It seems like treating yourself to that extra coffee or splurging on some cake isn’t a good thing, right? But, that’s exactly what is needed to help support communities affected by bushfires, and now the pandemic.
I’ve been handed the keys to our long-term Jeep Compass and am driving from Sydney to the south coast with my wife Jaki and an Empty Esky.
My normal approach to a road trip is point A to B as quickly as possible. But not this time. This trip we're going to detour, to try and find some great food and local produce and in the process help some local economies that have been doing it tough in 2020.
Why an empty esky?
The initiative was founded in earlier this year by Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros to kickstart the recovery of bushfire-affected areas and businesses around Australia.
But, where do you start when the task is so daunting? Enlist the help of every Australian to throw in their two cents worth, or in this case, hopefully a little more.
Using the Empty Esky website you can take a look at suggested areas to travel to, or create your own itinerary of specific places and small businesses you want to support.
Using the website, we chose a trip heading south for 200km via Berrima and Moss Vale, with a day trip down to Mollymook from our accommodation in Shoalhaven.
The Jeep we have is a Compass in entry-level Night Eagle specification which will set you back $36,950 plus on-road costs. As a front-wheel driven SUV, the Compass’ natural habitat is the city and making our way through Sydney traffic is a breeze.
With some music pumping, we found the sound system on the Compass impressive for an entry-level variant and connecting Apple CarPlay through the 8.4-inch infotainment system is easy.
It definitely feels like a road trip once you make it onto the Hume highway and I was interested to see how thirsty the 2.4-litre, naturally-aspirated, petrol engine would be on the open road. We saw low 8s L/100km but as the trip continued, consumption slowly climbed up towards 9.0L.
Just a stone's throw off the Hume is the heritage town of Berrima, with its quaint village feel with its historic shopfronts. Perfectly located as a nice detour between Sydney and Canberra, we stop at the Gumnut Patisserie.
This bakery-slash-cafe is one of my favourites and I have been known to make it to its sister store in the Southern Highlands for some award winning hot-cross buns.
But the Empty Esky movement isn’t just about food and drink, it is about helping the economy in these local areas in any way possible. That's why my hair is long, the car is dirty, and almost out of fuel.
With full stomachs we make our way through to Moss Vale, where the barber is my first stop. I have to look half presentable to film a video right? I’ll let you be the judge.
We head down the old school promenade to the Nest & Burrow, a business registered for Empty Esky, and we put them on our itinerary before we left Sydney. At the front door you think it’s just another small shop on the strip, but it opens up to a treasure trove of curated toys and trinkets from over 90 suppliers, many of them Australian.
Chatting with owner Jacki Sinnett, we got a real sense of the challenges facing businesses in the area.
“The town here was full of smoke so no one was shopping,” she says. “People were afraid to travel... we had to close due to the proximity of the fires.
“We just got back into the rhythm of reopening when coronavirus hit, so we closed for nine weeks.”
Since then things have picked up with tourists supporting the business through initiatives like Buy from the Bush and Empty Esky.
“Just as it was gaining momentum it stopped with coronavirus.”
However, the Christmas period seems to be the make or break for many in the area.
“We have our most important season of the year coming up,” she continues. “We really encourage people to come and continue to support us, because this is where we set ourselves up for what may or may not happen next year.”
The family owned business was very welcoming and it prides itself on great service, so I will definitely be dropping in to Nest & Burrow next time.
Leaving Moss Vale with the Compass back seats filled, we take one of my new favourite roads in NSW.
Moss Vale Rd snakes its way through Kangaroo Valley wrapped by a cathedral of trees. The multitude of switchbacks and valley vistas are impressive and the Compass now has a chance to stretch its legs. For a small SUV it holds the road well, its thick almost BMW-esque steering wheel feels nice in the hand.
The Jeep’s Achilles heel is the powertrain combination of naturally-aspirated engine and nine-speed transmission that seems slightly strained and unsure of which cog to pluck when ascending the steep valley road.
With a comfortable driving position and soft touch points for the driver with lazy elbows (guilty), the Night Eagle eats up the trip down to Shoalhaven.
Our dinner plans are a local institution, The Butter Factory. A Restaurant and wedding venue in a converted building dating back to 1889 which was originally, yes you guessed it, a butter factory.
With a cosy intimate feel we settle back for a succulent slow-cooked pork belly; the place is definitely classier than I am. With limited seating restrictions due to the COVID safe plan, you can’t help but think of the extra challenge facing restaurants and cafes in the area.
Embarking on day two of our trip we leave our accommodation and head south towards Milton. Taking the Princes Highway down we soon see the blackening of trees that line the road for kilometres.
Before we get to the coastal town we detour to Conjola Park where the reality of a year's worth of misfortune hits us. Driving down the hill towards Lake Conjola, the landscape is charred with blackened trees now overgrown with fresh greenery.
Construction sites and ‘For Sale’ signs litter the area as you can see the fire’s indiscriminate brush strokes of destruction through the little suburb.
Looking through what would have been thick growth reveals the lake. The enormity of the fire and the impact they have made you think ‘how could I possibly help?’. That's where initiatives like Empty Esky do, even if only a little.
You could support the area like this without even leaving the comfort and safety of your own home by purchasing from ‘Buy from the Bush or donating to WIRES after the death of an estimated billion animals nationwide due to the fire season.
It’s hard to think that the country can regrow but the burnt bark is falling from the trees as the fresh green blossoms back into the landscape. A reminder of the purpose of our trip, which is to do our little bit to buy from the local community.
After a sobering drive past the lake, it was amazing to be welcomed into Milton by the lovely staff at the Flour Water Salt bakery. The positive attitude of the people in town and their desire to continue on is fantastic, even after all the bad luck the year has brought.
The main street was bustling with cars and people, the mix of shops and cafes making it the perfect road trip stop.
We take the short drive to Mollymook beach and are greeted by clear waves and a pristine beach to relax on, certainly one of the drawcards of the area.
Sitting on the balcony of our accommodation (Springs Shoalhaven) we watch the last of the light rise to the stars and enjoy the fruits of our labour, in this case wine, beer, cheeses and meats.
During this road trip we did splurge, we bought that one extra quince and stopped off at another shop, and if everyone did the same we would be helping entire communities.
Meeting great people along the way and playing our small part with an esky and a weekend.
While initiatives like Buy from the Bush help, businesses like Nest & Burrow in Moss Vale don’t have an online store so the only way to support them, is to get there in person.
That’s why I encourage everyone to head over to www.emptyesky.com.au, get inspired by their suggested itineraries and take the pledge to do your part.
Go and enjoy the amazing country we live in. More importantly, don’t forget your Esky!