Mark Kriedemann’s family was among those who lost homes and property in the Black Summer bushfires that swept though Kangaroo Valley in the NSW Southern Highlands.

Over the past six months, he’s documented the region’s transformation from blackened earth to green-again forest – to its latest challenge, COVID-19.

“A lot of the old locals… that have lived in Kangaroo Valley all their life, they spoke about fires back in the 60’s and 80’s, and how the fire behaved then and what it did. But I think it was a pretty unprecedented event for most people around the valley. So, no-one really knew what was going to happen. And, I think that was one of the really challenging things for us.” – Adam Darby, Kangaroo Valley Getaways.

In the township, cafes, restaurants and craft stores rely on a steady stream of visitors to support their business. After the fires passed though, that changed drastically. Tourism seemingly disappeared and it was left to locals to support their own. 

“Someone commented that [it was like] the coffee shops in town had became counselling centres. And it was. We had only opened for a few hours in the morning but I remember the feeling – come 10 o’clock, going, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore, I’ve had enough’ – because we were emotionally wrecked. We were riding the wave with our regulars. And these are grown men bursting into tears and hugging people… there was no sense of normal then.” – Stevie-Lee Bounader, Hampden Deli

For real estate agents, the fires have had long-lasting impacts. Many of the properties they managed were lost. This meant that even once trade appeared to be improving, there were fewer places for tourists to stay, and that stunted the ability for their business to recover.

“We were being impacted business-wise long before the fire got anywhere near Kangaroo Valley because people were watching it on the news and were really hesitant about going away anywhere down here. Our turnover for January was down, I think, by over 60 per cent, because we were able to take some bookings in the second half of January after the fire settled down.” – Adam Darby.

For some of the valley’s younger residents, like Tanesha who works at Valley Hair, the fires caused immediate distress and long term problems. 

“It was pretty scary. I was looking at the map of the Fires Near Me, and I was actually really worried that it was going to come into the valley [township]. If we didn’t have that last little bit of wind change, I think it could have done some real damage  It was so awful to hear about all the houses that were lost, and all the people that have struggled to try and find new places to live.”

“And it’s been really hard for the businesses, because obviously it’s been so quiet. There’s been hardly anyone around, so I did close for a week over Easter time because it was just so dead.”

Once the immediate impacts and the memories of the fires started to become distant, businesses started to recover – along with the environment. In Kangaroo Valley the two are strongly linked, with the environment one of the area’s major draw cards.

“We see most of the traffic in the Autumn and Winter seasons. I guess that’s part of the romance attached to the valley. People use it as an escape to natural surrounds, at times when the beach isn’t an option. To be down and out in this environment’s quite therapeutic.” – Peter Tennant.

But the return to usual turnover after the bushfires, was soon followed by a new challenge.

“February is normally a quiet month for us at the best of times, but because we hadn’t been taking bookings basically for over a month, February was still down for us. I think we were down about 30 per cent, but March was really encouraging… then COVID happened,” – Adam Darby.

Adam Powley and his wife Melissa are co-owners of “Sweet As Kangaroo Valley”. They also saw business recovery efforts quashed by the arrival of COVID-19. After the bushfires they had made good progress, only to eventually decide that the business would have to be closed until the lifting of travel restrictions.

“It was quite interesting, because we started to pick-up after the bushfire, probably from about mid-February. We started to get back to reasonably okay trade again. And then by early March it was quite strong and then just after they announced the lockdowns, we had a cracking week and weekend. It was really, really strong.”

“And then, it must have been around the 20th or 25th of March or something when they announced the lockdowns, [trade] it just fell of a cliff and everybody disappeared. And then we just took the decision that it was in our, and everyone’s interest, that we close the business.”

Despite their change in fortunes, Melissa and Adam found a silver-lining to keep their business operating.

“The internet side of things, or the website, that was my project through COVID-19. We hadn’t had a website at that point. So, that was something I was able to work on that we were looking to do down the track when we found the time. We started to do take-home tubs. I think people just wanted something feel-good over that period, because no one was out and about.”

 For Peter Tennant and Karen McCormack at Restdown Kangaroo Valley, the inability to travel during COVID-19 affected them uniquely. The property they manage is a very old building, which presents a double-edged sword. While it is an attractive building, it requires a lot of maintenance.

We definitely missed not getting down as regularly as we would, even though when we were coming down it’s always attached to some sort of work or maintenance on the property.

Despite recovering from the earlier bushfires, Mrs Bounader of the Hampden Deli reflects that the challenges of COVID-19 were very unique.

“With Covid, it was completely different. I’ve talked to a lot of business owners and they were saying that, for them, they could almost see an end-game with the fire – like when it came through we could tell when it was going to leave. And then the destruction, we could build upon it and deal with it. With the coronavirus it’s been a bit more challenging because it felt like there was no end-game. And it was something that none of us have delat with before, a pandemic like this in our lifetime.”

At Kangaroo Valley Getaways, the difficulties of property management during COVID-19 are multiplied. 

“We went to pretty much zero [bookings] for the whole of April and May. The only people we had stay at any of our properties were people who were coming down here to work. As far as having just visitors to Kangaroo Valley, we were pretty strict on not allowing that, and following the government advice, which we thought was the right thing to do. We didn’t want to be bringing people down here unnecessarily and putting community members at risk.” – Adam Darby.

“I think on May 19th was when the NSW government announced that it was going to be lifting restrictions at the start of June. Within half an hour of that announcement being made our website was just getting smashed with bookings coming in. It was like a floodgate had opened.”

“It has been encouraging, after such a tough start to the year, to see things turn around so quickly. I think Kangaroo Valley is in a pretty unique position… being so close to Sydney. I think short trips within that two-hour radius were the first thing on people’s agendas.”

Mr Darby continues to measure his assessment of the situation with caution.

“I do have some anxiety about people becoming a little bit too relaxed too quickly… I’m not sure how well people are practicing social distancing.”

Mrs Bounader also realised the potential for the spread to continue after the lifting of restrictions. So, the Hampden Deli implemented a few changes to its business to remain vigilant amid the wave of new visitors to the valley.

“We’ve had a lot of people just laugh at us asking for their phone numbers, they think we’re picking them up. But we’re not picking them up, we’re just asking them for their phone numbers just in case there is an outbreak.But people are pretty cool. I’m happy, I’m so grateful. It’s been crazy busy and it’s what we really need. It’s been six months of uncertainty.”

Despite continuing vigilance, Mrs Powley is positive about the future.

“I think, as a whole, the valley has been pretty resilient through an extremely tough time. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but I think through adversity, I think it’s made everybody just rethink what they’re doing. As for the general public, we’re seeing people come now who’ve never visited before. So I think that’s a real hope for the future, for us all when we come out of COVID-19.”

Despite the guarded positivity around the valley, a recent spike in positive tests for the coronavirus in NSW and Victoria, could mean the hardships brought on by the downturn in tourism, are far from over. 

In the meantime, things are looking up for the environment as its rejuvenation continues.

Rain immediately after the bushfires, and which has continued consistently, has boosted growth.

Kangaroos and wallabies have returned to the area in large numbers.

While the community, environment and wildlife have come far in their recovery, the long road ahead has been extended indefinitely.

 — Story and all photos, Mark Kriedemann @KriedemannMark