Tim the Yowie Man journeys along the Princes Highway to discover the resilience of south coast tourism operators who have bounced back bigger and better than before following the devastation of last year's bush fires.
Rising from the ashes
Cicadas sing in full chorus and the ground is carpeted in lush green grass, but there's no hiding the scars on the big gum trees - blackened from the firestorm that tore through the villages south of Batemans Bay on that fateful New Year's Eve a year ago.
As the fire cut a swathe of destruction through properties along the Princes Highway at Broulee, it also sent a dagger through the the hopes and dreams of Mark and Sue Berry. For 27 years the couple had worked tirelessly to create the Bower at Broulee, an award-winning bush retreat for canoodling couples. But all it took was one frightful afternoon to destroy their five custom-built bowers, luxurious villas secluded in the private forest.
"We'd evacuated our guests early that day and prepared as best we could for the worst-case scenario, including putting every sprinkler we could find on," Mark recalls.
"We were aware the fire was headed towards Rosedale, but there was no real indication that it was going to fork off in our direction until it did."
Due to thick smoke the couple heard the fire-front long before they saw the flames. "It sounded like a freight train coming through the nature reserve only 70 metres from our back fence," says Mark, who took shelter with Sue in their home at the top of the hill above the bowers.
After the initial fire-front rushed past the couple thought they'd escaped relatively unscathed. That was until a cruel wind change bought the fire back towards them. "The smoke was so thick inside you couldn't breathe, so we ran outside to a cleared area," Sue recalls.
It was from here that Mark and Sue watched in despair as their home burnt to the ground.
The bowers didn't fare much better - windows were smashed, decks burned, plumbing melted and carpets ruined. The heat of the fire was so intense their silver bullet, a vintage aluminium caravan, was reduced to a molten puddle. Heck.
Having lost both their home and livelihood, you could excuse the Berrys if they walked away from such heartache. However, spurred on by a loyal band of regular guests, they decided to rebuild the bowers.
Some past guests even set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for seedlings and other resources needed to regenerate the bush, and in response the pair created a Facebook page where people could follow the bush regenerating.
Incredibly, just 10 months after the firestorm, the rebuilt Bower at Broulee welcomed guests once again in October, albeit with a few subtle changes.
"We'd always thought sprinklers on the roofs weren't worth the effort, but now we have two or three sprinklers connected to mains water on every roof," Mark explains. He has also enclosed the space beneath each bower with perforated corrugated iron to prevent embers blowing underneath.
Mark and Sue's devoted regulars were quick to respond. "They have been amazing in supporting us and are returning in droves," Sue smiles.
While Mark and Sue are unsure if they will rebuild their own home, the duo have plans to expand their much-loved bush getaway by adding two more luxury bowers and a glamping area.
Tim's Verdict: This has been on my bucket list for almost 20 years. Time for me to finally book.
If you go: The Bower at Broulee is on George Bass Drive at Broulee. Ph. 02 4471 8666 or thebower.com.au
"The area needed it, it's been crying out for something like this for a long time," says Sue Clelland, owner of Saltwood at little-known Kioloa, near Bawley Point, just south of Ulladulla.
"We had the philosophy to create something different as people aren't going to come if we're just another general store," she explains. "So we had to create a destination."
And in the year since opening that's exactly what this eclectic mix of food, drink, homewares and fashion, all under one funky architecturally-designed roof, has fast become.
Locals want to be seen here, so too tourists. Some come to browse the Balinese-style boutique, others to check-out the outdoor sculptures but most to indulge in gourmet tucker in the spacious courtyard.
However for Sue and her partner Ean Beard, their dream of a café and lifestyle hub was almost over before it began. This long overdue addition to the South Coast foodie scene almost went up in smoke before they opened their doors last summer.
"The fire first came through on December 4, just days before we were set to open so instead of the excitement of greeting our first customers, we faced the chaotic scenes of water bombers and fire brigades frantically trying to save the town," Sue, who eventually opened four days before Christmas 2019, explains.
