The Richest Place on Earth #3

Mt Buninyong to Ballarat

27 November, 2020. 28-35C, hot. 20.52 kms.

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‘The Digger’s [sic] Road Guide to the Gold Mines of Victoria’. Date: August 1853. Cost: 2/6d. One of the very many ways of making money out of the gold rushes. The red lines were the ones to follow. The thicker red line to Ballarat, however, does not lead to Ballarat. It leads to Buninyong.

It was at Buninyong near the current cemetery, a kilometre or two back down the road towards Ballarat, that gold was first officially found in Victoria: August 3, 1851. The finder was Thomas Hiscock (whose name appears as ‘Hiscocks‘ on his memorial, engraved in granite unfortunately), a mild looking blacksmith with a wife and two boys then three girls who had migrated to Australia from Berkshire in 1841. It wasn’t by chance he found his reef which unlike the Union Jack Lead nearby turned out to be not very profitable; he had been looking. He was awarded £1000 by the government in 1854 for his revelation, but died before he could receive it as a result of a cold caught at the Mount Alexander (Castlemaine) diggings. I hope without confidence that the money was passed on to his family.

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Eugene von Guérard, 1884, Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54

It all happened somewhere near here. It’s a very attractive painting, but there’s something weird about it. One clue, the date: 1884, or 30 years after the scene it purports to represent. A second matter. When he painted it on commission from James Oddie, the first Director of the Ballarat Art Gallery, von Guérard was in Germany. To me it looks like a circus has come to a very tidy town. Surely things would have been much messier than that, and a good deal more crowded. I remain to be convinced.

That out of the way, in the background is a modest mountain. With its little peak it could be Warrenheip, but for the purposes of iconography it should (and still could) be Mt Buninyong, a volcanic cone 12 kms south-east of the heart of Ballarat. (‘Buninyong’ is probably a variant of the word, ‘buninyouang’ which in the language of the Wathaurrung people, the traditional owners, means ‘man lying on his back with his knees raised’. You have to respect a language that includes a word like that.)

The plaque on the cairn at its peak says: ‘Mt Buninyong is an Extinct Volcanic Mountain 719 metres A.S.L. It Lies Within The Territory of the Kulin Tribe [‘Nation’ we might say these days] of Aborigines. The First European Explorers Reached The Summit in 1837. The First Settlers In The District Were The Learmonth Brothers in 1838.’ So soon. This is only two years after John Batman performed the swindle which led to the founding of Melbourne. Sometimes these things seem like the most formidable versions of swarming.

It is noted that the erection of the cairn was a Bicentennial project. Cr. Gerry Mullane representing descendants of pioneer families unveiled it on Australia Day 1988. That might have been done differently today.

‘Jaffa’ has scratched his name into it.

It is also the southern starting point of the Goldfields Track. After being seduced by the leg between Ballarat and Creswick and with the option for investigating wide open spaces spreading out in front us for the first time in most of year, we thought we’d do all of the Track’s 200 or so kilometres. Properly.

This was one of the views that greeted us from the top.

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Verdant paddocks, full dams, lush vegetation — it had been a very fine spring.

There is lots of interest in all the legs of this walk. None even vaguely disappoints. But this one, perhaps because it is the most urban and perhaps because by the time of arrival it was so hot, was not my favourite. Yes it begins on the summit of the mount. (We’d organised a car shuttle. Jessie our daughter was with us.) Then it coasts down the side of the cone with a few zig-zags. It was a lovely crisp morning.

As soon as you get out of the reserve the grand houses begin. Who knew? Not me, but why wouldn’t you think that the sides of a volcanic cone would be commandeered for views, tennis courts, olive groves, gestures at vineyards and dressage rinks by people who can afford it. No reason. Move on. There’s still money in Ballarat. You’ve just got to know where to look. But then I guess that’s the story of my birthplace really.

It is beautiful country with, of course, rich volcanic soils.

