Dear friends,

 Kris wants a more entertaining opening to the letter so what’s a guy supposed to do.  Don’t know so I’ll start anyway.

 Starting this year’s letter in August.  So much has happened that if I feel it might take four months to write (it did – Ed).  I’m going to update our website so you can refer to more lengthy details of some of the occurrences if you are a glutton for punishment.

 And a special welcome to the expanded distribution of this tome.  Look at what you’ve been missing out on all these years.

 As per usual, I start this year’s letter by referring to the exciting bits that happened in the time between last Christmas and the creation of last year’s Christmas letter.  You might recall that the Saab convertible and myself were collected by a taxi coming through a Give Way sign.  Well, it took over 4 months to get the car back on the road, just in time for Kris and myself to make our way to Melbourne, me for work but also to stay for the weekend and a Christmas party with the people from EMA’s Mount Macedon site that I work closely with.

 We drove almost all the way with the roof off but unfortunately after just leaving Canberra, we discovered the car wasn’t able to select 5th gear.  Bugger it, we persisted anyway but were somewhat dismayed that the car would need to go back for more work.  We were suitably sunburnt anyway.  The Christmas party was fun and Kris got to experience my living conditions that I have on my frequent trips to Mount Macedon. 

 The Institute at Mount Macedon is very close to the famous Hanging Rock (of Picnic at Hanging Rock fame) so on the Sunday as we left, we went for a bit of an explore.  As we got near the top of what is a real labyrinth of huge boulders and nooks and crannies, we met a young couple who greeted us laughingly by suggesting to us to be careful and not get lost.  We got so lost trying to get back down.  We heard the sound of school age girls giggling (if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie – quick- do so now) and we scrambled off in the direction of the voices. And we were never heard of again……….oh ok, we found the kids and discretely followed them down.

It was a hot and dry summer.  Just before Christmas, we went to the big concert on the lawns beneath Parliament House and almost got trampled by the surge of groupies who crowded some of the more famous acts.  Well, we were parked with our blankets at the very front!  Kris had completed a really extra hard year at work and was really burnt out. 

 Michael and myself prepared the Christmas Eve feast and Christmas Day was spent at Karen’s and Charles with our families and Mum and Dad.  A spur of the moment decision saw our family spread out over parts of Sydney for New Years Eve.  Kris and myself were with Hania at Darling Harbour while the younger ones did younger things as younger ones do!

 As a newly trained but probationary volunteer fire-fighter, I did some shifts at our depot on the odd weekend on standby.  It was early in January that lightening strikes in the Brindabella to the west of Canberra, ignited a number of fires in very rough, inaccessible terrain.  Canberra became a little unpleasant with the westerly winds continually drifting smoke haze over Canberra.  The fires grew day by day.

 I did an overnight shift in the Brindabella Mountain Range crewing a Light Tanker along with two other fire-fighters.  Our mission was to protect the historically significant Prior’s Hut and arboretum. I am extremely proud to say that Priors Hut is one of only a very few alpine huts that survived the inferno that enveloped the entire high country.  It was such an amazing experience being in such close proximity to such flame and heat.  I spent most of the night using a drip torch to start back-burning fires.  I felt a bit despondent because as a fire-fighter, I thought I should be putting fires out rather than lighting them (under supervision).  At dawn, I had a ceremonial pee on a smouldering log so I could at least say I did my bit to put the fires out.  Dawn resembled a World War I battle scene with such smoky mist.  A full page article in the Canberra Times a month later referred to battle to save the alpine huts and mentioned in particular, our efforts that night on the dark and lonely Mt Franklin Road.

 On Friday evening, January 17 we dropped Michael in Tuggeranong and watched in amazement as embers were drifting down in the suburbs.  We drove to the Mount Stromlo observatory and watched in awe the mountains that were alight.  I guess we were among the last who ever saw Mount Stromlo observatory in one piece.  We dropped in on my Bushfire Brigade depot during a shift change and spoke with some friends. Things were certainly getting spooky.  I was using a radio scanner to listen to our transmissions and there was greater urgency in the efforts of fire fighters.  Absolutely no idea of what was to follow.

 January 18.  It was Canberra’s worst hour but it was Canberra’s finest hour.  I won’t include here the description of my experiences, I believe most of you would have received a copy of what I wrote earlier.  My submission was included in the Bushfire Recovery book “How did the fire know we lived here?”. I have posted a copy of the final version on our website for anyone needing a refresh but I would encourage all to buy a copy of the book.  It goes toward the recovery effort.

 What I didn’t write in that submission was my concern for my family on the day.  I knew how close we lived to the Red Hill nature park and I was sure in such conditions it would go up as well.  At one stage, I had a chance to ring on my mobile but the mobile network was extremely congested.  I finally got through and sort of spoke with Kris’s mum who couldn’t hear me and hung up but at least I knew the house was standing.  Kris took charge of home Defence’s with Michael up on the roof clearing gutters and installing a sprinkler.

