Our summer holiday was supposed to be spent rock-climbing with friends in the Blue Mountains. They're a Melbourne family who pack up each January and head north to rent a house nestled in the hills and we'd been promising to piggy-back their getaway for a few years now. This year was going to be it.
But like many great holiday plans this summer, ours were cancelled by bushfires. It was a distraction I initially took in my stride. Instead of the Blue Mountains we chanced a couple of day's camping at The Basin in beautiful Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park north of Sydney. We bundled up our tent, a couple of Eskies and some essentials and caught the quirky old-school ferry from Palm Beach across Pittwater to join the throngs paddling in the shallows and digging for yabbies on the shoreline. With views across the water to the Barrenjoey Lighthouse on one side and a bushland of red-trunked Sydney gums on the other, it felt like a suitable nature-based replacement. The smoke haze that kept a whole campsite of kids sleeping an hour later one morning, and the simultaneous neon pink sunrise, the likes of which I have only seen in Asia, were at that stage just conversation topics with fellow campers.
It wasn't until the drive back to Melbourne that the fires and their calamitous consequences really hit home. As I drove down the Hume Highway near Holbrook close to the NSW-Victorian border, we pulled the car over to look east towards the tiny town of Walwa in the Upper Murray where we'd tried but failed to book a night on the way home. Against an otherwise clear blue sky, a tempestuous mushroom-shaped funnel of smoke was erupting like a volcano on the horizon, its grey inner column all angry and tempestuous, its upper cumulous cloud - like something from a renaissance painting - the unlikely sun-kissed halo before a plume of menacing grey smoke trailed off into the distance.
This exact meteorological phenomenon, a pyrocumulonimbus cloud with its own lethal weather system, was wreaking havoc on the region where my mother's family settled in the 1800s, where we had a holiday cottage as kids, where my partner and I tied the knot on the banks of the Murray.
I downloaded the fire apps and started checking-in more earnestly. As December turned to January and the fires gained momentum, memories from travels past kept surfacing. One of the few framed photographs on our bookshelf is of my partner and I, pre-kids, standing barefoot and happy, on the shell-mosaiced beach at Bemm River, which was now surrounded by flames. Pigeon House Mountain, in Morton National Park, where we got engaged was similarly engulfed in smoke.
Destinations that I'd recently pitched a tent in while researching a book about Australia's ultimate campsites kept coming under the threat of fire one by one – the front was approaching Tom Groggin and Geehi on the Swampy Plain River in Kosciuszko National Park where we floated on tubes last Easter. The South Coast, a paradise of beach coves, lighthouses, and untouched native bush, where we'd pit-stopped on the way home, was a disaster area.
In Koetong, my godmother's cottage where my Sydney sister and I stage catch-ups surrounded by premium cattle grazing on lush high country pastures, was being evacuated. When Dinner Plain went on high alert it triggered memories of a Christmas when it actually snowed, a horse ride when a cunning nag rode under a branch to nudge me off its back, the winter when we celebrated my 21st birthday.
In South Australia, similar conditions prevailed. Three of the Kangaroo Island campsites I'd stayed in last Christmas holidays - and had since flagged as "ultimate" - were lost in a cloud of smoke. It felt like the very memory of these pristine natural environments was causing spot fires.
I'm not the only one grieving for destinations where memories were made, of course. As the states burn and us travel-loving Aussies give up one holiday plan for a lesser adventure, ghosts of holidays' past are creating little storm clouds of loss in our minds.
The ritual of travelling to the nearest beach or national park for endless sunburnt summers is embedded in our collective psyche. Be it a stereotype or not, it is the foundation of our "outdoorsy" reputation, something that defines us on a world stage. As news alerts crowd the airwaves on our family road trips, and bushfires take their toll on every planned getaway, it has made me wonder whether my two boys will share this same idyll. Perhaps their childhood memories will instead be tethered to this summer, when the fire blackened our beaches, the smoke choked our blue skies and our reputation as a travel destination went up in flames?
We can only hope that when it comes to returning to holiday destinations that that other stereotype, the great Australian spirit, will also prevail. Certainly the tourism industry is rallying to the cause. My publisher, when asked about retaining the fire-affected campsites in my manuscript, was resoundingly positive. "I believe Australians will want to eventually travel to affected areas to support locals through tourism," she said.
On social media, Tourism Australia has flagged visitors' "big role" in helping bushfire affected communities get back on their feet. "Whilst these resilient communities work hard to achieve this, thousands of small businesses that rely on the tourism industry are still operating across the country and need your continued support," it posted this week. The government agency has set up a special bushfire information webpage to assist and encourage inbound travellers. Knowing what the misguided perception of a whole continent engulfed by flames can do for tourism, the resounding "not impacted" for most of the country brings a sigh of relief even for those in the know.
Other states are also rallying to the cause. Shelley Winkel, global publicity manager for Tourism & Events Queensland, drew on her own experiences with natural disaster in a social media post to travel writers this week. "One thing that kept me going, that buoyed me in the weeks and months following the floods, was the presence of strangers. All loyal generous and quick to extend a hand of mateship," she wrote.
"When the time is right, tourism to affected regions can be a lifeline. It's not just the immediate exchange of funds between visitor and farmer or visitor and B& B operator: fronting up is a forceful and heartfelt reminder of humanity".
The pervading sight and smell of smoke and burning is a curious side-affect to the catastrophe playing out. Melbourne's glorious hot air balloons, whose loud flame bursts would normally have my kids and I scrambling to the balcony for an up-close view, have been absent – bar one - this season. Cyclists on the bike route outside our house are wearing facemasks. Some days it smells like a camp fire, other days it's more acrid. This morning it felt and smelt like Ho Chi Minh City, a combination of street-side char-grilling, humidity and pollution. Or maybe that's just my proximity to Victoria Street, Melbourne's Vietnamese hub.
Whatever the case, for inner-city dwellers, who might otherwise have turned repetitive news cycles off and returned to work, the endless hazy skies ensure the struggles in our rural and regional communities remain at the forefront of our minds. We can't rely on clear blue skies to rose-colour our view of the world at the moment.
On the weekend just gone, my family went to Wilsons Prom and walked the 10 kilometres to Sealers Cove Campground. It poured rain on Friday night, and stayed cool for Saturday and Sunday. With another much-loved Aussie long weekend on the horizon, it's important to remember that other places are similarly still open for business.
We had plans to head to Khancoban in the Snowy Mountains with friends. Whether this would eventuate has been the subject of an elaborate group chat with everyone putting in their two cents worth that included links to media commentary, copy and pastes from various fire apps, even satellite pictures.
In the end the property owner sensibly put paid to the trip: "The fire risk is low given the amount of surrounding area burnt, but I don't recommend coming. The roads are only now opening up and the smoke is still very thick. But we're really keen for support, especially in the towns. Not right now, but certainly in a month or two".
So, it has been marked on the calendar - we've agreed to all go up there, get our hands dirty and help out in whatever way we can… It will be a different kind of getaway – but there will be positive holiday memories made there too, without a doubt.