As the South Coast comes back from the toughest year in its history, we speak to local business owner, and firefighter, Josh Waterson, whose Region X Kayak Hire business was almost taken out by the three strikes of bushfires, floods and Covid 19, but says that, thanks to the generosity of average Australians, is now coming back stronger than ever. Josh has lived through ordeals that might have crushed lesser men and somehow come out smiling, and grateful, on the other side.
Josh Waterson runs Region X Kayak Hire, which helps tourists to explore the beautiful Tomaga River and meet its many friendly stingrays, and he’s also a fire fighter. He has the wind-worn look and unbothered drawl of someone who loves working outside and would just about do his job for free, but for much of 2020, he’ was barely able to work at all.
“It’s been a challenging year for all the businesses on the South Coast, with bushfires to kick off our traditional busy period, then when the rains finally came and put out the fires, they caused floods, and then, of course, we had Covid,” he says.
“The fires are near to everyone’s heart and memory here, because we all lived it, everyone experienced it, and it’s definitely left some trauma.
Waterson’s family were evacuated, twice, while he was out fighting fires, an experience he describes as “super intense”.
“Definitely some big days as fire fighters, exhaustion, dehydration, mental exhaustion, and then of course the worry of family and friends and loved ones and colleagues and the trauma they were all going through as well.
“And it went on so long, it was a real drawn out siege between fire and nature and us.”
Eventually, the rains put out the fires but brought floods, erosion and burnt debris washing up on blackened beaches.
Covid 19, and the total shutdown it caused, was the final punch for Waterson and many like him. “You really had to wonder at that point whether you would even have a business again,” he sighs.
“Lots of people were in that situation of having no income, not being able to pay the mortgage, lots of us were on a knife edge, worried they might not get through.”
Now, though, there are not just new shoots of life for the South Coast, many businesses are booming like never before as big-hearted Australians arrive in record numbers to help.
“We’re seeing visitors over the last few weeks where it’s their first trip ever to the South Coast of NSW, people from the far west of NSW, everywhere,” Waterson smiles.
“I think people are wanting to come and visit communities that were devastated by the fires and the floods and the shutdown, so there’s that wonderful sentiment of ‘let’s go help these people, and spend’.
“We have people coming in and saying, ‘You guys are doing it tough, I’d like to book a kayak tour, but what else can I buy? And here’s a $5 tip for that coffee, that kind of thing.
“It’s been amazing to see. Truly, the human spirit is just a magical thing.”
It’s been a similar story of new light after darkness for Marco and Nally Mehner, who run the Lodge Motel in Broulee, which shut down as a business after the fires but offered sanctuary to many families who’d lost their homes. Nally, who also runs a caravan at the hotel selling Thai food, also managed to feed the local community, refusing to take money but asking anyone who could to donate to the Rural Fire Service instead. They raised more than $4000.
Marco spent 25 years in the German army and after the horrors he’d experience in Kosovo and Afghanistan, he said the fires were only “a little scary”.
“A lot of people were panicking, but I was really quite calm and we managed to help a lot of guests who were unable to get out when the fires came,” he says.
The hotel has essentially empty for much of the year, thanks to Covid, but in the past few months it’s been more heavily booked than ever before. “Suddenly it’s been like we need twice as many rooms as we’ve got, people pouring in from everywhere, from Wagga, from Sydney, Canberra, we’re getting people we’ve never seen before, so we can’t complain. I’ve never seen the winter season so fully booked in advance, it’s fantastic.
“And people have been so generous, it’s really good to see that people still have a warm heart and want to come and help this community that’s had such a hard year.”
Of all the areas on the South Coast savaged by the fires, you could argue that Lake Conjola was the worst, and most frightening, as it’s a one road in and out hamlet, and that road was the path the flames followed as they tore into the town, destroying more than 100 homes and cutting off the residents entirely.
Plenty of holidaymakers were trapped, terrified, at the Holiday Haven resort, where manager Brad McDougall managed to keep them alive, and sane.
“It was a surreal experience, it was so dark during the day the street lights came on, and the road was shut down so everyone was stuck, but we managed to get people out after three days, then the only people here were the locals who’d lost their homes,” Brad recalls.
After what he calls “the trifecta” of fires, the biggest floods on record in his town and Covid, however, things have turned around spectacularly.
“Our winter was easily the best on record and a lot of people are getting down South who don’t normally come at that time of year and they’ve realised how nice it is, still, in winter, so I reckon that’s going to flow on,” Brad enthuses.
“We normally get a lot of international tourists, too, backpackers, and we’re still getting a few coming down from Sydney who obviously can’t get home!”
After touring the South Coast and meeting with those who not only survived but managed to keep their businesses alive, long enough to see them thrive again, it’s impossible not to be moved by, as Josh Waterson says, the human spirit.
More specifically, however, it illustrates a particularly Aussie kind of spirit. The desire to do the right thing and pitch in to help those in need. Everyone felt a sense of loss when those fires ravaged Australia, but those who weren’t directly affected felt a real desire to help those who were, and it’s still playing out on the South Coast today. Aussies have grabbed the idea of the Empty Esky - the suggestion that you go on holiday with no supplies and buy them all from locals when you get there - and embraced it warmly.
After the year we’ve had, as the sun starts to shine on us again, it really does feel like the lucky country. And the South Coast of NSW truly is one of its most memorable parts.