We missed the turnoff down the Wallaby Track because the busy Midland Highway was being remade and crossing it a serious challenge, thereby missing Buninyong township’s Botanical Gardens which was a pity.

One reason. Baron Ferdinand von Mueller was influential in its development. The Baron was a chemist and geographer as well as a botanist who found and named more than 800 species unknown to western science in his adventures in some of my favourite parts of Victoria, the Prom and the Alps among others, as well as elsewhere in remote Australia. More than anyone else he was responsible for the plantings in Melbourne’s wonderful Royal Botanic Gardens. He had migrated from Rostock in what is now northern Germany in 1847, landing and establishing himself in Adelaide. But after gold was discovered he had the idea of setting up a chemist shop on the Victorian diggings. But before he could, he was plucked from relative obscurity to become the Government Botanist, a post created especially for him.

He was also a member of the Exploration Committee which oversaw the Burke and Wills expedition to cross the continent from south to north. His expert views were constantly voted down by people who rarely left their lounge rooms. But that is another story. (Just four sentences of which are: On 20 August 1860, the Expedition was farewelled from Royal Park by 15,000 spectators. It included 23 horses, 26 camels and six wagons and carrying 20 tonnes of baggage which included a cedar table with a sitting of chairs, a Chinese gong and ‘enough food for two years’. One wagon broke down before they got out of Royal Park. By midnight that day — the going was heavy apparently — they got to Essendon (7 km) where two more wagons broke down. It was never going to work.)

But we didn’t miss Buninyong, the streets of which are full of gold era buildings, the Town Hall being the most prominent.

There is also this lovely church, originally Presbyterian, now Uniting, with its long sloping accents.

A stolen pic. We saw no clouds on our walk, but they do suit the grey of the slate.

It was built in 1860. Its first pastor, Thomas Hastie, remained in that position for 44 years. I should think possibly too long. But the Nugget Hotel is more how I imagine remnant goldfields architecture.

Squat, solid, snug, plain. Georgian Primitive perhaps. But it has had its moments, moments which are probably more reflective of life on the goldfields than the grandeur of Craig’s Hotel or the architectural icons on Sturt and Lydiard Streets.

From the ‘Star’ on the 10 June 1861:

An inquest was held at the Nugget Hotel, Buninyong, before G. Clendinning, Esq., Coroner of the district, on the body of James Savage, surgeon, who died suddenly on Saturday morning at the above mentioned hotel. The body lay in the concert-room of the hotel. The following witnesses were examined.

William B. Smith, landlord of the Nugget Hotel, sworn, … proceeded as follows. I knew the deceased five years. His age was about 35, and he was an Irishman and a Roman Catholic. Upon Thursday evening about ten o’clock the deceased came into my house, his face all covered with blood, and with one boot on. I asked him where he had been, but from the state of intoxication that deceased was in he could not tell me. Myself and lodgers examined his head, fearing that he had been struck there, but could find no injury. I found subsequently that the blood came from a cut across the nose. I requested two of my lodgers to take him across to the boarding-house, where he had been stopping for the last five months, which they did, but informed me that admittance was refused to deceased. I then stated that he was sure to be ultimately taken in at the boarding-house. I was, however, so uneasy, that in about half an hour I sent two men over to fetch him to my own house, if he had not been taken in, as the night was frosty and cold, and I felt that it would be only charity to give him shelter for the night.

Deceased had not been taken into the boarding house, and the men brought him over to my house. I then ordered him to be taken up stairs to the attic, which is a place not generally used as a sleeping apartment, but more frequently for poor men who cannot pay for the accommodation. My house was full. I provided him with a rug from my own bed, and pillows.

About six o’clock in the morning, deceased knocked at the bar door and requested for God’s sake a drop of colonial beer, as he was perished. I gave a pint to him, and subsequently another. Finding that he was begging a sixpence of some fishermen in the bar [this is the surgeon], I told him not to do so, and that if he would promise to go up stairs I would give him another pint of beer, which, upon getting, he did.

