The hard climb uphill: life returns to crisis-ridden Blue Mountains

Bushfire-ravaged vegetation is regrowing (Photo: Juliane Lehmayer)

Don’t be fooled by the sunshine – the winter air blows biting cold up in the Blue Mountains. Nevertheless, the one road through Leura is buzzing.

At first glance, the village, nestled up in the National Park, seems untouched by the bustle of the real world. It’s reminiscent of a film set, or a charming retro TV show. Tiny cafés and bakeries line the main road, like twee cardboard cut-outs. A comforting aroma of warm meat pies and fresh coffee blankets the streets. It’s as if nothing here has ever changed.

It has, however, been months since the town of 4.600 people has been this crowded.

Elderly couples holding hands enjoy their afternoon stroll while parents treat their kids to a hot chocolate after school. There’s the sound of multiple languages: a group of international tourists has gathered around a street sign, looking for directions to the closest look-out.

Inside a Leura cafe: visitors are returning to the Blue Mountains. (Photo: Juliane Lehmayer)

The Blue Mountains economy is getting by because of rare days like this. This year, locals have endured three different crises: bushfires, followed by floods – and then, as soon as the streets were dry and the air was clear again, Covid-19 spread around the world.

The Mountains tourism industry collapsed within those few months., and not all businesses have made it through lockdown.

The bushfires threatened the tourism-reliant National Park for months, causing losses estimated at $650 million.

Now, after the lifting of NSW pandemic restrictions, some shops have yet to put their tables back outside. Others remain closed.

Ditta Loesch appears tailor-made for her job. Dressed in colourful, funky clothes, she hums along to wartime classics playing in the background of her vintage clothes shop. It seems like the 67-year-old has been counting the days till she was able to stand here again.

Ditta Loesch in her vintage clothing shop in Leura (Photo: Juliane Lehmayer)

Just as excited are her customers – after months in pyjamas, buying a jumper feels like the most luxurious treat, says one of her regulars.

Still, in the vintage store it’s far from business as usual. Ditta comes in four days a week now. “My boss can’t afford more at the moment. This year has taken everything out of us,” she says, trying not to lose her bright smile.

“People only think of Covid these days. But [up here] we’ve been struggling since September.”

Ten minutes’ drive further into the mountains, it is still eerily quiet at one of Australia’s most popular viewing platforms. The cable cars at Scenic World remained still until the end of June. Four months earlier, the family business had to close and temporarily lay off its 180 employees.

There are still tough times ahead, though. About 60 per cent of Scenic World’s 1.1 million annual visitors are international tourists, still barred from Australia. And social distancing in cable cars is a challenge.

The Blue Mountains have faced fire, flood and coronavirus. (Photo: Juliane Lehmayer)

While the impacts of the pandemic might not be as visible on the streets anymore, the fires have left their mark on the landscape. But also clear is the resilience of the bush. Above their burnt black trunks, the branches of the gum trees are covered in youthfully lush green leaves.

“The natural environment recovers much faster than the people do,” says local Labor MP Susan Templeman.

The state member for Macquarie and Blue Mountains knows the truth of this first-hand. Her own house burnt down in bushfires in 2013. She says:

“One of the key messages we have to tell the world: the bush has healed, the smoke has cleared and it’s safe to come back to the mountains.”

Blue Mountains Council has received $1.3 million in government bushfire assistance. On top of that, it has been given almost $900,000 in federal funding to support local jobs.

Ironically, one new market has been isolation: according to Ms Templeman, lockdown created opportunities for local landlords.

“This is the one big advantage we have. Social distancing is a lot easier up here compared to other major cities.”

With her bulky black leather jacket and bleached blonde hair, Emily Parker stands out among Leura locals. The 27-year-old writer escaped Sydney in the middle of March, just before lockdown, resettling near Leura.

“I can write from anywhere. So why not in the Blue Mountains, I thought? The city felt way too crowded and anxious.

“It’s impossible to feel isolated in nature.”