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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Trapped by the January Bushfires

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

3969 kms (2466 miles). That is the distance from Brisbane, Queensland to Perth, Western Australia. It was meant to be a week of adventure with my bestie Judy, who was visiting from

USA. It ended up being a story for a lifetime. It took two weeks in total, one of those being trapped by bushfires, unable to move forward, stuck in Eucla, Western Australia.

Even though this website is about solo travel, you should always know when to be safe. Being with Judy meant we could chat the road away, and enjoy a holiday together, as well as keep each other safe.

We arrived at the South Australian/Western Australian border after 6 days of driving, on New Years’ Eve, and decided to stay 12 kms further on, at Eucla Hotel.

It was an awesome night, people were joyfully celebrating the end of one year and anticipating a great new one, the beginning of the 2020s. Most were drinking and chatting with each other a bit more than normal travelers, wishing each other New Year’s greetings.

We had joined another traveler, Jason for dinner and I shared my whiskey, conversation and a midnight kiss with him. Never thinking that our paths would cross again. How wrong I was.

Leaving at 7am the next morning, Judy and I drove 3 hours to Cocklebiddy, took pictures of ourselves with the town sign (as a lot of people do, still unsure why) and stopped at the road station for fuel and a toilet break.

Only to be told that the road ahead was closed, with no idea of when it would be reopened. There were fires between the next stop – Caiguna and Norseman. There was only a roadhouse at Caiguna, and all accommodation both there and Cocklebiddy was fully booked. These are not towns, they are just roadhouses with a few old rooms they rent out to travelers. There are no other shops and no houses.

In despair, we waited a few hours for updates, but realised there was no hope of the road opening that day, and we had to head back east, hoping to get a room somewhere for the night without driving too far.

We ended up the 3 hours back at Eucla, and with no accommodation available there, we were fortunate that Jason shared his room with us. (The Jason of the midnight kiss). At $180 a night, we could split the bill 3 ways. We had no idea of how long we would be there for. The uncertainty was nerve wracking.

Everyone had heard a different rumour, and none of these was comforting. The truth was that the fires had crossed the road near Norseman, there was no way through. The staff advised us to keep our cars fueled up as we might be evacuated anytime. Several nights the lightning storms worried everyone, and we nervously waited for the knock on the door to warn us to go.

Half the hotel guests drove back to Adelaide, to fly to Perth, leaving their vehicles in Adelaide. It was a 13 hour drive back to Adelaide. Others in 4 wheel drives tried to drive off road, and drive along beside the railway tracks. However, they got stuck and had to be rescued, taking valuable manpower away from fighting the fire.

Some even thought about driving the 32 hours to Katherine in the Northern Territory, and then across to Perth, but there was a cyclone forming off the Western coast, and a lot of roads were closed there as well.

What did we do in Eucla for 6 days, apart from worry? I taught Jason and Judy to play Canasta (always take a deck of cards with you when you travel), I read a book, and we swam at the beach, and chatted with all the others who had stayed behind. The old pier is one of the only reminders that there was a telegraph station here long ago.

At all times we watched the news channel, seeing people worse off than us. Those who were trapped on a beach and being evacuated by the navy off shore. Those who had lost their homes. Those who had lost their lives. We felt fortunate that we had a place to stay, food to eat, and company.

Some poor families could not continue affording the cost of accommodation and the hotel owner would not give anyone a discount, so they had to sleep among the sand dunes at the beach, and come to the hotel during the day for meals and companionship.

The government eventually closed the border and would not let anyone else come west.

Finally, on day 4 the Rural Fire Service representative (RFS) came and advised us that we needed to be ready in the next few days, as they were attempting to evacuate everyone stuck this side of Norseman, but those people who had been stuck the other side of Norseman travelling east, would not be let through. We were nervous, would we truly be getting through?

2am on day 6 we headed west, to meet at Cocklebiddy by 6am. Through the dark we drove, spotting over 200 kangaroos near the road, and quite a few emus. Several times they jumped across the road in front of us. It was the worst time to be travelling, but we had no choice.

There were over 300 trucks, cars, motor homes waiting at Cocklebiddy. The air stank with the smell of unwashed people and decaying roadkill. Everyone filled up with fuel and waited for the RFS to give the nod. Police were going to be in front of our convoy, cars first, then trucks, then campers, with the ambulance services coming last to ensure nobody was left behind.

The RFS advised there were 2 firestorms possible, one in front, one behind, and that we could get caught in the middle. We were scared, the waiting seemed endless. Minutes seemed like hours. They told us that we had to keep driving, no stopping at all, no passing the convoy in front. The road to Kalgoorlie was also closed, the only way to Perth was to go down south to Esperance, and the head wet again. We could refuel at Norseman, four and a half hours away, then not stop before Salmon Gums, another hour of driving. Salmon Gum became our safe destination.

Finally the RFS said words I will always remember, with urgency he advised us, “Get in your cars and Go, Go, Go!”

As the 8th vehicle in line, I ran to the car and went. After an hour of driving we passed the now deserted Caiguna roadhouse. The people stuck there had left an hour earlier. Westward Ho!

Soon we started to smell the fires, then saw the smoke. Black burnt bushes to the left and right of the road. We then reached Belladonia. No stopping for photos but sad burnt images will remain in our minds forever. White ash covered the ground everywhere we looked. Trees were smouldering and stumps still alight, the flames bright and visible against the black, burnt background. We closed our windows and turned on the air conditioner, hoping to block out the fire smell.

RFS volunteer manned all road stop bays along the way, to prevent people stopping. We tooted our horns and wave a thanks to them as well pass. They waved back.

Kilometre after kilometre we passed the devastation. Tears ran down my face as the emotions inside were too much to contain. My country is dying. My country is burning and hurting. Its people will recover, rebuild and move forward. The bush will re-vegetate and regrow, but the scars of this summer will be on all of us.

Norseman means fuel, toilet break and a quick coffee. There are emergency service stuff everywhere, making sure we are all safe. Thank goodness for these people, most of them are volunteers.

We passed through the road closed sign, only an hour now to go before we are safe at Salmon Gums.

As soon as we passed through the road blockade there, I had to stop by the side of the road, and let all the emotion that had built up find its way physically out. (Just another way of saying I threw up – repeatedly).

The next day we heard that the fires had reached Salmon Gums, our safe place was no longer safe itself.

Next week – more on the drive across country.

Happy Travels!

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