About 2 p.m. I had a conversation with him for about half an hour. The conversation was principally about his affairs. He was quite rational. At about a quarter past four on Friday evening, the deceased came into the bar and requested me to send to the boarding-house for his medicine box, which I did by a man of the name of Kilpatrick. The box now produced is the one. He asked for two tumblers, and out of the packet now produced he took a small quantity on the point of a knife, and put it in the tumbler with some water, which he drank. The amount of stuff taken would cover a sixpence. Thinking this not enough, he further took a small quantity more, which he added to the previous quantity he had taken out of the parcel produced.

To the jury – After having drank the powder, he requested from me a nobbler of brandy, and promised that he would go to bed and annoy me no more that day. I ordered him to get the brandy. By the jury – This was about half-past four o’clock. He did not remark anything about it being enough for him, or anything of that sort. He then thanked me for the brandy, and went up stairs to bed. I did not again see him alive. Next morning about twelve o’clock feeling surprised that he had not come down, I sent a man up to see what was the matter, who in a minute or so informed me he was dead. The man’s name who found him was Kilpatrick. I could not believe it, and went up stairs myself and found that he was dead, and lying on his right side with his knee slightly contracted. His head was on the pillow, and he was warm. I then sent for Dr Rankin and the Sergeant of Police. By the jury-He was sober on the Thursday night. He was not outside my door, on the Friday, and all the drink he had was the three pints of beer and the nobbler of brandy. My sole motive in taking him into my house was pure charity, and a good feeling of friendship, as the deceased had no money to pay for anything. … By the Police -I know only from hearsay how the blood came upon his face. Deceased was in the habit of taking sudden fits of intemperance which, while they lasted, were generally the most desperate character. The paper out of which the deceased took the powder was marked “morphia”.

We must move on. We’ve scarcely left the mountain.

After turning left at the Mechanics’ Institute, a forthright study in facadism, you wander through De Soza Park to find the somnolent Union Jack Creek which takes you back to the Geelong Road. From here it’s basically two long stretches joined by Whitehorse Road.

Ballarat now sprawls in most directions. South-east are the suburbs of Mount Helen and Mount Clear. You walk through and between them on the ‘bitumenised Envirotrail’, which you might think a contradiction in terms. It felt a bit like it that day …

… but garden displays like this one made up for any disappointment.

By the time we got to the left turn at Mount Clear the heat was really beginning to kick in. Time for a cool drink, an energising cool drink. There was a shopping centre in exactly the right spot but we were still living in a flood of coronavirus anxiety: shops were open or not open, outside people were masked or not, unsure of how to play it. Tradies were bombarding the fish and chip/ hamburger joint with custom, but that wasn’t quite what we were after.

Tucked away in a corner we found the Wellness Health Store and Smoothie Bar which had everything we wanted — I think I had a Tropical Explosion, superb, and exactly as required — and quite a lot more. We sat outside on some steps in the walkway which gave me plenty of time to review the window display.

Salted maple hemptations, Organic Activated Tamari Almonds, Keto and Paleo (at the same time!) chips, NO PONG all natural anti-odourant, Byron Epsom Salts, Tea Tonic Gold Sugar, and that’s even before we come to the pièce de résistance — a meditating Santa offering an ambitious supply of condoms. Worth the walk on its own really. I’ll be back.

A kilometre and a half up and over the hill from one leg to the other, unprepossessing in the main, just a semi-suburban street, although there was some sort of old furnace on the left framed by a dead tree which would have had a story. This was gold country. The Union Jack Lead which we had just passed nearby was one of the most productive on the Ballarat fields.

The Whitehorse Bridge with two hot walkers looking over the Yarrowee River which was at least pretending to flow. In all 200 kilometres we didn’t see a determined water course. Sailors Creek at Daylesford was running, literally, at about a litre a minute. Forest, Barker’s and Campbell’s Creeks at Castlemaine were reed beds and, even after three inches of rain in few hours, the Loddon at Vaughan Springs appeared stationary. It’s a dry country this one. [• Correction: till we got to the Coliban channel 175 kms later. Very much a going and vigorous concern.]

