Melbourne - Through fields of gold
Written by Brian Johnston
Sheep graze, kangaroos hop, and old settler towns speak of another age. But the Victorian goldfields don’t just rely on expectations: visitors can also uncover Chinese immigrant history, superb regional art galleries, and fine cuisine in the most rural of pubs.
The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 sparked the rapid development of the fledgling state. Tradition has it that prospector James Esmond took shelter under a tree during a storm near present-day Ballarat and, idly digging with his boot, unearthed gold. The first short gold rush turned into an international stampede when the world’s richest alluvial goldfields were discovered at Mt. Alexander nearby. Soon 60,000 hopeful immigrants poured into Victoria.
Today, it’s the beauty of this region’s landscapes, coupled with a stirring colonial heritage, that makes the goldfields so attractive. The place to start exploring is Ballarat, which boasted 500 hotels and 56 churches in its gold rush heyday. By 1918 the last mine had closed and the town sank into a somnolence that preserved its historic buildings. The grand country town is dotted with 19th century banks and hotels; Lydiard Street has particularly fine examples. Nuggets on display in the Gold Museum – which also has an impressive collection of gold coins and ornaments – attest to the vast riches that once flowed through the town.
Antique shopping is a favoured pastime in Ballarat, but the goldfields are gaining quite a reputation for good nosh, too. Diners tuck into duck breast with gratin or risotto of wild rabbit at the family-run Europa Café, while Zaragosa specialises in Mexican and Spanish meals, starting with tapas and moving on to nachos, tacos, and enchiladas, accompanied by fine tequilas and margaritas.
Just outside Ballarat at Sovereign Hill, a terrific open-air museum recreates an 1850s township of confectioners, blacksmiths, coachbuilders, and more. Browse through the old-time Edinburgh Boot & Shoe Mart and pop into the bakery – even if prices have risen quite a bit from the three pence advertised – for a meat pie. Employees wear 19th century costume, and are wonderfully entertaining and informative, while panning for gold in the stream is a lot of fun. From Ballarat it’s a delightful meander through rural Victoria’s patchwork of farmland and orchards towards a change of pace at Daylesford, renowned more for its restaurants and spas than gold rush history. Castlemaine and Maldon, however, stand at the centre of Mt. Alexander goldfield, their ornate hotels and other stately buildings now occupied by antique stores and art galleries.
A short drive farther on brings you to Bendigo, the largest and grandest of the goldfield towns. Its main intersection is presided over by a mustard-and-cream fountain sporting mermaid-tailed horses and prancing nymphs, while a sedate Queen Victoria stands across the road. The town is a wild mixture of Italianate and neo-Gothic architecture and dotted with ornate bandstands and statues of robed royalty. Some buildings ooze Indian stupas, delicate scrollwork, icing-sugar balconies, and Greek columns and urns garlanded with stone vines. At the Shamrock Hotel, crisp white tablecloths and polished wood replace the once-rowdy dirt floors and rollicking miners.
Bendigo is unusual, however, in blending a fascinating Chinese history with British colonial style. The gold rush encouraged 40,000 settlers from China in the 1850s, and Bendigo has Australia’s largest Chinese cemetery and oldest Chinese temple. The Chinese Joss House dates from the 1860s. Still used as a place of worship, the temple is cluttered with candlesticks, beautiful lanterns, and wood panels inscribed with poetry. As for the town’s Golden Dragon Museum, it’s home to the world’s longest Chinese imperial dragon, which makes a sortie every year at Easter, supported by 55 volunteers.
Eventually the goldfields ran out of gold for both Chinese and European miners. Central Deborah Gold Mine in Bendigo, which closed in the 1950s, was one of the last remaining operative mines. A descent into its depths on a tour is a somewhat unnerving but informative experience that gives visitors a glimpse of the harshness of mining life. When the tour guide demonstrates the rock drill and the bogger used to load the ore into trucks, the roar of the machinery is positively terrifying.
Back outside, eucalyptus trees sashay in the breeze, and grand colonial houses flaunt their wrought-iron balconies and curlicues. The dark underground and the dream of miners fashioned this region, leaving it a lingering legacy of beauty and culture that make it one of regional Australia’s most fascinating destinations.
Where to stay
Lake House is an indulgent five-star hotel overlooking Daylesford lake, with hydrotherapy and beauty facilities and an award-winning restaurant.
The Empyre Boutique Hotel in Castlemaine evokes the timeless grandeur of a bygone era not seen since the gold rush.
Ballarat Heritage Homestay provides historic cottages from the gold rush days with open fires and claw-foot baths. Hearty breakfasts are included.
Bendigo Art Gallery has a photographic exhibition until February 12 called Made in Hollywood, depicting the stars and scenes of American film. Starting March 11, Grace Kelly: Style Icon features the Hollywood princess’s film costumes and haute-couture.
Farmers’ Markets are held regularly, with fresh produce and deli stalls, quality coffee and wines, and live entertainment. Catch the Ballarat Lakeside Market on January 14 and 28, and the Golden Plains Market in Bannockburn on the first Saturday of each month.
Ballarat Begonia Festival (March 10-12) features a spectacular display of hundreds of types of begonias, along with gardening and family activities and entertainment in the botanical gardens.
Bendigo Tramways commenced operations in 1890. Although no longer a public transport service, the company boasts a fine collection of old trams from Bendigo, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Depot tours show visitors how these venerable vehicles are restored and maintained in running order. But Bendigo Tramways’ star attraction is an 8.4km Vintage ‘Talking Tram’ Tour, running between Central Deborah Gold Mine, via Pall Mall (Bendigo’s main street) and other famous landmarks, and the Bendigo Chinese Joss House.