 We lost our other Saab, it went up along with all the other cars parked at our depot.  It was the first car Kris ever picked so it was extra sad for her.  NRMA paid the claim fairly quickly but they charged an excess and didn’t cover contents because it wasn’t parked it the driveway.  Scum ! We were out putting our bodies on the line, in effect to reduce their claim payouts and that is how they treated us!  The ACT Government did pick up the difference so we weren’t out of pocket.

 On a lighter note, I had earlier decided not to tell Mum and Dad about my role as a fire fighter to avoid their unduly worrying.  Early on January 18, before the onslaught, when we were patrolling the Kambah Pool Road, a Canberra Times photographer pulled up next to us and took a couple of shots of me on the back of the fire truck and took my details.  I resolved that I would need to tell Mum and Dad before they saw the photo in the paper (as it turned out, the events supplied much more news-worthy photos).  My story was also included in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management (along with those Canberra Times photos).

 I didn’t realise how trauma’d I was after the event. I don’t think it was so much the adrenaline charge but more the close witness of the devastation and destruction and a feeling of not being able to do enough.  I found it very hard to concentrate back at work and there still was grave danger facing North West Canberra.  I did a couple of fire-shifts but not much occurred during them.  I was no longer considered a probationary fire fighter and I even got sit in the front seat of the fire truck and operate the sirens, lights and radio.  All those boyhood dreams realised.

 I wasn’t settling so I went and spoke with a counsellor and managed to have her in tears so I was quite proud of that.  Kris and I took ourselves down to the South Coast for a few days, to blow the smoke away.  It worked wonders and we think it may have had something to do with the supply of trawler fresh prawns and bugs we found.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yummo !

 We were sort of getting by with the one car but it was causing a bit of grief.  I had developed a bit of a bug for a light four wheel drive and we took a used Subaru Forester for a drive.  Michael spotted a bargain on the internet in Sydney, so we took the day off and drove to Sydney and brought back Freddie the Forester.  Had only 40,000 km on the clock and whilst driving him back, got hit by a really violent storm.  It was really stable and sure footed and I was in love.

 This was the week that Mum went into hospital after having a fall.  You all know what has happened next and it is important to me that this Christmas letter is not a tissue-invoking read.  I will say the next two months were a nightmare with the hospitalisation of Mum, the sudden passing away of Dad and the eventual passing away of Mum, but not before doing our best to try to get her into a nursing home.  The cloud’s silver lining was the warmth and love that I received from my family and friends.  I still hurt lots, some days are better than others but things get better everyday.

 I was interviewed on the ABC’s Stateline Program, the day after Mum’s funeral in relation to my submission to the Bushfire book.  It managed to take my mind off things somewhat.  My Doctor gave me a month off work and Kris also had time off.  We began to plan a better escape. We started by having a couple of days at Thredbo which included a walk to the top of Mt Kosciuszko.  It was a lovely escape.  We dined well and enjoyed each other’s company. We witnessed some of the fire damage so close to Thredbo.

 The memorial trees we planted for Mum and Dad down the lake were either stolen or removed by Parks and Gardens.  We scouted out a more discrete place and planted some bigger ones.  I hope these ones last.

 We booked a Fijian holiday for August, we were finally going to have our honeymoon.  Sort of got back into the swing of things at work in May.  Lots of things happening on the Emergency Management Front.  I travelled extensively back and forth across the country, apologies if I didn’t visit anyone but I really didn’t have time.

 During that travel, we had a scare with Michael’s sinuses.  He is susceptible to sinus infections that need to be hit severely with antibiotics.  He has had two hospitalisations in his teenage years in relation to this.  I was in Melbourne at the time so I cut short the trip and got back as soon as possible.  He was treated without hospitalisation this time.

 We have finally got our Garage sorted out with the purchase of lots of really swish cabinets.  We consulted some builders re extending our house.  Gawd, it’s an expensive business.  We engaged an architect who took about 6 weeks to come up with nothing that matched our design brief so we politely told him where he could go.

 We finally bought our investment property, a residence in Red Hill.  Of course, with us, nothing is ever simple and our full price offer preceded another full price offer from some other would be buyers.  The vendor said the first to exchange could buy.  With Kris on our team, the others didn’t stand a chance.

 Before we knew it, August had crept up on us and Kris and myself were off on our jaunt.  We started the holiday by having a shopping spree in Canberra on the weekend which included purchasing a new digital video/still camera.  We started the journey in style by travelling Sydney via train, first class of course.  It was interesting and a little bit scenic (we didn’t know there were so many tunnels between Canberra and Sydney), the train was very popular with pensioners but it just seemed to stop a little too often.

