Saturday 7 February 2009.
We were looking for somewhere a bit cooler, anywhere really which would provide some respite from the heat. Marysville, I thought, only an hour and half away would be five degrees cooler immediately and that would only improve in the evening and at night. The cool change would come late in the day and on Sunday we might do the Three Lookouts walk and come back from the Falls through the tree ferns along the creek or, maybe if we were feeling adventurous, climb Sugarloaf and have a scramble along the Razorback in the Cathedrals …
The car’s thermometer said 47.5 when we turned right at Eltham towards Yarra Glen and the northerly had turned ugly. Scatters of small branches were frisking about on the road and landing on the car. From the lookout at Christmas Hills the Yarra Valley was grey brown with dust. The smoke cloud from Wandong had just become visible but it was well away over our left shoulders. Well away, and not in the direction we were travelling. We stopped at Tarrawarra to look at the art. The rammed earth walls of the gallery were startlingly hot to the touch, but the valley view framed by the northern glass wall was stable, unthreatening.
We had some late lunch at Healesville. The sun behind the smoke cloud over in the north-west had become photogenic, a disk of magenta. ‘Still a fair way away’, I said to a bloke watching as we came back out of the cafe onto the street. ‘Yeah maybe. But,’ he replied pointing, ‘have a look there. There’s another one’. And so there was, a new one, now to the north. But damp, temperate, green Marysville would be safe. That was its speciality. Despite being embedded in thick forest, it hadn’t been touched on Black Friday in 1939, nor Ash Wednesday in 1983.
The Black Spur was reassuringly itself, one of Victoria’s treasures with its long winding avenue of straight and tall mountain ash. The Fernshaw Reserve at its foot seemed cool and inviting and the car’s thermometer was dropping already. By the time we got to Dom Dom saddle it was down to 38, so comparatively cool we opened the car windows for relief. No smoke; therefore no fire. At Narbethong down the other side of the Spur, clusters of watchers were standing around chatting but they didn’t seem anxious.
We turned off right to Granton and there was a fire tanker filling up at the side of the road. We started talking about turning back, going home. Myrna did. But I thought there would be relief on the other side of the hill. A swim in the Marysville pool would be perfect.
About three kilometres from our destination we saw smoke to our left, low and slow, but there were licks of flame at its base, and it seemed sensible to get out of the way. There were other people whose business it is to control fire. Myrna put her foot down. We turned round. No panic. We just turned around and went back through the Granton hills, through Narbethong and up over the Spur.
On the way home we listened to Richard Stubbs on ABC local radio. Talking to those who had been affected by the fires in Horsham, Bendigo, Kilmore, Bunyip, he seemed audibly moved. We were glad that it was all so far away. But by the time we got to Coldstream there were dozens of small grass fires racing across the paddocks. The cool change with its associated wind change still hadn’t come. Once on the Eastern Freeway we were back in town, inviolate. We had left nature and its elements behind for the well-insulated version of life that most urban Victorians, most Victorians, live.
I rang Marysville’s Tower Motel the next morning to apologise for our no show and to explain the reason why. We would want to stay there again, as we had so many times in the past, and I wanted to make sure they understood. I got the owner’s mother. ‘It’s all gone’, she said. ‘All gone.’ ‘What’s gone?’ I asked. ‘The town. It’s all gone. Look at the television. The ABC. It’s all gone.’
It must be 35 years since we began going to Marysville. It was a pig in a poke, a happy mistake, somewhere we chanced on that we thought might be painless and different to go with young children when you got fed up with the city. A bit of water, hills, trees, maybe snow in winter.
I wrote that about nine years ago and as I remember now and I think correctly, the very first time I discovered Marysville was by going to a conference there, a retreat, a charette, an event designed to correct the problems of the world. That would make sense. That was one of the things Marysville was for, one of its primary purposes. We stayed at the pub (at left). It was cold. That would always make sense.
