Skip to content

Travel back in time, catch gold rush at Sovereign

It is a hot January day and I am in Ballarat, Australia, thinking about a man who lived here at the turn of the last century. The man was my grandfather, and this is where he came seeking adventure as a young bachelor.

It is a hot January day and I am in Ballarat, Australia, thinking about a man who lived here at the turn of the last century. The man was my grandfather, and this is where he came seeking adventure as a young bachelor.

In his time, Ballarat was still a gold mining community. Today, the miners have gone, and tourists fill the town coffers with dollar notes instead of gold nuggets. Even so, the past hasn't entirely evaporated.

At Ballarat's Sovereign Hill, a stagecoach drawn by four magnificent chestnuts rumbles by me, and I am warped into an era which existed even before my granddad's time.

Sovereign Hill today is a living museum which sprawls across sixty acres of land. Unlike Barkerville in the Cariboo, Sovereign Hill is a reconstructed community, and at first I'd wondered whether this would be just another Disneylandstyle theme park. Not so.

The museum presents its Australian mining heritage with dignity and pride - and its buildings have been constructed with meticulous attention to authentic historical architecture and style.

Both entertaining and educational, it takes me the entire day to explore Sovereign Hill's grounds, its shops, exhibits, stroll through the Chinese quarter, take in a rollicking vaudeville show at the Victoria theatre and catch some of the ongoing events.

Main Street is where miners and their families would have shopped to buy merchandise such as soap, spices, herbs and coffee - as well as the latest fashions in Victorian crinolines, bonnetsm brought by stagecoach from Melbourne.

Speedwell Street, leading off Main Street, is residential and, just as her historical persona might have done over a century ago, Mrs. Wain, a miner's widow, smiles at me as she sews bonnets in her parlour.

Some things haven't changed over time. The wheelwright's machinery and saddler's tools are still in use, and the anvil and hammer at the blacksmith's shop also still echoes across the street. And some folks still pan for gold too.

Red Hill Gully Creek, salted regularly with fine alluvial gold, runs through part of the site, and a little girl looks on as her brother dips and shakes his pan free of gravel.

"Look!" she says excitedly. "There's a shiny little bit, right there." Her brother picks out a tiny glittering speck. His face breaks into a gaptoothed grin. "Wow!" he says. "We're rich!"

A fleck of gold is one thing, a solid cube of shiny metal is quite another. I listen as a blacksmith explains the process of extracting gold from crushed quartz rock. Our smithy, wearing a thick protective apron, gloves and goggles, peers at the contents of a crucible "cooking" at 1200 degrees Celsius in a small furnace.

Picking up the crucible with a long handled pincer, he pours the molten liquid, a stream of thick, golden honey, into a mould. It solidifies within a couple of minutes. The mould is then immersed in a trough of water, where it sizzles and steams.

Picking up the cold brick, he holds it up for us. "Well, there you are folks - an ingot, which is 99.9 per cent pure gold, and worth $55,000 in today's market." He catches my eye. "Want to hold it, Ma'am?" For 10 seconds, I cradle a small fortune in my palm.

Nothing one reads, or sees on film, can equal the experience of actually exploring the labyrinthine tunnels of an underground mine. Although I am only 100 feet below ground at the Poppet Head Quartz Mine, the actual shaft goes down 1,100 feet, and the tour group eyes with trepidation the creaky wooden lifts operated by pulleys, which were used to convey gold miners into the bowels of the earth.

The excavation was done by pick, hoe, sledgehammer and crowbar and the dust and noise must have been horrific.

Twelve-year-old truckerboys pushed trucks loaded with quartz rock through the tunnels, but a young volunteer in the audience, although he gamely tries every trick he can muster, can't budge the receptacle an inch!

The tour ends with an exhilarating ride on a rail trolley, zipping around corners and past lively dioramas, before winding up at the exit.

Just before closing time, I linger to watch the re-enactment of the Redcoats' (soldiers) ceremonial parade as they prepare to escort the gold from the vaults of the Colonial Bank of Australasia back to Melbourne.

As I leave the museum grounds, I think of the colourful tales my grandfather used to tell me about his years in Ballarat. What would he have thought of Sovereign Hill? I believe he'd have approved.

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.


-Sovereign Hill is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Christmas Day). For more information, visit http: //

- Getting there: By car, Ballarat is a comfortable 90-minute drive from Melbourne. It is also accessible by V-Line passenger rail or buses, such as, Grayline Day Tours and Australian Pacific Tours.

- Where to stay: Sovereign Hill Lodge offers accommodation on site. For information on costs and rooms, scroll through the sidebar at http: // mmodationstyles.

Visit http: //www.ballarat. com/ for other accommodation details in and around Ballarat.