For the last seven or so kilometres, the Track uses a well-established walk way along the side of the … well we’ll call it a river. There can’t be many cities of Ballarat’s size where you can walk several kilometres into the centre largely through treed natural surroundings — and in Ballarat you can do it from at least two directions. This was a very pleasant surprise, as was the amount of shade along the way.

And then we came to the several wetlands. Another attractive surprise, sufficient to require a cup of tea. (Not illustrated. The photos start packing up about now. Too hot to be bothered.)

We failed to correctly read the waymark next to the bridge you can hardly see in the background of this photo and followed the Redan Creek rather than the mighty Yarrowee, a two kilometre mistake. Bad karma on a day like this, but of course precisely what you might expect. It was corrected quite readily but the last 4 kms were not enjoyed as much as they would be in other circumstances. I’d like to go back and have another look at the very serious bluestone drain which houses the Yarrowee until it disappears underground to re-emerge near the station.

Not my photo, but I remember it well. We were plodding towards the camera.

We managed the climb up Bakery Hill to our motel. Pleased. As I remember there was even the reward of an icy pole on the way. We staggered past the McDonalds cresting the hill without realising its relevance to this adventure.

This meditative Santa is wondering why he’s sitting outside the municipal toilets and whether he can get away with nicking that nugget up on the pillar there. He can’t. It is a facsimile of the Welcome Nugget (but not the Welcome Stranger Nugget), the second largest nugget of gold ever found — but Ballarat’s very own. It was found on Bakery Hill only about 100m from Macca’s near the corner of Humffray and Mair Streets, 9th June 1858.

It was found in the roof of a tunnel dug 55m underground by Red Hill Mining, a Company of 22 Cornishmen. I especially like this part of the story. (Remember the importance of the willing suspension of disbelief.) The proprietors of the ‘hole’ went away to lunch, leaving a hired man — casual labour, the Deliveroo rider — digging with a pick axe. ‘After the pick struck something, the workman dug around it to see what it was. Then he fainted. The owners returned and, believing the prostrate man to be dead, one of them jumped in, turned him over, and also fainted. Both of them were dragged out and digging began wildly for the nugget which lay partly exposed. The mass was so great that the men at first thought they had struck a reef of pure gold.’ But no. Only 69 kgs. Still … quite a good one.

* * * * * * *

Sturt Street runs east-west through the middle of this art work, the Town Hall being a feature. This is what had been created in thirty years. Ballarat.

James Meadows, copied in 1886 from a supplement in ‘The Illustrated News’ 11 June 1884. Original by A C Cooke. ‘Ballarat’

We’re looking out north towards the Creswick Ranges, and that’s where we’re back to next for a great part of the journey.

The Richest Place on Earth #2

Creswick to Ballarat

16 November, 2020. Mid-high 20s, perfect weather. 28.59 kms.

The first thing I noticed when we got out of the bus was how clean the air smelt, how fresh, which is different, and how full of the smells of the bush, which is different again. Nothing was in front of us but the day, with just a soupçon of the unknown. It was so good to be back on a track.

Creswick Town Hall

The Town Hall, decidedly grand for a town of 3000, is over the road from Le Péché Gourmand. When we passed it strolling down Water St, we’d started. We turn right after the worker’s cottage with the Che Guevara poster in the window. Perhaps the whole of the Central Highlands is a hotbed of left wing opportunism.

A Creswick landscape, from Creswick Creek

And then it’s just a canter for a few kms following the creek east to St George’s Lake, part of walks we’ve done quite often before.

I’d never thought about this before but on this track St George’s Lake (at left), a substantial affair, is the first sign of the influence of gold. It is a man-made dam which used to supply water to the Creswick State Battery, a complex machine which via a battery of headers or stampers crushed rock, mostly quartz, into particles fine enough to access the gold it contained. Currently 30 grams to the tonne is high-grade production and five grams (5 parts per million) is enough to make a mine pay.

