As they drove past the ruins of houses ravaged by bushfire, burnt out cars and blackened trees that continued for most of the seven kilometre drive from Yatte Yattah to Conjola, stunned Dragons players could scarcely believe what they were seeing.
Many in the squad had holidayed at Conjola or neighbouring South Coast beaches but none had returned since the catastrophic fires on New Year's Eve that claimed two lives and destroyed 89 properties.
Rookie halfback Jayden Sullivan’s family were among those evacuated to the beach and on Tuesday night he met many of the other survivors at a community barbecue attended by Dragons players as part of St George Illawarra’s South Coast Bushfire Relief Tour.
“Coming down here as a kid and then coming here now and seeing all the houses burned down is a real shock,” Sullivan said.
“My family was here over the Christmas break when the fires were happening, all of my younger brothers were here and they had to evacuate to the beach. The whole area was on fire – both sides [of Lake Conjola Entrance Road] and there was nowhere else to go.”
Dragons wellbeing officer Scott Stewart has been holidaying at Lake Conjola for 18 years but January’s annual pilgrimage had to be cancelled – although he plans to return before the NRL season starts in a bid to support local businesses suffering from the loss of trade during their busiest period.
“Driving into the town I know what the area is like and I know that it is not peak holiday time now but there is just no-one around. It is like a ghost town,” Stewart said.
“It just stuns you when you see it. There’s literally houses flattened and you can see from the road to the lake, whereas usually you can only see 10 metres into the bush because there is that much shrub.
“As we were driving up, the boys said it looked like someone has just flattened the place with a bomb.”
Dragons players Kezie Apps and Euan Aitken have also been impacted by the fires in their respective home towns of Bega and Pambula, while 2010 premiership-winning prop Michael Weyman remains on alert to defend his family’s property in Moruya.
As communities along the NSW South Coast attempt to begin the recovery process, the visit by 70 Dragons players and staff to Batemans Bay, Ulladulla, Narooma, Bermagui and smaller towns in between was a welcome distraction from the constant threat of bushfires.
They played cricket, touch, signed autographs, posed for photos and practiced skills but mostly the players just talked or listened and tried to put a smile on the faces of kids, while also offering support to the Batemans Bay Tigers, Milton-Ulladulla Bulldogs, Moruya Sharks and Narooma Devils.
'Something our town has needed'
At the peak of the fire emergency, more than 10,000 people sheltered at the Hanging Rock Sports Complex in Batemans Bay or in 2,500 caravans parked on the site.
Many residents returned on Tuesday for a family fun day with Dragons players, including Malua Bay RFS volunteer Warren Harper, who had unsuccessfully tried to defend the house he built 17 years ago after relocating his wife, four children and six grandchildren to the evacuation centre.
“I was on the back deck, some Malua Bay RFS guys and [NSW] State Forestry guys arrived but it just came out of the Mogo State Forest and hit us like a ton of bricks,” Harper said of the fire.
“It just took the whole house within half an hour. I’ve never seen a fire as fierce. It seemed like it was determined to take whatever was in its path. It was just racing and it just couldn’t be stopped.”
Harper managed to grab a few possessions – including some boxes of Dragons’ tissues but not his wife’s china – and spent 10 days at the evacuation centre before finding temporary accommodation.
“A lot of people lost their homes and businesses are suffering so to have the Dragons here means a lot to the community,” he said.
Batemans Bay Tigers and Group 16 official Dave Ralston said the fires had also effected local sport and kids had not been able to enjoy their summer school holidays.
He said at least four of the club’s junior players had lost their family homes or most of their possessions.
“On New Year’s Eve we had no power, the smoke was everywhere and no matter where you went you were trapped,” Ralston said.
“Having the Dragons here after what the town has gone through the last seven weeks with the fires has just made the kids forget about it for a while.
“These kids have all lost something but you can’t see that in their faces today. To have the big stars come here is a great thing and something our town has needed.”
'Our sponsors are struggling'
Milton-Ulladulla Bulldogs have also had four players whose homes were destroyed and the mental anguish of driving past the burnt out remains of their houses kept some away from the barbecue organised by the club on Tuesday night.
In addition, the Bulldogs are facing a financial hit as many of their sponsors are local businesses who are suffering from the lack of visitors to the area during the holiday period.
“We have made the decision that whether they can afford to pay or not we are still going to put them on our gear and advertise for them. If they can pay something during the year, then all good,” Bulldogs secretary Sharon Dowton said.
With the club expecting an increase from last year’s 341 registered players due to the introduction of tackle competitions for girls, costs are set to increase for playing kits and a decision was made before the fires to give every player a training shirt this season.
Dowton estimated the cost of playing kits would be about $17,000, while a further $7,000 will be needed for the training shirts.
Illawarra codes unite for bushfire relief golf day
A likely sacrifice will be plans to create additional dressing rooms for female players by converting two storage containers into away sheds.
“That’s up in the air now but the one good thing to come out of this is that it has united the town,” Dowton said.
“We’ve had four players from the club that we know of so far who lost everything and others that partially lost homes. One parent I was speaking to today said they have been evacuated five times from their property and they had fire coming to within two metres of their house.”
The visit by the Dragons players to Lake Conjola was kept as a surprise from the club’s three Under 10s team-mates Koby McSpadden, Tristin Brown and Josh Thompson, who delivered groceries to elderly residents at Fisherman’s Paradise unable to leave their homes.
“We went to every house and asked if they needed any supplies and we delivered 15 trolleys full or maybe more of toothbrushes, hair brushes, pharmaceuticals and food,” Brown said.
“We had no electricity for eight days, it was scary. The only thing you could hear was all the generators.”
'I was just trying not to cry'
Kezie Apps and Euan Aitken have been able to draw on their own experiences and believe that everyone in the small communities impacted by the fires has been effected in some way, even if they didn’t lose anything.
“While our family hasn’t been directly affected, you are affected by everyone else who has been affected,” Apps said.
“We have a farm on the outskirts of Bega and at one stage we did get told to evacuate when the fires were getting close but thankfully the wind changed and pushed it back towards the mountain.
“My brother phoned my dad, saying he had just had the police come to the property to say we should evacuate and what should we do because we had just finished milking the cows.
“They were then deciding what to do with the cows and we were going to take them down to the river, not that there was much water in the river for 600 or 700 cows.”
Aitken was at his parents' place in Pambula when the fires flared up.
“It came very close and at one stage I couldn’t even leave,” he said. “South Pambula is on the hill and you couldn’t go west or south from there so it was pretty scary. For a couple of days, it was pitch black from all the smoke.
“I was thinking ‘how am I going to get back to training’ but there was nothing I could do. I have a lot of friends on the hill who weren’t so lucky. It is a rebuild stage at the moment and obviously the fireys are doing an amazing job but they can’t protect every property.
“For a lot of people it’s been an anxious period over the summer. That is why mental health is such a massive thing. People are worried about their property so they haven’t had the chance to go on Christmas holidays because of the fires and you can see the kids are affected, too.
“Obviously they don’t talk about it as much as adults but I am sure they have missed out on holidays so it is devastating for all those communities and the effect it has had on people.”
Apps said there was a feeling of helplessness but people within communities were doing their best to support each other.
“Our community has been fantastic in Bega and the surrounding areas, like Cobargo,” she said. “That was just unbelievable what happened there.
“When I drove through it for the first time I was just trying not to cry. As you go up the coast you can see how much has actually burned, and the loss of houses and animals. I think it is going to be like this for the rest of the summer or until we get decent rain, which everyone is praying for.”