After bushfire tragedy, Marysville in rural Victoria is back in business thanks to the efforts of resilient residents, discovers Danielle Wright.
It was a case of third time unlucky for the tiny town of Marysville — which narrowly survived 1939's Black Friday and 1983's Ash Wednesday — when Australia's worst bushfire in recorded history, February 7, 2009, now known as Black Saturday, came calling, turning the whole town into a crime scene, after fires completely wiped it out.
As residents this week mark the eighth anniversary of that tragic time, life has returned to the town. Businesses are reopening, homes are rebuilt and Mother Nature has regenerated green spaces. In the main street of the town, only the bakery remains as a reminder of what was there before.
"Black Saturday wasn't so much a bush fire, as a bush fire storm," says Pauline Harrow, staffing the Marysville visitor's centre.
She was born and bred here, and took on the role of communications officer at the Country Fire Authority (CFA) during the tragedy.
"Gale-force winds, high temperatures, low humidity and a period of widespread drought created unique conditions that enabled the fires to cause widespread devastation," she says.
"Black Saturday brought 173 fatalities and the destruction of more than 2000 homes — everyone either lost a loved one or lost a home."
Pauline lost her mother that day, and says the town has shrunk from 600 to 200 residents. When asked if she thought of leaving, too, she answers: "I've lived here all my life, where else would I go?"
Nestled in the foothills of Melbourne's closest alpine resort, Marysville was once a destination for honeymooners.
The historic main street is now rebuilt in neat rows, dominated by the much-anticipated $28 million Vibe hotel and conference centre, bringing 64 jobs and 4000 tourists to the town in its first month.
Walking around the town, it's hard to see the scars left by the fire at first glance. Talk to the local businesspeople, though, and they'll hand you a scrapbook of their experiences, during the dark days, perhaps sick of the incessant questions from customers about something still raw in their hearts.
Every business has one and it's hard not to be compelled to look at the images; even harder not to be moved by the stories.
Over homemade chicken pot pie at local institution Fraga's Cafe, I look through owners James and Jane Fraga's memories with my children. They're mesmerised by the images of the happy couple — there they are, smiling cheekily at the cafe's opening day, there's Jane playing her beloved piano, and next celebrating the birth of their children.
Then the mood changes with a turn of the page, as well-thumbed images from Black Saturday fill the book. One aerial photograph sticks in my mind of the whole town flattened and covered in ash, not a soul to be seen in the now-busy main street.
The Fragas were at home looking after their three-week old baby girl, Anna, when the fires struck. They were able to flee town. The scrapbook tells the story of two much-loved employees lost to the flames.
The pictures show the arduous rebirth of the business during a cold and windy winter as they sold coffee and food from a tent where the community gathered. Another turn of the page and the sun has come back, pages filling up now with Anzac parades and new beginnings. It's a reminder that no matter what, life goes on.
A short drive up Lake Mountain later in the afternoon takes us to an alpine resort. On the way up, we see thousands of dead trees twisting to the sky like matchsticks across the valleys. It's a feathery landscape, as if winter has permanently made its home in the forest.
In summer, though, alpine wildflowers are growing back in the rocks and the kangaroos, bush lyrebirds and deer are back. It's humbling to see the forest has regenerated itself without any human help.
Back in town, we visit Bruno's sculpture garden, which needed plenty of human help to get it back on its feet. It's so lush with sculptures dotted among the bushes that it's hard to imagine not one single green leaf was left by the hungry flames. The sculptures, too, were broken in the strong winds — 40 had to be glued back together.
Our children race around the park, counting the whimsical sculptures along the way. They also stop to compare the photographs near the sculptures, showing how badly damaged they once were. They're starting to put a news story into context.
A short drive from Bruno's is the Buxton Trout Farm, where our kids get to feed the fish pellets with the help of local boy Nico Bell. We watch the dark, still waters come to life as the trout thrash about competing for the food.
Owner Mitch Macrae's daughter Tegan was also born in the area and says she stayed at the property to protect it during Black Saturday, managing to save the house, but not the fish.
"There was a police lock-down so we had to just stay here with 40-tonne of dead fish," says Tegan.
"Yardmen came and went, saying they couldn't help us, but the locals — lovely people who had lost everything — came and helped us."
She shows us her scrapbook and my son says it looks like a completely different place as he thumbs through images of the devastation.
On the way back to Marysville later, we stop at the Black Spur Inn, a pub that became a refuge for the community when their homes were destroyed.
"In a way, it was a very special time for everyone and life-long bonds were formed," says the Inn's owner Di Kennedy.
"If ever I doubted humanity before the fires, I just don't anymore."
We sit huddled around a small dining table near an open fire, in an atrium-style room watching rain drip down the window panes. It's just like any historic country pub, in any other historic country town, but it holds a heavy heart.
As we toast the town, we're glad to have shown our children a different kind of holiday, a visit to the country they won't soon forget — as well as a lesson in life's knock-backs and the joy of getting right back on your feet, with a bit of help from your friends.
Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Melbourne.
Accommodation: Vibe Hotel, Marysville is 90 minutes' drive from Melbourne. In the hotel restaurant, Radius, everything served is from a 1km radius, including Yarra Valley wines. The cafe has a selection of sausages, eggs and crispy bacon, as well as muffins, fresh juices and granola. It's a lovely retreat.
Further information: See marysvilletourism.com.