330ft high, which made for dramatic TV broadcasts. But what they failed to communicate is just how much fire has always been a shaping force of the Australian landscape. Many are deliberately lit by Aboriginal people who have been managing landscapes via burning for tens of thousands of years to reduce the woodland’s fuel load and avoid this kind of catastrophic bushfire. Native tree species generally adapt well to fire cycles — I could see those on Kangaroo Island had responded better. It worries me that climate change events will reduce the window of opportunity for controlled burning.

Yacca, also known as Tate's Grass Tree, grows very slowly — around 25mm per year — and is a classic feature of Kangaroo Island’s vegetation. It was once harvested for its valuable resin. A hollow stem of leaf bases protects aerial roots within from the scorching heat of the bush fires. Here, new growth already shows green among their scorched crowns. No one knows how many bushfires these trees may have already lived through in their long lives.

Photograph by Ray Mears

How did visiting the place after such a crisis make an impact on you?
You can’t remain unchanged by an experience like this. It was emotionally draining. But what really made an impact on me, something that will become more apparent as times goes on, is just how strong the Australian people are. That Aussie spirit — there’s really nothing like it. They’re not complainers, they just get on and fix problems. At a community hub in Parndana, people were donating everything they could: old tools, electrical cables, toothpaste. I saw people arriving to look for a particular cable so they could get a tool working, or for a hammer so they could start rebuilding homes. It was unfathomable: they’d lost everything but were just getting on with it. I was so very impressed.

What left the biggest impression?
The way that people helped each other out in the most remarkable ways. Army workers called to the island said they’d never seen such a tight-knit, resourceful community. Equally, locals said they were directing soldiers who’d never fought fires before, who were simply asking: where do you want me, what do you want me to do? This, like the efforts of the local firefighters, most of whom are volunteers, made a huge difference.

I visited one particular farm that had lost 600 sheep — and if you’ve ever met a sheep farmer, you’ll know just how much they love and depend on their animals. Another 500 had survived, but the sheering shed hadn’t, so the farmers had improvised a platform and were tackling the remaining sheep. The fleeces were absolutely filthy, thick with soot and dust, forcing the farmers to change blades every two sheep. They were covered themselves, face to foot, in soot and grime. When I looked into their eyes, I could see the hurt and the loss — but at the same time, you just know that they’re going to be alright.

The shearers work in silence; more than half their flock perished in the fire. With the shearing shed having burned to the ground, the shearing is conducted on a ‘jury-rigged’ shearing platform using salvaged equipment, based in the one barn that survived. The fleeces are soiled with soot and dust, forcing the shearers to change the blunt blades of their shears every two fleeces instead of every five. It’s hard work for the men who have lost their homes, and an uncomfortable clipping for the livestock. A final ignominy is that the merino wool fleece is devalued by the need to be washed of the soot and topsoil that now taints it. Bede Larcombe (left) supports the shearers, his face is blackened with soot from stacking the smoke-tainted merino sheep fleeces. 

Photograph by Ray Mears

How’s the island doing now?
Much of the worldwide donations to the bushfires went to the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, where such large numbers of animals were being brought in that, overnight, a rescue centre and hospital had to be set up. On the same day that people had lost their homes, they were taking the trouble to bring in wounded animals, some 600 koalas among them. The centre has done a fantastic job, saving what wildlife they could. Workers were finding animals flocking to little pockets of vegetation that hadn’t burnt, like life rafts, and bringing them in for shelter. Some have since been taken back out into the wild.

The island was given its name by Matthew Flinders, who visited the island in 1802 and shot several western grey kangaroos to replenish the food supply of his ship, HMS Investigator. This remarkable young English explorer would later be responsible for giving the country the name we use today.

Photograph by Ray Mears

What is it about Kangaroo Island that keeps you coming back?
I’ve been all over Australia, to its most remote outback regions and wild bushlands. Located in the heavily populated south of the country, Kangaroo Island was somewhere I didn’t expect to fall in love with. But I did. It’s very relaxed. It has the same quality that you’d find in, say, the UK’s Isles of Scilly: a laid-back pace of life that’s just charming, with people who have that stoical islander spirit.

In many ways, it’s a mini version of Australia: there’s a lot of sheep farming, fantastic woodland, and a wide range of classic Australian species you can get up close to. It’s very much the landscape that would have been encountered by first settlers like Matthew Flinders (one of my heroes, who in 1802 named the island for its abundance of grey kangaroos — then a key food source). What I love most is standing on the north coast, closing my eyes and imagining the sound of HMS Investigator furling its sails, ready to come ashore. There’s a real sense of Australia’s recent history here. I’ve not come across that quality anywhere else.

raymears.com
southaustralia.com

Ray Mears' trip to Kangaroo Island was provided by Qantas

Interview by Sarah Barrell.

You can read more about Ray Mears’ Kangaroo island journey in our July/Aug 2020 issue cover story, which will reveal the places and travel experiences that have changed the lives of the UK’s leading explorers, conservationists, broadcasters, and adventurers. On sale 2 July 2020.

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