In the aftermath of Black Saturday, time stood still in Marysville. Five years later, the town has moved on, says Steve Madgwick – and it’s time the rest of us joined them.
It used to be some place else altogether: a rarefied honeymooners’ haven, where quaint Victorian guesthouses nestled harmoniously in the undulating hills just below the Yarra Ranges. Back then, the enchanting journey there – from Melbourne through the Yarra Valley, over the snaking and steep Black Spur, through lofty 100-metre-plus mountain ash forest peppered with giant tree ferns – was seen only as a prelude to weekends spent in idyll, in a place considered as much a village, as it was a town.
But that was before. Today – and indeed, every day since that day in 2009 – the name Marysville has become synonymous with a natural disaster that instantly and tragically rewrote its modern history: 34 people dead, another 61 lives lost across the Murrindindi Shire, and the obliteration of homes and businesses across the community, when the town’s stunning bush surroundings turned fatally wild with fires that tore through the landscape with brutal, unexpected force.
Five years later, it is hard to drive in here without expecting a town surrounded by colossal blackened matchsticks. But the scene that greets visitors is lush, verdant and thriving. Though Marysville was, and is, an unashamedly small place – the kind where hotel owners give their guests door keys, only because their guests are used to needing them, not because doors require locking – there are numerous signifiers of the town’s journey forward: the sharp lines and big windows of the new Visitors’ Centre.
An increasing gaggle of curios shops, cafés, and ski and toboggan hire shops, which service nearby family ‘snow play’ resort Lake Mountain (21 kilometres away). On Murchison, Fraga’s Café serves a mean espresso in boho environs and Marysville Patisserie dishes up rich lemon and lime crumble and a cockle-warming hot chocolate, while further down the street, near the tastefully landscaped Gallipoli Park and obligatory small-town war memorial, the Lolly Shop purveys sweets that make you pine for your childhood.
Few structures along Murchison were spared by the disaster (although one exception – the bakery – still stands more or less as it was; a curious symbol of the arbitrary nature of bushfires), and so all these have been, more or less, rebuilt from the ground up by owners who, mostly, toiled with that decision.
After losing their house and business to the firestorm, Marysville Patisserie owners Ashraf and Christine Doos moved to Melbourne to start anew, but found themselves drawn back to the peace here, where they could “restart the dream”. Their new home stands right next to the new patisserie, which employs just one extra employee now. It used to employ six.
This, unfortunately, is a familiar tale: for though Marysville’s tourism infrastructure is on an upward spiral, visitor numbers aren’t yet corresponding with the pre-fire years.
“I think people feel like they need permission to come back,” says Sharen Donovan, owner of Dalrymples B&B cottages, another Marysville institution rebuilt from scratch, unrecognisable from its first-generation namesake. “I think they don’t feel like they can stay in the town just yet, they’re not sure about things, so they stay outside, in other towns.”
It’s a situation that can’t continue – and not just for the sake of local businesses, but for the lure of Marysville’s easily reachable wilderness. Walkers, bikers and horse riders are spoiled rotten for choice here, where a multitude of well-engineered trails snake their way from the centre of town into an outdoor playground of waterfalls, mossy boulders, cascades and gullies alive with tree ferns. Melbourne day-trippers should count each of their lucky stars that they have access to a place such as this less than 100 kilometres away.
Inevitably, you will still see charred tree trunks most places you go (some dead, some alive), often obscured by the bushy epicormic growth that engulfs them, giving the bush a wild hippy-like quality in places where the fires were at their most intense. But the popular, short track to the multi-tiered, alpine-fed, 84-metre Steavenson Falls, a perpetual town favourite since the mid-19th century, is surrounded by verdant rainforest which offers few reminders of Black Saturday’s force.
Indeed no matter which direction you drive in – and they are all beautiful, whether up to the wilds of Lake Mountain or to any one of the nearby villages – you’ll find things that tell more stories of recovery, mateship and triumph, than of devastation.
Oenophiles who take the short drive to Buxton Ridge winery, to sample some cheese and the house specialty of sparkling pinot noir, will find few clues that Black Saturday’s shadow fell on this cooler-climate winery.
“We had to hide from the fire in the wine cellar,” says owner Lorna Gelbert (with son Michael), who produced the first vintage in 2001. “The fire went straight down ‘shiraz hill’ and then turned left at the sauv blanc. Thankfully it’s like a concrete bunker down in the cellar so we were OK.”
Just down the road, Mitch MacRae’s Buxton Trout & Salmon Farm sells smoked fish, homemade pâté and hand-milked caviar, and will soon purvey a whole range of artisan produce from the area, but it’s almost a miracle that it still graces the map. In the tense days before Black Saturday, Mitch’s intended plan was to stay and fight using the farm’s industrial pumps and ample water supply.
But, like most, he didn’t reckon on the ‘apocalyptic’ front that came through, and the fire tore through his farm, decimating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock. Innate resilience and the helping hand of community generosity helped him rebuild. Now, slowly, road-tripping families are returning to cast lines into his generously stocked ponds.
Perhaps the most poignant place to experience Marysville’s past and future is the utterly bewitching Bruno’s Art & Sculpture Garden. The wonderfully eccentric Bruno Torfs has brought alive a patch of rainforest behind his studio with a stirring, and often kooky, array of ceramic figures inspired by his worldwide travels.
Many of his original impressionist creations were either decimated by the heat (brass fittings on one sculpture actually melted) or trampled during the chaos afterwards “while people were looking for bodies”.
But Bruno found “a lot of heart behind the drama” (a group of artists that he had never met raised money to help him re-open the gallery), and has painstakingly pieced together some of the shattered works, left some scorched ones on display as a reminder, and continues to shape many new ones.
Bruno’s journey very much parallels where Marysville is at half a decade after Black Saturday. It’s almost ready to become the tourist town it once was, purely on the merit of what it has to offer. There is already a solid choice of B&Bs, such as Dalrymples, motels and a caravan park on offer, with a 100-room, four-star Vibe Hotel with day spa (due for completion in late 2014) replacing the razed Cumberland Hotel on Murchison Street. Now it’s simply time for the visitors to return.
And when you do stay for the night, or a long weekend, expect a rare kind of hospitality. For not only do the people of Marysville give you permission to return, they’ll want to repay the kindness the Australian community showed to them in their darkest hours, too.