It had recently been raining and, wonderfully, several springs were pouring out of the embankment on the other side.

Then, for the first time, instead of going straight on or left round the northern edge of the lake, we turned right across the Melbourne Rd. From there it was only 100m to Blue Waters.

This very large hole, now a gravel pit, is the result of dredging through a layer of basalt to get at a deep lead of gold underneath. That basalt might have flowed from Mt Kooroocheang, the nearest volcanic cone. I am told that ‘Koo-roo-chee-ang’, might be a distorted version of words meaning ‘long and bitter road’ in Mandarin. If so, how appropriate.

Before it became a hole, this area was known as Portuguese Flat and it was the site of the first shaft to work a quartz reef in or near Creswick. ‘It was started in 1856 by Mr. Lees, the coroner (the coroner! Everyone had a go). A tunnel was driven 150 feet into a spur of the range, but Mr. Lees, like most of the early adventurers in a new branch of mining, abandoned his experiment.’ This ‘experiment’ was ‘taken over by three Chinamen’ who drove the shaft a little further and took out 800 tonnes of rock which yielded about 2-3 ozs (50-75 grams) of gold per tonne.’ (From the ‘Ballarat Star’ of 16 Sept 1869.) In a process that was regularly repeated, they were so successful they were moved on by the European miners in the area.

Another kilometre to Humbug Hill described in the Guidebook as showing the evidence of mining on an industrial scale.

Humbug Hill

I’m not sure that that is an appropriate description. The word ‘industry’ comes from the Latin ‘industria’ meaning diligence, but it has assumed the connotations of ‘big, and mechanised’, and when I look at this landscape I think of hundreds of men, thousands perhaps, with picks and shovels. It’s all so very manual. In France country like this would be called bouleversé, upset or turned over, a term still applied to the location of the trenches of World War I, ups and downs now about 105 years old which are manicured and modest. This, 60 or 70 years older, is of another order. Apart from the trees growing through the mullock heaps it could have happened five years ago. This is fragile country. It went on and on like this, continuously, till we got to Slaty Creek, another three or four kilometres. I should not have been surprised but I was. For the first time it sunk in that we really were on the Goldfields Track. These really had been goldfields, as far as the eye could see and considerably further.

I was also surprised by the fact that we were walking through forest, the forests of the Creswick Regional Park. It is heavily criss-crossed with dirt roads and other tracks but — across (very occasional) flat, through gully, up hill and down into next gully — we were staying in the bush. At Cabbage Tree there’s a tract of settled private land in the middle of the reserve and that was the first of many times we wondered about the idea of building houses in the middle of bush, highly flammable if nothing else, with not many options for exit.

We were wandering, dawdling really, but among other things there was a host of various types of flowers to look at, 20 or 30 species, at times in profusion, tiny and prolific.

When we got to Slaty Creek we’d only done 7 kms, but it was a change of pace: campers, a rotunda, fireplaces … and strident noise. We found the source, a portable generator driving a pump washing alluvium.

In the course of looking for photos I found this.

Former garbage collector Syd Pearson found one of Victoria’s largest ever gold nuggets after 37 years of prospecting as a hobby.

And the following text from both the ‘West Australian’ and the ‘The [Rockhampton] Morning Bulletin’: ‘Syd Pearson remembers the exact moment he struck it lucky in Victoria’s sprawling gold fields. Pacing across a little patch of earth out the back of Dunolly last December, the 68-year-old heard the hum set off by his metal detector then the distinctive “clunk’’ as he chipped into the soil with his pick axe. He knew what it was. Hands already shaking, the garbage man from Maryborough brushed away the dirt to discover a 4.3kg gold nugget. The Aussie battler had hit the jackpot. He didn’t know it yet but the rock in his hands would be worth almost $300,000.’

This happened in June 2017. I’m pretty sure that on the 16th of November 2020 a bearded Syd was still at it but with fancier gear at Slaty Creek on the Goldfields Track a bit north of Ballarat.

There’s more.

