Courtney Stevens moved from Heidelberg to Mallacoota a couple of years ago with her partner for the increas-ingly popular lifestyle choice – a sea change.
Like many Melburnians they had become tired of the rat-race and were seeking a qui-eter life.
The coastal town of Mallacoota suited their vision for a better existence.
A popular spot for boating and fishing, Mal-lacoota also draws tourists to its wilderness coastline. For stressed out city slickers, a walk through rainforest gullies and towering trees provides the panacea they so desper-ately crave.
Ms Stevens embraced the community, with its active arts council, and started hatching plans for her new life.
She opened a homewares business in the town’s main shopping strip, named Salt Home & Living.
With her partner, Ms Stevens established a holiday accommodation business, renting three mudbrick villas to holidaymakers while the couple lived in a fourth unit.
They were doing well and basked in the ease of their new life and the tranquility that a sea-change affords.
But their new world turned upside down on the eve of 2020 when the bushfires ravaged parts of Mallacoota.
Ms Stevens and her partner had evacuated to a safe location and had advised their guests holidaying in the mudbrick units they should pack up and leave.
While two families obliged, a couple in their 40s from Melbourne, decided to stay put.
Situated on the edge of the bush, overlook-ing the lake, the mudbrick villas were en-gulfed by fire.
“We lost our property in the fires, that wasn’t in our plans,” Ms Stevens said.
Now living at a friend’s place in Mallacoota, Ms Stevens admits to “good and bad days”.
While grateful for the kindness and gen-erosity the community has offered, she’s the first to admit that the last couple of months has been taxing.
“We were one of the many who didn’t have insurance,” she said.
Like many, Ms Stevens says dealing with charity organisations and applying for grants through government agencies has been challenging.
“Just trying to ascertain if you qualify is frus-trating. We are thankful, but it’s time consum-ing and humiliating,” she said.
Through it all, Ms Stevens has to put on a happy face each day and opened her shop in the town.
She says people frequently drop by and en-quire why hasn’t the donated money been distributed to those who need it when they realise her plight.
“They come in and ask where is the money?,” Ms Stevens said.
“I’ve actually had people say to me they won’t donate in the future, but rather go straight to the source.
“They now have an apprehension about do-nating to charity because they don’t know where their money goes.”
Ms Stevens says she’s thankful some of the money is going to the clean-up, which is being carried out by Grocon in Victoria.
“I have to drive past my place every day,” she said in reference to her burnt villas.
“It is what it is.”
“I’m sure once it’s all cleaned up town morale will pick up as well.”
The couple lost everything in the fire. Ms Stevens managed to salvage a sculpture from the garden but clothes and personal possessions were lost.
The Melbourne holidaymakers who elected to stay in Mallacoota, rather than evacuate the township, subsequently became ma-rooned.
The afternoon before the fires the Mel-bourne couple was told they had to leave their villa and find alternative accommoda-tion by Ms Stevens.
While the woman was eventually evacuated out of Mallacoota by the Australian Navy, her husband remained behind so he could drive his car and boat out.
Just last week, Ms Stevens received a legal letter from the couple’s solicitor regarding their lost holiday accommodation as a result of the villa going up in flames.
“I’ve seen the best and worst of people in this whole process,” Ms Stevens said.
“Honestly, I couldn’t even think of doing that to someone. I don’t need that sort of stress at the moment.”
Ms Stevens admits the bushfires left her shell shocked for two or three weeks.
With summer now over and people moving on, bushfire-affected residents still remain trapped. They are caught in a bubble of be-wilderment, anxiety and stress at the slow-ness of bureaucracy which is preventing them returning to their regular lives and rou-tines.
“I had a meltdown the other day and had to go into the changeroom,” Ms Stevens said.
“Other people are still struggling. The ones that didn’t lose their homes had an over-whelming sense of guilt. They found it difficult to look you in the eye for a while.
“I know of others who spend days in their PJs at home and don’t go out.”
Ms Stevens says she’s also aware of peo-ple who are still living in their cars because they have nowhere else to go.
A few people have also left the town for a while, unable to cope with constant re-minders of the fire’s impact.
“People need assistance now,” she said.
“So many are simply putting on a brave face. People have talked about wanting to get into the ocean so they can feel cleansed.”
Ms Stevens said the Labour Day long week-end was a sign the community is starting to return to a sense of normality.
“So many people came to Mallacoota just to support the town, whether that was to buy a pie or have a local beer at the pub,” she said.
“A lot of people didn’t know the town was still here to be honest. They all came to have a look.”
IMAGE: Courtney Stevens behind the counter at Salt Home & Living in Mallacoota. Ms Stevens says people are still struggling in the aftermath of the bushfires.