 We spent the night in Sydney with Hania and were very excited, just like children on the night before Christmas.  Inga drove us to the airport in the morning and we were off.  We started with a bit more duty free shopping at the airport then retired to the Qantas Club to snack and drink before boarding our Air Pacific 747 to Nadi.  We were sitting right at the front……well….of economy class, but it did mean we had better legroom.

 As the plane landed, I could glimpse parts of the Fijian country side but it was getting dark.  We transferred to the Trend West Resort by taxi for the first stage of our break.  Even the taxi ride was different, travelling through Nadi en route to Denarau Island.  There were lots of people walking and sitting on the sides of the road.  I was already impressed with the friendliness of the Fijian people.

Ok, I won’t bore you too much with the details of the beautiful weather, the twilight serenading and sunset ceremonies that accompanied the most beautiful sunsets. Nor will I mention the happy hour cocktails (we were mugged one night by some very powerful cocktails that dulled our anticipation the next day for joining in the Kava ceremony), the sailing in the warm waters, the cycling around the island, the long walks.  I will mention the public bus ride into Nadi to do some grocery shopping.  The bus winds its way through villages, the bus itself has no windows.  Shopping at the traditional markets was not what I imagined.  There was no hard selling, just lovely produce and real Fijians.

 After 5 nights, we were moving on to the Fijian Resort on the Coral Coast.  We hired a 4-wheel drive (Santa Fe) for two days and en route to the Fijian, we diverted to Nadi airport to meet Alex’s Pierre’s parents for lunch.  Pierre’s father was en route to the South Pacific Summit in Auckland.  The Fijian resort is located on Yacuna Island which is connected to the mainland by a 100 m causeway.  The island is surrounded by a coral reef with crystal clear waters.  Ok Ok, more of the last paragraph but I’d better include snorkelling in magic conditions (no chance of big sharks scraping their belly buntings over the reef) plus we did a bit of mongoose stalking.

 On one day, we drove to Suva where I had my encounter with one of the infamous wood hawkers.  They chat to tourists and before you know it, they are carving your name into some sort of ceremonial stick and expecting you to pay for it.  I was my usual gullible self, believing the man when he said he wanted to “give” me something.  Needless to say, Kris rescued me. We also went for a bit of a drive on some local roads where we needed to take advantage of the 4-wheel drive capability of the car.  The trip was punctuated by screams of delight from Kris when she saw some of the baby piggies in the villages.  The trip was also punctuated by some mutterings from me when seeing some of the wonky bridges I was expected to drive over (think Raiders of the Lost Ark).

 We had 7 days at the Fijian where we think, courtesy of the buffet breakfast, we both put on about 15 kilos. We then had a coach transfer back to Denarau island but this time we were staying at the Sheraton Fiji Resort.  On our last night in Fiji, we had cocktails at sunset at the Sheraton Royal Resort.  It was the same place where we had spent our first sunset two weeks earlier (it is within strolling distance of Trend West).  It is so hard to describe how I felt, the two weeks were priceless.  It was the best holiday I have ever had.  It was so cathartic for Kris and myself, it was the honeymoon we never had and we cemented the love we have for one another. The holiday was so good, on my return to work, I could not remember the security access code to the door at work.

 The downer was that our return flight to Sydney left at 8:30 am.  The transfer bus was leaving the hotel at 5:15 so we had to get up at 4:30 which was 2:30 Canberra time. It was a long day but we had the same seats on Air Pacific as on our arrival.  Lucky we had filled up in Qantas Club because breakfast on board the flight was pretty inedible.  After all our earlier joking about the reliability of Air Pacific (their flights earlier that week had all been delayed around 12 hours), our connecting Qantas flight from Sydney to Canberra was cancelled due to aircraft malfunction.

 Our good friends Peter and Anna announced that they were having a baby which is wonderful news.

 Right.  Most of the above was written on the Saturday 23 August, a few days after arriving back from Fiji.  On Sunday morning, while Alex was at work, Kris and Michael were shopping, Pierre’s Australian based brother and sister knocked on the door with the most devastating news.  Pierre passed away suddenly in Fiji on the Saturday night from heart failure, a couple of days before his 25th birthday.  He had rung during the Saturday and spoke with both Kris and Alex.  He was feeling tired but we thought it might be do with the long hours he was keeping on the film set of Anaconda 2.