The very helpful motelier from the Creswick Motel was driving us out to a starting point near Dean and we fell to talking about the guy we’d seen, because we have seen almost no one on this track, and he was notable. She told us that she thought that this might be the same guy who would come and stay at the motel when he could afford it but mostly slept in his car. Really he was bumping along on the seat of his pants. If that’s him, and of course it might or might not be, where did the 300 grand go? A gold story.

Slaty Creek has had a good whacking. This bank here has been hugely eroded by high pressure hoses, evident for 800m or so. Four thousand diggers were here in the 1850s and seem to have been particularly frantic and destructive in their early drives. From a report 170 years ago, ‘A lovely park in the midst of heavily wooded ranges has been turned upside down stripping away the fertile flats, luxuriant and vividly green grass as well as the huge white gums.’ But this is not a grizzle. Not this day. Those gums (candlebarks I think) re-appear in fine stands a couple of km further down the creek. The track was unpeeling in a constantly stimulating way.

The story of the goldfields is also the story of water and efforts to husband and control the natural limitations of the climate, for the arrival of masses of humans anyway. There were constant signs of water management like the flume below.

Maybe this very steep slit would have been used to speed water down this hillside to wash dug material or it could have just fed a race like the one below. An academic article on the archeology of goldfields water management suggests that in the Creswick area alone there were between 350 and 400 km of trenches, many a metre or more deep, harvesting and transporting water. I think of that and feel tired. All that digging. But what a message about the complexity of the enterprise and the effort that went into making it viable.

The banks of races like this, cleared and roughly following a contour, make very convenient paths, one of which we followed for several km.

Quartz ‘cobbles’, piles of discarded quartz the size of your fist and larger, in the stringybark.

But it didn’t all look like that.

Fine stands of box, maybe a red ironbark in the foreground, at Chapel Flat. You can see the track sauntering off across the other side. So improbable with today’s eyes, there was once a chapel here, and that chapel would have been in the middle of furious populated activity.

We saw perhaps 20 reservoirs on this walk, mostly small and many dry, but some still large. We were still in forest but dodging alongside Codes Forest Rd what felt like but wasn’t uphill all the way. We’d done about 16, the day was warming up and we needed to make better pace. We got to the fence surrounding the White Swan dam, an oddity, 580m above sea level with the vast majority of its contents pumped uphill from other sources. When it opened in 1952 it doubled Ballarat’s available water supply. But why ‘White Swan’? Was this some sort of ‘black swan event’ in reverse, because in Australia there are no white swans.

This photo is from a drone or helicopter because while there is a small (but punishing) hill nearby, there is no view like this from the ground. The white blob on the wall is an illustration of a swan. But somewhere under that water are the remains of the White Swan Hotel, the source of the dam’s name.

The obituary provided by the ‘Ballarat Evening Echo’ of 31 Dec 1915 says in part:

This picturesque old inn was opened on New Year’s Day, 59 years ago to-morrow, and during that long period the names of only two licensees have appeared over the door, the late Mr. Ritchie who opened it and who died 18 years ago, and his daughter, Miss Lottie Ritchie, the present licensee, who succeeded him. Father and daughter became inseparably associated with the old house, and they imparted to it much of their own personality, and a very kindly, lovable personality it was. … The founder of the White Swan picked on a beautiful site for his hotel. It is surrounded by some of the most lovely forest country in the district. Only the road separates the forest from the front door, and one steps almost from the back door into another stretch of beautifully timbered country. It was so when the house was built, and it is so to-day.

The old place strangely harmonises with its surroundings, which after all is not to be wondered at. It was built of timber cut in a sawmill close by, and after a lapse of 60 years the timber is still sound and strong. There is a moral here as to the value of Australian timber. The old house saw many ups and downs. The whole district hummed with prosperity once. That was in the alluvial mining days.

