Half an hour north-east of Melbourne, the suburbs peel away and the bitumen runs out and suddenly you’re amongst thick bush hedging the Yarra; a place largely unchanged since settlers first misheard the Wurundjeri population calling it “laughing waters”.

The Yarra around Eltham is clean for swimming, although it’s still brown from the naturally suspended clay in the upper catchment. People drive up on hot city days and lounge around in the rock pools and mini rapids – maybe even floating downriver in an old tyre, if they think to bring one - before getting dinner at the Montsalvat artist colony. That’s another hook to the area – the art.

Melbourne’s artists have been drawn to the upper Yarra since the 1800s. Many of the city’s galleries were in the north, from where bushland serenity was just a short train ride away. This trend was first observed in 1890s, when the impressionist works by Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers were referred to as ‘The Heidelberg School’. Fifty years later, the Melbourne painter Justus Jörgensen built the bohemian art colony Montsalvat in the 1930s, a trend that continued with architect Alistair Knox constructing a series of mud-brick houses along the river in the ‘50s. Today, artists can apply for a residence in two of these houses run by the Nillumbik Shire Council.

Jane Woollard, who runs the artist residency program and is currently writing a book on the area, explains that artists come for the same reasons as the tourists; “It’s just so close but so peaceful. You could be in the middle of anywhere.” We stop at some of the residencies, which are all built in an open-plan ‘60s style incorporating recycled timber and mud brick. There are a handful of these buildings, amongst fruit groves and picnic spots, including a 145 metre tunnel diverting the Yarra through a mountain; a reserve known as Pound Bend. Then there’s more art works to see at the Light Factory Gallery and the Library Community Gallery, both in Eltham. You can finish with a coffee at Lane Cafe, before crossing the road to the Eltham train station and heading back to the city.

Montsalvat for coffee and more art in the Barn Gallery.
6 Mount Pleasant Road, Eltham
montsalvat.com.au

Eltham South Fine Art
(In the Montsalvat grounds)
elthamsouthfineart.wordpress.com

Eltham Library Community Gallery
The library is a mud brick building designed by architect Greg Burgess.
21 Brougham Street, Eltham
nillumbik.vic.gov.au

Victorian Artists Supplies - an Eltham institution.
715 Main Road, Eltham
vicarts.com.au

Artists Open Studios happens in November and May each year. A chance to visit 35 Nillumbik artists at work in their studios.
artistsopenstudios.com.au

Another 20 minutes drive north, Dunmoochin is an artist community established in Cottles Bridge by the painter Clifton Pugh.
105 Barreenong Road, Cottles Bridge
dunmoochin.org