A warm embrace

Artist Barry Dickins finds himself in a picture-perfect place where life is mellow.

Although I'm a wordsmith and adorer of poetry I have no words for Myrtleford other than beauty and holiness and mysticism, mixed with gum saplings and breathtaking strolls through new-growth ferneries and quietude that I rather thought I should never feel again.

All I know is the city can get you more than down, with all its mayhem and bashings and random assaults upon one's reeling senses.

Myrtleford redeemed me.

I was invited by Wangaratta Public Library to give a series of readings from my books.

That was a while ago but seems present because the landscape where I discussed my writing was as pretty as the prose in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

When I was in Bright chatting with so-friendly a group of literature lovers, I felt as though more than the sun had come out. I felt included in joy.

Heavenly trees pass you upon Snow Road on the way to Oxley, which boasts better and more gorgeous oak and elm trees than painter John Constable could imitate 200 years ago; the finest painter of scudding clouds who ever lived in an English countryside; who was English countryside. I had to stop at Oxley and stare anew at the elegant roadside trees that seemed to reassure me that life still has meaning.

At Myrtleford, I shut my mind out of the junkies and robbers I bump against in claustrophobic Smith Street, Collingwood. Where life is a bitter joke and poverty staggers up to you and robs you blind. The offal bin of modern history needs to be cleansed of human degradation and, well, I had to get away.


I met a guy called Jim van Geet at Myrtleford and he asked to paint me for the 2009 Archibald Prize. He took photos of me and we walked around the new-grown scrub that has bounced right back after the savagery of recent bushfires. It is green now, instead of charcoal. Bright green as a screeching and pirouetting parrot.

I have motored to Myrtleford a few times over the past few summer months. My battered 1990 white Corolla makes it OK but I get a trifle phased whenever hoons overtake me at speed.

And the last time I came back from Jim's place I got badly lost, to say the least. I took a wrong turn and ended up badly dehydrated and utterly confused on a remote mountain range. The only landmark being an alp.

I picked up an insane hitchhiker because he looked so over baked and putrescent, perched there on the gravelly side of the road with his tongue hanging out.

He lied he was a digger of gold as well as diamonds, then bizarrely refused to sit up nice and straight in his seat, demanding his inalienable right to sit in a lotus meditation position. In short, he frightened me.

He asked me hundreds of inane questions about whose car it was, whether I slept alone or with someone, if I were married or separated, then when I put the old bomb car into second, to get us both up a hill that was corkscrewed and dangerous, he laughed idiotically.

I asked him why and he said: "Why on earth did you drop it into second? Can't you afford a decent car?"

I desperately needed him to get out of my car but I couldn't stop to let him off because anything could have happened at that giddy and surreal altitude. I felt like crying. He was like a rattlesnake in my friendly Corolla, hissing at me most vehemently.

In the end he got off at a whistle-stop where he spied a tiny pub. He said: "Let's face it, I feel like a beer. I can sleep on the side of the road. You don't like me very much. Do you?"

I replied without bothering to squint his way that I didn't. He slammed the door nearly off. I drove to what I hoped was Wangaratta.

The same to-die-for landscape and the same beautiful trees remained but the return journey had been sullied by my grotesque travelling companion. Although this was early December it was incredibly hot on the Hume Highway back to Melbourne, once I found it.

I must have gone through five big bottles of dreadfully expensive purified water. Is it from Lourdes?

Jim van Geet rang me recently. He's just back from a holiday in Fiji with his young family.

I like his painting of me, whoever I am; I think he's got it.

He's painted me coming out of one of my handwritten diaries like a bush storyteller, using my hands to tell the tale.

Myrtleford is where tobacco leaves were once harvested and you can still see the kilns everywhere you go. It is so captivating and charming, I long to see it again.

It only takes 3 1/2 hours to get there from Melbourne. Go up on the old Snow Road just past the McDonald's right in Wangaratta.

I pray you pull over at Oxley as I did and find your life given to you with interest.

Barry Dickins is a Melbourne writer and artist.

Myrtleford accommodation options include Motel on Alpine, see motelonalpine.com; Carawah Ridge Bed & Breakfast, carawahridge.com.au; and A Cottage on Elgin, phone 0419 613 453.

While you're there, places to go include the Myrtleford Butter Factory, which has a menu based on fresh local produce; Gapsted Winery, with sweeping views of the Ovens Valley; and Plump Harvest Produce, which serves organic sour dough bread, cakes and fresh pasta.

Myrtleford's La Fiera Festival is on May 22-24. See festival.org.au.

Myrtleford Information Centre, phone 5752 1044, see visitvictoria.com, visitalpinevictoria.com.au.