Fog is lifting off the hills that provide the backdrop to “The Narrows” – a picturesque waterway in Mallacoota surrounded by the Croajingolong National Park, a forest still showing signs of its bushfire scars, 18 months on from The Black Summer. It’s a brisk 10 degrees and yet for those gathered here at the lake, cool weather and cool water are no impediment to them continuing with their newfound hobby – stand-up paddle boarding. Wetsuit booties are slipped on, a thermos waits ready for after the paddle, and quiet chatter among participants – who hail from different walks of life – strengthens connections that might not otherwise be forged. The Stand-Up Paddle Boarding Program transpired through a generous donation from Windermere – an independent community service organisation working across south east Victoria, and is delivered by Reclink Australia, a national charity providing sports and recreational opportunities to the far eastern Victorian bushfire-hit communities of Mallacoota, Genoa and Cann River. Surfing Victoria and the Coasting Initiative came on board with training for two Reclink staff to become appropriately qualified to facilitate the weekly sessions.
Helping bushfire recovery with a stand-up paddle-boarding program is unique in Australia – free weekly sessions to local residents as a way to heal from the compounding effects of bushfires and multiple Covid lockdowns. For some, the effects have been astounding – as well as learning a new skill, also finding the physical and mental health benefits that abound through the sport. Stand-up paddle-boarding is a whole-body workout, with both cardiovascular and strength elements. It develops core stability and is a low impact physical activity suitable for all ages and fitness levels. One participant reflected on the significant mental health benefits of stand-up paddle-boarding. “I have found that after the fires I’ve struggled with ‘busy brain’ where my thoughts flit from one thing to another. The mindfulness involved with learning to SUP has been very beneficial. I find myself coming away from these sessions very happy and refreshed.” Another participant found the marriage of exercise and meditation in the stand-up paddle-boarding sessions was the perfect antidote to stress. “Thanks for delivering a program that is so welcoming and inclusive and gives those of us with no experience in an activity the ability to join in and feel completely welcomed, no matter our experience level.”
Gliding up The Narrows, the array of birdcalls is a welcome sound after eerie silences the previous year, with birds gradually repopulating their homeland regions. Some of our participants had not been near the water since the bushfires and finding signs of regrowth along the shoreline sparks exclamations of wonder and joy. In our hour-long paddling sessions, time is spent practising mindfulness, encouraging participants to use their senses as they float along on their journey. Reclink also invites mental health practitioners to attend our sessions who can meet community members in a non-clinical environment.
Betka River is another favourite paddling spot, where nestled behind the coastal heathland the river meanders around recovering bushland – more than a metaphor for the people meandering through recovery. Here the group can launch with ease, quickly finding their feet and setting off upriver, paddle confidently together in a group. Some days a glimpse is caught of an elusive azure kingfisher flitting along the riverbank – brilliant blue feathers shimmer in the sunlight, causing hushed silences from participants. Other birds, including pelicans, spoonbills, cormorants, herons, egrets, and white-bellied sea eagles drifting high and low are spied with delight by participants. The immersion in nature is a healing tool, healing in real time alongside the scars that remain on the landscape. Those who spend time in or on the water understand this.
With a raft of magnificent waterways on our doorstep, this program promises to continue to attract attention from the community for the foreseeable future. Each week a committed group of regulars show up, while others try it for the first time. Participants’ ages range from 20 years to 70-plus – some who have started off saying ‘I’m too old’ have surprised themselves when they’ve backed themselves to have a go. For some, embracing a new hobby has given them a new sense of identity – one they are very proud of, and very happy with!
The collaboration to deliver this program is a testament to the support both from within and from outside our communities to assist us all in our bushfire recovery journey. Windermere funded our quiver of seven stand-up paddle boards for the community. The team from Kite and Sup http://www.kiteandsup.com.au/ in Newcastle assisted with purchasing the equipment, also delivering the boards in person, all the way from Newcastle to Mallacoota to ensure they arrived here safely. Surfing Victoria and the Coasting Initiative were pivotal in assisting us with our training needs. We also acknowledge the Department of Health, Mental Health Division for their generous funding to ensure the program can run.
Reclink Australia’s innovative social inclusion programs such as Reclink National program, Activic and Street Games use sport, recreation, arts, coaching programs and volunteer pathways to improve the lives of people experiencing trauma, disadvantage, alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness and mental health challenges. A sense of belonging and social connectedness has been identified as a key outcome in many of the communities we work within and are foundational to individual and community recovery. Reclink is working closely with key services and agencies across far East Gippsland to improve the lives of people experiencing the impacts from the 2019/2020 Summer Bushfires.
Words via Callista Cooper (Reclink Australia)