Gold fever still exists in Sovereign Hill, the recreated Victorian gold mining town outside Ballarat. Just ask any of the visitors who try their hand at panning in the creeks which run through the town.
Alongside the clip-clop of Clydesdale horses and the brisk banter of costumed townsfolk as they weave their way among the darting tourists, we set out on an exploration of the town … from colonial store to blacksmith shop to bakery to a forge where we watch the liquid gold pour.
Later we poke around the diggings, peering into small white tents for a glimpse of how life was. Sovereign Hill faithfully depicts Ballarat's first 10 years after the discovery of gold in 1851. It's easy to see why it has been a popular family destination since it opened in 1970.
Eerie and effective
More than half a million people visit Sovereign Hill each year, with about 100,000 of them also seeing Blood on the Southern Cross
, Sovereign Hill's spectacular sound and light show. Our dinner and show package ($176 for a family of four) starts with a short walk from Sovereign Hill Lodge (which has direct access to the township) to the Charlie Napier Hotel in Main St. After a buffet dinner, we join the throng in a theatrette for an introduction to our journey into the past. Outside again, we walk around the diggings now lit to effect, as the sounds of the miners' daily lives echo around us the ring of the pick against rock, angry or disappointed conversations. It's eerie and effective.
But the real action starts in the outdoor theatre for a 90-minute story of murder, corruption and rebellion. Shadowy trapeze artists are silhouetted against the circus big top; the Eureka Hotel explodes into flames; a runaway wagon hurtles towards the audience … the special effects are stunning. After a ride back to the main street we are treated to the appearance of "Peter Lalor" striding across the upstairs verandah of the United States Hotel. This gives us a taste of why he went on to become a member of Parliament.
The story of gold
Across the road from Sovereign Hill, the Gold Museum gives an interesting insight into the social history of Ballarat as well as the story of gold throughout the world.
The Ballarat diggings were once the richest in the world, but the town was also the scene of one of Australia's most famous political events, the battle of the Eureka Stockade.
The Eureka Centre, in East Ballarat, is built on part of the land where the Eureka rebellion took place. The striking modern building, emblazoned with the blue and white Eureka flag, houses a series of galleries which use multimedia to tell the story.
The flag was first raised on November 29, 1854, when thousands of diggers protested against their unjust treatment at the hands of the colonial administrators. They were angry at the steep licence fee they had to pay for prospecting and at the brutal way it was being collected. The flag was flying defiantly inside the hastily built stockade on December 3 when 280 troopers and police attacked the 150 miners. About 30 miners and five police died in the brief but bloody fighting.
The Eureka flag and fine art
The original Eureka flag is now permanently displayed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. The gallery has an extensive collection of works interpreting Eureka, central to which are 30 portraits by Sidney Nolan depicting the main characters of the rebellion.
But what many come to see, above all else, is the flag itself. Torn down by Trooper John King during the battle, pieces were cut and torn off as souvenirs. King's widow loaned the tattered flag to the gallery in 1895 and his descendants made it a permanent gift in 2001. The blue flag, with its white Southern Cross, became a symbol of nationhood, solidarity and resistance to tyranny and is now preserved in a dimly-lit shrine in the gallery.
Believed to be have been sewn by the miners' wives, the flag is made of fine blue woollen mohair with a silky sheen. The stars are transparent white lawn, the sort of stuff petticoats were made of.
The Eureka Pass ($35.50 for an adult or $92 for a family of six) gives two days unlimited entry to Sovereign Hill, the Gold Museum, the Eureka Centre and Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
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Australia may be a young country but it is rich in cultural heritage. If you'd like to learn more about our past, culture and heritage tours can be booked in locations all over the country.