The photograph went around the world in January 2020. In it, a circular structure, like the remnants of a burnt-out flying saucer, sits in a strafed landscape of ash and charred trees. The only thing that distinguishes it from countless images of the aftermath of nuclear war, and gives it a sense of place, is the enormous black metal kangaroo rising from the ashes under ribbons of collapsing roof.
For Australia’s third largest island, Kangaroo Island, and the country’s most highly regarded luxury resort, Southern Ocean Lodge, this was the apocalypse. Bushfires that had been ignited by lightning strikes in December, the start of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, joined up on January 3 to form a more than 300-foot-high wall of flame, which tore through the drought-stricken landscape and roared over the lodge, incinerating everything in its path.
Even for a country where bushfires are a regular part of each summer, this was a tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Kangaroo Island, separated from the mainland by a stretch of treacherous ocean southwest of Adelaide, has been called “Australia’s Galapagos” for the richness of its abundant wildlife, diverse plant species and unspoiled beaches. It’s teeming with kangaroos, wallabies and koalas in their natural habitat, as well as platypi, echidnas, maritime birds, sea lions and the world’s only disease-free colony of Ligurian bees. When the smoke cleared, the inferno had not only claimed the lodge but also consumed almost half of the island and thousands of its animals.
The 2020 “black summer” would go on to engulf the continent from east to west, north to south, burning more than 42 million acres of land, claiming 51 human lives and killing a heart-wrenching billion native animals by conservative estimates. The extent of the tragedy is still hard to fathom. Photographs of holidaymakers cowering on once-idyllic beaches under a shower storm of embers, along with the graphic images from Southern Ocean Lodge, have been indelibly seared into the Australian psyche. Even now, after a relatively mild and wet 2021 summer, the faintest scent of bush smoke can make Sydney residents, who lived fifty miles from the closest fires but suffered from a summer-long blanket of choking smoke, extremely anxious.
As Australia slowly recovers from the trauma of that summer, Southern Ocean Lodge is also gradually coming back to life. The blackened landscape is once again shot through with green and humming with insects and other wildlife. The kangaroos have returned. Construction of a new lodge will begin mid 2021. What’s happening on this isolated tract of Kangaroo Island is emblematic of the healing that is underway throughout the country, both physical and psychological.
The bitter irony of the destruction of Southern Ocean Lodge by fires, arguably made catastrophic by climate change, is that it was built with the lightest footprint possible on the natural landscape. Owners James and Hayley Baillie are pioneers of an Australian style of laid-back luxury that values sense of place, sustainability and genuine experience over ostentation. The lodge building itself, situated on limestone cliffs overlooking the pounding surf of Hanson Bay, is at equal distance between the island’s two major attractions, the Remarkable Rocks and the Seal Bay sea lion colony. It only occupies one percent of the 250-acre natural reserve it sits in, and the Baillies protect the remaining 99 percent to preserve its pristine state for future generations.
The couple was more than a thousand miles away at Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island, one of the five properties in the Baillie portfolio, as the fire destroyed their flagship lodge. Guests and staff had been evacuated to nearby Adelaide on the mainland while the hotel managers, husband and wife team John Hird and Alison Heath, along with four remaining staff, huddled in a bunker under the lodge’s Great Room, the curvaceous lobby lounge that once afforded guests undisturbed views over the wild ocean, peering through a little hole as the fire swept over them in five waves.
Two hours later, when the staff emerged, they were confronted by “a moonscape of black twigs sticking out of the ground and white ash everywhere,” says Hird. The Baillies chartered a plane and arrived the next morning. James Baillie says he was in utter disbelief. “Arriving on the island was like arriving into a war zone.” Makeshift camps were set up around the airport for emergency services, and the smell of the fire and the stench of burning flesh was sickening. “Really, you’re in a state of shock,” he remembers. “Especially with something that that you’d lived and dreamed and built from scratch.”
The fire was still burning underground nine days later. “There were days afterwards when I’d go for a run and suddenly I would just burst out crying.” The biggest loss, he says, was the Baillies’ collection of artworks by Kangaroo Island artists and artisans. The one work left standing was “Sunshine,” a kangaroo fashioned from found objects by local sculptor Indiana James.
Undaunted, rebuilding the lodge was the first thing on his mind that day. Once an insurance claim is approved, plans are to break ground mid-2021, with reopening targeted for late 2022 or early 2023. The original architect, Max Pritchard, has been engaged to recreate the lodge on the same footprint with slight modifications, such as re-angling all of the 21 cantilevered suites to improve the view, adding an outdoor hot-cold pool to the spa and introducing a four-bedroom Owner’s Lodge to cater better to multigenerational and cohort groups. The new design will feature fire retardant, doubled-glazed glass with drenching sprinklers, along with a variety of new cutting-edge materials that should protect the lodge better in the advent of another fire. “We hope to recreate it better than it was but still maintain the soul of what was there.” In the meantime, the Bailies are taking their signature sense of place to Canada where they have acquired the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort on a remote inlet of Vancouver Island, a new beacon of Australian immersive nature travel that will reopen in May.
There is more good news. John Hird says he’s witnessing the powerful regeneration of the Australian bush, which nature designed to flourish after fire. “Everything’s growing back. It’s amazing. There’s plant life that we probably haven’t seen on the property for many years.” In addition to the kangaroos, birds, goannas, and echidnas have returned to the landscape. The koalas at the nearby sanctuary are breeding. “There’s a blanket of green out there again.”
A greenhouse has been set up to grow 1,500 seedlings for propagation, and work has started on clearing the fuel load of dead mallee trees to make sure the new lodge is protected from future calamitous bushfires. But is this feasible when climate scientists warn of the increasing number and ferocity of bushfires globally, especially in Australia, which is one of the world’s biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitters with a woeful record on climate action? (It is currently rated 57—or last, among developed countries—on the Climate Change Performance Index.)
“I’m certainly not a disbeliever in climate change,” says James Baillie. “But on the flip side would a catastrophic fire such as this have happened anyway? Probably. Since records began over one hundred years ago there’s no record of there ever being a fire of that particular part near Southern Ocean Lodge, probably why it was so intense.” He’s certain that for the next decade there won’t be enough fuel on the ground to create a fire like that again, if ever. Better land management is one mitigating strategy. “Perhaps this is more of a turning point in having a more diligent approach to fuel burns or fuel loading.”
This year, the pandemic has taken all the air out of the conversation about climate change in Australia. John Hird, who has seen its impact at frighteningly close quarters, warns, “We’ve got to talk about it all the time. On the third of January it took Southern Ocean Lodge, one of Australia’s icons, but next year it might be somewhere else.”
Melbourne native Lee Tulloch is a journalist whose writings on fashion, popular culture and travel have appeared in Vogue Australia, Elle, Jalousie, Harper’s Bazaar and New York Magazine. She is the author of five novels, including Fabulous Nobodies and The Woman in the Lobby (May 2008). Lee is currently based in Sydney with her photographer husband, Anthony Amos.