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Celebrity Families

EXCLUSIVE: "There were recurring nightmares about running through flames with my son in my arms": Turia Pitt on the terrifying reality of the 2020 bushfires

In the first weeks of this year, Turia Pitt gave birth to a baby, a book, and a brand new social enterprise, all while bushfires raged around her, triggering traumatic memories. Samantha Trenoweth meets this no-nonsense Aussie hero and the family that fills her world with love.

By Samantha Trenoweth
The last weeks of 2019 were a challenge unlike anything Turia Pitt had faced for a very long time.
Bushfires raged through forests surrounding her home town on the south coast of NSW, the sky was alternately black and angry red, houses were evacuated and thousands of people were trapped on the roads heading north.
On New Year's Eve, the fires roared into the outskirts of Milton, just five kilometres away. Turia stood on her balcony and watched "as two angry plumes from the fires north and south joined over Mollymook Beach.
"And then, the power went out. Mobile reception became spotty. Internet was down. Rumours swirled around town like the ashes that rained down on us. Embers in our backyards. Homes had been lost. Whole streets obliterated. A girlfriend's panicked text about her dad being trapped," she wrote on Instagram.
Turia packed her bag to leave and filled the bath with water, but she didn't leave. Eight months pregnant and struggling with anxiety – because of course these fires triggered traumatic memories of the 2011 bushfire in which she so nearly lost her life – Turia, her fiancé, Michael Hoskin, and two-year-old Hakavai stayed.
"I was just trying to keep a lid on my emotions," Turia tells The Weekly six months later, sitting safely on the very same veranda from which she watched those plumes of suffocating smoke.
"People said, 'Why don't you leave?' and I was like, 'How?' People were sleeping on the highway, the road was blocked. Every time I'd go on social media I'd see terrifying footage of 30-metre-high flames on either side of the road."
"The highway opened sporadically, but what if I got trapped there? Do I take my toddler? I'm eight months pregnant. Also, I wanted to stay with Michael because he has a calming nature, which was very beneficial for me."
It was a New Year's Eve unlike any other. The town was quiet. "An eerie quiet, an apocalyptic quiet," she says. And it was dark. The power was down. There were no street lights, no party lights in neighbouring houses. No sounds of revelry.
A week later, she finally summoned the courage to write about those very difficult days: "I've had to focus on not letting my emotions and own experiences get the better of me.
I've tried to not let the panic genie out of the bottle (because once that genie's out, you've got zero chance of squashing it back in)".
There were nightmares: "recurring nightmares about running through flames with my son in my arms". It was difficult to sleep. In the end, she says, she was simply exhausted.
Then, one day her old friend, Grace McBride, came to visit, and in an instant everything changed.
Turia with Hakavai, two, and baby Rahiti. Turia admits Hakavia is very stubborn and strong-willed - just like herself. (Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Jamela Ejjamai.)
Michael had been out on his boat, dropping supplies to towns and homes that had been cut off by fire, and Turia admits she'd been feeling "a bit useless, stuck at home, eight months pregnant, with a toddler. I think that can make you a little bit self-absorbed and introspective."
When Grace arrived, she says, "We both cried. We were thinking, what's happening to this beautiful landscape? Our friends' houses and properties have been lost, and all the beautiful national parks. We both wanted to do something to help, but what?
"If you imagine that your energy is a light, then if you're just thinking about how things are affecting you and how scared you are, your light is only shining in. I try to flick that, to shine it outwards. So I started thinking, how could we help others? And that's how Spend With Them was born."
It was Grace who suggested they make the most of Turia's social media capital by profiling south coast businesses that were still operational but had been badly affected by the fires. They set up an Instagram account and set to work that day.
"We profiled a homewares store in Mogo," Turia remembers, "so anyone from anywhere in the world could buy something from them."
"We weren't sure how it would go but within a couple of hours we had 10,000 followers and it really took off. The next day we had 50,000 and the day after that we had close to 200,000.
Turia says Michael has a very calming nature that soothes her. (Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Jamela Ejjamai.)
"It was pretty much just Grace and me on the computer. We did make mistakes but we learnt as we went along. We'd go to bed at three in the morning – we were running on adrenaline – but we got such a great response that it felt like it was all worthwhile."
Guerrilla Roasters coffee in Mossy Point had to put on an extra staff member to fill the orders. An organic skincare brand in South Australia made a year's worth of sales in 10 hours.