The first time we arrived as a family it was Autumn, and the massive European trees were awash with colour. It seemed as though around every corner there was another vista, something brilliant to see, another clutch of picturesque houses, mostly elderly from an Australia that had passed, with extraordinary gardens, huge banks of rhododendrons and camellias. The main street: an avenue of elms, branches reaching into each other across the road, petrol bowsers from the 1940s, occasional pieces of mock Tudor, the pub, the Cumberland guest house with its brick salute to modern times … the town was an intriguing Antipodean version of southern England with a thin wash of colonial style surrounded, closely, by magnificent Australian bush. Everything was a walk, and every walk a pleasure.
In winter, Marysville was the dormitory for Lake Mountain, with Donna Buang, the nearest snow to Melbourne. The groomed trails, in summer like golfing fairways, were home to cross country skiers. But there was tobogganing and, as the snow reports say, ‘sight seeing’. You could walk to the top, turn left and in good weather catch glimpses of Buller and Stirling before completing the circuit through alpine moss beds and tors of quartz. Our kids saw their first snow up on the mountain. We kept going back.
Like Sorrento, Ferntree Gully, Daylesford and Lorne, it was a town that belonged to the guest house era, a day’s journey from the city to a version of nature both beautiful and civil, to a time before jet skis, offroad motor bikes and downhill racers, to places where people could just enjoy sitting quietly, with the hills or the sea and each other for company. It was a place for romance.
But in time cars became more common, more reliable, faster; the roads were improved to all-weather tarmac; and Marysville became a way-station on a day round trip rather than a destination in its own right. Visitors would stop at the Bakery for a cup of tea and country cakes verging on the epic, fuel up at the Mobil or visit Uncle Fred and Auntie Val’s lolly shop, not knowing that a couple of kilometres away at Island Hop or at the falls or in the beech forest along Lady Talbot Drive or a bit further on among the big trees at Cambarville were sites of sheer delight.
Over the decades the town stayed the same. Shop owners would come and go, but their enterprises varied only modestly. In essence little changed. It was home for loggers, for retirees, for casual workers who needed cheap housing, for people who serviced the still operating guest houses and other tourist accommodation. It was place to honeymoon (a most important destination for this), to take your corporate group for team-building exercises when you didn’t want distraction, to lie back and think.
We found Fruit Salad Farm, down in a dip on the fringe of town, for a start because it was cheap, but also because it was simple in the extreme. It was a place you always slept well. The kids played their first Pooh sticks in the creek that ran through the property. I found my way through the thickets of a book there when I was stuck trying to write it anywhere else. Several times I spent time there trying to recover from a disease that no one could pin down. Chronic fatigue syndrome? Myalgic encephalomyelitis? Post-viral syndrome? I walked every day and usually after a week went home feeling better.
We ate dozens of times at the pub snug in the lounge near the fire, where the food was good, wine was cheap and the service unfailingly friendly. We have celebrated more elaborately in the dining room at Marylands Country House. On one memorable night we dined in an establishment up on the Woods Point Road, the only customers, perhaps for some time. We ate Swiss, we had stories, we swam in someone else’s nostalgia, and left with photos that we still have of a couple of feet of snow covering the town.
We watched the mud brick adventure happening in Kerami Crescent and the expensive but delightful fantasies occurring in Keppel’s Court and at the end of Murchison Street. There was the exquisitely judged bungalow at the junction of Barton Avenue and Murchison Street with the wonderful garden. A year ago, and as it happens in many days since, we were thinking about buying a property there — 28 Sedgwick Street, a big block with a 40 metre oak tree in the northern corner of a well-established garden with long lines of berry canes, and a small but cosy logger’s cabin with views north down the valley to Sugarloaf.
And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. You can talk about resilience and the spirit of the people and how we’ll fight back. All that. Terrible things have happened in these fires. Unlike some of my mates, I have lost no loved ones, no property, nothing tangible at all. I was just a tourist. But for now, and for these reasons, my heart is broken.
That was then. Nine years and three months ago.
* * * * * *
It was a fire like few others.
