The mysterious story of Griffith’s hermit amongst the caves, by Australian Geographic.
ONE rain-lashed January night in 1929, a lonely and defeated Italian immigrant by the name of Valerio Ricetti arrived on the outskirts of Griffith, New South Wales, and sought shelter in a
rock overhang. Another depression-era drifter seeking work, he’d walked 120km from Hillston on the Lachlan River to get there.
Flat broke after a string of temporary jobs and in moral despair having been heartbroken, beaten up, robbed, swindled and jailed, he was at the end of his tether. He was disillusioned with society and wanted no further part of it. When he emerged the next morning and surveyed the deep recess in the rock and the rich soil, abundant wildlife and water sources nearby, then
fruit farms stretching to the horizon, he saw the opportunity of a life apart.
The site upon which Valerio had chanced, Scenic Hill, was a remote southern outpost of the lengthy McPherson Range. Its south-facing flank comprised a line of sandstone cliffs with deep
overhangs and a magnificent panorama across the Murrumbidgee flood plains.
Once he’d decided to make the area his home, Valerio drew on the skills he’d already gained during the course of his life. Back in Italy he’d been apprenticed to a stonemason until, at the age of 16, he emigrated to Australia.
After deciding to stay on Scenic Hill, he rooted out some old tools at the town dump, including a shovel and mattock head for which he carved handles, and began building. He enclosed the deepest overhang within dry-stone walls and installed a fireplace. He built terraced gardens along the eastern side of the hill, interconnected by stairways and stone pathways, to plant crops. He trapped rabbits and hunted wild pigeons with a homemade catapult, and supplemented his diet with pilfered fruit and vegetables. He constructed retaining walls and stone-lined cisterns to capture rainfall run-off. He moved an incredible amount of soil during the
next two years as he laboured undisturbed, working mainly at night to avoid being discovered by the townspeople.
While his hideout remained relatively hidden from casual inspection for a while, the residents of Griffith eventually began to notice the changes on the hill. When people came to investigate,
Valerio made himself scarce, retreating to one or another of the secret caves he’d built for that purpose.
When his living quarters were discovered, stories of a mysterious hermit began circulating, but he remained elusive for the most part. Little by little his mini empire expanded.
He grew figs, grapes and peaches, as well as lettuce, sweet peas and tomatoes. The town dump provided him with old clothes, plant bulbs and seedlings, which he sowed in his gardens, never knowing what they’d produce.