Remember the massive bushfires in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney In mid October? It made news all around the world.
The media claimed it was the worst bushfires in the area in nearly fifty years. At one point it threatened to develop into a “mega-fire,” and sweep into outlying Sydney.
Thousands of “fireys” – Rural Fire Service volunteers and firefighters – swung into action, and it was because of their extraordinary efforts that there was no loss of life, and damage to homes and townships was kept to a minimum.
In the midst of this hellfire maelstrom, surrounded by bushfires on all sides, was the Monkey Creek Cafe. It sits on a ridge surrounded by valleys and bushland, and proudly states that it’s the highest cafe in the Blue Mountains.
It was also at the epicentre of the fires.
Because of its central location, it became the main hangout for hundreds of firefighters and their support crews. These guys were working unbelievable hours to try and save homes and lives. Some were working thirty-six, forty hours straight. They were exhausted. And they needed to be fed.
So too the dozens of tv news crews, press photographers and journalists who were covering the disaster. It was critical to have accurate information disseminated quickly, and the media played a vital role in the whole operation.
The owners of the Monkey Creek Cafe swung into action themselves.
Tony and Anne began feeding the firefighters and the media. They made them breakfasts, prepared cut lunches, cooked them dinners. Coffee was on tap constantly – and not just instant coffee; this was beautiful cafe lattes, cappuccinos, espressos. As good as any coffee you’d get in Rome.
Over an intense five day period they must have made thousands of coffees, and prepared hundreds of meals. And they never charged a penny. Everything was free.
As Elle later said, these very brave men and women were working to save homes in the district – it was the least they could do to keep them fed and coffee-ed up.
What made the Monkey Creek Cafe such a safe haven was it’s construction. Built only two years earlier, it had been specifically designed to withstand bushfires.
It had rounded metal roofing, so no flying embers could take hold, and the whole site was surrounded by a perimeter of water sprinklers, fed by a huge water tank at the back.
They also had their own separate power supply, so if the grid went down, they could still pump water and keep functioning.
I stopped in with my wife Jennifer on our way to the airport. The owners were sitting at a table paying their bills. The whole bushfire episode – donating meals and coffee for hundreds of people for a week – had cost them a lot of money. But that didn’t bother them one bit.
I ordered a classic Monkey Creek breakfast – the kind that they’d dished out to all the firefighters and journos only a week earlier. The meal was hearty, well cooked, and very reasonably priced. It was yummy. And the coffee was great.
Later I took a walk outside and looked out over the valley. It was desolate. The fires had laid waste to every leaf and tree for as far as I could see.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like, sitting in that cafe only a week earlier, watching those fires sweep through the valleys, this inferno heading towards you, out of control, your only defense a line of sprinklers and a round tin roof.
The folks in the Monkey Creek Cafe didn’t cut and run – they stayed and they did their bit, keeping the fire crews and media well fed and caffeine-pumped.
When I spoke to Anne and her husband Tony, and their daughter Elle and a local helper Mandy, none of them saw themselves as heroes. It was the fireys were the heroes, they said with total humility.
I finished the meal and the coffee and headed back to the car to drive the rest of the way to the airport, and thought about all those people who “did their bit” but never got any coverage, any compensation, any recognition for their efforts. And never sought any either.
That’s what makes them true heroes.