The full impact of the drought, bushfire, Covid-19 sequence of events has been felt most acutely up on the Dorrigo Plateau and yet, the optimism and resilience of this community is inspiring. The smoke shrouding the Plateau for months had barely lifted, before a new foe was to wreak havoc.
“We’ve been hit hard, but we are a resilient lot up here on the Plateau,” says Jo
Jo, probably best known as Dorrigo’s Food Angel, continues to provide her loyal following with their daily fix of coffee, home cooked meals and most importantly, a chat. “Communication and just checking in with each other is the key to our survival up here,” says Jo.
Jo has been the reliable face, front and centre at the Food Angel Café Dorrigo, six days a week for the past ten years. “This place is my bubble, my sanctuary. This is what I do.”
I first met Jo in September 2019. Sitting enjoying a coffee amidst a full and lively local crowd, the ambience in the cafe quickly turned. Jo’s home and 80 acre bush block at Billy’s Creek, 30 minutes drive north-west of Dorrigo, was under threat from the Bees Nest Fire that had begun in the Guy Fawkes River National Park, was out of control and had doubled in size from the night before to over 50,000 hectares. The community support that day for Jo was palpable, as she packed up to flee her Dorrigo ‘bubble’ to join her husband on the family farm.
“I had come to work that day thinking about my customers and my business. I thought it would be all right. But things changed rapidly and I knew my husband was home alone. It was very intense. The fire was bearing down on us- it was only a matter of time,” says Jo. The Muldiva State Forest, bordering Jo’s block on two sides, was also alight.
Jo and her husband made the decision not to evacuate. “We were under real threat for a week. We worked hard at getting ready to tackle the fire. Thankfully our home and block was saved. I must say the local RFS were amazing. Local knowledge of the terrain is invaluable.”
The threat from fire was far from over after that week though. In fact the same fire peaked and flowed for more than two months, coming very close again in the November. “By this time we had installed a decent fire break along the forestry boundary and fortunately the fires this time were burning low and slow. Still, my husband had to monitor the firebreak every half an hour for a week” says Jo. Throughout this whole time Jo only missed a few days of work and continued to serve her customers throughout, despite road closures, smoke and ash. “I think being able to switch between the stress of home and work helped.”
The community of Dorrigo and surrounds certainly suffered. The town relies heavily on a tourist trade for financial survival, which was all but lost due to months of fires and smoke. And to be followed by the invisible threat of Covid-19, one can imagine a community in a state of despair. But sitting in the Food Angel Cafe six days ago, watching Jo cooking her sought after Lamb Shanks, while customers file in for their daily home cooked take-away meals, the atmosphere is anything but morbid.
“We are made of tough stuff up here. And we know that communication is the key. My sanity now is customer interaction. Being able to see regulars reaffirms what I do,” says Jo.
She does admit there was a brief moment at the start of the social restrictions when she opened the door of her cafe bright and early and stopped in her tracks. “I was so sad. I’d worked so hard to build something up and realised I wasn’t going to be able to continue to function like before. That was a really difficult morning. But my next thought was ‘pull yourself together- you have a job to do here.’ So I did. The more people who came in, the more human interaction, the better I felt. That is the most important thing.”
Jo admits that she doesn’t ever look too far ahead, but has still managed to make necessary and rapid business adjustments to the new ‘normal’. “I had always dreamt of creating gourmet home cooked meals and wanted to be able to support my customers through these strange times.” says Jo. So five days a week Jo is now supplying the local community with take-away hearty, country fare.
Unfortunately, Jo has had to let some staff go, but is optimistic that things will pick up soon. This does mean that Jo is currently juggling many roles- barista, cook, orders and serving. Demand for her home cooked meals is strong. “Initially I was worried that my loyal customers were coming in regularly for these meals out of a sense of charity. I’m not comfortable with charity. I’m happy to cook and provide but I’m not after sympathy or charity.”
Hearing the praise for the lamb shanks being heaped on Jo by these customers, I doubt charity is the motive. “You’re probably right. Maybe they are just really keen to see me survive,” laughs Jo.
As I wander back to my car I realise that many businesses won’t survive the months of economic carnage. But this tight community will keep fighting and continue to support their own.