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A Scar Across the Ridge: The Rebirth of Marysville

Saladin Lodge

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.

Burnt ghost gums near Marysville, Victoria

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.

Black Saturday Bushfires in Marysville, Victoria

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.

Bruno's Art and Sculpture Garden in Marysville, Victoria

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.

Saladin Lodge in Narbethong - Memories of Black Saturday

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.

Sunset at Saladin Lodge near Marysville, Australia

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.

Marysville, Victoria, Australia

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?

 

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Details

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.

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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.

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14 Comments

  • Reply
    Jen Seligmann
    February 2, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Beautiful post Nicole. I can’t believe that it has been 5 years. I can still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard what was going on down in Victoria. Its still makes my heart sink just thinking about it. I hope you post encourages tourists to travel back to the region as it really is a beautiful and charming place.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      February 6, 2014 at 2:53 am

      Thank you Jen.

      I really hope visitors, both local and international, travel back to Marysville. It’s such a beautiful slice of country and so close to the city it’s perfect for a quick getaway!

  • Reply
    Ian Roberts
    February 3, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    A great read Nicole. Very descriptive. It lifts the heart to see how rural Australia rides with nature’s ebbs and flows. Great stuff.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      February 6, 2014 at 2:56 am

      Thanks Ian.

      Rural Australians are definitely people we should consider as role models for the way they work through the good and the bad that the world throws at them; and the presence of community they share, particularly when things get rough.

  • Reply
    Lucy Bladen
    February 3, 2014 at 8:31 pm

    It’s quite tragic what the people of Marysville have had to go through but their resilience is incredible. I recently traveled to Christchurch and that impacted on me deeply.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      February 6, 2014 at 3:02 am

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Lucy.

      How is Christchurch going after the earthquake? I hope the community are coming together to rebuild and support one another, just like Marysville has.

  • Reply
    Caitlyn
    February 4, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    That’s a lovely post Nicole. I lost friends in the fires so life has really never been the same again afterwards. I visited Marysville last in late 2010 and the town was still really struggling, it’s good to see that the greenery is really coming back again. It’s a beautiful little town, I spent quite a few school holidays there as a kid, and I hope people still keep visiting.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      February 6, 2014 at 3:04 am

      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss Caitlyn.

      I hope you have time to visit the town again as the rebuilding process is continuing and the town is reviving. It really is a special place.

  • Reply
    Nora
    February 7, 2014 at 3:28 am

    Hi Nicole – Beautiful post. I was there during the fires, living just north of Marysville. My home-at-the-time on the Black Ranges didn’t burn, but I was evacuated for well over a month while the fires burned. I lost friends, and some of the friends I didn’t lose, lost everything else.
    Marysville in particular was incinerated, and I have pictures of it’s gradual rebirth over the following year. But it was tough – for everybody. Although houses were rebuilt, over a year later when I left (and 6 months after that when I visited again), the signs of personal trauma continued.

    But in embracing the relief efforts – as my partner at the time and I became somewhat instrumental in – it was such a joy to see the hardy spirit of Aussies, and to feel how Australians country-wide rose to the occasion to support one another. Among hundreds of examples, we accepted a delivery – two tractor-trailers – full of supplies from the Northern Territory….which incidentally at the time, was underwater with floods.

    I could go on…..but I won’t. If you’re so inclined, my Victorian Bushfire Diary was archived by the National Library of Australia as a piece of history (scroll to the bottom of the page to start with Day One):
    http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/category/australia/victorian-bush-fires/page/2/

  • Reply
    Trisha Velarmino
    February 23, 2014 at 8:00 am

    The place that has impacted me the most is my homeland, the Philippines. I realized this when I travelled my own country last. Such a shame. 🙁

  • Reply
    Linda McCormick
    March 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Such a beautifully written post, Nicole.
    I remember watching the events unfold at the time… it was just awful. Great to see the area getting back on its feet, and tourism taking a foothold again. Must get up there soon!

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  • Reply
    Jane
    August 5, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    My husband has taken friends from the U.K. over to Marysville today. We always take guests over the Black Spur and into Marysville. Visiting Bruno’s on the way. A good extension, if a person has time, is to drive towards the Woods Point direction and visit the big tree at the umber land reserve, then wind back around to Warburton in the Upper Yarra Valley and home to Melbourne.. or wherever! Grab a map! The road through to Warburton is a well known motor biking road, really pretty.

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