Victoria: Getting to grips with gold fever

By Pamela Wade

Victoria's mining history is both alluring and violent, writes Pamela Wade.

Discovered by metal detector in 2003, the Goldasaurus nugget was only 60cm under the surface. Photo / Sovereign Hill
Discovered by metal detector in 2003, the Goldasaurus nugget was only 60cm under the surface. Photo / Sovereign Hill

The only time I went metal detecting, I found a bent penny, dozens of drink can tabs and a rusty bolt. It was scant reward for two hours of looking silly and I never bothered again.

Big mistake. All I needed was to relocate myself to Victoria, clap the earphones back on and listen for the beep that would tell me I'd just found a 4.4kg nugget of pure gold. Hard to believe? Then go to the Gold Museum in Ballarat, see for yourself - and start dreaming.

My recent survey of Kiwi visitors to Victoria (margin of error, +/- 100 per cent) suggests Melbourne's shops and shows are the main attraction.

But it's well worth following the goldfields route into the interior, blazed back in the mid-1800s by frenzied instant miners.

These days it's a civilised two-hour drive through rolling hills and in the valleys of course, there is wine.

As one who once confused chardonnay with cabernet, I can speak with no authority on this subject, other than to say the tastings went by in a pleasant blur.

I do recall being told the soil is Cambrian, 500 million years old, its rich red echoed in the prize-winning shiraz wines that come from the region.

More impressive to my mind, however, are the huge granite boulders dotted in artistic piles about the countryside near Heathcote, a pretty little town dwarfed by its long and wide main street, and jumping in the evening - with kangaroos, that is.

Forty-five minutes up the road is Bendigo, which has the grand architecture of a much bigger city, and a history centred on gold: the city was literally built on it.

In 1851 alluvial gold was discovered nearby just lying around on the surface, and within a year there were 60,000 men scraping it up, taking out a cool $4 million. But then the easy gold ran out, and it was time for what Darryl at the town's Deborah Central Mine calls "real miners" to start burrowing, following the rich quartz reefs deep underground.

Darryl kits us out with helmet, lamp and battery pack and we drop down, down, down - but though the surface seems far away, it's nothing, he tells us. The deepest shafts in the area are an incredible 2km deep, and even from the Deborah's lowest level, 410m, it would take three hours to climb the ladder back to the top. Thank heavens for the lift.

A maze of tunnels has been bored through the rock right beneath the town and Darryl, whose grandfather mined here, leads us in a long loop. We stop to listen for creaking from the timber pit-props (if you hear it, run), look at gold in a seam guarded by a Perspex shield, and hear about white knuckle, silicosis, a life expectancy of 40 years.

It's all rather chilling and we're glad to emerge at the pit-head again beneath the quaintly-named poppet-head derrick that's Bendigo's symbol. I climb up another one on top of a hill in central Rosalind Park and view the city: green hills, trees, tall elegant buildings with slate towers and turrets housing fine restaurants and interesting shops.

A tram noses along Pall Mall past the Charing Cross fountain: Bendigo is big on trams, and will be supplying Auckland with a couple of vintage examples for the Viaduct Harbour circuit.

Ballarat is even grander: gold transmuted into culture by social-climbing Victorians who built splendid theatres, art gallery, town hall and hotels along wide avenues lined with elm trees. This colonial replica of British society is where the Aussie ideal of the fair go was born, when miners rebelled against exorbitant mining licences in 1854, rallying under the blue and white Eureka flag. The story of the stockade and massacre is brilliantly told in the nightly show "Blood on the Southern Cross", at Sovereign Hill. This is an outdoor museum which recreates in colourful detail a mining town of the time.

Costumed staff fire muskets, drive a coach and four secretly seed the creek with gold to pan for, make candles and lollies, and lead visitors underground through a mine. In the smelting works, an ingot of pure gold is poured and cools quickly. It weighs 3kg and when a spectator holds it and is told it's worth $140,000, someone yells, "Run, lady, run!"

Across the road is the Gold Museum, where there is a mind-blowing collection of huge nuggets, some replicas - the 70kg Welcome Stranger would be worth millions - but many others real, including the 4.4kg one found in just 2003. It's now called Goldasaurus, but its original name has me reaching again for the metal detector: Bob's Joy.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has several flights daily to Melbourne.

Getting around: Hire a car at the airport and the road north is right at the entrance.

Where to stay: In Heathcote at the friendly Emeu Inn.

In Bendigo, the Hotel Shamrock is a historic icon.

In Castlemaine at the French-themed Empyre Boutique Hotel.

In Ballarat be handy for the show at Sovereign Hill Lodge.

Back in Melbourne, stay in the heart of the city at Causeway 353.

What to see: In Bendigo, the farmers' market, Chinese museum, Talking Tram, Deborah Central Mine Tour and much else.

Visit Castlemaine's Buda Historic Home and Garden, art gallery, bookshops and cafés, and the super-pretty little town of Maldon.

In Bendigo, the Art Gallery is impressive and accessible, and Sovereign Hill makes history great fun. For more ideas see here.

Further information: Visit Tourism Victoria.

Pamela Wade followed the gold trail courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

Find out more at Australia.com

- NZ Herald

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