LIFE AND LEGACY OF GRIFFITH'S HERMIT
MANY a landmark named after a mere commoner has found itself given the flick in favour of a more exalted Knight or Dame of the Realm – but seldom has one named after one of those latter dignitaries, been re-named in favour of a commoner.
Particularly one who's past included prisoner, vagrant, wartime internee, mental hospital patient and hermit.
But that's what happened at Griffith in the NSW Riverina, where a popular lookout long named after a one-time State Governor, was re-badged by the local council a couple of years back in recognition of a reclusive Italian migrant.
And named for who he was and where he lived, rather than with his name, so that the landmark's no longer the Sir Dudley de Chair Lookout, but more-humbly The Hermit's Cave Lookout.
Valerio Ricetti came to Australia from Italy in 1914 after an uncle sensing impending war, loaned the 16 year old apprentice stonemason the money for a ship's passage to safety.
Landing at Port Pirie, Valerio soon moved to Broken Hill, got a well-paying work in the mines, boarded with a local Italian family, and fell in love with a pub barmaid.
When she wouldn't marry him, a broken-hearted Valerio left Broken Hill for Adelaide, and a first and unfortunate experience of a brothel… leaving his wallet there containing a year's savings, he returned to retrieve it but the establishment's pimp refused to let him in.
An angry Valerio hurled a rock through the window, was arrested and gaoled for five days.
Virtually penniless, he moved to Melbourne and decided to pawn his last possession – a treasured Italian leather coat. Apparently appearing confused outside the pawnshop, a stranger offered to help him hock the coat for the best-possible price, and a gullible Valerio handed it over… never seeing stranger nor coat again.
Now even worse off he drifted north, becoming disillusioned with his fellow man as he acquired only ad hoc work while following along riverbanks and railways line until arriving on a hill overlooking Griffith on a wet night in January 1929.
He took refuge in a cave on the hill, waking next morning to look down over the lush Riverina Irrigation Area – and closer, a garbage dump. He scrambled down to this and found a proverbial treasure trove for a one-time miner and stonemason – broken shovels, mattocks and axe heads, and tree branches for making handles.
Valerio returned to his cave, convinced he had "found my Garden of Eden." He built a dry-stone wall across the mouth of his cave as protection from the weather, a sleeping nook, fireplace for cooking, stone stairways, even a "chapel," and painted Christian symbols using thrown-away paints.
Slowly he hauled-up tonnes of soil in buckets to make gardens retained by more dry-stone walls and planted vegetable seeds, cuttings, even banana palms reclaimed from the dump; soon Griffith residents dubbed him "The Hermit," for whenever they approached he would flee into secreted bolt-holes.
Then in 1937 two local Italian migrants hearing that The Hermit was an Italian, went to the hill calling out in Italian. This time Valerio responded…and bizarrely found himself face-to-face with Valentino Ceccato – with whom he had boarded in Broken Hill over twenty years before.
He started spending weekends with the kindly Ceccato family, but always returned to his cave; in 1940 when Italy entered WWII, Valerio was detained after some Griffith residents reported "signal lights" flashing from his cave, and that a "radio aerial" had suddenly appeared.
But investigations revealed the "signal lights" were merely Valerio's cave lamps – and the "radio aerial" his clothes-line.
Valerio however was placed in an internment camp, then treated briefly in a mental institution in Orange as "disarranged." He returned to Griffith in 1942 to live and work with the Ceccato's on their farm, until with declining health he decided to visit his brother in Italy.
Six months later, in late 1952, Valerio Ricetti died at his brother's home aged 54.
Visitors today can marvel at his remarkable cave complex and one-time gardens that underwent minor restoration in 2008 and will undergo more work when funds can be found. For details of his now-Heritage Listed Cave, and Lookout above it, and Griffith's many other tourist attractions, contact Griffith Visitor Information Centre 1800 681 141 or www.visitgriffith.com.au
 RARE photo of Valerio Ricetti – The Hermit of Griffith take in 1938. (Griffith Visitor Information Centre)
 THE Hermit's hilltop cave complex with entrance to his "chapel" on the left. (Peter Kabaila)
 ONE of his entrances to the amazing cave complex. (Peter Kabaila)
 VALERIO Ricetti had many hideouts he'd escape into to avoid visitors. (Peter Kabaila)
 HIS outdoor cooking place. (Peter Kabaila)
 STONEMASON Richard Senior undertaking initial restoration work on the Hermit's Cave; more needs to be done when funds can be made available. (Peter Kabaila)