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They walked into the smoke and I never saw them again

Twenty-two years ago, mobile phones were an exotic and hugely expensive investment.

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Sydneysider – A Personal Journey

By Gavin Gatenby

Sometime in 1992, when I was an Interpretive Officer with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, I got it into my head that our region should buy one of the new mobile phones. I was at the time understudying a colleague, legendary radio and TV naturalist John Dengate, who was, unofficially, the service spokesperson. I raised the matter with John.

“But what would we use it for?” he asked, very reasonably.

“Well, we could go to bushfires and whale strandings and we could talk direct to the media”, I replied.

“And what else?”

“Well, um, whale strandings and bushfires.”

Twenty-two years ago, mobile phones were an exotic and hugely expensive investment. They had only been in Australia for five years. Many memos traversed the chain of command before we got permission. Only a couple of firms sold mobiles and we bought ours at Strathfield Car Radios. It was the size of two house bricks, with a carrying handle that hooked over the top and a handpiece as big as those on a standard landline phone of the era. Digital mobile was still years in the future. The beast had about three hours of standby and a half hour of talk time. Recharging took several hours.

I was the first to use it, at a bushfire west of Woy Woy. I left my car at the Gosford office and got a lift out to the fire line. All the Tonka Toys from the bush fire brigades and the NPWS were being assembled in an old quarry where I attended a briefing and attached myself to a small national parks crew. They were to tidy up a narrow fire line and then light a backburn off it. When we arrived, the wildfire was still about half a kilometre away in a forest valley. I positioned myself on a low escarpment overlooking the valley and awaited some dramatic development to report. The crew headed off down the trail, raking it clear as they went.

The Channel 9 chopper flew over and landed somewhere, unseen, behind me. After a while I heard people crashing through the thick undergrowth. I turned to see a three-man TV news crew. The reporter was dressed in a nice suit and tie. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was there, like him, to report direct from the fire line – the first time anybody in the NPWS had tried this. He was amazed and he had the crew film me faking up a call. Then he asked where the fire was.

“Down there, but I wouldn’t go there. It isn’t really safe”, I said. Smoke was already drifting towards us. He paid no attention. Crew in tow, he headed down the narrow path and I never saw them again.

I was about to start ringing radio newsrooms, when, again, somebody came crashing towards me. This time it was a small man with an amateur video camera. He had a heavy French accent and told me he was a media lecturer from Bond University. He asked what I was doing.

“Ah, but zis is ze new media! You are ze wave of ze future!” he said, excitedly. He filmed me faking up a call and then, turning the camera on himself, just like Max Headroom in ‘Twenty Minutes Into the Future’, he filmed himself asking the question I’d just answered. “Where is ze fire?” he asked.

“Down there, but I wouldn’t go down there. It isn’t safe”, I said, but he disappeared into the smoke and I never saw him again.

Finally, I put in the actual call I’d been faking up and got through to ABC radio news.

“Great! Hang, on mate, I’ll record you”, the journo said. I described the scene. The backburn being lit below was starting to take, the actual wildfire was also closing in and flames suddenly leapt high into the forest canopy. It made dramatic telling.

I put in a couple more calls before things got too dramatic for comfort. In case the backburn jumped the line, I hightailed it out of there, walking back up the track until I reached the rough fire trail on the ridgeline. Amazingly, a Fairlane appeared, cautiously negotiating the track. It was driven by a lady chauffeur in a snappy uniform. The offside seat was filled by a guy wearing an officer’s cap and lots of silver braid. He kindly offered me a lift back to the assembly area. I was to realise later that this was Commissioner Phil Koperburg, the head honcho of the Bush Fire Service.

Somebody else dropped me in Woy Woy. The mobile phone battery was already flat. In my sweaty, filthy, overalls – much hung about with water bottles and lugging the huge phone – I thumbed down a car heading towards Gosford.

“You’re Gavin Gatenby, aren’t you?” the driver asked.

Wow! I thought. This reporting direct idea really works. Alas, it turned out he hadn’t heard me on the radio.

“I went to school with you”, he said. For the life of me I couldn’t remember him. School had been, after all, over a quarter century earlier.

“So what do you do now?” I asked.

“Oh, I import rainforest timber from South-East Asia, and we hate you greenie bastards”, he replied, after which conversation dried up.

 

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