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As Australia heals, there’s a host of ways for visitors to help

By Elizabeth Heath Special To The Washington Post

While most parts of the world suffered a terrible 2020, Australia’s trifecta of tragedies seemed especially cruel. Stoked by a yearslong drought, fires ravaged huge swaths of the continent and killed or displaced billions of animals. A massive coral bleaching event fueled by the warming ocean further threatened the already fragile Great Barrier Reef. Then came the coronavirus, which shut down international and most domestic travel in a nation struggling to recover – financially and emotionally – from the bush fires.

But in an almost on-brand manner, Australia is bouncing back. With some human assistance, animal populations and habitat are rebounding – even the Great Barrier Reef is getting IVF treatments. Hotels left in piles of ash are being rebuilt. Smoke-tainted grapes are being used to flavor gin. Australians themselves are discovering more of the wonders of their own ample backyard. And, in a case of tragedy spawning trend, a new genre of travel has emerged from the annus horribilis that was 2020 – restorative tourism.

In this form of more engaged travel, international visitors can participate in activities – such as replanting eucalyptus trees, counting cockatoos or surveying coral growth – that will help the country’s many affected areas come back to life.

“People around the globe have such an affinity with Australia’s unique wildlife,” said John Daw, executive officer of Australian Wildlife Journeys. “We believe that giving visitors a sense of custodianship over our wildlife and habitats will make them care about it even more.”

As the pandemic nears a possible end, “people are craving deeper, more meaningful connections with the places they visit,” said Phillipa Harrison, managing director of Tourism Australia. “When borders are open once again, Australia is ready and waiting with exactly those sorts of experiences.”

Rising from the ashes

Although Australia is used to dealing with nature’s ferocity, the 2019-2020 season caused unprecedented despair. Despite the bush fire devastation, and in many cases because of it, the scorched earth soon sprang to life.

“It was immediate,” said Craig Wickham, wildlife expert and managing director of Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours and Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours.

Within seven days of the fires destroying about half the island’s wilderness areas, buds once buried under the thick bark of eucalyptus trees “burst into life,” he said. Fungi bloomed on the charred bush floor and provided food for hungry animals.

“The birds and fleet-footed animals, or those which had burrows in which to shelter, were out foraging in the ash-beds,” Wickham said.

Endemic plants flowered within days of the fires, providing an immediate source of nectar for birds, insects, bats and tiny pygmy possums. During an October census of endangered glossy black cockatoos, more than 450 birds were counted – the highest number recorded. Wickham said this is “fabulous news for this large, quiet and beautiful cockatoo,” which just 20 years before numbered only 110 individuals.

Southern Ocean Lodge, one of the signature hotels on the island, burned to the ground on Jan. 3, 2020. Its owners, James and Hayley Baillie, are rebuilding and expect to reopen in 2022. For them, one of the first flashes of hope was the welcomed reappearance of a beloved resident echidna, or spiny anteater, named Enchilada.

“She must have burrowed into the earth as the fire passed over her,” Hayley Baillie said.

The other was the discovery that Sol the Kangaroo, the lodge’s unofficial mascot who had been nurtured by staff as an orphaned joey, had also survived.

“He’s now often seen hopping through the staff village and around the newly growing native plants,” she said.

Even on the Great Barrier Reef, nature finds a way. Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, said that at the end of 2020 – the beginning of the Australian summer – teams carried out the world’s first Great Reef Census.

“The mission was to capture ‘reconnaissance data’ in the form of images from across the length of the Great Barrier Reef,” he said. “The project brought together a makeshift research flotilla made up of tourism vessels, dive boats, fishing charters and superyachts crewed by divers, scientists and everyday people who headed to the far corners of the reef to help out.”

Despite the biggest coral bleaching event to date, the researchers found healthy sections of the reef had never been surveyed before. Diving to inspect and photograph them, Ridley said “many were so beautiful that you weren’t sure if you should laugh or cry when you surfaced. Nature is extraordinary and resilient when given a chance.”

Recent worldwide interest in the plight of the reef is cause for hope, Ridley said.

“There has been a groundswell of incredible conservation efforts happening in the water,” with collaboration between the reef tourism industry, researchers and conservation groups. “It’s evolving to be an extremely scalable approach not just on the Great Barrier Reef, but on reefs around the world,” he said.

