12. Australian Road Trip: "Rat" with a Heart of Gold - Ballarat that is
The cross country route
The Journey so far...
The Heartland of Victoria
The Golden City
I have always fancied a visit to Ballarat: there is a romance in the name that echoes through Australia’s short history. Gold built the city, its discovery bringing people from all over the world to seek their fortune. In the mad, greedy scramble to make money from the yellow metal, Ballarat became the focus of a class war, fought with a frontier spirit that defined the Australian character for decades to come. The “Battle” of the Eureka Stockade was the only real "whitefella versus whitefella" battle in Aussie history and has come to symbolise the Australian Republican Movement, with its working class martyrs, its Southern Cross Flag, and its Irish born leader, Peter Lalor.
From Port Fairy we drove inland through flat grazing country that stretches north for forever. Heading into the landmass is a strange feeling for me - in all my Australian travels so far, I have followed the coastline, now ahead of us lies the vast red ocean that is the outback The road is dead straight but after an hour or so a tiny bump appears on the horizon. As the morning progresses the bump gestates into an impressive mountain range, the Grampians. In the shadow of a huge escarpment, we turn east and skirt the stormy southern shore of the range. We catch glimpses of dramatic valleys, shrouded in cloud or bathed in filtered sunlight, as we roll on over the gentle foothills, Ballarat bound.
Ballarat, or the 'Rat' as we christen it, is the second largest city in Victoria, behind Melbourne. In fact, the ‘Rat' looks and feels like nothing more than a big old country town; which is exactly what it is. We arrive on Saturday afternoon, the second last Saturday before Christmas, and the first thing we notice is that the shopping precinct more or less shuts down at midday on Saturdays. I love Australia – if this was England two weeks before Christmas, the high streets would be swarming with frantic shoppers, here the attitude appears to be - “No bloody way am I working or shopping on a Saturdee arvo.”
Nine things to do in Ballarat
- Check out the grand Victorian colonial architecture
- Pan for gold at Sovereign Hill Gold Rush Museum ($$$)
- Visit the Eureka Stockade - "Birthplace of Australian Democracy"
- Do the Historic Eureka Stockade Walk
- There is at least one Gold Museum to visit
- Go Shopping
- Play the pokies in the big hotel
- Check out the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery
- Get out of the Rat and explore the beautiful gold field countryside, towns and villages
Things to do and see in Ballarat
We decide to stay in the biggest colonial hotel in the city. It may be the biggest but it has seen better days. Nevertheless, the viewless room has a stratospherically high ceiling, a huge bathtub and just down the corridor I can sit on the second story verandah and watch Ballarat life go by twenty feet below.
The things I see during our two night stay includes a cavalcade of Harley Davidsons and other big bikes that takes almost 20 minutes to pass; a bride and groom having their wedding photos taken in the middle of the main street and countless drunks pouring out of the rowdy bar and casino on the ground floor of the hotel.
In the casino we discover the mind-numbing pleasure you get from pumping five bucks into a slot machine. The fiver lasts us hours as we only gamble one cent a pull. We win nothing at the end of it but Sheila exhibits a worrisome tendency to become entranced by the flashing lights and funny music that emanate from the poker machines, and there is the chance that she might actually WIN MONEY. This wont be the last time this Sheila ‘plays the pokies’.
Other things to do in Ballarat – Walk the heritage trail. It is a four or five kilometre long marked trail which follows the actual route taken by the heavily armed mounted police as they headed toward confrontation with the militant rebel miners at the Eureka Stockade. As historical walking trails go, this one is pretty tame, winding as it does through bourgeois suburbs of middle-Australia. But we actually enjoy gawping at peoples’ houses and imagining life in such a suburban, country town idyll. We pass some picturesque and sometimes grotesque suburban houses, a Victorian cricket ground, and a hill that was flattened by gold miners in the 1870s, (i.e.: no hill).
The site of the Eureka Stockade is now a major historical site with a good interactive museum and a solemn memorial to the martyrs of Aussie Republicanism. The Ballarat of those days was a wild west town made up of a ramshackle hinterland of mine claims, muddy creeks, tents, shacks, and slag heaps of rubble. It was populated by a motley collection of ex-convicts, Irish famine refugees, American gold diggers from California, Chinese, Brits, and a host of different European nationalities, all scrabbling in the mud to find gold. In the end they found it and turned it into the tracts of weatherboard and red brick bungalows that we now wander past.
The things you see in Ballarat...
Out in the Gold Fields
North of Ballarat lies the immensely historical and picturesque Gold Fields Country. Numerous little towns are dotted about the map. They are beautiful without exception, but Mauldon is the jewel in the crown. It seeps history, oozes charm and drools with Aussie curiosities. By far the best attraction here is the Gnome Factory, a ramshackle barn and shed complex that is stiff with all imaginable types of garden gnomery. There are your bog standard Seven Dwarf-style gnomes, your 'Aboriginal Standing on One Leg with a Spear' statues, the Big Green Frog pool monument and every type of Aussie bird or animal - au natural or dressed like gnomes. To top off the whole magical experience there is a real Santa Claus standing out on the footpath ringing a bell in the hot spring sunshine to remind us that it is almost Christmas.
Eureka! We have struck gold!
Heading East - toward the big mountains!
As I said in Chapter One of this epic, this section of the Round Australia Road Trip is intended as a “practice run” for our complete journey around the continent, so with just over under three weeks till Christmas we decide to point toward Sydney and clock up some serious kilometres in that direction. We drive through Bendigo and across the heartland of Victoria, arriving dry and parched in the town of Benalla late that same afternoon. From Benalla the plan is to cut across the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s alpine region, for the final adventure of this leg. Little do we know that this detour will expose us to the terrible beauty of the Australian wilderness and the harsh reality of the Bush.
Proceed to lucky Chapter 13...
- 13 Australian Road Trip: Snowy Mountain breakdown
You can stop worrying, we're back. We fell off our metaphorical horse and broke the old ego-bone, but I'm back in the saddle and galloping for the finishing post with bit between teeth and none the worse for wear. Dead Horse Gap - what a place.
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