We live here – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
A decade after Black Saturday, a new generation is living a carefree, bush childhood on Bald Spur Road, Kinglake. Part three of our series exploring the enduring appeal of bushy, fire-prone places.
Two boys and a girl clamber in socks and bare feet over a pyramid of giant logs, grey with age.
The timber has been weathering in this formation for a decade. All that remains of the forest that used to cover the block.
In the centre of the woodpile are most certainly snakes.
Mum, a bush kid herself, keeps an eye on the calculated risk unfolding in the backyard.
The kids are on top of the pile, making a racket. The snakes will be underneath, she figures.
Living in the bush is something akin to swimming in the ocean — domain of sharks, stingers, all sorts of peril.
But, for Lisa, the benefits outweigh the danger.
A massive yard for the kids to entertain themselves in, the national park beyond. No cottonwool.
Trailed by their mum Lisa, brothers Cody and Jack McKay-Roberts race up their driveway in Bald Spur Road, Kinglake after school.
Brothers Jack (left) and Cody McKay-Roberts climb one of the few remaining gum trees in their back yard. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Bulldozing the bush
It used to be that you could walk into the bush away from the front door and reach a spot where you couldn’t see the house and couldn’t see the neighbour’s fence.
It was what Lisa loved about the property. Nothing but trees so densely packed that no grass would grow beneath. Out every window was green and brown. Massive trunks, lush tree ferns. On the ground, great strips of bark.
After the fires it took three aborists before Lisa found one who said they could do anything but raze the block.
“The first two said everything had to go, deemed hazardous. The third one said, ‘You can keep a couple’. I thought: alright, we’ll listen to you. We’ll keep a couple.”
The rest were bulldozed or chain-sawed.
Now the views are mountain vistas. The bush — from a distance.
It’s not the same place that Lisa, pregnant with her first child, picked to raise her kids in nature. Where gums cascaded over the dirt road.
But it’s still home.
“When the house burnt down and we lost everything, I felt really territorial. The only thing I had left was my block of land.
“The trees were all gone but I wanted to protect the trees that were still here.”
She’s been hesitant to replant close to the house. But there is still the space and the smell of the air after it rains. The wildlife. The freedom to spread out.
“I’m not big on concrete and buildings upon buildings. The country is my comfort zone.”
Chloe McKay-Roberts kisses her younger sister Lili in the arms of their mum Lisa, Lisa’s partner Chris in the rear. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
‘Always a plan in my head’
The 44-year-old doesn’t want to talk about Black Saturday. Never has, really.
There are families just like hers who made the same choice to live on Bald Spur Road and loved the same life but aren’t here to speak for themselves.
Lisa’s voice grows thin when she describes sitting in the car in Whittlesea that night, listening to the radio while the kids played in the park and Kinglake burned.
By pure chance, she’d driven off the mountain to pick up her then-three-year-old from his nana and poppy’s.
“Otherwise we probably would have been in the house with the blinds closed, watching a movie, trying to stay cool.”
Brothers Jack and Cody McKay-Roberts explore the bush on Bald Spur Road, Kinglake. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
We’re climbing through the bush across the road from the McKays’ house when that three-year-old, now 13, stumbles upon the remnants of some pavers.
“You know,” says Cody, “On Black Saturday our sandpit turned to glass.”
In heat so intense, all the double brick, double glazing made no difference.
Their new house is normal brick, normal windows.
But the land around it is clear, all grass.
Chloe McKay-Roberts and her brother Jack bounce on a trampoline, wet from the hose. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Cody McKay-Roberts mows the lawn around his family’s house. Cleared areas define the houses now, compared to the thickly tree-ed feel of the street pre-Black Saturday. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
I ask how much the fires hang over daily life now.
“I like to think I’m fairly resilient and the kids are. Most days it’s not something you think about. But there’ll be moments where it does creep up on you.
“There’s always a plan in my head.” Her voice quavers. “If there’s an emergency situation, what are we going to do, how’s it going to play out?
Jack McKay-Roberts stands before an expanse of bush while playing in his Bald Spur Road neighbourhood. A house once stood on this spot. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
A world removed
In the slanted late afternoon light, two brothers in pyjamas and bare feet tiptoe gingerly over stones in the dirt track.
It’s Cody and Jack McKay-Roberts but it could just as easily be Patrick and Eugene Holcombe 20 years ago.
Life on Bald Spur Road has regained the idyllic, sleepy feel the fires stripped it of for a while.
Dusty and pot-holed and a world removed from the city below.
Very few people use this bumpy track as a means of getting anywhere. Dirt bikers, the occasional tradie taking the back way home from the pub in St Andrews, maybe.
There’s a handful of new-looking houses. A shipping container here. A shed there.
Where the road dives into the forest the houses stop and nature takes over.
Without a trained eye you mightn’t even think anything momentous had ever happened here.
But the blackened trunks tell another story.
The loss remains unfathomable as ever.
It’s there in the vacant blocks. The driveway that leads nowhere. The frozen-in-time shrine of children’s toys.
It’s the dead treetops that poke from above the living.
But the boys playing outside before bed, the kangaroo bounding across the road — it feels like a vindication of the choices made to live in this place, for better or worse. This is the life that’s possible here. And it’s magical. It was before. It has become so again. Despite all that can never be regained.