A satellite image from the night of 7/2/09, and below from higher up earlier that day.
From one side of this photo to the other is about 550km, all of eastern Victoria. That smoke is coming from the Kinglake/ Murrundindi / Marysville fire.
From the report of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Fires:
‘The wall of fire that burnt Marysville that night was over 140 metres high. It travelled at speeds of up to 120kmh, burned at 1,350C and created blasts of exploding gases that erupted in lateral pulses as large as 600 metres. The radiated heat alone was so fierce it was capable of killing people 400 metres away.’
Daryl Hull found shelter in this small lake next to the football oval where the residents had gathered. Giving evidence to the Royal Commission, he said:
‘The smoke suddenly got very thick and very very dark, the colour of charcoal, and was bubbling towards me over the lake. I knew the fire was about to hit and at that point I thought I might die. Then there was an explosion and everything was luminous orange, and embers began to shower down on me. The embers hissed as they hit the water around me. To take cover from the embers I ducked underneath the water. From under the water I could see the embers descending, like orange lights through green glass. I would surface for a breath, sheltering under the branch I had found, and then duck under the water again. When I surfaced I could see the school going up in flames in front of me. Those flames came across the surface of the water like a massive blowtorch.’
This was at 7.15pm. We had turned around about 3.30.
Afterwards, a police sergeant said that the main street in Marysville had been destroyed: ‘The motel at one end of it partially exists. The bakery has survived. Don’t ask me how. Everything else is just nuked.’ Reports on 11 February estimated that around 100 of the town’s population of approximately 500 were believed to have perished, and that only ‘a dozen’ buildings were left. After a brief visit, Premier Brumby described the situation: ‘There’s no activity, there’s no people, there’s no buildings, there’s no birds, there’s no animals. Everything’s just gone.’
All but 14 of 590 houses and commercial buildings had been destroyed. (One of the painful things for the residents was that the town was declared ‘a crime scene’ because of the possibility of arson and entrance was forbidden to them or anyone else for six weeks.)
Just before the fire peaked several hundred people had gathered on the football oval and a very courageous and very lucky group of police guided them in convoy out the Buxton Rd to safety in Alexandra minutes before it became impassable and the roof really fell in.
Nonetheless, 173 people died in these fires, 39 in Marysville. Ken Rowe was one of them, a sometime colleague with whom I rarely agreed on professional matters but that didn’t interfere with our amiable relationship. Like a lot of the residents, he was transitioning up from the city to retire to his garden and trees in Hull Road.
David Sebald, the real estate agent, was another. We’d had quite a few conversations with him and his wife Marlene (who also died in the fires) about Sedgwick Street. He was excellent company, and a real enthusiast for Marysville, for a time its main booster.
He may have had a hand in two low impact bits of pre-Fires community tarting-up: the wisteria walk and the re-making au naturel of the gutters in Murchison St. Nice, but not decisive. But bear those in mind in terms of scale as we proceed.
He’d just had a new subdivision round Timber Jinker Place approved and was positive, excited, that the town was ‘on the verge of really taking off’.
* * * * * *
And that’s the thing about Marysville. In our time of contact with it, the town has always been on the verge — when it was in the mood anyway; more commonly it was to be found lying back on its haunches some distance from the verge, somnolent — of taking off. But it never did. For us, that was one of its chief attractions.
In the past it has had its moments.
Logging has been big. But what with one thing and another, including agitation by green types, the bottom fell out until there were just enough loggers left to sprinkle around the front bar of Keppel’s Alpine Hotel, the pub whose walls were decorated with photos of massive trees and spectacular feats of felling them. 20 km away in Cambarville, a former logging settlement, are stands of mountain ash which were more than 90m high. They’ve now been whacked by lightning and are a bit shorter, but they remain formidable, thrilling. There have been times when logging has mattered around here. But Marysville’s mill, Sund’s, closed years ago, the two at Narbethong more recently. Tourism became the go.
