It’s been just over a year since deadly bushfires swept through the Victorian seaside town of Mallacoota. But images of the red sky as fire engulfed people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods, remain imprinted in the minds of local residents. None more so than Paul Sam Parthenides and his wife, Carol Anne Nelson, who lost everything in the bushfire.
‘It was like Armageddon’:
Saturday, December 28, 2019 in Mallacoota. A day that started off like any other.
Although it was a ‘very hot and smoky day,’ Paul and Carol went about their daily business at a market with their food van. It wasn’t until the next day that their daughters, Georgia and Elyssa, became more anxious by the bushfire warnings and encouraged the family to leave.
“We thought we’d leave for a couple of days to make them happy and then we’d come back and everything would be fine,” Carol tells The Greek Herald.
“It took us all day running around the house and going, ‘do we take this or that?’ I mean I took a pair of bathers with me. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
The Nelson-Parthenides family, along with their three dogs and cat, quickly evacuated to the town of Bega. It was there they eventually heard the heartbreaking news that their home and food van had all been destroyed in the blaze.
“On December 31st, we got confirmation from our neighbour, who had stayed to defend their house but had to leave, that they’d seen our house on fire,” Carol says.
“It was pretty tough and for us, watching it all on television was really bizarre. We also felt like we’d abandoned the town and that we should be in Mallacoota helping because we knew what everyone was going through.”
But sadly, returning to Mallacoota wasn’t an option until mid-February. Instead, over a matter of weeks, Paul, Carol and their daughters evacuated to six different places, across two states, to try and avoid the ferocious blaze.
“We were evacuated from Bega and went to Canberra before we eventually got to Melbourne. But when we were driving from Bega to Canberra it was really scary because the smoke was really bad, we didn’t know the road and there were fires around us,” Paul, who is also recovering from liver cancer, explains to The Greek Herald.
“It was like Armageddon. It’s normally a two-and-a-half-hour trip from Bega to Canberra, but it took nearly five hours because everyone was evacuating. And coming the other way, all we could see was fire truck after fire truck. It was scary.”
The only silver lining? The hospitality and support the family received by local people they came across on their travels.
“On the way to Canberra, Elyssa’s dog was really ill and a lady, who’s house we were staying in, organised an appointment at the local vet for us,” Carol says.
“The lady at the vet knew our story and as we were sitting there worrying about the dog, she came over and put $50 in my hand and said, ‘I know what you’re going through. I lost my house in a flood.’ And then we all just sat there crying.
“It was these little random acts of kindness that just made all the difference all along the way. We met some really lovely people.”
Back to reality and assessing the damage:
Despite the kindness of the locals, the Nelson-Parthenides family still had to return to reality and see for themselves the destruction left behind by the bushfire in Mallacoota. Paul describes the moment they saw what was left of their house as ‘devastating.’
“Coming into Mallacoota and seeing the devastation and the houses burnt down was gobsmacking, and then we went straight to our house and it was tough. It was just twisted roofing iron,” Paul says.
But on further inspection, among that twisted iron emerged items which, for Carol and Paul, held the most sentimental value.
“We had a bit of a rummage around and I found a couple of teapots that weren’t too bad, but we also found something that one of my kids had made for me when they were in school,” Carol says.
“There was a pencil holder made out of pottery which was intact, Elyssa had made me a little rabbit out of pottery and that was intact, and there was also an apple which Georgia had made me out of pottery and that was still in good condition.
“As far as I’m concerned if that’s all we ever got out of it, that was good enough because those things you can’t replace.”
‘Greek Soul Food’ – The key to moving forward:
Another thing which Carol and Paul thought was irreplaceable was their food van, which they also lost in the Mallacoota fire. But the good news was that they were wrong.
Carol and Paul were lucky enough to receive a Small Business Bushfire Recovery Grant from the Victorian Government to buy a new $50,000 food trailer they’ve since called ‘Greek Soul Food.’
“I think having the food van gave us something to look forward to. Something for the future,” Paul explains.
“Our first day of operation was December 19, so we hit the ground running and went from not working for 12 months to suddenly working 10 to 12 hour days. So it was a big shock to the system but we’re getting used to it now.
“We’ve got a big lamb on the spit on the back of the trailer, making souvlakia of different sorts. Carol then makes the spanakopita, baklava and bougatsa. It’s really good.”
Add to this the fact that when they’re not serving people who flock to their food trailer, the pair spend their downtime in a rented holiday house in Mallacoota, where they have an incredible view of the nearby lakes and beaches.
So with the future looking so bright, what do Carol and Paul say is the most important life lesson they’ve learnt from losing their livelihood that fateful day back in December 2019?
“Sometimes you have to lose everything to gain something… I mean everybody’s journey is different. I know a lot of people are still struggling and aren’t moving back to town, and I guess we’re lucky that this is our story and that we’ve been able to come to terms with it and move forward. Now we only look back to see how far we’ve come,” Carol sums it up perfectly.