Flanked on all sides by mountains, the scenic drive to Marysville, through Black Spur, is just a taster of the beauty that lies when you reach the town.
Small boutiques, eco-friendly cafes, and colourful art collectives line the street. A lolly shop where the owner watches over her grandchildren playing in the pond out the front, a tiny gas station with just two pumps and no service centre, forest covered mountains all around – it’s the type of place that epitomises my view of ‘peaceful country town’.
It’s the abundance of vacant blocks just off the main street that was my first hint as to the towns history, the second the mountains to the northwest. It’s almost like the universe’s creator has pulled out a paint set and run a brush stroke of silvery-white paint cutting along the mountains ridgeline. I wondered why it looked this way.
It’s not until you begin heading out of the town, the road winding it’s way through the Yarra Ranges National Park, towards Lake Mountain Alpine Resort, that the dense green of the forest canopy abruptly ends, replaced with skeletal-looking white tree trunks and branches; ghost gums that were burnt at such high temperatures their leaves will never flourish again.
Marysville was the epicentre of the worst bushfires in Australia’s history.
Saturday February 7th 2009 is a date many across the state of Victoria will never forget, as extreme weather conditions resulted in as many as 400 individual fires starting, though some are now believed to have began with the help of arsonists, a crime described as “mass murder” by then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Over the following days 330,000 hectares were lost, 1,800 houses destroyed and 159 people lost their lives.
It wasn’t until mid-March that all of the fires were extinguished.
It took just three weeks before green shoots began to penetrate the blacked soils, bringing back life and colour to the otherwise blackened land, but Marysville and the surrounding areas residents needed more time.
“It took a long time before the town looked like it was ever going to rebuild… at least two years to three til we saw anything happen,” Katie Gelbert from Buxton Ridge Winery told me, “but I think people needed that time, that few years, just to grieve and decide if they wanted to rebuild and move, so it has been a long process. Now it is exciting that we can see building going up.”
Everyone I spoke with during my trip to Marysville expressed similar sentiments – the past can’t be changed but together as a community the town is healing, rejuvenating and now ready to open their arms to visitors again.
The fires took much of the town but there have been people trying to preserve what was once there.
“A lot of the plants I salvaged from the block. There was a house here before the fires and the people moved away,” Marysville Garden Cottages co-owner Tracy shared. “All the bulbs that survived the fires kept coming up, I kept salvaging them and they’re dotted right throughout the garden. It’s going to be amazing next spring when they come through.”
Likewise, Bruno Torfs who runs Bruno’s Art & Sculpture Gardens has spent much of past five-years saving, restoring or creating new sculptures from the pottery that lay broken, burnt or crushed throughout his garden.
“There was a group of 30 or more [Army officers looking for survivors] and they walk around, again and again, every property,” Bruno spoke with a thick Belgian accent, “and they crushed all my sculptures.”
One particularly twisted sculpture stands out in the front gallery. “[It was] 1,500 degrees under the house [where the bike was]… I loved my motorbike, ” he said looking at the solidified remains of melted metal with pensive eyes before showing a small grin and leading us to a room with crates of broken terracotta still waiting for someone to patiently piece together.
Through it all, there is also some of the more amusing stories the community can share, my favourite by Kim Rycroft from Saladin Lodge.
After days camping on her property, with no electricity or running water, Kim managed to set up a temporary shower. Stepping into the cooling waters something around her feet distracted her mid-wash. Glancing down, she saw a little echidna that had snuck into the shower and was doing a “dance”, to cool what she believed was it’s injured paws.
The next day the same event happened again, except now there were two both dancing in the water.
“Who was I to say no [to sharing the shower],” she said chuckling as she recalled the memory.
Bigger companies are also finding their way to Marysville with Vibe Hotels set to open a property in the town centre.
“Everyone’s real excited about this,” explained Anthony of Marysville Garden Cottages, “it’ll bring people past our place [promoting their business] and back to the town.”
“[Business] has been slow because of the tourism is not what it used to be, but it’s picking up now. We’re still going and we’ll hang on for a few more years and hope that tourism picks up to what it was,” Buxton Ridge‘s Katie concluded.
Just like the residents, the flora is reclaiming it’s land.
If you visit Steavenson’s Fall, there are no discernable markers left from the fire, except for the occasional tree without leaves and even when mountain biking at Lake Mountain Alpine Resort, though barren Ghost Gums still cover the property, the land still offers visitors beauty as the greens and yellows of bushes flourish, even wild flowers dot the land with oranges, purples and pinks.
When you visit Marysville, even if just for a day-trip or stopover on your way to do some skiing at the closest resorts to Melbourne, take time to stop atop Lake Mountain or safely pull over to the roadside along Black Spur.
Get out of your car; take a deep breath of the forest air and look up at the trees – the recovering survivors.
The scar can still be seen but nature is slowly pushing the blackness away, healing wounds and shining gently on the (re)birth of Marysville.
Now it’s over to you:
Which place has impacted you deeply on your travels?
Do you support local businesses in rural areas of your country, state or territory?
Marysville is located 90 minutes drive from Melbourne’s CBD.
The drive takes you on some of Melbourne’s busier freeways and through the Black Spur, considered one of Australia’s best drives, but has quite a number of tight corners – not great for people not comfortable driving on the left side of the road.
If you are a motorbike driver, Black Spur is a popular ride for both locals and visitors.
If you don’t want to drive, from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station, take the 684 bus that depart daily (twice daily on weekdays and public holidays, once each day on weekends) with McKenzie’s Bus Service. Return service to the city is also available.
From Southern Cross Station you have access city hotels, all metropolitan trains and V/Line country trains. There’s also a large tram interchange outside the station or the SkyBus to Melbourne Tullamarine airport.
No trains run directly to Marysville, though additional services run from Lilydale (end of the metropolitan trains Lilydale line) to Marysville.
Many thanks to Marysville Tourism and many independent businesses for hosting our group while staying in Marysville.
I also want to thank the locals for taking the time to share their stories.
I hope I’ve expressed your words and shared your stories justly.
All opinions, perceptions and photography, as always, are my own.