The regions devastated by Black Saturday are in recovery and visitors are welcome back.
The Murrindindi and Mitchell shires, north and north-east of Melbourne, were among the hardest hit during the Black Saturday bushfires of February, 2009. Now, 19 months on, forests are greening, cafes are serving delicious fare and wineries are producing memorable vintages. A fear of being a voyeur has kept many people away from these parts of Victoria but there is much that residents now want you to see. You can support, participate in and celebrate the region's comeback by walking, eating and drinking.
Walking and exploring
Burnt and stripped of bark, the snow gums paint black and cinnamon stripes on Lake Mountain's snowy summit. ''Starkly beautiful isn't it,'' a woman says as she crunches past on the trail. ''Hard to imagine fire raging here.''
And she is right.
Also hard to imagine is that many Black Saturday survivors, and in particular in nearby Marysville, would see anything beautiful - stark or otherwise - in this scene. However, it is here, in the shadings of exposed timber; the scaly charcoal that the bright green leaves poke through crystalline white.
The fires ravaged national and state parks across the Murrindindi and Mitchell shires but lots of public land escaped and now is a great time to explore unaffected parks and tread gently through regenerating ones.
On Lake Mountain you can take a walk up the summit track to look over the Yarra Ranges.
Off the mountain, in Marysville, there's food and mixed temptations at the Old Style Lolly Shop, operating out of a portable container.
The town's emblematic Steavenson Falls reopened on September 18 after roadworks and a new viewing platform were completed. And on the road up to the cascades is Bruno's Art & Sculpture Garden, a sanctuary for a collection of terracotta characters inspired by life and travel.
Sculptor-painter Bruno Torfs began restoring his rainforest garden soon after residents returned to their razed town and reopened it last November. Beside some sculptures in leafy settings are photographs of the tree-felled piece coated with ash; without these you might think the garden escaped the inferno.
Torfs - with friends and volunteers - has resurrected his garden. ''One step at a time,'' he says while taking a breather from shaping beams for the house and gallery he is rebuilding.
Another fire victim was Cathedral Range State Park, 20 kilometres north, 92 per cent of which was burnt. Campgrounds and most of the walking tracks on the seven-kilometre stand-alone ridge are now open, so hikers are welcome back. But did the fire kill the lyrebirds whose mimicry of stock on farms below gave Farmyard Saddle on the trail its name?
The shortest route to find out is Jawbone Creek Track, which climbs through black trees with shaggy new growth. It's a hard half-hour to the top but a cock bird performing within cooee of the creek saves me the effort. Impersonations of kookaburras, whipbirds and a dozen other forest dwellers suggest he is a long-term resident rather than post-fire immigrant.
Continuing north to Alexandra and then heading west along the Goulburn Highway takes you to a trio of regional parks outside the fire's heavy footprint. McKenzie Flora Reserve, an island of original vegetation in a sea of farmland, on Alexandra's southern edge, is home to fantastic fungi, gold-mining relics and wildflowers. The Yea Wetlands are wonderfully atmospheric on a misty morning when the frog songs are loud and the gums loom. And a walk through massed white common heath to the top (455 metres) of Mount Piper Nature Conservation Reserve at Broadford gives you a panoramic look at farmland and ranges.
South again is the Whittlesea turnoff and the road to ''The town still too tough to die,'' as the Kinglake sign proclaims.
Kinglake National Park was savaged on Black Saturday and many roads and attractions remain closed. The three-kilometre Mount Sugarloaf Ridge walk is open, though, and while you can drive to the summit, two hours on foot reveal the beauty of another park emerging from the ashes.
Fire opened the view across to Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay but look closer and you'll see that spiders have strung intricate webs on charcoal branches, insectivorous sundews carpet the ground and everywhere are new leaves, new mosses and new ferns.
- Melanie Ball
Food and wine
The fireplaces at Yea's Peppercorn Hotel warmed many a passing prospector in the 1860s, when the remote inn was a welcome sanctuary for fortune-hunters chasing the gold discovered here in 1859.
Food and wine
Almost 150 years later, the Peppercorn returned to its role as refuge when carloads of shell-shocked locals began arriving as firestorms raged across the countryside.
That night 70 local people - from elderly folk to toddlers - bedded down on the hotel's floor as bushfires blazed less than 10 kilometres away. ''We did what anyone would do; we fed them, found bedding and closed the hotel for a week to look after them,'' Peppercorn co-owner Grant Oppy says.
The countryside between Kinglake and Yea still bears the scars but the bush blooms with new life, too: hillsides stripped to the blackened skeletons of trees sport new foliage and velvety green grass covers rolling hills.
Like the landscape, the 30 communities affected by the tragedy are recovering: in devastated villages such as Flowerdale, the crisp air buzzes with the sounds of saws being used to build new homes.
It's busy too at the Peppercorn Hotel. A big screen in the Ned Kelly restaurant shows chef Cindy Oppy in the kitchen, working her culinary magic for the crowd, mostly locals. Generous servings and diverse menu choices make the Peppercorn the ''best pub in the world - or Victoria at least,'' one tells me.
The menu includes lamb-shank soup; fresh seafood platters and local angus steaks, a rich beef-and-burgundy pie is a slow-menu highlight and the seasonal menu includes such exotica as spiced duck with mandarins.
Driving along roads hugged by bushland, farms, vineyards and olive groves, you happen upon more fine eateries, such as the Tea Rooms at Yarck, near Yea. There are no scones here, instead, on weekends, this quaint weatherboard building hums with diners savouring chef Pietro Porcu's exceptional Italian cuisine, from organic produce grown on his nearby farm.
Porcu, who divides his time between Yarck and his South Yarra restaurant, Da Noi, offers an ever-changing menu. There's always homemade pasta, maybe veal broth with prosciutto and parmesan-filled tortellini; wood-fired pizzas; roasted meats including lamb and kid and rustic dishes such as polenta with ragu of venison in red wine and a touch of chocolate.
Visitors can graze on culinary specialities across the region: nine trout farms were affected by the bushfires but most are operating now, as are olive groves, berry farms and wineries.
At Tallarook Farmers' Market, where kids are learning to make pizzas in the historic Mechanic's Institute, we stock up on local spuds, Donnybrook cheese, field mushrooms, honey, and free-range eggs and beef.
Winemaker Vitto Oles has a stall at which we pick up a few bottles of his excellent Rocky Passes Estate Syrah Cabernet. You can also drive to Oles's pretty property at Whiteheads Creek to taste vintages from the small vineyard tended by Oles and his partner, Candi Westney, while enjoying Sunday lunch.
This is premium wine-growing country: yields are small, the soil ancient and minerally and the cool climate produces stylish wines. Though many crops were smoke-affected during the bushfires, thanks to rain at ''all the right times'', 2010 has been a bumper year, Westney says.
Shelmerdine Winery at Tooborac makes for another good pit-stop, where you can taste full-bodied reds partnered with seasonally-inspired fare from the on-site Whistler cafe.
Beer-lovers are spoilt, too: the old stables at the Tooborac Hotel, a bluestone beauty dating from the 1850s, have been transformed into a micro-brewery producing flavoursome beers including Woodcutters Amber Ale and Stonemasons Pale Ale, good companions to the big steaks and rabbit pie on the pub's menu.
Life goes on, Grant Oppy says. ''The best thing that can happen to this region now is for people to come back and visit us,'' he says.
- Sandy Guy