Gradually peace and quietness fell on the scene, and then instead of the hustling miners there grew up round the old White Swan a colony of aged fossickers and pensioners. These in the sunset of their life found a warm and constant friend in the licensee of the White Swan. Now the White Swan is no more, that is, as a licensed house. Its diminishing trade gives the Licenses Reduction Board the excuse to put it on this list of doomed. It has fallen victim to the law of the survival of the fittest. Still, many a bigger and more pretentious hotel would leave a much smaller void.

I don’t know that they write about buildings, or businesses, with such fondness and sympathy these days.

But at the White Swan I conked out. Too long between cups of tea, too long between jubes, too much broken rock on the road next to the dam’s fence, too many ups, not enough practice. Who knows? But I needed a short lie down which I had and enjoyed. There was still another 10 km to go so a brisk recovery was in order.

We climbed the hill up from the dam and then wandered down through undulating and open country, past the thick brown water of Nuggety Dam and remnants of shafts some of which didn’t seem to be much bigger than the cross section of a man and half, coming out finally at Ditchfield Park (at left) — something different with its massive trees and thick verdant understorey. We were closing in on suburbia.

To get there we had to get under the Western Freeway … making sure we kept our distance …

and hook up with the Yarrowee ‘river’ (at right) which we would follow for five kms into the city centre out of the way of the traffic. Good route design all the way.

Turned right here, mask on, with another kilometre or so still to go up the Mair St hill. It had been a big day. I was feeling every one of those 28 kms in my legs, but a wonderful walk definitely whetting the appetite for more. What would the next bit be like? And it wouldn’t really be the next bit: it would be the first bit, we were going back to Mt Buninyong to follow the track into Ballarat.

The Richest Place on Earth: GOLD

‘Unearthing the Welcome Stranger Nugget’ says the caption. ‘210 lbs’ it says, but received wisdom suggests 159 lbs or 72 kgs. Two foot long. All gold. So very rare. This happened at Moliagul in Central Victoria on 5 February, 1869. The nugget was found in the roots of a tree. Cornish miners John Deason and Richard Oates, pictured either side above, were paid just under £10,000 for it, about $570,000 in today’s terms which suggests they may have been short changed. That much gold today (depending on the day of the week and the state of the US stock market) would be worth $6.37m.

Gold. What’s the thing about gold?

It’s just something you dig out of the ground. (Usually. You might be able to find it in a wettish river bed.) You can’t drive it round, or build a house out of it. Why not, say, copper? Copper’s very good for the transmission of electricity. Zinc. There’s zinc, among other things a very useful anti-corrosive. Iron. Well, you can do just about anything with iron, and there’s plenty of it. Aluminium might be grey but it’s light. Where would caravans, just for example, be without aluminium? Are computers made out of gold? No. What? The mother board? Gold in the connections? All right then, … kitchen tables? No.

So what’s the big deal? I think we can all agree it’s pretty popular and has been for some time. Can any sense at all be made out its addictive attraction? Let’s try.

It’s durable. The gold in that necklace or ring you’re wearing might have been mined by Egyptian slaves. Gold is one of the seven generally agreed ‘noble metals’ (platinum is another) which scarcely react with other elements. Iron polishes beautifully, but it rusts, a problem for coinage. Unlike silver, gold doesn’t even tarnish. From a chemist’s point of view it might be thought of as almost spectacularly inert.

It’s comparatively rare. There are arguments about this but the weight of opinion appears to be that all the gold in the world that has been mined, ever, would fit into a 20 metre cube or, if you like, into an orderly pile just under 10 metres high on a tennis court. The same people who make this estimate believe that this is 3/4 of all the gold which will ever be mined (at present mainly from China, Russia and Australia, and then a dozen other bit players; 300 tonnes in a year is strong national haul).

