A year on from the devastating fire of November 2011 that destroyed 39 homes, how has Margaret River changed as a destination for visitors?
How do we tour through a place many of us have known over the course of our lives and have held as a symbol of relaxation but which now bears visible, raw scars? And what happens when visitors interact with that place when it is recovering from tragedy? I wasn't expecting to ask any of these questions on a recent three-night stay in Margaret River.
I was there with my family to celebrate a milestone birthday and though I was aware I hadn't been to the region since the fire, I wasn't prepared for my reaction, either to the extent of the damage or to the manner in which this community has embarked on its process of recovery.
Driving into the town of Margaret River, nothing has changed. It's as busy as ever, with people leaning against the railings at Settlers Tavern with a middy in hand, while others stroll down what is now a serious "strip" of cafes, restaurants and shops. I am relieved. It isn't as though businesses have closed up or visitor numbers are visibly down.
We'd rented a house for the duration of our stay and as we head down Wallcliffe Road we begin to see swathes of bushland sporting grey, dead trees. Beneath them is the vivid green of new growth.
We spend our first night in a beautiful sprawling wooden house overlooking the forest between Caves Road and Margaret River. The next day we drive to the coast to check out the surf and explore the rock pools with our children, aged seven and five. As we approach Prevelly Park I struggle to recognise a place I have known over the past few decades.
It is a landscape of healing wounds. Houses never before seen, cosseted as they were by coastal scrub, stand exposed for all to see. The once-verdant sand dunes around the beach known as Rifle Butts, adjacent to the river mouth, are bare, bald. There is patchy green undergrowth but this merely dots large tracts of unheld sand. It's almost as if these dunes have endured the ravages of chemo. Huge sections are fenced off to promote regeneration, and locals skirt these new fences respectfully, stopping at a bench to view the swells heaving in from the south-west.
It's as if they - we, all West Australians who have a special connection to this place - are watching the recovery of a sick child we have loved for many years. A few small plants burst forth feistily, as if to say: "Watch this space!"
The kids spot a playground nestled behind these dunes and beg us to take them down to it. Here we discover the grace and creativity with which this community has embraced the process of recovery and restoration. Next to the playground, unsigned and unheralded, are two memorials we called The Graveyard and The Fire Truck.
The Graveyard is a collection of stakes marking the loss of each precious home. RIP. Bob's place, one says. Another: Home Sweet Home. The posts are arranged in a higgledy- piggledy way and weeds grow up among them.
A few metres away from this memorial is the burnt-out body of a fire truck left in situ. One can only presume it was used in the operations in those terrifying days last November.
Around it stand some of the street signs we all know so well: Keep Left; No Exit; Left Turn Only. Poignantly, the latter has been touched up to read If Only. A No U-Turn sign leans, rusting, next to it.
In the near distance the surf pounds the beach and children's laughter soars up over the dunes. Here the sand is coarse; the grains are like sesame seeds on our toes as we slough gloriously through it.
Driving home, we are reminded of the hurt beneath this healing. We spot a handmade sign, called the Blame Allocation Meter. It has a spinning arrow and invites passers-by to try their luck. They might land on El Nino, smokers, the weather man or DEC. For some, questions still need to be answered.
But as we drive north towards Perth, we already yearn to be back in "Margies". And somehow, the ash, the sadness and the beauty make visiting all the more meaningful; all the more rewarding.
• The Augusta Margaret River Tourism Association is at margaretriver.com.• In-house holidays (IHH) is at inhouseholidays.com.au.
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