THE LURE OF GOLD - EXPLORING SOVEREIGN HILL
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 is a living museum which sprawls across sixty acres of land. The area, once pock-marked with alluvial workings, and two abandoned quarries, has been transformed into a vast outdoor stage representing life in goldfields of Ballarat during its heyday in the 1850s. Unlike Barkerville in the Cariboo, Sovereign Hill is a reconstructed community, and at first I'd wondered whether this would be just another Disneyland-style 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 at stores such as Clarke Brothers Grocery, its merchandise-including soap, spices, herbs and coffee-brought by stagecoach from Melbourne. The windows of the Criterion Store display the latest fashions in Victorian crinolines, bonnets and accessories; Robson & Wayne's Apothecary Hall is stacked with mysterious powders and lotions, and some rather formidible surgical instruments. 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. Further up the road, Mrs. Davidson, the wife of a mining engineer, pauses to show me through her herb garden.
Some things haven't changed over time. The wheelwright's machinery and saddler's tools are still in use; visitors look on as these operators produce and repair equipment for Sovereign Hill's team of 40 horses, the wagons, phaetons and gigs which carry guests (half a million visitors a year) around the property. 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 gap-toothed grin. "Wow!" he says, "we're rich!"
A fleck of gold is one thing, a solid cube of shiny metal is quite another. Along with a fascinated audience I listen as a blacksmith explains the complex process of extracting gold from crushed quartz rock. Our smithy peers at the contents of a crucible "cooking" at 1200 degrees Celsius in a small furnace. It is dangerous work, and he wears a thick protective apron, elbow length gloves, sturdy boots, and goggles. 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, but just in case any of us are considering a quick grab, he runs a metal rod across the block's surface, and sparks shoot upwards. 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% pure gold, and worth $55,000 in today's market." He catches my eye. "Want to hold it ma'am?" For ten 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 1100 feet, (the deepest quartz mine in Ballarat was 3000 feet) and the tour group eyes with some 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 (electric drills weren't in use in the early 1880s and blasting was too expensive) and the dust and noise must have been horrific. Although the miners were well paid-they made about $75,000 a year in today's currency-many of them died early of lung disease, and as a result of mining accidents. Twelve year-old trucker-boys 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.
IF YOU GO:
Sovereign Hill is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Christmas Day) For more information : www.sovereignhill.com.au/
By car Ballarat is a comfortable 90 minute drive from Melbourne. It is also accessable 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 www.sovereignhill.com.au/?id=accommodationstyles
Visit www.ballarat.com/ for other accommodation details in and around Ballarat.
1. Main Street Stagecoach - Photo Margaret Deefholts
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