The five guest houses at their peak used to accommodate 500+ visitors; this in a town with a resident population in 2008 of 406. (Marylands above and below) However modern people no longer want to stay at guest houses. They don’t play croquet. They like BnBs with or without Air. And you might now go to Bali rather than Marysville for your honeymoon.
The Cumberland had been updated and was quite a solid proposition. We would go there for our version of luxury. It was right in the middle of the main street, which may have been to its advantage, and it did fair to good convention business. But it expired completely in the conflagration.
The Marylands’ drawcard shifted from the croquet lawn, the full-size pool table and the rather limited concrete swimming pool to gourmet-ish food and queen-size beds. But during our time it was always teetering, full of fond memories rather than paying customers. The Mary-lyn became a successful haven for semi-permanent residents over 50 and, pre-fires at least, was an important staple of the town’s economy. It was destroyed and hasn’t been replaced.
Every time we came another shop, another set of shops, was having a farewell sale, had already packed up and gone or had a new set of owners. We wished them all well, but like everyone else we never spent much money in them.
Crossways, opposite the church at the T-intersection, has somehow stayed alive since the 1920s. This photo includes a large sign saying CABARET attached to its roof. CABARET. Unimaginable in Marysville.
The Bakery too was an exception. It just burst onto the scene, a new enterprise in a new building, and for years ran at full bore. Marysville is near two of the great motor bike rides in Victoria: the Black Spur and Reefton Spur, and on Sunday mornings the Bakery would be bulging at the seams with bikies hoeing into the prize-winning pies, vanilla slices and large mugs of country coffee. The verandah would be aswarm with flocks of the King and Crimson parrots memorialised in its doors.
The Motel did all right too. In fact, weirdly enough, the three buildings in the main street the fires didn’t destroy were the three steadily going concerns in town, Crossways, the Bakery and the motel. (The pub which was utterly flattened might be considered a fourth.) The church went.
The time had already come when there weren’t enough residents for a footy or even a netball team (the Marysville Villains of the past). Or a lot else.
* * * * * *
We came back for the first time about nine months after the fires on the way back from the Alps to Melbourne. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see what had happened, but we both were curious. Will Storr wrote a ‘one year after’ story for The Australian in which he says, ‘There’s nothing tender or poignant about this scene; there’s a violence in the razed spaces of Marysville. Even after all these months, its wounds are still raw and shocking and open.’ And at that time that’s exactly how it seemed to us.
The walks were gradually, very gradually, re-opened and we came back to do them. Some re-routing had occurred and, not only had they been tediously slow and manically cautious in restoring them, it felt a bit like they, whoever ‘they’ were, couldn’t leave well enough alone. But a new building went up here and there, a monster information centre and a palatial police station early in the piece, along with some really tinny new housing, more fire resistant presumably but ugly as sin. Most residents were off in portable cabins 3km out of town at ‘Camp Marysville’. I don’t know anything about that, but there is this feeling that the people or many of them who lived there had been isolated like refugees.
The VIBE was built covering half the major block of Murchison Street where the pub and the Cumberland had been. To stay there, as we have, you need to schlep your bags about 100m from where you park your car. And I hate to say this but the reception area and the people who worked in it shrieked: Somewhere else, not here. We don’t belong. We want to be somewhere else.
It was suggested to us that the reason the building is so bad was that the architect had never been to Marysville. The documentary evidence is to the contrary. There were consultations with the residents. Can’t you just imagine them. A team of bright young things with orange shoes, no socks, tight black trousers and very sharp collarless shirts, up from the office in Docklands, blowing fluff in the face of a small recently traumatised group of 70 year-old Marysville stalwarts who had no idea what they were talking about. Because, truly, only art-speak is worse than architecture-speak.
Metier3 (!), the architects. They say:
We set out to re-establish the charm of an eclectic alpine village, by creating a fine-grained urban design response to enhance and rebuild the street. By taking cues from the local built character, materiality and rhythm of the streetscapes, the design’s visual and performative qualities are strengthened. [Check out the photo. Just how performatively fine-grained can you get?]