Tim's Verdict: It's Byron Bay vibe meets the hip of Braddon. Go before it gets too popular.
If you go: Saltwood Café and Lifestyle, 636 Murramarang Road, Kioloa. Ph: 02 4457 2944 or saltwoodcafe.com.au
Back from the Brink
Bede Cooper had only been handed the keys of the East Lynne Store, a popular petrol and pie stop on the Princes Highway between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay, a few months before the giant Currowan fire broke out last summer.
Surrounded by bush on all sides it didn't take long for Bede to realise he was in for a baptism of fire. "I recall one night we were completely surrounded by flames, I felt helpless and sat in the gutter out the front and drank the last beer I could find, thinking it might all be over."
"Thirty-five foot long burning shards were hurtling through the air out of the forest canopy" as the fire-front blew over Bede's store, not once but twice. Only heroic work by 13 fire trucks saved the historic store, which had been razed by fire once before in 1952.
While Bede did lose more than 10,000 pies stashed in his freezers (due to electricity outages) and is still waiting for repairs to his roof, which was badly burnt in several places, his prized collection of motorcycle memorabilia was left unscathed.
Tim's verdict: Canberrans have long made a holiday pit-stop here for prize-winning pies. Bede's new motorcycle museum provides yet another reason to break-up the trip along this stretch of the Princes Highway.
If you go: Fuel East Lynne, 3050 Princes Hwy, East Lynne, 19km north of Batemans Bay.
Arthur and Jenny Robb spent the best part of a decade developing and hosting fully-catered camps along the Light to Light Walk, which winds its way 30 kilometres from Boyds Tower just south of Eden to Green Cape Light Station in Ben Boyd National Park.
After fire burnt the entire track in January last year and national parks advised it wouldn't re-open until 2022, the energetic husband and wife duo knew they had to come up with a plan or face financial oblivion.
Unfortunately they couldn't turn to their secondary business of boat and caravan storage, as the fire razed all the sheds on their property, burning right to the back door of their home at Kiah on the Towamba River, just south of Eden.
So what did they do? Like many businesses forced to deal with COVID-19 this year - they pivoted.
"We closed the storage business temporarily, rebuilt sheds for kayak storage, created a new campsite in the paddock and used all the gear we salvaged from our overnight camps to launch a new two-day glamping experience on our riverfront property," Jenny reveals.
And it didn't take long for Arthur and Jenny to realise they were onto a winner. "Along with our kayak tours, people are really enjoying the relaxed and quiet campsite and we've even had a few pilates and yoga camps," Jenny says.
Tim's verdict: Now is the perfect time for a paddle down the Towamba (Kiah) River and to marvel at both the bush regenerating, and the Robbs' remarkable resilience.
If you go: Kiah Wilderness Escapes & Tours, 1167 Princes Highway Kiah (near Eden) Ph: 0429 961047 or kiahwildernesstours.com.au
The giant Currowan fire, which burned for 74 days, across half-a-million hectares and destroyed 312 homes couldn't have occurred at a worse time for Cassandra and Christopher Hamel. The pair had just launched a glamping getaway to complement their chocolate-making classes near Milton when their property came under threat.
"We fought fires on and around our place non-stop for six and a half weeks, were evacuated three times and we had to shut down for eight weeks straight due to a road block," Cassandra recalls.
While their property overlooking the wilds of Morton National Park somehow escaped the full fury of the flames, they weren't as lucky with destructive gale force winds. "The winds ahead of the fire-front reached over 90km/h and ripped our glamping tents to shreds," Cassandra explains.
The Hamels used the fires and then COVID-19 as impetus to take a step back from the normal daily business routine and re-evaluate what made them unique.
"As a result we have restructured our chocolate-making workshops and combined it with new tents to offer exciting overnight packages for guests looking to escape the rigours of life and tuck into some chocolate."
Tim's verdict: Luxury camping and chocolate combined. How could you go wrong? Take me there!
If you go: Milton Chocolate Retreat, 142E Woodburn Road Morton (near Milton). Ph: 0408627167 miltoncottages.com.au