In the winter of 1961, my family moved to Frankston, a small beach town on the southern coast of Australia. Frankston is the last suburb south of Melbourne and in those days it was the end of the line for trains from the city. On a windy day in July (that’s winter down there), I rode that train with my parents to see the house we were going to rent for a few months, until we found a house to buy. The other American expats in the aluminum business all grouped together in the dull suburb of North Balwyn but my father wanted none of that. He was on the fast track to being a CEO and I was on the fast track to adolescent confusion. But one thing we agreed on was that we wanted to live on the beach.
In those years, Frankston seemed like the last outpost of civilization. Beyond that last station, a two-lane road ran all the way down the Mornington Peninsula. With summer houses and a few small towns on the right, sheep farms on the left, and only the Southern Ocean beyond that, it was a long way from our home in San Francisco. And, because of its location on the edge, the town had been memorialized as the setting of Neville Shute’s end-of-the-world novel, On the Beach. In 1959, just a couple of years before we arrived, Frankston welcomed director Stanley Kramer, who arrived Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and the whole United Artists crew to film the movie adaptation.
In the movie, Australia turns out to be the last safe place for human life after a nuclear war and clouds of radioactive fallout have killed everyone in the Northern Hemisphere. The only habitable areas left are in Australia and no one knows how long that will hold true. Gregory Peck arrives as the captain of an American submarine trying to contact the remaining human life on Earth. In the book, Shute – who lived near Frankston — changed the name of the town to Falmouth. But in the movie, it’s Frankston again, and everyone is trying to live as well as they can, hoping that the fallout stops moving south and that somehow, the worst won’t happen.
I’ve been thinking of that movie and my time in Frankston as I’ve watched the images of families standing by their boats on the beaches of eastern Victoria and New South Wales. On the one hand, the pictures remind me of the family friends and the boats we’d spend weekends on, riding along the shore of Port Phillip Bay and beaching them to swim or have picnics. On the other hand, the pictures also show the smoke and flames that have driven them to the edge. They’ve abandoned their homes to the fires and are hoping they don’t have to head out to sea to be rescued.
Australia has always had its share of devasting bush fires. But these fires, which began last September, are massive and unprecedented. As of this week, nearly sixteen million acres have burned. To put that in perspective, imagine a fire stretching from New York City to the Canadian border, setting all of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont aflame. And just yesterday massive firestorms caused two large blazes to merge into one “megafire” of 1.5 million acres. So you can toss the whole of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island on the blaze, as well.
The fires came in a year that combined the hottest year on record and the driest year on record. On December 17th, the average temperature in the country was 40.9˚ C. That’s 105 degrees in American thermometers, and that includes all the cool places along the southern coast and up in the mountains.
When I was growing up in Frankston, there were plenty of bushfires up in the mountains north of Melbourne. When gum trees burn, they burn hot and fast and I remember watching the evening news one summer night and seeing footage shot by a camera crew trying to flee the fire. They were racing down a forest road at 70 miles an hour, as fast as their Holden could go, chased by a wall of flames. I guess, since we saw the film, they made it out alive. So we knew what could happen up there when a hot dry summer meets an idiot with a cigarette.
The areas that are burning are east of the beaches of Frankston, but over the years, I’ve travelled through many of the affected areas, surfing along the coast and, when the swell and wind wouldn’t cooperate, four-wheeling in the Blue Mountains that run up the eastern coast of New South Wales, about 30 miles inland. Down on the coast, areas where I’ve spent time on the beach – from Bateman’s Bay and Ulladulla on the South Coast to Seal Rocks and Yamba in the north – have been burning, the coastal highways shut down in some places and people stranded. In many areas, this has been going on since October.
In 1999, my son Mic and I drove a rented Land Rover up into the Kanangra-Boyd National Park, to the Yerranderie Private Town campground, which is so far off the grid in the mountains east of Sydney that even GPS can’t find it. I’ve never seen forests as luminous as some of the ones we went through, emerald green light filtering down to mossy grey ground cover and the air filled with colorful parrots, cockatoos and shiny white ibis. When we got to the campground, accessible only to four-wheel-drive and hikers (an awful long way to hike), we were the only guests. The caretakers, a couple in their 40s, showed us where to set up and we pitched camp.
Later, they asked us if we wanted to do something few people ever get to do. Between the campground and the foothills going down to the coastal plains around Sydney lies Lake Burragorang, a man-made lake which provides 80% of Sydney’s water. Except for one hiking trail through a portion of it, it’s off limits to the public. But, one day a year, the caretakers of Private Town are allowed to drive into the preserve to ensure that their escape route to the east isn’t blocked should the unthinkable happen, a bush fire to the west that would trap them in its path.
And we were there on that day. Did we want to ride along with them?
There are a lot of amazing Australian animals in the heights of the Blue Mountains. But after we went through the once-a-year gate (the locks worked fine, thank God), we saw something I’ll never forget. As we crested a rise in an open meadow, we came upon a wide plain that ran a mile or two down to the lake. Spread across that plain, as far as we could see in either direction, were herds of wildlife — thousands and thousands of kangaroos and wallabies, grazing in peace with no predators, like a classic painting of the Garden of Eden. And now I read that experts at the University of Sydney estimate that as many as a billion animals have died in these fires. One of the fires, at Green Wattle Creek, is only a few miles from the gate to the lake. It doesn’t look like one of the worst fires, and I’m glad for that. But a billion animals from marsupials to birds to lizards? That’s a billion too many.
Near the lake, a house and some outbuilding are all that remain of the sheep station that was abandoned when the watershed was created. There are still dishes in the cupboards and tufts of wool remain in the corners of the shearing shed. In the courtyard of the house there is still a grapefruit tree. It had at least 100 fat yellow grapefruit hanging on it, as if it had been waiting someone to stop by and pick one. I picked six, out of respect for the effort.
When I think of that house, and those animals and that tree, it reminds me of the bounty we’ve been given with our Earth. For most of our human history, we’ve lived pretty well, and what fools we would be to waste it. When I think of the families gathered on the beaches with their pleasure boats, not knowing what is happening to the homes they’ve abandoned, and wondering if they’ll be safe on the water, I see what a titanic mistake it would be if we fail to correct the climate damage we’ve done to this one wild planet of ours, and us with no life boats.
Watch On the Beach and you can see Frankston as I knew it, Gregory Peck arriving on Platform One of the Frankston station and the parade of shops across the street, where I went to buy kits to make model airplanes. He and Ava Gardner canoodle at the little sail boat club in Daveys Bay, which was at the end of the street where we lived. It looks like paradise, even in black and white.
In 1959, the beaches of Victoria were a long way away from anything that seemed to be important, and if all those beaches had burned up then, it never would have made the news in the United States. It was so far away that Ava Gardner was quoted as calling Melbourne “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world,” although she never said it. The quote was actually from journalist Neil Jillett of the Sydney Morning Herald, and it was a hoax. Some still insiste global warming is a hoax, too, invented by the Chinese government and liberals who hate America. But these fires are not a hoax and the conditions that created them were not winds that blew out of China, Al Gore or Greta Thunberg. They are conditions created by all of us, by our complacency, by a bad case of change-blindness and by our general refusal to believe that anything all that bad can happen to the world as we know it.
In On the Beach, the point of the movie was that Melbourne and Frankston would be the last place a disaster would hit. Now, with these devastating fires, we may one day look back and see it as the first place the disaster hit. Or maybe if we’re lucky, the place it hit and finally caught our attention.