We now have the opportunity to recreate its charms in a contemporary fashion, and focus on rebuilding quality spaces that will cater for the needs of today and the future. Understanding these things, we have built up our design to reflect such elements as the individual dwelling rhythm of the streetscapes, the charred trunks of trees once burnt by wildfires and the snow on the adjacent ranges.
The conceptual response we have adopted in our design response, is one of figuratively rebuilding the streets — Murchison Street in particular, to create a fine-grained urban design that responds and reflects the town’s character. These elements present as individual buildings to Murchison Street, however are actually elongated ‘fingers’ of buildings that are connected to a delicate white-glazed walkway to create an holistic facility.
What is formally created, is a series of pure building volumes that remain unmistakably of this place. The simple shapes express a traditional alpine village, maintaining values while giving the downtown area archetype of the traditional house with pitch [sic] roof.
Construction was completed in early 2015, and the Hotel and Conference centre is the centrepiece of the town and surrounding shire.
And so as its ‘centrepiece’ — and that is unarguable — we have this horrible black elephant, a monument to misery with its blank-faced address to the street, dominating the built town. They might have visited Marysville but how could they have had no idea just how awful and out of keeping the finished building ($28m, partly funded by the Victorian government) would be.
It’s not just the look, or the fact that we have a team of architects who can’t tell the difference between a pitch roof and a pitched roof — it’s the functionality.
For example, you enter Radius, VIBE’s eating place, straight off the street. There is no vestibule or lobby. So on an icy night like the first time we ate there, every time someone came in or out of the giant door there would be a blast of cold air chilling all the diners sitting within 15 metres. The extractor fan over the cooking area wasn’t working effectively and the only way to get rid of the smoke, yes smoke, (smoke! might be to go with the charred tree trunks) was to open the door for through-flow of air. It was intermittently freezing. Last weekend, some years later, I noted this problem still seems to exist.
It opened in February 2015; it was for sale May 2016. Asking price $13m. Marysville.
The Kerami Manor and Day Spa with its commanding position on one of the hills overlooking the town is more successful. It knows where it is — built on the site first of Marymeadows Guesthouse (Eric Dowdle who built and owned these guest houses as a chain had a thing about naming), and then Kerami Lodge which, before the fires, was sliding downhill both literally and figuratively at an accelerating rate.
We haven’t stayed here. Prima facie, it looks bit fussy, but that might be just the right style — cosy, leather, magazines, flock wall paper, contemporary versions of chandeliers. The 35 people who have reviewed their stay on Travel Advisor have unanimously given it five stars.
But the bakery …
Peak hour, Sunday breakfast. We were there a week ago celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. The pies are probably still great but they stopped winning prizes in 2006. Or was that when the steam went out of the proprietor’s engine?
Fraga’s up the street was lively in its own Marysville-ian way.
And The Duck Inn, the new pub, was a real find. Very well situated on the main drag, terrific food, great place to sit, cosy fire, excellent service. A real bright light on the horizon. One interesting thing was that the new baker in the bakery might have been Vietnamese, the person who checked us into the motel was Chinese and our hosts at the Duck Inn were assertively Korean. An Asian infusion might just be a launchpad for recovery.
The new church is another success, a massive improvement on the old one (at left) which was a bit picturesque insofar as anyone noticed, but pretty much worn out. Marysville’s climate is quite hard on weatherboard as a building material.
The new one has great lines, a smart and easy entry with protection from the elements. It’s notable but nestles beautifully into its setting. In fact most things about it look just right.
But is there anyone going to it?
• facilitate the ‘importation’ of country football fixtures to Gallipoli Park over the next few years (in much the same way that Tasmania do with Hawthorn, albeit at the grass roots level)
• market Gallipoli Park as a regional venue of high quality that not only attracts imported football fixtures, but taps in to the financially lucrative football club pre season training camp market
• develop an Auskick centre for primary school aged children
• develop junior teams in a nearby league.
Not actually play there, but hope that someone else can use these magnificent club rooms.