Peter and his wife lost everything in the January 3rd bushfires that ravaged large swathes of Kangaroo Island. But with the devastation comes a tale of recovery.
You can hear the excitement in Peter’s voice when he realises Lord Timothy is alive.
The Tiger snake, named for the patch of regal-looking stripes that sit just beneath his jawline, is one of many who have been regularly welcomed at Peter and his wife Nirbeeja’s property in Karatta on Kangaroo Island.
But that was before 3 January 2020. Then the fires came. They swept through the western part of the island where Peter and Nirbeeja lived, obliterating everything in their path. They were fast and ferocious, with fronts so big they created their own weather systems.
Lord Timothy had not been seen since that day. The worst was feared, but here he was – roaming the gardens, seemingly unharmed.
For Peter and Nirbeeja this was an important moment. It gave them hope to see an animal alive, who had somehow and miraculously managed to escape the fires. Devastatingly, they are few and far between, so the couple take comfort in the few who have survived.
“It’s the only way we can stay sane at the moment,” says Peter.
Coming back here and seeing the devastation was absolutely heartbreaking but to see there were a few survivors actually gave me and Nirbeeja hope. So, that’s what kept us going, the fact that there are things alive and it gives us something to do that’s not just dwelling on what we’ve lost.
Since the roads to their property reopened, the pair have been coming back home almost on a daily basis, to leave out food and water for the wildlife. Dotted around their property are ingenious DIY feed and water stations (equipped with sticks in case a small critter falls in and needs to find a way out). There are bird baths too, around a half-a-dozen. These attempts at life preservation are a stark visual contrast to their surrounds.
Left: Nirbeeja with one of the DIY feed stations they created for the local wildlife. Right: One of the many bird baths the couple have put out on their property.
Their 250-acre property of heritage bushland that shares two of its sides with Flinders Chase National Park looks like a warzone. What they have lost is immense. Almost too big to comprehend.
“It was the most gorgeous valley, we used to joke that it was almost like the Amazon.
You couldn’t see the road because it was all trees…so for people who love nature it was really heaven…now it looks like it’s been nuked, just black and ash now,” says Peter.
They also lost their home. A beautiful two bedroom cottage overlooking the valley. Their extensive orchard – Peter’s pride and joy – gone. Their vegetable gardens, gone. The two thousand trees they had just planted to help boost the local Glossy Black Cockatoo population, all burnt.
“You should have seen Nirbeeja’s collection of herbs and veggies,” says Peter.
But it is the enormous loss of animal life they struggle with the most. The first time Peter and Nirbeeja came back, after evacuating to Kingscote early on 3 January – a decision that ultimately saved their lives – they describe as one of the most difficult days they’ve ever had to endure.
“That was probably the most distressing thing we’ve ever seen. Driving up our road and seeing countless dead animals was heartbreaking, seeing the bush around us that had been annihilated – that was probably the worst thing I have ever seen in my life,” recalls Peter.
Since then they have been able to stay at a friend’s house on the other side of Kangaroo Island. When they are not caring for the wildlife out at their property, they are busy picking up the pieces of their lives.
“We went to the Kingscote Recovery Centre and we saw Aaron – a volunteer for Red Cross – he was working there the first time we went in. He was the first person we met. He was very compassionate – we were in a pretty fragile state, he took some details and got things in motion for us, and took us around to some of the other people involved in the recovery efforts,” says Peter.
Red Cross were also able to help Peter and Nirbeeja apply for an emergency grant. At the time it was $5,000 for anyone who has lost their primary place of residence but the grant has since been increased.
“We applied for the online grant and that came through a few days later. And then the second payment came through as well. So that has been an amazing help for us. We lost everything and we’re trying to replace it all from the ground up, and just realising all the things we’ve lost as we go along. That money’s been absolutely critical.
It gave us some hope. When you’ve lost everything it’s amazing just to have something there that helps. It gives you something to be able to lean on.
Peter and Nirbeeja have used the emergency grant money to start to replace some of the things they lost in the fires. A new printer for the office, food and fuel. The necessities they need to get back on their feet. They are also hoping to use some of the money to buy tools so they can start the huge job of cleaning up their property and rebuilding.
“We’re just coping one day at a time, just trying to do what we can,” says Peter.
The complete destruction of Karatta is something to behold. What was once an area full of the sounds of native wildlife, of birdsong and the rustlings of trees in the wind is now overcome by solemn silence. It hangs, thick in the air. But even against this bleak backdrop, and only three weeks on from the worst fires this island, indeed this country has ever seen, signs of life are starting to emerge.
Alongside Lord Timothy, two young wallabies are foraging for food in Peter and Nirbeeja’s orchard. You can hear a bird, every now and then. It’s solitary and soft, but it’s there if you listen. There are sightings of skinks taking shelter in the rubble of their home, and a beetle.
The Yakkas that rely on fire for new growth have bright green shoots now. There is a gumtree in their front yard that doesn’t have a single burnt branch. And in the vegetable garden at the bottom of their property, comfrey, silver beet and rhubarb. Lush greenery protruding from the thick blanket of soot and ash beneath them.
New Eucalyptus and Yakka growth on Peter and Nirbeeja’s property.
“It’s why we were living here, for the wilderness and wildlife, so we’re doing our bit to keep what’s left going. We want to come back here and live – it’s our home. We love this area.
“Early on we were just in such shock. A friend of ours was in tears and said ‘You’re really needed there to help heal the land’ and we feel that way now. We need to come back, rebuild and help it to recover, and for us to recover here too.”