More Diggin’: Sovereign Hill, Ballarat.

One more from B’rat!

Note: Started this when we visited last April – I never got around to blogging it but I can’t let it go so here it is. (Just in case you thought autumn leaves in early December in Australia was odd. If you thought about it at all.)

Time travel: REAL.
Time travel: REAL.

Finn slept in Justine’s bed last night… he probably got tired of me stealing the blankets. Justine informed me he was running in his sleep big time… and talking, and laughing, and kicking her up the bum. He most likely does it to me too, does it every night, I just don’t wake up.

We took the boys on their first visit to Sovereign Hill today!

Main Street, 1850s Ballarat
Main Street, Sovereign Hill 2014. Parts of which is comprised of original 1850s buildings transplanted from Main Street, Ballarat, in the 1960s. Confused yet?

Sovereign Hill is a working, breathing, interactive outdoor museum of Ballarat during its 1850s gold rush. It’s community run and not for profit, but still a world class attraction. It was kind of surreal coming with the kids, because the last time we were here we were both still kids ourselves! My clearest memories are from the underground mine tour, descending from bright summer heat into what felt like a cool dark refrigerator, and almost feeling the weight of thousands of tonnes of rock over our heads. Also bright in my memory was panning for gold at the diggings, because we found some! I remember a scurrilous rumour at the time that the creek was ‘salted’ for the tourists, but with flecks of brass rather than gold. This is an outrageous lie. There is gold in that thar creek!

We're rich I tell you! RICH!!
We’re rich I tell you! RICH!!

Finn found a couple of flakes, so Rory of course had to top him. He chucked a couple of rocks into his pan and insisted he’d found some nuggets.

Roars looking very intently into his pan.
The boys had a touch of gold fever.

It’s hard to believe when the gold rush started in 1851 finding gold actually was as easy as picking up nuggets; Ballarat was the richest alluvial gold rush in the world. Gold was found in Clunes and Buninyong first, but the mother(-humper)lode was discovered at Poverty Point (renamed Golden Point), just down the hill.  Within a week hundreds of prospectors had arrived, including experienced miners who tried further up the slopes; one group dug 20kg (60lb) of gold from a shaft only 1.8m (6ft) deep! Holy shit on a stick!

I picture them all doing this.

Sovereign Hill was built over the old diggings and opened in 1970. In the ’50s and early ’60s my Mum and her nine (9, NINE, nein!) siblings enjoyed free range childhoods based in nearby Barkly Street, and she remembers seeing the tops of many abandoned mine shafts on Golden Point Hill. Sovereign Hill, next door, was the local swimming hole, with a diving board and everything! According to Mum everyone got quite pissed off when it was closed down to make way for a new tourist attraction, but there was an upside; Opa, my mum’s father, got some carpentry work helping to build the colonial-style main street. Also, the fact that Sovereign Hill has become a multi-award winning tourist attraction, one of the best in the country, is pretty cool too.

The tower next to the old tailings heaps. Rebuilt in the 1970s it's 'Ballarat' to me as much as ball-freezing cold and the aroma of snails.
The tower next to the old mullock heaps (tailings piles). Perhaps one of the structures Opa helped to build, it’s as much ‘Ballarat’ to me as the ball-freezing cold and the aroma of… is that snails?

Whoever came up with the idea is a deadset legend – it’s the perfect way to preserve old buildings and artefacts, maintain historical industries (there’s a candlemaker, blacksmith, confectioners and printing press to name a few), and make history accessible and relevant, especially for the kids.

We took the boys on the guided mine tour, and I felt history bumping up against itself. An earlier version of me, on an earlier version of this tour, upon reaching one of the several life-size dioramas arranged along the route (complete with miner mannequins, pickaxes, lanterns and minecarts) exclaimed loudly in an annoyingly know-it-all fashion, “Hey Mum, that dummy is real!” She steadfastly ignored me so I became more insistent, until finally the dummy in question raised its head and bellowed “NO I’M NOT!!”

… After the laughter died down I kept my mouth shut and from then on everyone  enjoyed the commentary uninterrupted. What I particularly enjoyed however was watching several people shit themselves at the next diorama when another ‘mannequin’ started moving.

