Port Arthur visit leaves Melbourne couple caught by fires

Mike Neighbour and his wife Hong at the bushfire evacuation centre in Hobart on Sunday.
Mike Neighbour and his wife Hong at the bushfire evacuation centre in Hobart on Sunday.

MELBOURNE couple Mike Neighbour and his wife Hong were on the road in a rented car for their Tasmanian holiday when they heard something on the radio about a bushfire near the Arthur Highway.

''We said to each other: 'Where's that?''' Mr Neighbour said. ''Then we checked the GPS, and we were on it.''

Driving to the Port Arthur convict historic site for the day, they suddenly found themselves caught up in Tasmania's worst bushfire in years.

''There would've been 2000 people at Port Arthur, it got hotter and hotter, and by 3pm they closed the highway,'' said Mr Neighbour, a building surveyor from Bentleigh.

Like thousands of other local and interstate holidaymakers on the Tasman Peninsula last Friday, they were about to be stranded by a bushfire that cut its only highway, and began to advance on them.

Police sent the couple further down the peninsula to Nubeena, the main town, where they joined hundreds of other tourists and locals in a sport-centre refuge.

''It was very smoky and we could see the fire as a red glow in the sky,'' Mr Neighbour said. ''It all looked pretty ominous.''

But he said local people in the sports centre rallied to help.

''The locals were brilliant. They worked so hard. The Lions Club came and were cooking sausages; one woman just washed dishes all day. There was more and more food.''

With a change in the weather on Friday night, the fire's advance down the peninsula slowed, but they remained cut off, with no likelihood that the road would re-open soon.

A flotilla of Hobart commercial ferry operators began work, and shuttled back and forth from Nubeena almost around the clock, as the local infrastructure reached breaking point.

''We debated whether to come into Hobart on Saturday,'' Mr Neighbour said. ''Then last night we decided to leave. After one night of sleeping in your car, you don't look forward to another.''

Like hundreds of others, they locked their rented car and left it on the peninsula, joining a long queue that shuffled towards the Nubeena fishing boat pier.

''It was very orderly,'' he said. ''But there was one thing. Every now and then buses would come in from Port Arthur and those people would get to the front of the queue ahead of others who had waited for hours.''

Eventually the couple boarded a ferry about 11pm on Saturday and were in Hobart by midnight. They made for a refuge centre set up at the City Hall and on Sunday were preparing to shift to a hotel before flying home.

''To us, it was just an inconvenience,'' Mr Neighbour said. ''But when we were down there we met people who lost their homes. One lady we met had lost everything. And they were pretty stoic, really.''

This story Port Arthur visit leaves Melbourne couple caught by fires first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.