JOE and Val Foster live with their two dogs, Angel and Tiny, just across the road from us. They belong to the Bass Coast tribe. We on this side are South Gippslanders. Funny the difference the width of a road can make but that is neither here nor there.
We arrived seven years ago. They came here in 1964. Joe tells me you are not a local until you get to the third generation so we both have a way to go.
We have shared a thing or two since we arrived, Joe and I. Mostly Joe helping me out when I am in trouble, which is not a rare thing.
As I drove passed the other morning he was laying out a couple of dead tiger snakes along the grassy verge and running a tape over them.
“This fella is four foot six and the other bloke is a foot shorter. Never seen a tiger that big before." Joe and I are of an era when feet and inches were common currency. "The dogs got `em just outside the back door. They don't know they're a protected species. Knew what was going on the moment they started barking. With foxes it's constant but with snakes the growl and bark is different, more subdued, less insistent."
He knows a bit about snakes, this neighbour of ours. "In the first year Val and I were here we got eight snakes, some copperheads, mostly tigers. We had a copperhead halfway down a yabby mud hole just outside the house. I couldn't pull him out so Val had to dig while I hung onto the tail. He was pretty angry when he finally popped up."
Joe is a bushman but he may argue against that. One of a family of 10. Spent a lot of his early years in tents. Had two sisters born in them.
Worked in the building trade off and on and drove trucks on King Island (down the wharves, as the islanders say. )
Joe has just returned from a couple of weeks working at Maffra with BlazeAid, an organisation I am ashamed to say I knew little about. BlazeAid goes into disaster areas after fires, floods, cyclones and helps puts things back the way they were.
A brainchild of Kevin Butler of Kilmore East, the idea was born in the aftermath of Black Saturday. It is an organisation that relies entirely on donations and does not receive any government funding. All workers and committee members are unpaid volunteers.
So Joe has followed a lead from the Nyora Men's Shed, responded to the call, thrown his swag into the ute and headed off to Maffra.
The volunteers, mostly aged between 65 and 75, almost all wandering nomads, arrived in their caravans eager to do what they could. Joe says the dinner list grew in five days from 14 to 64.
The base camp was sited at the Maffra showgrounds and his first task was to clean out the sports pavilion from top to tail. Started at 8am and finished at 5.30pm. Hot-mopped the dining area and bar then vacuumed, swept, scrubbed and cleaned out toilets and showers. The complex measures about 50 metres by 25 metres with a 4-metre-wide veranda running down one side. Not a bad day’s work.
Next day the main job began, removing the debris of burnt-out fences and replacing them. Materials supplied by the farmer and the labour by BlazeAid.
Joe has been nicknamed 'Smokin’ Joe' by the group. Give him a chainsaw and wave him off for the day, they say.
He cannot sing the praises of their site leader, Angus Guild, loud enough. Angus organises the volunteers into groups ranging from five to eight, appoints a group leader, sets out the tasks, gives a morning briefing and an evening debriefing and report. "I don't think he gets much sleep, if he sleeps at all,” says Joe. His morning battle cry is "We are not here to be pretty".
Joe says he has never worked with a friendlier or more supportive group of people in his life. One of the problems is getting past the pride of the farmers who tend to resist the help at first. “Once they understand we are all in this together the resistance fades,” a volunteer leader says.
It is tough work, you can see that. Joe looks knackered. He is going back the next day.