Requiem For A Seaside Paradise: Wye River Burns


As she waits and watches to find out the fate of coastal town Wye River – the latest casualty of the Victorian bushfires – Liz Conor reflects on a town that holds a special place in her heart.

So this is Christmas. The last the cherished seaside hamlet of Wye River will see – at least as so many of us knew and loved it.

No one who has been lifted off their feet in its swell, or moseyed along Paddy’s Path, or sat in the morning sun outside the General Store and looked over the bridge and up into the Otways temperate rainforest can avoid feeling a profound sense of loss.

Wye River we pine together. We hope the dank soft floor of the Fairy Dell remains, this circle of tall tree ferns, their fractal crowns aloft in the buttery light, there along the path that trails off from Riverside Avenue. And just down, where the unmade road drops to the river behind the caravan park, stands Fern Cottage, nonconformist with its back to the sea, opening instead into a wide glade ringing with birdsong. Is it still there?

And what of Paddy’s path that links Wye to ‘Sep Creek’. Does it still set out from behind the CFA and carry over little Billy Goats’ Gruff bridges through a mesh of verdure. We hope the little moss steps cut into the hillside from this path still disappear into little green vaults to rise up under the stilted houses that look out from the dress circle of Iluka Avenue.

We fear for the Koalas that slump in the forks of its towering gums, disinterestedly munching on bright new leaves as a dozen accents paean at the tree base, steadying their lenses. The shrieking Cockatoos that snack on cedar windowsills, the King parrots in their cantilevered colour, sidling along the balcony railings, eating out of our outstretched hands. The echidnas nosing through the frosted grass, curling behind our warm tyres, the wombats ambling through the gullies – have they survived?

And the four people who stayed on, who frankly shouldn’t have been allowed to try and fight the cataclysmic indifference of a bushfire, we wait in dread for news of them.

The swing in Wye Rivers’ foreshore playground rivals any in the state. It vaults out above the river, and over the pale reeds you might see a White faced Heron drying its wings on the snag jutting out of the quiet slide of water.

Wye Eyrie, the flat-pack cabin where we spent 20 summers was where I wrote my PhD through a long coastal winter, divining to the measure of the glassy breakers, watching them roll over a rod of light.

In my first summer there, just as the scooped hamlet lit up in the township’s very own constellation, I’d plap down the steps cut into the hillside and wend my way along Paddy’s path to my shift behind the bar in the Rookery Nook Hotel.

This was before the General Store was a hip affable eatery, before the brick waterfall house lost its deco lineaments, before the prurient scandal in the pub afflicted the close-knit community, before the winter tide started to dredge battlements into the recoiling sands in front of the Surf Life Savers Club.

The house isn’t ours to grieve anymore – if it was lost last night. We worried about intensifying, increasing bushfires, about friends or families trapped within should a fire rip through. We wondered about the road being undercut by rising seas, about how it would feel to look through a crop of dead canopies into a storming sea, the parrots long gone, the gullies wasted. In short we tried to imagine, as we are all bound to do now, the fate of this place we loved under the ecological muggings of climate change.

Now we know its fate. And it’s no less painful. “My childhood is up in flames,” my daughter murmured as we huddled around the online news fretfully trying to orient the clips to our old rooftop. There where I auditioned lovers, tucked newborns into an armchair reversed against the tongue and groove, read and wrote and hosted our dearest friends through long dinners, and lit a hundred fires.

Gone. And with it Wye Rivers’ own eccentric constellation of millions of sensory impressions consigned now to the bitter harvest of remembrance.

Have we really begun to understand what it is we stand to lose while we go on blithely poking the dragon that is climate with long sticks.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.