A Queensland based golf travel company made a pledge a year ago to bring tourists back to towns on the NSW South Coast ravaged by the 2020 bushfires.
Last month they made good on their promise by bringing their first group of golfers, from all over Australia, on a 14-day tour that injected more than $200,000 into the fire affected towns.
The heartbreaking images that featured at the top of every news bulletin inspired Go Golfing to launch Bushfire Recovery Golf Tours.
"The loss of lives, homes and businesses was devastating and we wanted to support these communities and help them rebuild," Go Golfing managing director Peter McCarthy said.
"Knowing how these towns rely on tourism for their bread and butter, we knew our golf tours could help bring tourists back.
"We wish we could have started these Bushfire Recovery Golf Tours earlier, but COVID restrictions and border closures played havoc with our plans," he added.
Starting in Bowral, the tour travelled the NSW South Coast with stays in Mollymook, Batemans Bay and Narooma before finishing in Merimbula. The itinerary alternated with a round of golf and then a day of sightseeing and patronising local businesses.
The tour started in comfort at Peppers Craigieburn, golf at Mt Broughton, a tour of the Bradman Museum and an indulgent lunch at Bendooley Estate. It was when the tour bus stopped in Berrima that Mr McCarthy and the tour guests learned first-hand of the hardships being experienced by local businesses.
"Mrs Oldbuck's Pantry sits in a row of quirky shops on the main street of Berrima. Bubbly owner Carol greeted us as we entered her emporium of home-made sauces, pickles, jams and tasty treats that lined every wall. She asked where we were from and when we said that we had come from all over to support the towns recovering from the fires, her eyes glazed as she fought back tears," Mr McCarthy said.
"Carol shared Berrima's losses of life and property during the fires and how shopkeepers and artisans bandied together to produce a video to lure tourists back. They released the video just days before COVID lockdowns commenced. Our tour bus was the first she'd seen in 12 months."
The tour returned to the fairways at Mollymook-Hilltop golf course.
"It's a cracking golf course and with massive undulations, tree-lined fairways and pine needles some holes have a real Augusta feel about them," Mr McCarthy said.
"We also played Moruya, a country course with character. After three holes you have to go through the showgrounds and footy fields to get to the fourth hole. You finish both nines on a massive shared green."
From their Mollymook base, the group toured the towns of Lake Conjola and Mogo, epicentres of the fires, as well as a visit to Mogo Zoo.
"There's only one road in and out of Lake Conjola and the green regrowth and leaves couldn't hide the blackened tree trunks all the way into town. Most houses here were burnt out and it was uplifting to see many new homes and others under construction.
"At the end of the road is a massive caravan park lined with permanent vans and cabins. We could only imagine the terror as families dived into the lake to escape the fires. We lunched with the locals at the bowls club and their stories of loss and heroic survival were chilling."
There were similar scenes travelling through Mogo.
"Some of the roadside guard rails had been replaced with shiny new installations while other parts were a molten compound from the intensity of the fires. Recovery here has clearly been slower as we saw caravan after caravan where family homes once stood."
The group spent a morning at Mogo Zoo. This zoo captured worldwide media attention during the fires as their staff defied evacuation orders to stay and fight the approaching fire front and ultimately saved all the animals.
A few hours further down the coast, the tour bus rolled into Batemans Bay. Here, Club Catalina and its golf course are lucky to still be standing after a towering wall of flames approached the course, singed the fences and turned away. The club then became a refuge for those evacuated from their homes.
The tour group hosted a breakfast for about 30 volunteer firefighters from the Far South Coast Rural Fire Brigade while in Narooma.
"Coincidentally we hosted the firefighters on Ash Wednesday. This was emotional. Hardened veterans and rookies vividly recalled their personal accounts of the outrageous fire behaviour and intensity that no training could prepare them for.
"Their fire captain declined to share on camera, but privately wanted us to know how impactful this breakfast was for his crew," Mr McCarthy said.
"He spoke of many firefighters suffering PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] long after the fires burnt out and he was thankful that us 'out of towners' coming to thank them for their service would positively help their mental health recovery.
"It felt good and the framed photo of our clients and the firies will take pride of place in the office."
One of the much-anticipated golfing highlights was Narooma Golf Club.
"Wow, wow, wow! The first six holes are set atop clifftops overlooking the ocean. The third hole, a par three named 'Hogan's Hole' is their signature hole. It's only a 7 iron, but hitting over a chasm with the sounds of waves pounding below make it a tougher shot and most golfers bailout to the right.
"You then cross a road to play the next 10 holes and you could be forgiven for thinking you're off-course. The fairways are tree-lined, there are dams and bunkering to catch wayward shots and elevated tees to show off the masterful course design. The final two holes are back alongside the ocean. Future tours will include two rounds here!"
Merimbula was the final stop on tour. The day tour took guests to Eden lookout, shopping on the main street, a lunch cruise on the harbour and returning via Boydtown and the topical Quarantine Bay. Pambula-Merimbula hosted the last of seven rounds of golf on tour and a final night dinner toasted the golfing champions and celebrated new friendships.
Jan and Alan Hamilton from Cudgen near the NSW/Queensland border were among the first to book on the Bushfire Recovery Golf Tour.
"We'd always wanted to tour the South Coast and as keen golfers, we knew the quality of the courses. We've travelled the world on Go Golfing tours and we like small group touring with like-minded golfers. It felt great supporting the towns and businesses that had lost so much in the fires and they were so happy to see us," Jan said.
Check out www.GoGolfing.net.au for upcoming "Bushfire Recovery" tours to the NSW South Coast.