If you take the only tarred road into Ivanhoe from the south, the first thing you’ll see on the right hand side is a typical country service station. I say ‘typical’ because it looks quite run down and yet you can buy petrol, food and other groceries and get your car towed or serviced or even stay overnight in one of the cabins ‘out the back’. The owners, Shell and Rob are the kind of people who will call a spade a spade – or maybe “a bloody shovel”. They tell it how it is – warts and all – and if that involves the occasional expletive then what the f***.
Apparently there was an occasion where a Sydney radio station randomly chose the service station to do an interview about Ivanhoe’s famous / infamous hot summers. When Shell answered, there were quite a few worried locals – as to just how much of the interview might have to be ‘bleeped’ out. That kind of outspokenness sometimes puts them at odds with other locals but they are very much “what you see is what you get”.
I think what I like most about Shell is that, like me, she’s a do-er. During the recent fires in Kinglake, Victoria Shell took it on herself to organise a furniture removals truck / trailer, ringing radio stations, enlisting donations from people along the route to Victoria, organising collection of donated items along the way and attending to a myriad of details so that she and daughter, Janet could get supplies to the survivors ‘on the hill’.
Within a couple of days they were on the road complete with blankets, clothing and other essentials, to a collection centre in Deniliquin where the radio station had organised for donations to be left. On the way, they had already received donations such as $500 worth of pet and stock feed and by the time they got to Deni, volunteers had collected enough supplies to fill the entire truck. They also ‘picked up’ a nurse, who had heard the radio announcement and wanted to help.
When they got to Whittlesea, the first hurdle was that the collection centre had been so overwhelmed with donations of every kind, that they had been forced to turn further donations away. So, how to get up the mountain to deliver the goods when you’re not classed as emergency services? In true ‘Shell’ fashion, she announced to a police officer that he could either give her a pass to allow her up the mountain or he could chase her “lights and sirens” because she was definitely going up that mountain – We’re from New South Wales and we don’t understand “No”! Sure enough, the police gave her a pass and they managed to get their supplies to where they were needed.
It’s often the very best of human nature that says “No, I don’t need anything – there are people a lot worse off than me – give it to them”. But for whatever reason, it was difficult to persuade people to go down the mountain to ask for clothing, blankets etc but there was also no way that they could send truck loads of supplies up the mountain either – without the risk of contaminating the scene.
So once Shell and Janet had ‘emptied’ the trailer they set about going around the tent sites and asking people what they most needed. Requests ranged from pens and paper (to write down the myriad of phone numbers and other necessary contact information from banks, insurance companies etc) to dog leads and bowls and harnesses. There were also people who needed some kind of case or container that would hold the few possessions they had managed to salvage.
And in the middle of it all, Shell was amazed and touched by the concern that people showed as to where they would stay the night. In the bustle and confusion of packing and travelling, she hadn’t given it a thought! And so they ended up spending the night on the mountain and sharing in the meals provided by the army, who had set up the tent site. The next morning they went back down the mountain, packed the trailer with supplies from the Collection Centre and took them back up.
As well as giving out supplies, they drove around the top of the mountain stopping when they found survivors who were rummaging through the debris that used to be their homes. They would ask what these people needed and then see if they could supply it. One lady when asked simply said, “I think what I need more than anything else is a hug”. Shell cried when she described how she just stood there hugging a complete stranger.
One man, wearing just shorts, thongs and a T-shirt, approached them to see whether they had a bridle in their supplies – he needed it for his Clydesdale. As he was getting back into his car, someone told them that apart from his car and the clothes he was wearing he had nothing left. They quickly sorted through the supplies and came up with shoes, clothes and blankets to give him before he drove off. As they were doing this, the man’s wife rang and he explained to her what had just happened. Such was his gratitude that he burst into tears while he was telling her.
The forensic team told Shell that they had to re-assess several of the cars that had been cleared as not containing any deceased because they were continually finding more remains, which had been mistaken for ashes in the first inspection. In one instance, they found a small lump of gold, which, when they prised it open, revealed enough skin tissue for them to take a DNA sample to identify the remains.
They met a lady, who recounted calling out to a man to ask him to make sure that he closed the gate behind him so that the stock could not get out. When she got back into her car she started laughing and crying at the same time when she remembered that the fences either side of the gate had been burnt down.
The next two stories were told to Shell by the survivors (they’re calling themselves survivors rather than victims). They asked that their stories be told.
A man told how he had run with his two daughters to the car, just metres from his house. After putting the girls in the car he raced back into the house to grab the photo albums but heard screams and ran back to the car, only to find that his two daughters had perished in the fire.
A lady and her husband while trying to escape the fires, had come across two cars blocking the road. They couldn’t see the cars through the black smoke and didn’t have time to get out and so the only way to save themselves was to drive through, ramming the cars out of the way and into the ditch at the side of the road. She is now haunted by the idea that maybe people were alive inside one or both of the cars. These are just two of the many, many tragedies that people endured and will now have to learn to live with. Their grief is unimaginable.
Shell came home with such a mixture of happy and sad memories as well as “life-time friendships” cemented in just two short days. She also brought back a very special scrap of paper with a message of thanks written on the back. I had given Shell a suitcase of the very best of Mum’s clothes that I had been saving, without really any purpose in mind.
A lady hadn’t been able to find anything special that fitted her (Shell said that a lot of people needed outfits that they could wear to funerals) and was so happy when she found one of Mum’s lovely outfits. When she insisted that she had to write a thankyou note, all Shell could find to give her was a shopping docket.
Now Shell and Rob work long, hard days and considering Rob has only one leg, they could be forgiven for thinking that the world owed them something. But Shell would be the first to play down her efforts to help the survivors. That would just be all in a day’s (or two) work. So it was a very cruel twist of fate last week that saw a farmer ring and leave a message that he had found her two dogs on his property and had shot and killed them both.
Unfortunately, the law is on his side and farmers have the right to shoot dogs to protect their stock. But these were not feral dogs. These were gentle pet dogs known to everyone in town. If anything, they would have licked you to death. It would have taken a simple phone call to tell Shell and Rob to come and get their pets before he shot them. It’s hard not to be angry about it but life here is tough and the saying, “Walk a mile in my shoes” seems doubly true out here.
I’m pretty sure that other people might have raised quite a storm and maybe even sought revenge. As usual, Shell was philosophical about it – she rang back the next day and asked permission to get the dogs’ bodies from the property, which she’s now done.
Shell will tell you that she’s an ordinary person who’s “not going to heaven”. I’m not so sure about that.