Yarra Valley rising again after bushfires

Ballooning over the Yarra. Photo by Rosie Manins.
Ballooning over the Yarra. Photo by Rosie Manins.
Singed by Victoria's fatal February bushfires, tourism in the Yarra Valley is regenerating. Determined to prove business is as usual, tourist operators and business owners are encouraging visitors back to the area. With a thriving viticulture industry, luxury accommodation, specialty food, and a variety of geographical and cultural attractions, tourists are heeding the call. Rosie Manins spent a weekend exploring the area.

At first glance, the Yarra Valley appears to carry relatively few scars from February's fatal bushfires.

Lush green grass has returned to paddocks and vineyards colour the landscape as grape leaves turn red, orange, yellow, and gold in the autumn sun.

Shops, hotel, motels, and tourist attractions are open and vying for business.

However, a closer look reveals that Black Saturday's ashen mark still lies on the land.

Blackened fenceposts, tree stumps, and power poles remind visitors and locals alike of the devastating fires that blazed through the region just months ago.

Scorched earth shows where haystacks burnt hotter than most scrub, and piles of rubble dot the landscape where spot fires torched isolated buildings and houses.

Although only one of the area's 70-odd vineyards and 45 cellar doors was completely destroyed, most such businesses lost sheds, equipment, and the odd block of vines.

Tourism, which is responsible for a huge chunk of the region's economy, ground to a halt during the two most vital months of the year.

But much-needed business is returning to the area, where there is an abundance of activities, dining, accommodation, and sightseeing options.

Arguably the brightest jewel in the Yarra's crown is its award-winning wine.

Known for its cool-wine climate, the valley produces two major grape varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Sparkling wine, in which the two varietals are commonly combined, also holds its own in the local wine industry.

Much of the Yarra's attraction as a tourist destination lies in the complementary experiences it offers.

Travel packages boast luxury retreat-focused accommodation, sumptuous food paired with fine local wines, and activities such as hot-air ballooning - which make the most of the valley's dramatic landscape.

Less than an hour from central Melbourne, yet wrapped in its own relaxed rural ambience, it is little wonder the Yarra Valley attracts a wide-ranging demographic.

A lucky country
Despite the trauma caused by February's bushfires, residents in the Yarra seem to have adopted the glass-is-half-full mentality.

Many remark about how lucky they were, comparing the plight of others to their own lesser travails.

Most of the destruction was in fact in the hills surrounding the valley.

As rain has regenerated the valley's grass and greenery, so the locals are moving ahead afresh.

Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel general manager Sue O'Brien says the valley's traditionally strong sense of community has become rock solid.

February's fires united the valley in the face of a common threat and residents have remained concerned for one another since, she says.

The chateau itself was threatened by flames which came as close as the front lawns and car-park areas, but Mrs O'Brien says their focus at the time was on staff members who had trouble contacting loved ones in harder-hit areas, as well as those who were unable to return home and were confined to the hotel.

"We all look out for one another, and when there is anything someone needs, we pitch in and help out," she says.

Cautious optimism
Autumn tourism is going some way towards making up for business lost during the valley's traditionally busy months of February and March.

Vineyards at which blocks of grapes were burnt are welcoming visitors back to cellar doors and winery restaurants.

Domain Chandon lost vines, but business is again booming at weekends when Melbourne residents and international visitors swarm to its famous tasting room and restaurant.

Caramel-coloured trees in the valley's main township of Healesville line streets packed with traffic as its historic charm lures people back to favourite restaurants, antique stores, galleries, and produce shops.

The winding Black Spur road into hills north of the valley again teems with motorcyclists, returning to northern settlements such as Marysville, which lost all but 14 of about 400 buildings and homes.

Marysville's bakery survived Black Saturday's bushfires while adjoining properties were lost.

On warm Sundays, food again flies out the doors as a resurgence of visitors make the once-scenic day trip through burnt forest into the small town.

Global Ballooning pilot Brian Garth, who manages the company's Yarra Valley tours, says while tourism is starting to pick up, for many businesses it is too little too late.

As is typical of small tourist regions, the Yarra Valley relies heavily on February and March business to pay the way through quieter months.

Mr Garth says the continuing recession is hitting Yarra Valley tourism twice as hard, as businesses are already on the back foot from dismal summer profits.

There is a cautious optimism among tourist operators and business owners as a result, he says.

"January was a record month and then the phones stopped ringing. People postponed or cancelled trips because they didn't want to intrude in a tough time, but we needed them," he says.

Sculpting a way forward
Marysville sculptor and painter Bruno Torfs is leading efforts to reinvigorate the economy in his devastated town.

Despite losing his home, gallery, workshop, and much of an adjoining sculpture garden, Mr Torfs carefully tidied broken terracotta figures and melted sculptures before opening the garden to tourists again at Easter.

"It used to be a paradise. I wanted to give people a chance to see a bit of what happened, because many couldn't understand the reality of it," he says.

Mr Torfs established the garden about 13 years ago at the bottom of a small forested hill at one end of Marysville.

More than 100 sculptures were destroyed and, of the remaining few, many are beyond repair.

During Black Saturday, Mr Torfs managed to store art and photo negatives of his life's work within his kiln before fleeing, although the fire's strength was such his kiln was left a charred wreck and all inside was lost.

"I probably lost 500 works and thousands of negatives," he says.

Visitors are essential to his future, like so many in the valley and surrounding area, he says.

"We make a living out of tourism.

"Once, visitors were everywhere and, until recently, I hadn't seen one since the fires.

"Marysville's not totally dead. I wanted something for people to do when they come along, and to show locals we're still here and doing things," he says.

Rosie Manins enjoyed a weekend in the Yarra Valley courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Air New Zealand.

For more information visit www.visitvictoria.com/nz and airnewzealand.co.nz

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