Lonely utopia

Bruce Elder visits the remarkable landscape shaped by a hermit over 25 years.

As a nation, we are not known for our exuberant eccentrics. We seem, rather, to specialise in loners. There's a long line of people from the escaped convict William Buckley, who spent so long living with Aborigines on the shores of Port Phillip he forgot how to speak English, to Arthur Stace, Sydney's fascinating chalk calligrapher who wrote "Eternity" everywhere who have turned their backs upon their fellow human beings and opted quietly for a solitary life.

One of the country's most remarkable "loners" was Valerio Ricetti, a migrant who arrived in 1914, aged 16, from the Lombardy region of Italy. His story is an integral part of the history of Griffith, in the Riverina, and his unique achievements are some of the town's most fascinating tourist attractions.

Ricetti arrived in Port Pirie in South Australia and made his way to Broken Hill, where he worked in the mines until, spurned by a barmaid he loved, he left the town and started drifting. He headed back to Adelaide, worked for a while as a timber cutter and took up other odd jobs.

In Adelaide he suffered the first reversal in what was to prove a run of bad luck. Visiting a brothel, he left his wallet behind and the doorman would not let him back in to retrieve it. He hurled a rock through the brothel window, was arrested and served time in Adelaide Gaol. When released, he moved to Melbourne, where, down on his luck, he tried to pawn his coat. He was duped by a stranger who said he would pawn it for him and never returned.

Ricetti went to work on the Murray River paddle steamers but he was disillusioned and disheartened. He became a swagman and walked along the banks of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers until he arrived at Hillston.

He then walked the 120 kilometres overland to Griffith. It is said that he arrived on the outskirts of the town just as the heavens opened and, seeking shelter from the storm, found a large rocky overhang where he spent the night. The next day he realised the scale of the overhangs and caves and the abundant food and water nearby and decided to stay.

Over the next 25 years, using the techniques of dry-stone walling he was greatly helped by the fact he had been apprenticed as a stonemason in Italy he built a personal utopia, which he called "mia sacra collina" (my sacred hill).

Misleadingly called The Hermit's Cave, the site comprises shelters, terraced gardens, exotic plants, water cisterns, dry-stone walling and linking bridges, stairways and paths that stretch intermittently over more than a kilometre of the escarpment of Scenic Hill.

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These structures were created by moving hundreds of tonnes of stone and earth, with the ingenious incorporation of natural features in the landscape. To remain unseen by the locals, he worked at night and early in the morning. It was an extraordinary achievement for one man.

Ironically, in an area where 60 per cent of the population claim Italian ancestry, Ricetti initially believed he was the only Italian in the district and lived a reclusive life. In reality, two of his old compatriots from Broken Hill had settled nearby and increasing numbers of Italian migrants were arriving.

In World War II, Australian security became convinced he was a spy and enemy alien, so he was made a prisoner of war in Liverpool, then Cowra and Loveday internment camps. He was put to work building roads and instructed his captors on how to improve their road-building methods.

After the war, he was re-hired by old friends in Griffith. He returned to Italy in 1952 to visit his brother and he died there six months later.

Today, what is left of Ricetti's "utopia" can be reached by driving to the Sir Dudley De Chair Lookout on Scenic Drive, just north of Griffith. It has been placed on the NSW Heritage Register. The remnants are a reminder of the unique talents of a gifted stonemason who, it is fair to conjecture, became disenchanted with his fellow human beings and decided utopia lay in his introspective and lonely vision.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The city of Griffith is 647 kilometres from Sydney via Wagga Wagga and 574 kilometres via Harden and Temora. Rex flies regularly from Sydney to Griffith. Turn north off Griffith's main street, Banna Avenue, into Crossing Street. Cross the railway line and follow Macarthur Street up the hill. Turn right at Scenic Drive and continue to the sign for Sir Dudley De Chair Lookout on your right.

Staying and eating there

Griffith has a number of good-quality motels. My preferences are the huge Kidman Wayside Inn (phone 6964 5666) and, for a more rural and private option, Wilga Park Cottage (phone 6968 1661). Ask at the Griffith Visitor Information Centre if you want hearty home-style Italian meals. For newer-style Italian cuisine, try Sam Vico's Dolce Dolce in Banna Avenue. The story of Valerio Ricetti is told in From Broken Hill to Scenic Hill by Peter Ceccato.

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