Tahmoor organic tea and body products business Earth Air Fire Water wrote: "I have missed a month of markets and your post enabled me to get that month's lost income in two hours..."
"And 90 per cent of the orders have beautiful words of encouragement in the delivery notes. I've been sitting on my floor sobbing in happiness for the last hour."
Spend With Them is still operational today, though Turia had to "step back a little and take stock when I realised that my book manuscript was due and I was going to give birth to a real live child in three weeks."
The book – Happy (and other ridiculous aspirations) – was delivered on time and so was her second son, Rahiti, who arrived in early February and brought with him a little bubble of "golden euphoria".
"I really enjoyed giving birth to Rahiti," says Turia. "It made me feel empowered. We had to go to Wollongong for the birth, which is two hours away. So we went up there the night before."
"My obstetrician wanted to induce me because of the bushfires. Roads were closing and getting clogged with traffic and I could have ended up having the baby on the side of the road, which I didn't want. I asked for an epidural but by the time they came back with the anaesthetist, I was pushing him out.
It was a really positive experience for me. I feel lucky. With birth, anything can happen but I had two really good experiences and I had a really good medical team for both of them."
WATCH BELOW: Turia and Michael love story. Interview continues after video.
Back home, there were the usual sleepless nights and those days when a newborn just will not settle unless he's in his mother's arms, but parenting came a little bit easier this time too.
"When I was pregnant with Hakavai, I was really concerned about my mothering ability," Turia recalls.
"I would think about my mother, who is the kindest woman, she's so generous, she does everything for other people, she would give them the shirt off her back, she's so loving, so warm, so compassionate. Then I thought about myself and I thought, f**k, I'll never be as good as my mum was.
"I still don't think anyone gets better than my mum but now that I'm a mum, I can see all these more nurturing qualities in me. They've been amplified."
"Being a mum has definitely softened me, made me more nurturing, made me more caring and more compassionate, and I like all those qualities.
I like this mum version of Turia."It has also made me appreciate my mum. You realise, this is how my parents felt about me."
"When my mum found out that I'd been injured in the ultramarathon … I don't know … I don't know how I would cope. So, since I've become a parent, my mum and I have definitely become closer."
Turia's mother, Célestine Hitiura Vaite, (grandmother of three and successful author in her own right) has popped in today to help out. Right now she's reading stories and tucking both boys into bed for their afternoon nap.
"She is built to be a grandparent," Turia says. "She sings in Tahitian with them, gives them massages with monoi [Tahitian gardenia and coconut] oil, takes them for walks, shows them the birds."
"They're very lucky. She's a great grandma. Sometimes I go over to Mum's house and Hakavai's got the Tahitian drums out and Mum's playing the ukulele."
Raising her boys here, on the south coast, just minutes from her own childhood home, means Turia can share with them a lot of the experiences that she treasures from her youth.
"Michael and I both love the ocean – swimming, surfing, diving, fishing. If one of our boys hated the beach, I don't know what we'd do," she says with a smile.
Aside from a love of the beach and a connection to family, community and Tahitian culture, what else does she wish for her boys?
"Hakavai is a lot like me," she says. "He's very stubborn and strong-willed and if you tell him to do something, he just wants to do the opposite. I see that quality in him and I don't want to dampen it because I think it's a great attribute to have."
"It means that when you get older and everyone's doing one thing, you're going to be strong enough to create your own path. So I want them to have that strength. I want them to have good relationships with people."
"I want them to have a strong sense of self-belief and to know that if they want to do something, they can back themselves and can achieve it. I want them to know hard times happen to all of us but they don't define us."
"I want them to be kind, be good humans, be nice to people, help people. I want them to have that ability to set a goal and take the steps to work towards it. I want them to know that, if they put the work in, anything is possible.
"Gee, that sounds like a lot of things, doesn't it? I want them to be resilient. I want them to understand that tough times happen and that they can get through them.
I think, being a parent is … you're not moulding them into the shape you want them to be. I guess it's about noticing who they are, what they're like and what their talents are, and nurturing that."
Happy (and other ridiculous aspirations) is published on September 15 by Ebury/Penguin.
Read the full interview with Turia in the October issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.

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