The royal couple meet Guides after their arrival at Winmalee Girl Guide Hall. Photo: Wolter Peeters The Duchess greets some of the first responders who fought last October’s bushfires. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Exactly six months ago on Thursday, fire swept through the Blue Mountains towns of Winmalee and Springwood and destroyed 196 homes.
No lives were lost but thousands were altered beyond recognition. The mountains received blanket media coverage and donations but despite some rebuilding, the landscape remains littered with holes that were once homes.
There are so many communities in Sydney life that the injured are sometimes left to suffer in silence.
Little wonder, then, that when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited, the Blue Mountains residents lined up to tell them about their losses.
The royal couple inspected the ruins of properties in Buena Vista Road, Winmalee, before attending a lunch-reception at the local Girl Guides hall to meet members of emergency services, volunteers and local
residents. For many, the royal visit proved cathartic.
”I’d not really spoken about it much,” said Nicole Molony, 52, a lifelong resident of the mountains who lost her Yellow Rock home to the flames.
”The prince listened to my story and seemed quite impressed that I wanted to stay. Their presence was a real shot in the arm.”
Said Buena Vista Road resident Eartha Odel, 47: ”They were very sincere in trying to understand our grief and very kind and warm and approachable to the children. For them to come out all this way to say hello and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you’ … it didn’t seem like duty to them, it seemed like a pleasure.”
Officialdom had left the Blue Mountains to their own since the fire and locals were not going to miss their day in the sun.
The first people showed up at 6am, more than five hours before the royals arrived, for front row seats outside the Girls Guides Hall.
A kilometre away, up Singles Ridge Road in front of a big round hole that until last October was their family home, Margaret and Richard Bell were stacking a table with champagne and chicken to await a fleeting glimpse.
”I wish to be able to say ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die,”’ Mr Bell joked. ”We’re rebuilding and its wonderful that they’ve come to visit us.”
While residents, young and old and many with dogs, lined up outside the Girl Guides Hall, about 200 more were inside to meet the royals.
And meet them they did.
”I think they shook hands and paused for a few words with everyone here,” marvelled Red Cross volunteer Jeannette Moss.
The prince told firefighters some aspects of his cricket game were suspect, confessed to a Honda motorcyclist that he was a Ducati man, and asked 12-year-old Girl Guide Nicola Cook what he should call a toy wombat the royal family was given by General Sir Peter Cosgrove. ”Nicola,” she advised. ”Nick for a boy.”
Nearby, the duchess seemed stunned by the sheer dimensions of the disaster. ”To not have any loss of life is incredible,” she said.
Across Winmalee blackened trunks of burnt gum trees are thick with new growth but heavens knows the Blue Mountains needs new trees.
The royals played their part by planting a Eucalyptus Summer Red outside the hall. They planted something deeper in the hearts of the Mountains people.