Sitting in the safety of our office in Sydney, I watched the dramatic images on TV.
Just a few hours away from us, flames were ravaging homes and endangering lives.
I’d only been in Australia for two months, and already, I’d fallen in love with the country’s natural beauty and friendly people.
Like most Brits, I’m always quick to moan about the rain, with a bad spell for us meaning soggy shoes and miserable grey skies.
But I quickly realised, here, the weather can mean the difference between life and death.
In places like Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast, firefighters faced 60-metre flames that burned through the dry bush at astonishing speeds. Residents were forced to flee with just the clothes on their backs.
By February, 34 people had died in the Black Summer fires and around one billion animals had been killed.
But among the stories of heartbreak came hope.
Communities rallied, donations poured in and finally, after months of fires, the rest of the world woke up to what was happening.
I’d heard about the Aussie spirit – the willingness to get stuck in and help out a mate in need – but now I was seeing it for myself.
So, when I got the opportunity to visit some of the affected areas it was a no-brainer.
Spurred on by the drop in tourism experienced on the South Coast, tour operator AAT Kings launched not-for-profit bushfire recovery trips across NSW, Victoria and South Australia in partnership with the Empty Esky campaign.
With the worst of the fires out after wet weather, the immediate danger is over.
But for the small business owners who lost out on their peak season, the struggle is just beginning.
Visitors are encouraged to fill up an esky at a farmer’s market before sitting down to a delicious local lunch.
On the first stop of our one-day Shoalhaven tour, we parked in Kangaroo Valley.
With a pub, general store, pie shop and pastries galore, this town is the perfect place to banish morning hunger.
Next, it’s onto Nowra markets, where we filled our eskies with local cheeses, fruit and veg, and sumptuous sourdough.
Finally, we pulled into the Bangalay Dining resort, where locals Michelle and Tom Bishop were only in their second year of business when the bushfires saw them lose $80,000 in bookings.
For them, initiatives like the AAT Kings tours are an example of positive, quick-thinking action, putting money back into the businesses that need it.
‘We’ve never experienced a natural disaster like this before’
Boxing Day is one of the busiest times of the year for baker Joost Hilkemeijer and his wife Kirsty.
The queue for fresh sourdough bread at their Flour Water Salt bakery in Milton usually spills out of the door.
But last year, they were forced to close for a week as the bushfires grew closer.
‘It’s been stressful both personally and professionally,’ Joost says. ‘We’ve never experienced a natural disaster like this before.’
Now, they’re facing the tough aftermath of staying on their feet after losing their key trading period.
‘We’re an example of many businesses that weren’t damaged physically, but we rely on that busy Christmas period to survive,’ Joost says. ‘That’s why things like the Empty Esky campaign are a great idea.’
With two other shops in Bowral and Kiama, and a wholesale business, their message is clear – the South Coast is open for business!
The summer from hell
Stephen and Anne Thomson (pictured top) are no ordinary husband and wife.
They make up part of the incredible team of volunteers at Shoalhaven RFS who put their lives on the line to help others.
But last year, they experienced a bushfire season like never before.
‘It was just so overwhelming,’ Anne says. ‘If we weren’t at work, we were out on the trucks.’
The Thomsons’ heroic efforts run deeper still, with their two daughters, aged 22 and 19, following in their footsteps to join their local RFS station.
For 74 days, the Currowan fire raged across 499,621 hectares in the Shoalhaven region.
It cost 312 people their homes and damaged over 100 more.
But amid the exhausting days, the volunteers were inundated with support from grateful locals.
One day, a little girl donated her pocket money, while other children sold their toys to raise money for the fireys, and older residents cooked dinner.
It was gestures like this that kept up the volunteers’ spirits.
Finally, in February, rain and a change in the wind direction helped extinguish the blaze.
For now, the worst is over. But for the locals they helped so selflessly, the heroic actions of firefighters across the country will live on forever.
To book a recovery tour, go to aatkings.com/bushfire-recovery. Follow @emptyesky on Instagram.