Emotions high as visitors drink to region's recovery

AS THE highway winds north-east towards the Yarra Valley, the hills behind Healesville sit blue and violet against a clear sky.

It is the first weekend in a month that this mountain range has been visible: the cloying pall of smoke finally lifted when rain extinguished the smouldering fires.

Yesterday cars streamed through the valley as thousands of visitors heeded the call to return to bushfire-affected pockets of Victoria for the long weekend.

The rain has given some dun-coloured paddocks a blush of green and locals on Healesville's crowded main street said a "buzz" was in the air for the first time since February 7.

On the crest of a rolling hill in Coldstream, 200 guests sat down to a bushfire fund-raising lunch of dishes including chicken and pistachio terrine and yoghurt-braised neck of lamb prepared by leading Melbourne chefs who donated their time.

Hosted by restaurant and winery Stones, with volunteer staff, donated food and wine and even a volunteer string quartet, the $200-a-head function raised $40,000 for the bushfire appeal.

Mo Mo executive chef Greg Malouf, responsible for a chocolate and Turkish delight tart with orange blossom cream, said the hospitality industry prided itself on generosity.

David Fraser, whose family runs Stones, said the winery had a "Titanic moment" on February 7, when fire lapped at the edge of vines as a 130-guest wedding was under way.

Guests rolled up their sleeves and grabbed buckets of water, and the property escaped untouched.

"We've been really lucky, so today isn't about us — it's about encouraging people to come back and support the rest of the Yarra Valley," Mr Fraser said.

But yesterday, the echo of the fires was never far away, and pain never far from the surface.

Next to lush, vine-striated paddocks lay blackened fields and piles of grey ash — the incinerated remains of hay bales.

Sitting by his stall at Yarrawood Wines' monthly market, woodturner Lloyd Walton was moved to tears as he recalled the terrible burns his brother-in-law suffered during the fire.

And each of the half-dozen stall-owners at the market had their own story of loss, fear or quiet heroism.

Mr Walton said the number of visitors yesterday was "astronomical" and it would be only months before the bush rebounded.

"But for the people it will take years — it was an absolute shock."

Yarra Track Wines owners Jim and Diana Viggers said tourists were initially reticent to return to the family winery: "They felt like they were intruding and didn't know if they were welcome," Mr Viggers said.

All 32 hectares of their property was burnt and they lost machinery sheds, stock and fencing, but fought and saved their home, which is also their cellar door.

"At the start we were like stunned mullets, but now that we've cleaned up it doesn't feel hopeless any more," Mr Viggers said.

Across the Yarra Valley, cafes, vineyards, hotels and bars did a roaring trade as visitors flocked to events such as the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. One Healesville local said it was the busiest weekend they had experienced in years. "Busiest ever," countered another.

Port Melbourne resident Lisa Lynch ate lunch with her friend, Carly Reid, a Kinglake East local, at Healesville winery Giant Steps. She said she could not stop crying on the drive up.

It was the matchstick trees that hit home, she said — the denuded hills, the unfamiliar landscape. "I came up here to support them, and I'll keep coming back."

The Age is a sponsor of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.