20 February, 2020

In the months preceding this tour, huge areas of Australia’s southern states were devastated by bush fires.  Even though a regular occurrence in Australian summers, these bushfires of 2019-220 were much more severe and widespread than any before that I could recall.

Wikepedia’s summary of the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season makes compelling reading:

The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season (Black Summer), was a period of bushfires in many parts of Australia, which, due to its unusual intensity, size, duration, and uncontrollable dimension, is considered a megafire.

In June 2019 the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service acting director warned of the potential for an early start to the bushfire season which normally starts in August. The warning was based on the Northern Australia bushfire seasonal outlook noting exceptional dry conditions and a lack of soil moisture, combined with early fires in central Queensland. Throughout the summer, hundreds of fires burnt, mainly in the southeast of the country. The major fires peaked during December–January.

As of 28 October 2020, the fires burnt an estimated 24.3–33.8 million hectares (60–84 million acres; 243,000–338,000 square kilometres; 94,000–131,000 square miles), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. It was claimed that three billion terrestrial vertebrates – the vast majority being reptiles – were affected and some endangered species were believed to be driven to extinction. At its peak, air quality dropped to hazardous levels in all southern and eastern states. The cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed the A$4.4 billion of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, and tourism sector revenues fell by more than A$1 billion. However, economists estimated that the Australian bushfires may cost over A$103 billion in property damage and economic losses, making the bushfires Australia’s costliest natural disaster to date. Nearly 80 percent of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly by the bushfires. By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina. A September 2021 study using satellite data estimated the CO2 emissions of the fires from November 2019 to January 2020 to be ~715 million tons, about twice as much as earlier estimates and surpassing Australia’s normal annual bushfire and fossil fuel emissions by ~80%.

From September 2019 to March 2020, fires heavily impacted various regions of the state of New South Wales. In eastern and north-eastern Victoria large areas of forest burnt out of control for four weeks before the fires emerged from the forests in late December. Multiple states of emergency were declared across New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory. Reinforcements from all over Australia were called in to assist fighting the fires and relieve exhausted local crews in New South Wales. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to provide air support to the firefighting effort and to provide manpower and logistical support. Firefighters, supplies and equipment from Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States, among others, helped fight the fires, especially in New South Wales.

During the ensuing crisis, an air tanker and two helicopters crashed during firefighting operations, the air tanker crash resulting in the deaths of the three crew. Two fire trucks were caught in fatal incidents caused directly by fire conditions, killing three fire fighters.

By 4 March 2020 all fires in New South Wales had been extinguished completely (to the point where there were no fires in the state for the first time since July 2019), and the Victoria fires had all been contained. The last fire of the season occurred in Lake Clifton, Western Australia, in early May.

This prompted Compass Expeditions to email participants in early January 2020 with the following update:

Fires in Australia

No doubt you are all aware of the terrible fires that have affected many communities across Eastern Australia, it is difficult to put into words the anguish some of these communities are going through with some locals, tragically, losing their lives while other loose their homes and livelihoods.

The purpose of this alert is not to belittle the bushfire crisis Australia is going through this year, which is more severe than other years, but more of an attempt to put some clarity and perhaps paint a more realistic picture as opposed to the sometimes breathless hysteria from the media. I too have personally been affected by these fires having to evacuate last week as fire approached my small community, so this is far from us showing little concern, we just wish to allay some fears you might have.

Your Charley Boorman – Tasmania to the High Country does indeed travel through part of the fire affected area with the following destinations having been impacted by fires, either direct fire attack or smoke – Bright/ Jindabyne / Batemans Bay, but HUGE parts of Australia is NOT on fire and for the vast majority of the tour you will not see any evidence of these fires. Another concern is smoke, again this is changing daily and of course depends on the prevailing winds, again Australia is not smothered in choking smoke and the skies are not alight with burning embers. Absolutely, some parts of Australia are experiencing high smoke levels, but these areas are in the immediate vicinity of the fires and the smoke can drift huge distances but generally is a very light smoke haze.

As this fire front is such a dynamic situation, literally changing by the hour, it is impossible for us to say with 100% certainty what, if any, changes we will be forced to make. We have an alternative route on standby but as mentioned we won’t be in a position to make the final decision for some weeks yet.

Ideally, we would stay with the planned itinerary and be able to help these struggling communities get back on their feet, tourism is a massive part of these communities, however our priority is to ensure we all stay safe so if changes are required we will make them without hesitation.

We will of course continue to monitor the situation talking to our suppliers on the route as opposed to getting our information from the media.

We look forward to having you ride with us and help us support the local communities in their long road to recovery.

Reassured and with my flight quickly approaching I went about making final preparations.  This included putting new road tyres on my motorcycle and choosing my preferred riding suit.  This necessitated taking wet weather gear given I was pretty confident I’d encounter some rain whilst on tour and the ride back to Bris Vegas from Sydney.

On the day prior to my bike being collected for transport to Melbourne, I strapped my riding suit to the seat, put my helmet and gloves in the top box and wet weather gear and whatever other riding essentials deemed appropriate for this tour in my panniers.  The bike was collected and I’d see it again at Compass Expedition’s Melton depot when I arrived in Melbourne on the 20th of February, 2020.

On the 20th I made my way to airport, boarded my flight to Melbourne and made my way to Melton in a taxi.  With everything seemingly on track I was welcomed by Compass staff who were finalising preparations to the support vehicle.  After changing into my riding suit I tried starting motorcycle but the battery had lost its charge on the way to Melbourne.  No problems, the friendly Compass staff found some jumper leads, hooked them up to the support vehicle’s battery and it was sorted.  Pretty soon I was on my way to the Alto Hotel in Bourke in Melbourne for the pre-ride briefing.

This was my first opportunity to meet my fellow tour participants including Charley and Billy.  First impressions were favourable.  A good mix of nationalities including USA, Canada, Germany and UK as well as a couple of other Aussies.  Post briefing we did a final check of the bikes, loaded our luggage in the support vehicle and made our way to the ferry port at Port Melbourne.  Before we knew it we were on the ferry, checked into our rooms, changed and in the bar enjoying some beers and getting to know each other.

Some photos from todays travels …

 

This is where I rode today.  Only 42km from Melton to Hotel Alto on Bourke for the briefing and 7km to the ferry terminal.

 

A video of highlights of the days ride …

 

And finally, the Relive video for Day 1 …

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