Help has finally arrived for the thousands of people stranded in Mallacoota but the heartbreak is far from over.
Help has finally arrived for the thousands of people stranded in Mallacoota but the heartbreak is far from over.

Inside the 20-hour journey awaiting Mallacoota evacuees

As the Army LARC-V boat slowly sailed into the docking section of HMAS Choules the evacuees broke into a spontaneous round of applause.

The journey from the Bastion Point jetty to the landing ship out in Bass Strait took less than 10 minutes.

But it had been on the minds of everybody onboard since the devastating bushfire tore through the town early on Tuesday morning.

The evacuation of over 1100 people was described by senior commanders as "one of the largest movements of people" in recent times in Australia.

As the operation progressed vessels built for war came and went and the scene looked like it belonged in the movie Dunkirk. But this was not Hollywood, it was Mallacoota.

On board the HMAS Choules another boat load of evacuees arrives. Picture: David Caird
On board the HMAS Choules another boat load of evacuees arrives. Picture: David Caird

 

Evacuees walk out to board the landing boats to head out to the waiting ships. Picture: David Caird
Evacuees walk out to board the landing boats to head out to the waiting ships. Picture: David Caird

 

The first of the passengers are loaded onto the landing boats by ADF personal. Picture: David Caird
The first of the passengers are loaded onto the landing boats by ADF personal. Picture: David Caird

 

Evacuees are being ferried to the HMAS Choules in smaller boats. Picture: David Caird
Evacuees are being ferried to the HMAS Choules in smaller boats. Picture: David Caird

 

Another boat load of evacuees arrives. Picture: David Caird
Another boat load of evacuees arrives. Picture: David Caird

 

As one of the small boats left the jetty, with watery black soot slopping against its hull, smiles broke out.

Husbands and wives embraced and friends held hands.

Many just wanted to get away from the thick blanket of smoke which has covered the town for days.

Others feared the fire might return today - with the mercury tipped to hit 40 degrees.

But there was a sense of calm as the first holiday-makers and residents began the evacuation shortly after 8am.

The Army was in town and they had things under control.

People were brought down to the wharf in phases so things didn't get too overcrowded.

Many came with heavy bags in their hands and heavy bags under their eyes.

Many had smoke masks covering their faces.

Children wore backpacks with toy animals poking out - everyone had to pack in a hurry, only finding out late on Thursday night if they were on the boat out of Mallacoota.

It wasn't just people who were fleeing the town. Dozens of dogs made the walk down the jetty and onto the boats. Some were more reluctant than others.

Evacuees gather in the mass hall. Picture: David Caird
Evacuees gather in the mass hall. Picture: David Caird

 

Chefs ready to feed the people. Picture: David Caird
Chefs ready to feed the people. Picture: David Caird

 

Crew on the bridge. Picture: David Caird
Crew on the bridge. Picture: David Caird

Lynn Buckley was grateful her collie Sweep was coming along with her.

"We've been coming here for 20 years," she said.

"It has been traumatic. The fact we are allowed to bring our dogs is amazing and wonderful."

Despite the fact a ferocious bushfire ripped through the area earlier in the week it was a cold morning.

Breath was visible in the air and families huddled together for warmth while waiting for their turn to board the boats.

Just over 1km away back in town, the streets seemed a little quieter.

At the Mallacoota Foreshore Holiday Park many who had evacuated left their tents standing.

Other families packed their things, with a number of parents due to leave with young children by air last night.

Some families decided to split. Fathers are staying with the tents, cars and camping gear and mothers are taking the kids home.

Luke Shipard from Albury will stay at the holiday park and his wife Briana will fly out with their three young children.

"We are just waiting for a phone call so we can get the kids away," he said.

"Then I will hang around and wait for the road to open."

 

Children watch wide-eyed as instructions from ADF personal. Picture: David Caird
Children watch wide-eyed as instructions from ADF personal. Picture: David Caird

 

Evacuees and their animals arrive and prepare to head out to the waiting ships. Picture: David Caird
Evacuees and their animals arrive and prepare to head out to the waiting ships. Picture: David Caird

 

Crew and family help others aboard. Picture: David Caird
Crew and family help others aboard. Picture: David Caird

 

A child’s sleeping bag. Picture: David Caird
A child’s sleeping bag. Picture: David Caird

 

On board the HMAS Choules dogs are cared for by crew in an enclosed area. Picture: David Caird
On board the HMAS Choules dogs are cared for by crew in an enclosed area. Picture: David Caird

The short journey from the town's main thoroughfare, Maurice Ave, passes many burnt out houses. About 70 were destroyed in the blaze.

The ruins of former homes stand abandoned. Their owners have either evacuated or are staying with friends.

At the local town hall abandoned teddy bears and doonas lay crumpled by a door. Metres away stands a lost property table with water bottles, jackets, wet wipes and books.

The evacuation at the wharf ended at 4.20pm, when the last of the support boats floated out to sea.

A crowd who had opted not to evacuate gathered to watch the last of the vessels leave Mallacoota.

 

Apocoalpytic scenes in Mallacoota.
Apocoalpytic scenes in Mallacoota.

 

The remote coastal town has been ravaged by the fires.
The remote coastal town has been ravaged by the fires.

 

The extent of the fires is no yet known.
The extent of the fires is no yet known.

 

The small group on board cheered and hugged while Navy and Army personally shook hands and patted each other on the back.

Onboard the ship were over 1000 people, tired and desperate for home.

They were joined by dogs, cats, rabbits and birds. Not quite Noah's Ark but the Australian Defence Force was determined to ensure much loved pets were not left behind.

As the evacuees arrived on the ship they hugged and shook hands with soldiers and sailors.

Each boat load of evacuees were greeted warmly and given a briefing on how the voyage would play out.

One woman broke down in tears and hugged a crew member who was helping people onto the ship.

MORE NEWS:

28 PEOPLE MISSING IN VIC FIRES

BRIGHT A GHOST TOWN AFTER MASS EXIT

PM REACTS TO VIC'S RAVAGED GROUND ZERO

Earlier the ship's commanding officer Commander Scott Houlihan had said the evacuation had been complex but was well within his crew's comfort zone.

"It has been challenging and severe circumstances but it is uplifting to see people come together," he said.

The ship's chefs had been busy cooking most of the day - the smell of fish and chips filled the ship's corridors and the sound of excited children bounced off the walls.

For them, this will be an adventure they will remember for a long time.

david.hurley@news.com.au

@davidhurleyHS

Passengers on board the HMAS Choules. Picture: David Caird
Passengers on board the HMAS Choules. Picture: David Caird

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