I’ve always had a fascination for Victoria’s gold rush days. And I guess a fair bit of that fascination comes from the allure of gold itself. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find gold! But another part to my interest in those days lies in the wild and untamed land that people must have lived in whilst mining for this precious metal. Well, I take a trip to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat in Victoria, to see for myself what it would have been like to live in the 1850’s at a gold mining settlement, and discover a taste for gold-panning while I’m there.
The year 1851 sparked the beginning of Victoria’s gold rush, and the area around Ballarat was put on the map because it became home to the biggest alluvial gold find in the world. Thousands and thousands of eager people from all around the world descended upon the area, to stake their claim on a patch of land that would hopefully fulfil their dreams of finding gold. At Sovereign Hill today, you can experience what it was like to live in that era, because this gold-mining town replica exists on an original mining site.
My visit to Sovereign Hill is with my 11 year-old son, and I must admit that it was difficult to take in much of the short walk to the gold-panning area, such was the strength of his desire to find gold. None-the-less, I managed to quickly take some photos of the accommodation that these early miners would have inhabited, and although some were a bit grander than others, they all had very basic interiors that would challenge todays minimalist styling trends.
It’s hard to imagine how they managed to live in such structures for months and even years at time. Ballarat is in Victoria’s central region and is prone to hot temperatures in summer but plummets to below zero during many nights in winter. The extremes of temperature in such an open environment would have been downright uncomfortable for many months of the year, yet these people endured such hardships with nothing other than guts and a fierce determination to find gold.
We head down (race) to the creek where you can pick up a pan and try your luck in finding gold. I remember panning for gold when I was a child on many a camping trip, as my parents enjoyed doing that sort of thing, but my interest waned very easily back then and I usually went off to look for frogs and tadpoles instead. But here, it is different. You are virtually guaranteed to find flecks of gold in the depths of the creek if you are willing to have a go. And we are very willing.
We get some tips on the right technique to use from the man dressed in top hat and tails who saunters around offering help to those interested. Before long we have caught the ‘bug’ and with my discovery of shiny gold flecks in the bottom of my pan, it becomes a matter of ‘how much’ we can find, rather than ‘if‘ we can find some. The race is on to see who finds the most, and I am surprised to learn that we pass hours doing this. I mean you couldn’t get an 11 year-old-boy to stand in the sun all morning doing the dishes, without complaint, yet here, he is utterly captivated in the quest for gold. It is now easy to see the spell that would have been cast on the miners during the gold-rush era. History books and classroom lessons fade into insignificance when it comes to teaching this aspect of the lure of gold.
As the concentration for seeking out shiny gold specks in the bottom of the pan intensifies, so the conversation stills. We are utterly involved in our task in such a manner that I consider it a form of moving meditation. I glance around occasionally to watch the many others doing the same as us, and snippets of conversation drift across the dry earth that lies beneath our feet. There are many races of people converging at this place, all driven by a single purpose, and for these moments we are united as one. So it must have been in those years long ago, when Chinese and Italian minority groups occupied the same grounds as the Australians, at times united, but at times set apart by huge cultural differences. I begin to get an understanding of just how complex life here must have been.
Eventually, we move away from the creek and the lure of gold when the lure of food dictates that we need to eat. Besides, there is still much more of the ‘town’ that we haven’t even set eyes on. Somehow, we get past the Gold Mine Tour building without my son realising what it offers; a chance to enter an underground mine in a motorised trolley (for more money than the entry fee alone), so I am pleased about that.
We head up the main street of town to check out the shops. Some of them offer things for sale, while others have demonstrations or displays of how things were done back in the 1800’s.
Among the various shops that line the street on either side, lies the town church. I am not one to follow a particular religion or faith, but am always drawn to old churches for the heightened sense of spirituality and peace that seems to emanate from within, so I wander in to take a look.
It’s one of the few buildings that don’t seem to attract the crowds, so when I step through the entrance I am alone, and feel the four walls surrounding me like a cocoon. Silence seeps up through the floorboards and wafts among the neatly-spaced rows of church pews. In that silence, I feel the presence of souls long gone in such a way that it seems as though the church is full of people. I remain only a few minutes yet feel as though I have been recharged with a blessed energy.
Next door is the fire station, and the wheels of the horse-drawn fire cart are so red they are almost aglow. It’s hard to imagine how effective these carts would have been controlling a fire in the middle of summer.
Sounds of music waft up the street, and in the distance I can make out three musicians sitting outside the post office serenading the passers by.
My mind wanders, along with my legs, as we make our way down through the streets of the past, and I notice that time seems to have slowed down here. No-one is rushing about like they normally would through the streets of a suburban town, and I notice that children seem as equally interested in the place as the adults. This is no ‘theme-park’ environment, yet it offers an attraction that is as captivating as it is educational. I feel fully immersed here, as though a part of my soul has slipped back in time, and I wish for a moment that I could have had the chance to have lived in this era.
Our day draws to close, as we still have a two and a half hour drive home, yet I feel as though we have only skimmed the surface of this amazing place. Connections to the past, such as what is offered here at Sovereign Hill, allow us rare insight into the times and lifestyles of people so long ago. It provides us also with an opportunity to be truly grateful for the endeavours of the early settlers of Australia who helped shape our country into what it is today.
Thoughts and emotions swirl around in my head for days afterwards, as I reflect on our experiences at Sovereign Hill. I cant help comparing the simplistic life these people lived, to the frantic pace of life today in a much more modern world. Part of me feels inclined to think that despite many hardships they endured, there were also many advantages to living a life free of the complexities of life today. Which then begs the question “Are we too intent today on moving forward that we have forgotten the value of living a more simplified existence?”
Where: Sovereign Hill, at Ballarat, in Victoria (about 90 minutes drive from Melbourne).
Distance: You are free to cover as much of the place as you like.
Time: Allow a full day, or you can also get multi-day passes if you want to do some of the tours as well.