Australia — The road winding up to the township of Kinglake is breathtaking. New green growth hugs the eucalypts that tower over lush gullies teeming with new life. But drive on and youll see the scars of that terrible day. Sharp black sticks still jut out from the regrowth; blackened bushfire warning signs serve as a charred reminder of Black Saturday.
Two and a half years ago, Kinglake National Park was changed forever. Now, as the wounds start to heal, a revitalised tourism industry promises new opportunities.
The fires actually made people aware theres a township, says Brad Quilliam, president of the Kinglake Ranges Business Network, one of the driving forces behind establishing a new tourism strategy for the region. Theres so much more for them to see, so its provided a bit of awareness of whats actually up here.
Quilliam set up the network with fellow local business people before the fires with a view to working together to bolster trade. But since Black Saturday the focus has shifted to improving visitor information and generating new interest in the Kinglake Ranges.
One of their most significant plans is for a 13-kilometre arts and history walk linking the towns of Kinglake and Kinglake West. The trail will take visitors past several nodes with information on local flora, fauna and history taking in several key attractions along the way, such as the new Parks Victoria office and education centre, a childrens park, Bollygum (currently under construction), and a community arts centre.
It is not the KRBNs only initiative. A year after the fires, it launched the popular Produce & Artisans Market in Kinglake which runs on the fourth Sunday of every month. The normally sleepy town home to about 1400 people is abuzz on market day, with up to 1000 people inundating the main street, as local producers show off a smorgasbord of wines, seasonal fruit and vegetables, arts and crafts and plants.
As well as bringing in visitors, the market injects much-needed cash flow back into the community, as various local community groups take turns to collect a gold coin donation at the markets gate. The venture has been so successful the coveted position at the entrance gate is booked until 2014.
The markets were really important initially in getting people into the area and building morale within the community, Quilliam says. There was a real need for the local producers to have somewhere to sell what they had.
Before the fires, Kinglake National Park attracted an estimated 250,000 visitors a year, and was the largest national park close to urban Melbourne. It was renowned for hectares upon hectares of towering forest, lush fern gullies and idyllic rolling hills, with an extensive network of walking tracks and visitors sites.
The figures are only estimates as the Parks Victoria office, including all its records, were lost when more than 98 per cent of the park was destroyed. Today the office is located down a gravel track in the type of portable building commonly seen in primary schools.
Parks Victoria Ranger Ion Maher, who took charge of the colossal clean up operation, recalls: There was pretty much nothing left. When I say everything was destroyed, I mean everything. Signs, steps, handrails, toilet blocks, bridges, walking tracks were all gone. Were still only halfway through the process of rebuilding major visitors sites.
Many business are also still struggling. Les Gray, who has owned the House of Bottles information centre, cafe and gemstone and bottle museum in Kinglake for 19 years, says he will need to sell up if business doesnt improve. When you get no tourists in, mate, you cant survive… Its that bad with the tourism up here, and were not the only ones suffering.
Gray fought the fires on Black Saturday with his wife Muriel and saved their home and business despite the 56-foot fires roaring like an express train. Inside the quaint House of Bottles, a board still hangs on the wall crowded with photos of the busloads of people who once visited the centre. These days, Gray says the busloads have all but stopped.
But Kinglake residents are survivors, and they refuse to give up. Another attraction designed to boost tourism is a cycling route through the Kinglake Ranges. Events company Super Sprint started the Degani Kinglake race in 2008. Last September it attracted about 3000 people. Director David Hansard says there was even more reason to go ahead with the event to support the local economy after the bushfires.
One of the benefits of the ride is weve brought so many cyclists to the region, shown them how beautiful Kinglake is and that its a great training destination for cycling, he says. The number of cyclists has increased dramatically and that is an ongoing benefit and legacy.
The main thing holding things back, he says, is a lack of accommodation. At a similar event in Torquay, about 60 per cent of riders stay the night, but limited facilities mean in Kinglake not even our own staff can get accommodation.
Quilliam is confident things will change. The hope is we are able to lead by example, and through the hard work of a few volunteers, we can lift the standard and lead the way for tourism in our area.
Hopefully visitor numbers will continue to grow, just like the lush new foliage on the road to Kinglake.
For more information on tourism in bushfire-affected areas, visit watchusgrow.com.au
Five more reasons to visit Kinglake
Flying Tarts Bakery & Cafe
Well-known by locals and visitors alike for having the best coffee and home-style pastries in the Kinglake Ranges, Flying Tarts is a mandatory stop-off for any day trip to the area. At 888 Whittlesea/Kinglake Road, Pheasant Creek. Call 5786 5800.
The Gums Camping Area, Kinglake National Park
This recently reopened intimate camping ground gives nature lovers a taste of the bush, only an hour from Melbourne. Nestled among tall eucalypts and ferns, and beside a mountain stream, its perfect for small groups or families, with picnic tables, fireplaces and a barbecue. Visit parkweb.vic.gov.au
Frank Thomson Reserve, Kinglake National Park
The highest point between Kinglake Central and Kinglake and the first picnic area to reopen, the Frank Thomson Reserve gives unbeatable views across the national park and Melbournes skyline. Visit parkweb.vic.gov.au
Take the chance to go horse riding, canoeing, fishing or bushwalking through the scenic national park, with affordable accommodation for families or groups of up to 35. At 679 Eucalyptus Road, Kinglake. Call 5786 1465.
Kinglake Massage & Day Spa
After a long day out, take time to relax at this private healing sanctuary with tranquil views. Services include massage, myopathy or some much-needed pampering. At 50 Peregrine Drive, Kinglake West. Visit kinglakemassageanddayspa.com.au