Reflection of part of Main Street, the foyer at the United States Hotel.
Reflection of part of Main Street, the foyer at the United States Hotel.

The flickering lanterns are still there, the earthy damp smell was the same, but the old dioramas have been replaced with high tech holograms and sound recordings…  awesome! Being translucent they were quite spirit-like, re-enacting scenes lived over 150 years ago, and the boys were very brave despite near-total darkness at times and spooky effects such as mine carts rolling by themselves. There were a few I’m scareds and this is scary mums, and Rory put his little hand in mine and whispered, “Mummy, I come down into the dark and I fweak out.” What a drama llama; he and I did leave the tour early, but it wasn’t because he freaked out; he had to wee. Dammit it was the best bit! We’d reached a small cavern with timber props supporting the ceiling and I thought great scene – very realistic! Then we heard the story of how, while excavating the railway tunnel for this very tour, they’d stumbled across this cavern: a genuine old gold mine! The miners had wisely left two thick columns of unmined rock to hold up the ceiling, and I like to think there was a fair bit of gold still sitting there. They’d abandoned the claim… no one knows what happened to them. Or maybe they do, but I didn’t find out because I was lugging Roars as fast as I could to the loo. While we waited for the others to catch up we gatecrashed a rehearsal in the gorgeous old theatre.

Stagecoach ride, chandelier in the old theatre.
The Geelong-Ballarat stagecoach, the stunning painted ceiling in the theatre…
Autumn leaves, 'United States Hotel' bar.
Autumn leaves in the Chinese camp,  the ‘United States Hotel’ saloon. Sov Hill really is an Instagrammer’s delight.

So much stuff to do, our tickets got us in for two days and we still couldn’t see it all. We spent a ridiculous amount of time in the ninepin bowling alley though – the boys really got into it. Guess they figured it was an acceptable substitute for Wii bowling.

Self-setting bowling pins, 1850s style.
Self-setting bowling pins, 1850s style.
Bowling 1850s style!
You have to fling it really hard, the pins are heavy and the lanes are looong. Best shot is when you leave only the front pin standing = 60 points. When you miss them all, it’s called a poodle, for minus 1 point… “Poodled it” just doesn’t have the same flair as “pooched it”.

We warmed up in the boiler house, and met some of the lovely staff…

Phoenix the Cat. The wonderful wonderful cat.
Phoenix the Cat.
The wonderful wonderful cat.

He just turned up one day and decided to stay, as cats do, and while he started off quite feral he has become quite the social mascot. You’ll find him in front of the furnaces most often in winter. There’s two of them; gigantic wood fired furnaces heat the Cornish boilers, producing steam which powers various mine machinery, including a massive, 3 metre high beam pump just outside which moves smoothly and completely without sound.

The massive woodpile to feed the furnaces, and the rail to move it on. Boiled lollies in the window and a cop chatting up the post office lady.
The massive woodpile to feed the furnaces, and the railway to move the wood. Boiled lollies in the window and a local trooper possibly chatting up the post office lady.

We watched redcoat soldiers march down the street, then shoot their muskets into the air… the shots were so loud I felt them through my entire body. Cover the kiddies’ ears!!

Rory: Is she a princess? She has a big dress.

Until just a few years ago the streets of Sovereign Hill were packed with people in period dress available for photos and questions and interactions with the public. They were almost entirely volunteers and included all sorts from older residents with a love of history to younger ones with a love of performing. I would’ve loved to have done it, but I needed a paying job more. All of the staff have to be paid now though, and as a result there are far fewer of them. It’s a shame, because it’s harder to appreciate just how authentic Main Street is when there’s mostly tourists around.

Final stop at the printers – good thing we came here last or I’d’ve been here for ages!

I actually really like the thought of J stealing a horse and riding ‘furiously’…

Then unfortunately we had to go. The boys had really enjoyed it and we’ve left a few things to do next time… easy enough as Mum’s place is just down the road. If you’re ever in B’rat, come on round!

– Michelle

P.S. To Sovereign Hill I mean, not Mum’s place.

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