 After all we have been through this year, it is impossible to describe the grief we were feeling.  All benefits of our holiday were long forgotten.  Pierre had touched all of our family with his warmth and friendship.  So a week after we came back from Fiji, I took Kris and Alex to Sydney and put them on a plane back to Nadi.   They stayed for just over a week and participated in the many Fijian rituals to celebrate Pierre’s life including a tribute concert. Pierre was laid to rest in the beautiful gardens of his family’s home in the hills above Suva.  Kris and Alex felt honoured to be treated so specially by Pierre’s family.  I picked Kris and Alex up from Sydney on Friday the 5th  of September.  A Fijian custom is to give something up for 100 days when someone passes away.  We have given up alchohol and each day we tie a knot in a piece of string.  It is a very small sacrifice to make.

 Friends, take nothing for granted.  If you think things are bad, believe me they can always get worse.  Make sure that those that you care about, know that you care about them.

 We continue !

I was not settling at all. Very unfocussed, wallowing in a bout of understandable depression.   Out of the blue, I received a card from the owners of the property on the Cotter Road where we did our stand during the January firestorm.  They included $50 which I will on-donate to the brigade, but more importantly for me, their kind words of thanks made such a difference to me.  I probably depressed the pants off them but I wrote back to tell them what a lift I got from their letter.  I also received a certificate of recognition from the Chief Minister of the ACT.  Somebody, bless them nominated me along with hundreds of other Canberrans who tried to make a difference. Again, that went straight to that part of the brain that gives oneself a pat on the head.  I decided to see a counsellor through my work’s employee assistance scheme and have had a couple of sessions.  Looking through some self help psychology books based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy proved to me that I am very much attuned to my inner thoughts and feelings and it really is up to me to pull myself through this.  So I continue to work on it.  I am really struggling.

Alex and Michael are taking the lead on renovating the house in Scullin.  At one stage, we entertained thoughts of keeping it as a rental property but I go through a bit of anguish every time I go there, so being a land-lord would not be easy for me.  The house looks very different but we could never put the same amount of love into the garden that Dad did.  I found it very emotional just cutting the grass. 

 Another building design company was employed to come up with extension plans.  Not very impressed with the flair they showed nor their timliness in getting the first draft together.  We are now talking to another builder who seems much more reasonable than the rest.

 After settling on the purchase of the investment property, the rest of the family got stuck into giving it a quick makeover to make it more appealing. New carpet, walls and ceilings painted, new down lighting and central heating.  No sign of any tenants, this is making me very nervous.

 We decided to book a Christmas holiday in Fiji.  The family will drive to Sydney on Christmas Day, hop on a plane and come back 2 weeks later.  We know that this will be different for all of us and it will be twinged with sadness.  It is going to be a sad Christmas regardless of where we are, so we may as well be in paradise.  It will be nice to see Pierre’s family again.

 I went for a drive back up into the mountains, packing my mountain bike.  Rode the final kilometres to Pryor’s Hut, just to reassure myself it was still there.  It is quite amazing, aside from the hut and it’s immediate surroundings and the arboretum, everything else has been burnt.  Warm weather took a while to reach Canberra this year but in middle November, it is getting a bit warmer and things have been drying out.  Burn offs are occurring regularly as a result of the recommendations coming out of the January fires.  It gives people an uneasy feeling to see the smoke in the air and probably will for years to come. I have missed most of the training nights for the Brigade this year so probably will not be active this coming season.  They won’t miss me, they have a core of very dedicated personnel always ready to contribute.

 Another Bush fire book was released with a limited distribution to volunteer fire fighters only.  It is made up from photo’s taken by official fire brigade photographers and fire fighters themselves and covers the whole episode of the fires, not just Jan 18.  There is a photo of my truck filling up at “Winslade” in the middle of Jan 18 while the jury is still out whether it is actually me in the photo.  I can’t get over dark the image was and how the backdrop was flame filled. Brings memories flooding back but I think I am handling them better now that what I was. 

 Stop press, new tenants due Nov 19.

 Alex has bought herself a little BMW compact.  It means Rusty the VW is sitting forlornly on the nature strip with a for sale sign.  She got many years of motoring from the little red bug but it isn’t the safest or most reliable car around so Mum and me won’t be sad to see the last of it.  Michael keeps muttering some rubbish about needing some new mags.  Skye continues to be gorgeous !

 The drought in Canberra continues to be very wet.  Still, we are on stage 3 water restrictions so we have got a plumber to re-route the water from the shower to a hose that we move around the garden.  We bought a super long hose for the washing machine and that also pumps grey water into the garden.

 Well, it is early December and time to close this letter off.  What a year, who knows what next year will bring.  I will be taking 3 months leave from March and will use some of that time to drive up to Darwin and across to Queensland, something I’ve always wanted to do and something that I feel I need to do now.  I am so tired and I need the break.   For those waiting for news of the novel, it is still coming along…..slowly.

 So Christmas, a time of reflection and a time to take stock of what is around you.  Again, please take the time to appreciate those who are special to you.  Tomorrow is the best day to repair any bridges that may have formed between you and them.