It’s been a hard few months around this great brown island we call home. Devastating drought, widespread bushfires, and dramatic fluctuations in temperature have relentlessly challenged our people, animals and landscape.
For some, life will never be the same. Meanwhile, many others are left wondering what to do to make a positive difference for those people who are doing it the hardest.
It’s easy to feel helpless but the truth is everyone can make a significant difference. Now is the time to reflect on how we can do the right thing by communities affected by some of the worst conditions imaginable, when we head out onto the highways or byways, or even from home.
ONCE IT’S SAFE, GET OUT THERE
It’s been overwhelming to see some of our favourite parts of Australia bear the brunt of Mother Nature’s fury. With over five million hectares of bushland affected by the recent bushfires (as of early January), most of us have probably had one of our much-loved escape destinations affected by fire.
And while we’ve seen fires in every state and territory of Australia, drought has simultaneously, in its inconspicuous persistence, turned vast tracts of land into dust bowls and made verdant green hills crunchy. Which means that much of the country isn’t much fun to look at right now.
So should we simply just stay at home until the scenery improves? No way.
For most of us there’s far more to travel than simply looking at landscapes. Some of us travel to build relationships, between ourselves and our travel party, and with the people we meet along the way. Some of us travel to immerse ourselves in unfamiliar situations that test our resilience, that introduce us to new ways of being, and that shift our perspectives. Some of us travel to learn. And some of us travel to do all these things — or others. So dry scenery can’t really be considered a serious detraction from a destination.
Visiting locations that have overcome or are still overcoming adversity may be more valuable now than ever. It all depends on the attitude we take. It’s worth remembering that in some popular holiday destinations, the locals get 85 per cent of their tourism during the holiday season. In late 2019, Australia was ablaze right before the Christmas break, leading many would-be visitors to cancel holiday plans. Other locations were cut off at the very time they were expecting to see travellers. These communities will be fighting an uphill battle for months, if not years to come. And if we continue to stay away from fire-affected areas, they’ll be left scrambling to find alternative lines of income — or they’ll go bust.
So forget the fact that some places aren’t looking their best. Provided there is no active fire risk or threatening conditions, pick up a map and start exploring our regions. The fish in the rivers and oceans are still there, the cultural heritage of inland Australia remains intact, and the sky is filled with as many stars as it ever was.
Remember also to drop into the Visitor Information Centres when you pass through towns. They’re always bulging with ideas for local places to visit, eat and stay — and may be the only way that some local small businesses can reach out to you.
BUY AND STAY LOCAL
A simple way to help out our Aussie battlers is to buy local. So leave some space in the tuckerbox and fridge when you leave home. There’s no need hit the road bulging with supermarket produce. Then, when you drive past a farm gate stall or a local retail outlet, stop and buy something. Or visit a local market and look for supplies there.
Sure, in some case, the pumpkin or carrot you buy may have some irregularities in shape or colour, and it may even cost a little more than you usually pay. But the money spent goes directly back to local people. And chances are that these goods will taste better than you’ll ever buy commercially, because they were probably picked today or yesterday.
Think too about the ‘food miles’ we save by buying locally — or simply buying Australian instead of Brazilian, Vietnamese or Martian. Whether or not you believe in climate change, one thing is certain: pollution hurts the planet in more ways than are conceivable.
To learn where to find farmers’ markets around the country, check-out: https://farmersmarkets.org.au/find-a-market/.
When it comes time to park your camper at night, remember that not all rural communities have caravan parks. But many do offer camping at the showgrounds, or free camping in the grounds of the local pub, on the assumption that you’ll spend some money during your layover. By having a beer at the bar, purchasing dinner in the bistro or buying tickets in the meat raffle, you can help multiple families. Whether that’s the proprietor, the bar staff, the cleaner, the chef, the handyman, or the wider community.
For locations of pub camps, see: countrypubcamping.com
Volunteering (or ‘voluntouring’ as it’s called in some circles), can be a great way to give back to communities in need of support. While many volunteering opportunities require an ongoing commitment, some organisations specifically cater for varied commitments from travellers, and they’re not all looking for backpackers. Finding these opportunities takes a bit of prior preparation, and may require a willingness to adjust your travel itinerary, to link in with communities seeking help. Here’s a few options to consider.
Bush Heritage is a prime example of a well-established not-for-profit organisation that taps into the skills of volunteers in order to regenerate the Australian bush. Established in 1990 by environmental activist Bob Brown, the vision of Bush Heritage is to return the Australian bush to good health by carefully selecting, buying and then managing land of outstanding conservation value.
Bush Heritage properties expand the potential habitat of endangered species by providing resilience and ecosystems in times of fire, drought and flood. Bush Heritage depend on the support of over 700 volunteers who undertake tasks from upkeep of infrastructure and vehicles, fencing, tree-planting, wildlife monitoring and numerous other tasks. To take part, register via the Bush Heritage website.
The network of Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF, see wwoof.com.au) provides opportunities for volunteers to learn about organic farming methods, while staying on the host property for mutually agreed periods. To get involved, an upfront annual membership needs to be paid after which you can search for work opportunities that suit your availability and skills. There’s no upper age limit and many WWOOF hosts welcome the maturity that older workers bring.
Volunteering with registered charities within local communities is often best done through centralised channels. These include the websites of organisations such as the Australian Red Cross that have specific information about current volunteering opportunities across the country. Other places to find work placements include through online portals such as Govolunteer.com.au which has a large range of volunteer roles including one off, short-term and long-term opportunities. The employment website SEEK also has a separate online resource (www.volunteer.com.au) that provides similar information.
However we choose to help, it’s important to remember that we may tread a fine line between patronage and patronising. While agencies like Rural Aid Australia and the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program encourage Australians to support individuals and communities impacted by drought and bushfires, they also warn that communities in need are often populated by proud individuals who don’t wish to accept charity, particularly if it singles them out.
Assistance to one person, family or small business may be seen as unfair and can upset relationships within tight-knit communities. Equally, individual beneficiaries can feel guilty knowing that their friends and colleagues are doing things equally tough but aren’t receiving direct help. It may be better to manage these types of sensitivities by using registered charities and support agencies to help channel your assistance. Simply rocking into a community to offer your largesse without understanding local dynamics may cause more harm than good.
CHARITY STARTS AT HOME
Once you return home, remember to stay connected. Many of the local businesses that you’ve visited on your travels will be able to freight goods to you anywhere in the country for the cost of postage. In addition, social media sites like the Buyfromthebush Facebook page support rural communities by showcasing great goods that do good.
More broadly, there are numerous registered agencies that are doing great things nationally for rural and regional Australians and whose need for donations never ceases. Organisations directly engaged in drought, bushfire and remote area emergency response include:
- Australian Red Cross: www.redcross.org.au
- Rural Aid/Buy a Bale: www.ruralaid.org.au
- Drought Angels: www.droughtangels.org.au
- Aussie Helpers: www.aussiehelpers.org.au
- Lions Need for Feed: www.needforfeed.org
- Foundation for Rural and Regional
- Renewal: www.frrr.org.au
- Givit: www.givit.org.au
- Salvation Army: www.salvationarmy.org.au
- Royal Flying Doctor Service
So, get online, plan your next adventure, and start making a difference — provided it’s safe for you to do so.