Still waiting for entry

Travelers keen to visit Australia will still have to wait because borders are unlikely to fully open until at least late 2021. But once international visitors can enter, they’ll find ample opportunities to assist in bush fire and reef recovery. Some restorative tourism opportunities can be found at australia.com. Many of the hoteliers and tour operators in fire-affected regions, as well as near the reef, already offered programs in which visitors could lend a hand, and 2020 events have brought those efforts into sharper focus.

On Tasmania, for example, 2019 bush fires scorched the remote Overland Track, home to ancient stands of montane conifers. The upside is the fires spurred the production of conifer cones, which had not happened since 2015. On guided walking tours organized by Tasmanian Walking Co. in partnership with the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, visitors map tree locations, collect seeds and learn about Tasmania’s alpine flora.

On Kangaroo Island, restorative tourism opportunities include bird banding and rewilding, ride-alongs to check remote cameras and monitor wildlife populations, and, depending on the season, helping with tree-planting programs for long-term habitat restoration.

On the mainland, high-end Emirates One&OnlyWolgan Valley runs a dedicated “Conservation Experience,” giving guests the chance to participate in seed collection, habitat reconstruction, animal counts and tree planting. Echidna Walkabout tours offer one- to three-day Koala Recovery Experience trips to habitats west of Melbourne, where participants plant eucalyptus trees and learn about the importance of koalas to the ecosystem. In Far North Queensland, FNQ Nature Tours takes visitors on daylong treks in search of the spotted-tail quoll – a marsupial that is endangered and, like its cousin the Tasmanian devil, also carnivorous.

Over on the Great Barrier Reef, experienced divers can join Passions of Paradise’s weekly eco tour and collect data about reef health and coral gardening efforts. Snorkelers can take a guided snorkel safari with Reef Magic Cruises and survey a coral stabilization project installed over a cyclone-damaged coral rubble field. When the Great Reef Census resumes in October, Ridley said, tourists will be able to take part via a range of reef tour and dive companies by taking photos of the reef and submitting them online.

And for those who aren’t interested in counting coral, petting koalas or planting eucalyptus trees, there are more passive ways to give back. Across wide swaths of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales wine country, fires or smoke taint – the infiltration of smoke in grapes on the vine – ruined the 2020 vintage for several vineyards. But Reed & Co. Distilleries, based in Bright, Victoria, teamed with local vintner Billy Button Wines to make lemons out of lemonade.

“We were determined to not be defeated by the fires,” said Hamish Nugent, who runs the distillery and bar with his wife, Rachel Reed. “So instead of the smoke-tainted grapes going to waste, we found new ways to showcase them in the 2020 vintage of our two grape-based spirits.”

Spirit Lab Mistelle and Spirit Lab Gin & Juice were top sellers last year, enough so that new releases are planned in 2021.

Ready to adapt

Well-intentioned tourists aren’t going to slow global warming or bring the Great Barrier Reef back from the brink. Yet for Ridley and others, the collective response to Australia’s 2020 disasters was ultimately encouraging.

“For all the horrors of the pandemic,” Ridley said, “it has proven the capacity for people and governments in many places around the world to step beyond politics, get organized and dramatically adapt to the massive challenges facing their people.”

He even sees a more significant benefit: “It really proves that if we brought our best game to the climate crisis, we would resolve the key issues within a decade and set the trajectory to restoration and recovery in the second half of the century.”

Nugent notes that nature wasn’t the only victim of the fires: Businesses suffered, too, yet many, like Reed & Co., found ways to adapt. In Sydney, Archie Rose Distilling Co. switched from brewing hard liquor to making hand sanitizer, and it also created a brandy made from smoke-tainted grapes from New South Wales’s Hunter Valley wine region.

In Queensland, Binna Burra Lodge lost its heritage lodge building in the fires, but it sprang back with campsites, safari tents and apartments that suffered only smoke damage. In Victoria, Peasant Girl Produce created soap bars made with activated charcoal from burned eucalyptus trees.

That ability to take it all in stride and adjust course as circumstances require might not be a uniquely Australian trait, but it is one that sparks national pride.

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