The glittering goldfields of southeastern Australia
Three visitors try their luck at gold panning in the creek at Sovereign Hill, in Ballarat. (Richard Sowersby/BBC)
The discovery of gold in the early 1850s sparked pandemonium in Victoria, Australia, then an unremarkable colonial frontier full of sheep farmers. Thousands of prospectors from Europe, North America and China flocked to southeastern Australia with the hope of becoming the most profitable fortune hunter.
The optimism and hardship that dominated the goldfields during that time reverberates throughout present-day Victoria.
“You can still see areas where they [the prospectors] redirected the creeks, where they used to pan for gold, the chimneys and foundations of little colonies right across the goldfields,” said Rod Thomson, the chairman of Goldfields Tourism. “Some of the smaller villages still have streetscapes virtually untouched from what they were in those times. Bendigo and Ballarat still have all the grand buildings that were built with the gold money.”
Visitors can retrace the path of those early pioneers on the recently refurbished Goldfields track. A day trip from Melbourne, the 210km route reaches from Bendigo to Ballarat, passing through the delightful city of Castlemaine, and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. There is plenty of accommodation along the way.
In the early days of Bendigo’s golden heyday, immigrants feasted on rich deposits cocooned in the silt or gravel carried by rushing streams. The gold was plentiful, but the work was time consuming and exhausting, and not everyone thrived when the competition was so strong. By the late 1850s, the loose, top-level gold was gone and miners were forced to go deep underground in search of their bounty.
Those trailblazing days have been preserved at Bendigo’s Central Deborah gold mine, where intrepid travellers can don overalls and clamber up ladders to feel the exertion and exhilaration of a 19th-century prospector. In the late afternoon sun, the gold leafing which still decorates Bendigo’s splendid Town Hall reflects a dazzling reminder of past glories, and many other colonial-era buildings through Victoria were financed by gold rush money. Sovereign Hill, a museum where staff dress in period costume, recreates Ballarat’s first 10 years after the discovery of gold in 1851.
Rod Fyffe, a former mayor of Bendigo, said he sees his city as the cradle of Australian multiculturalism, where the lure of riches drew migrants from around the world, including legions of Chinese.
While many gold seekers were British and Irish settlers who fled countries struggling with industrial and agricultural upheavals, the Chinese were a significant minority in Victoria’s goldfields and they were subjected to great hostility, said associate professor Andrew May, a social historian at the University of Melbourne.
“They were not particularly welcomed with open arms,” he explained. “In fact, there was a poll (or entry) tax put on the Chinese arriving in Victoria, which meant a lot of them sailed and landed in Australia and had to walk overland to get to the Victorian goldfields.”
During the late 1850s, one in 10 Victorians were from China, and there are grim accounts of festering racial tensions boiling over and Chinese miners being attacked by mobs who slashed the distinctive pigtails from their scalps and burned their possessions. Such violence and vilification formed the bedrock for the controversial White Australia policy, where the country passed laws restricting dark-skinned immigrants up until the early 1970s.
The Golden Dragon Museum opened in Bendigo in 1991 and has crafted classical Chinese gardens, the Guan Yin Temple and a Chinese tea room. But perhaps its most significant charms are Loong and Sun Loong, the world’s oldest and longest imperial dragons, which take centre stage at the annual Bendigo Easter Festival.
Today, Victoria’s miners have yet to lose their gleam. Bendigo remains a gold industry heavyweight, and is one of the world’s largest producers of the cherished metal. With an almighty stroke of luck, fortunate travellers could also strike it rich and unearth a life-changing honey-coloured chunk.
“There are certain areas in the forests near Dunolly and Talbot that are very popular with people panning in creeks or with gold detectors. A lot of people still find reasonable sized nuggets,” Thomson said. All you need is rented equipment and a permit.