It’s been three weeks since the devastating bushfires swept the south coast of NSW. Bermagui Country Club General Manager Robert Beuzeville is in a reflective frame of mind.
“If the Country Club can help facilitate to mend – it won’t be fixed, but we can mend the way we think about what’s happened – it can only be a good thing for the community.”
Sitting in the empty restaurant of the clubhouse overlooking one of the club’s two bowling greens, it’s difficult to imagine the facility being overrun with people just 21 days earlier.
It was 5 am New Year’s Eve when Robert received a call from one of his chefs telling him he might need to go in early and open the clubhouse.
“When I asked why he said, ‘Because Cobargo’s burning and people are going to need a safe place’,” he recalls.
“I opened the doors about 5.30 am and had 500 or 600 people in here by about 6.30.
“It was very unsettling to see so many cars driving into town. They were bumper to bumper with people looking for somewhere safe.”
The Country Club proved to be that place, not only for that day but for several days afterwards.
“A lot of the people who got evacuated from the Wallaga Lake Caravan park have been coming to this area with their fathers and grandfathers,” he said.
“So the first port of call was the club because it was a safe haven. It’s a double brick building in the centre of town, so it was the first place a lot of people decided to come to.”
Over the next few days, Robert estimates as many as 3000 people churned through the premises as the club provided food, water and shelter.
“We probably only had 600 or 700 people in here at any one time, but over the course of the three days I reckon it would have been 3000 who made use of the place,” he says.
“I reckon it probably peaked on that first day when we had a run between 6 pm and 7 pm when we were doing complimentary dinners.
“It wasn’t chaos or panic because everyone was quite calm, but there was definitely a lot of very worried and scared people around the place.”
With communications cut to the outside world, many holidaymakers were unable to contact worried family and friends outside the region and the access to the internet became the most sought after commodity.
“It was probably the question we got asked the most,” Robert says. “We rely so heavily on our phones these days not just for calls and text messages but for access to information as well.
“A lot of people were really lost without that access.”
He said he and his staff realised early on the most important role they could play was to try to reassure those on-site that things would be ok.
“I felt we needed to be calm and have a sense of well-being for the community and whatever news we did receive we tried to give to the people here at the club,” he said.
“It was interesting because we were just walking around – there were some key staff still here – and we were just asking people if they were ok.
“And I think just the reassurance of that human side, having people looking out for someone else, just that was of some comfort to many.”
Bermagui has been battling for several years, but a recently finalised land deal looks to have secured their future.
Also in the works are some innovative ideas to increase restaurant and bar traffic, and Beuzeville says they were beginning to get traction.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “We’ve been under financial stress for more than 20 years, but we’ve had some luck and success in the past two years with some land developments being sold.
“The club’s starting to turn the corner and the members are behind the board. We’ve been looking at some new initiatives including putting an inflatable castle on one of the bowling greens.
“We trialled that starting Boxing Day and saw a massive increase in lunch and dinner trade which flowed on to the upstairs bar.”
Despite the setbacks, Beuzeville says the club, and the entire community, are determined to get back on their feet.
“We feel for the communities of Cobargo and Quaama and Brogo and Yowrie and Wandella and all those who have been so badly affected,” he says.
“But we have to get back into trade because that’s ultimately the best way to make a positive impact going forward.
“It’s just putting our foot forward and saying ‘Hey, we’re still here, we’re coming out the other side’.
“If we can help you in any way we will, but we can only do that if we are back doing what we need to do.
“The club is a big part of this community and will continue to be, and we will all be pulling together to get past this.