EXCLUSIVE

Backpackers find refuge while volunteering with Macksville BlazeAid camp

(L-R) Lara from England, Alex from Germany, Joe from England, Tina and Phil from Argentina, Leticia from Brazil and (centre) Riley from Canada.
(L-R) Lara from England, Alex from Germany, Joe from England, Tina and Phil from Argentina, Leticia from Brazil and (centre) Riley from Canada.

Macksville's BlazeAid camp has not only been a godsend for many fire-affected families in this valley, but also for a group of backpackers who found a safe haven during lockdown.

In February the Federal Government gave backpackers the green light to help Australian communities recover from the bushfires, with the labour then counting towards the "specified" work needed to apply for second or third year visas.

"It's far more rewarding work than fruit-picking," Canadian backpacker Riley said, who worked in both the Wingham and Wauchope BlazeAid camps before calling the Macksville camp home.

We'd rather do this and help the community.

Brazilian backpacker Leticia has been at the camp the longest and was picking blueberries in the Nambucca when the firestorm decimated a third of our valley.

"After that I was sort of stuck here, but I received so much help from the community. I knew I wanted to give back," she said.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and started shutting down the country.

Stranded abroad with dwindling work opportunities and travel bans in place, the 11 backpackers currently camped at the Macksville Showground see the arrangement as a win-win scenario.

In exchange for their much-needed assistance, they receive room and board ... and a uniquely Australian experience some say they'll cherish for life.

"I think we were a lot more privileged in lockdown than those in the city because we got to be around other people, and be out in the bush every day with fresh air in our lungs," Argentinian backpacker Tina said.

And the arrival of five flat-pack 'pods' just in time for winter has made their stay a little more hospitable.

The Global Swift Shelter pods are made from steel frames and corflute board panels, and take an hour to erect. They come with a light bar, power point, smoke alarm, fire blanket and extinguisher, and can comfortably house two people.

The five pods are currently being housed in the cattle shed at the Showground, and the backpackers have each been adding their own unique touches to them, with clotheslines, verandahs and shoe racks.

The five pods are currently being housed in the cattle shed at the Showground, and the backpackers have each been adding their own unique touches to them, with clotheslines, verandahs and shoe racks.

Show Society president Michael Ettelson is pleased with the arrangement too.

"We love BlazeAid being here - it's really important they're here. During the pandemic so many events have been cancelled. But these guys are all COVID-19 compliant," he said.

After a brief hiatus, the camp officially started fencing again at the end of April. And camp numbers have been slowly building back up since, with 29 currently stationed at the Showground.

There have also been community groups and interested individuals coming in on a regular basis to help out with meals.

Camp Coordinators Chris Mattick and Bob Abdoo say more help is always appreciated, and they're hoping there might be a few locals interested in baking sponges, slices and other home-cooked wonders as on-the-job snacks for fencing crews.

There are currently 153 properties from the Nambucca Valley registered for assistance. Work has started on around 100 of those, and 60 properties now have completed boundary fences.

Chris estimates that around three-quarters of the combined total of external fences have now been completed by the 318 registered volunteers the camp has had since November.

The camp has also just been given the nod to start work on internal fences, with priority still being given to boundary fences.

A $45,000 donation from the Australian Lions Foundation has secured around 20km of fencing materials, which Chris said was greatly appreciated and has gone quite a long way.

But, of course, there's still a long way to go. With COVID-19 restrictions now easing, Chris and Bob are hopeful the community might feel emboldened to lend a hand to get the job done.

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