Tathra Hotel is at the centre of the town’s post-fire recovery.

Story Therese Hall   Photos Trent van der Jagt

Tathra Pub Choir is in full song. The soaring voices of 40 local residents fill the hotel bar on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening in the hamlet on the New South Wales South Coast. The choir is singing its way to recovery after a wildfire swept through the village in March 2018, destroying or damaging 104 homes. “Probably every third person here would have lost their home,” says choir organiser Anne Hamilton-Foster. 

Led by local musician Peter Howe, choristers are smiling and laughing, despite the hard times they’ve recently experienced. Principal of Tathra Public School Lisa Freedman, here with her mother Helen Hallett (whose house was partially burnt), calls the choir cathartic. “There’s been a lot of stress around the fire,” she says. “The choir has been a way of bringing people together. ”

People have been getting together at the Tathra Hotel for more than 130 years. Built in the steamship era, it catered for passengers on the two-day sea journey to and from Sydney. It also quenched the thirst of local dairy farmers, fishers and timber-cutters. 

Standing like a beacon on the headland, with panoramic 270-degree ocean views, Tathra Hotel had lost its glow when current owner Cliff Wallis bought it in 2015. “I’d always looked at it and thought there should be a decent place here,” Cliff says. “It was tired.” 

Cliff and his wife Sayaka Mihara had spent 25 years running the Sundeck, Australia’s ‘highest hotel’ on Perisher’s ski slopes when they took over Tathra’s only pub. “I needed a new challenge to fill in the summer months,” Cliff laughs. 

The aim was to turn a rundown pub into a three-star hotel, but Cliff and Sayaka didn’t get off to a good start. When they closed the pub for renovations, they made the controversial decision to pull out the TAB and poker machines. “We had a tough time for the first couple of months,” Cliff says. 

Cliff tells a story, which he’s turned into a poem, about a carload of former bar flies speeding past and hollering out the window: ‘You’ve ruined the f...ing pub’. “At the time, I thought I’d made a terrible mistake,” Cliff laughs.

The pub reopened in November 2017, with a freshly minted bar, dining room and upstairs accommodation, integrating heritage qualities with contemporary features. But after just a few months of trade, fire was licking at its doorstep. Blackened branches nearby show how close the embers came to the historic building, and a burnt timber beam in the foyer reminds locals of what they have survived. 

Since the fire, Tathra Hotel has taken on an important role in the town’s recovery. According to local Mark Darby, it is one of the key gathering spots for the community. “As well as the choir, we hold a lot of meetings here,” he says. “We are unbelievably lucky to have had a person like Cliff take an old pub and invest in it without compromise.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #126

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2019