A significant piece of habitat

Jimmy Malecki, Bungawalbin

If you took the Space Needle in Seattle, where I’m from, and lay it down on its side, it would fit within the boundaries of this property. It’s 605 foot high, and this is 1.6 kilometres long – that’s a significant piece of habitat.

My partner and I had been looking for a place to purchase for a couple of years. We had the same Bucket List item – to get a hundred acres next to a National Park and protect it as habitat. On the whole coast of New South Wales, this was the biggest forested area that we could find, and we thought it was perfect.

When we first went out the back, it looked like the wetlands of Kakadu. This property can be underwater six out of twelve months of the year. You’re in gumboots. Even though we’re forty kilometres from the coast, this is considered a Coastal Freshwater Wetland in the upper Northeast Region. That’s a paperbark swampy forest. You have red gums, ironbarks, a lot of paperbarks, callistemons. These are endangered ecological communities, under threat of extinction.

When we first purchased the property, I really didn’t have a clue. It was my partner Richard who came down here first, drove into the property and saw wisteria in bloom out the front. He decided to buy it right there and then. The owner said, ‘Well, maybe your partner should come have a look?’ It was funny, Richard was only interested in the gardens. She said, ‘Would you like to see the house?’ And he said, ‘I don’t need to see the house.’ 

Jimmy with his dogs at The Bog Conservation Area. Photo: Ben Belle

Then when I came down, she said, ‘Do you want to see the house?’ 

And I said, ‘No, I want to see the bush!’ 

During the process of doing a biological assessment for the property, I learned there are 154 plant species on this property. I still don’t know all of them. We’ve got squirrel gliders, frogs, the little lorikeet, which is listed as vulnerable. I’ve seen a powerful owl on one of the walking tracks here just sitting on the ground. We sat and stared at each other for ten or twenty minutes. 

The other thing I learned about Australia is everything is dangerous and can kill you. 

I’d seen coastal emus down the road. They favour more heathy, open country. They did an annual emu count, and there was around a hundred birds thought to be left. During the course of the past twelve years, it’s less than fifty birds left. RMS put the highway down. They did a bypass. We don’t know what happened there. Bushfires is a main culprit, feral pigs. Car strikes is another one. 

During the start of the 2019 bushfires the wetlands were crispy as. Everything around here was dry. The leaves on the trees were just hanging down. It was November 16th when the fire came through. I got all my stuff out that I didn’t want to lose. I spent five grand on getting a sprinkler system. I put one on the office and the studio and one on the guest accommodation. Sprinklers, metal gutter-guard. It was so dry and it was eerily quiet. Coming from Seattle, we get lots of earthquakes, and it gets to the point where you can judge how they are on the Richter scale by how the windows rattle or the house shakes. It had that feeling, a certain feeling of oppressiveness. People who live in Seattle would say ‘This is earthquake weather.’ It’s not about the weather, it’s just about a feeling. That’s how I felt, watching the fires going up, looking at the wind changing direction every day. It was like these fires were scrubbing the landscape clean. It was just terrible to watch. 

A lot of the people here – you get to know people that have been here for generations – they said they’d never seen anything like it. 

They said, ‘This is not normal.’

Two days later, the fire approaching, I was just wishing for the wind to change direction, or rain, but it didn’t happen. Fire trucks came down and they said ‘You gotta evacuate now.’ And I said, ‘Can we at least turn the water on?’ So I ran over and showed him where the pump was, and we left. 

I went to the Aranyani Bison Ranch. All my stuff was there in boxes, two trailers full. My slides, negatives and hard drives, pictures and gifts Richard and I had given each other. The wind switched direction. It came from the southeast and slowed the fire down. It took six hours to go two kilometres. The sprinklers had been on for six hours. At 9:30 at night the fire started coming through and I came back here and there were four or five fire trucks in the yard, protecting the house. The RFS were so gentle. After they left you couldn’t tell they were here. They asked my permission, ‘Can we do a back burn?’ The fire was just to the north of us, maybe fifty meters away in the bush. So they did the back burn and they stopped it from coming here.

The RFS work to protect Jimmy’s house and infrastructure at The Bog Conservation Area, Bungawalbin. Photo: Jimmy Malecki

Being at the back end of the fire, you’re just in shock. It looks like a bomb went off. The wind was going in different directions. A house down the road, fire went through: saved it. That fire came back: saved it. They didn’t think it would happen again. They went to town, did a shop, came back, their house was gone. So I thought, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to protect my house.’ It could be two months later, I’d be brushing my teeth, going to bed, always afraid of the fire erupting again, and there’d be a tree on fire out there. The dam wall was burning for three months. 

I met Richard in 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympic Games. He was playing pinball at the South Park pinball machine. He’s a good-looking man. And I was not in the best shape. So I wasn’t sure if he was looking at me, or my assistant, but he kept looking over in my direction. When we started talking, the room disappeared. Then within a couple of minutes, we were arguing, because he said Australia had the best scuba diving. And I said, ‘No, it doesn’t!’ I’d been working in the Cayman Islands. And I’d been told that because of agricultural runoff, the visibility wasn’t as good as it could be in the Great Barrier Reef. 

From that point on we did everything we could to be together. We used to take an esky with food in it and a cheese platter and a couple of beers and sit at the creek here with the doggies and I’d say, ‘You know what? If there is a heaven on earth, I’m living it right now.’ And we both felt that. We were able to fulfil our dream to protect habitat for the coastal emu, for the large forest owls, for the little lorikeet, for all the marsupials, especially after the four billion or more animals thought to have perished in the Black Summer fires.

 Richard passed away just before the fires, on August 27th, three days after our sixteenth anniversary. It was the time of the marriage equality debate. It was the only thing on the news. People were saying, ‘It’s a respectful debate, it’s not harming anybody.’ And I was thinking, It’s harming me. Are you serious? We were engaged for sixteen years and never allowed to marry. 

After he passed away, I had two weeks to organise the funeral. His father didn’t want him cremated. The only thing I could think of was the spot next to the dam that we’ve always thought was the perfect camp spot.

The fire went all the way around the back, the 245 metres, and got to Richard’s grave site and stopped. It’s just bizarre. It just stopped at the gravesite and it didn’t jump the track. It jumped the road and burnt on the other side, but never jumped over there next to Richard’s grave.

Jimmy at Richard’s gravesite with Lilly. Photo: Ben Belle