And a propos of that, it’s heavy. I wonder if that matters. But the cube referred to above will weigh 171,300 tonnes, quite a lot. It’s one of the issues in heist pictures. There’s often a lot of to do about how they’re going to transport the loot because it’s so heavy blah blah blah. But when they’re actually carrying it to the van the problem seems to become of variable consequence. But yes, it’s heavy. A standard ingot of gold weighs 400 troy ounces, a unit of weight developed by the Romans — and that is 12.4 kilograms. You won’t pick that up without thinking about it. These ingots are a bit more than half the length of a school ruler (178mm), about the width of your instep (91.5mm) with the thickness of a bit more than the top joint of your (my) thumb (45mm). But unless you’re quite a special kind of person you don’t pick up a brick and, however heavy it might be, think hmmm must be valuable, do you?

It’s good for craft activities. Turning gold into jewellery (the use for nearly half of all extant gold) and coinage is altogether feasible. While the melting point of gold is 1064°C, you can smelt it, separating the base metal from its ore, via a range of far less challenging processes which were within the grasp of capable Bronze Age persons. Alloyed with copper it becomes rose gold; with nickel and palladium white gold. In its natural state it is malleable, in fact the most malleable of metals. If you’re good enough you can beat one ounce of pure gold to cover more than nine square metres (three queen-size beds). And if you’re really good you can beat it until it becomes transparent. The wealthy of all eras have been interested in covering available surfaces in gold leaf. One reason for this is because they could.

The cupola of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a formidable example.

It is also amazingly ductile. One ounce of pure gold can be drawn into a wire five microns thick (5/1000ths of a millimetre) to be continuous for 80 kms without breaking.

I haven’t mentioned that in 24 carat form it is both edible and potable, nor that in some circles (if not the ones you move in) this is deemed to be desirable. Given that it is indigestible, you might question the value of that process. Nor have I mentioned that if you didn’t have some, and yes certainly a very small amount, nano particles, in your brain your neurons wouldn’t function. Uncorrodible gold provides the connectivity for the electrics of your neural system. (Ok. Check it out if you want. How does it get there? You can check that out too.)

Yes, all that. All that of course. But while all that glisters is not gold, all that’s gold does tend to glister. There is something about those warm tones, that feel, that heft. As Dr. Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, says so insightfully, and presumably after long and thoughtful study: ‘Gold is just so … golden.’

An admirer, wandering through one of her back rooms.

And that might have been what drew the hordes to Australia after 1851, multiplying Victoria’s non-Indigenous population by eight in a decade and generating a 300 percent increase in the Australian population as a whole over the same period. Sure gold is golden, but these enthusiasts also thought they were were going to land the big one. They were going to get rich.

* * * * *

S. T. Gill 1856: ‘Prospecting’

The version of Australia’s experience with gold that I learnt at school went something like: 1851 Edward Hargraves found gold (at a place he called Ophir after a biblical source of gold tribute for King Solomon). Six months later gold was found at Ballarat and Bendigo: whoosh, ka-floooie! With the mild hiccup of the Eureka rebellion causing Australia to be a democracy, everything took off. Melbourne became Marvellous and everyone got rich. Modern Australia began. Bingo. Next please.

How much more tangled and various the story really is. Just some modest hints.

The first European find was a hoax. In mid-1788 — not much more than a moment after Australia had been colonised/ invaded — James Daley, a convict, reported to several people that he had found gold ‘some distance down the [Sydney] harbour’. On the pretence of showing an officer the position of his find, Daley escaped into the bush… for a day. I don’t know how far he had really thought this through. He received 50 lashes. Then he produced a specimen of gold ore. He was again invited to point out where he had found it. In addition, however, he was warned by an officer that he would be executed if it wasn’t true. Daley, whose middle name might have been ‘Arthur’, confessed that his story was ‘a falsehood’. He had made his specimen from a gold guinea and a brass buckle. Awarded no points for either persistence or craft skill, Daley was provided with an additional 100 lashes. He was hanged not long after for breaking and entering, but he had left a legacy. Many convicts continued to believe that Daley had actually found gold, and that he had taken the secret with him to his grave. And that is a story about gold. However fake the news, hope springs eternal.

As the Europeans started cutting their way through the Blue Mountains finds were reported during the 1820s, sometimes by reliable sources. In 1823 the first officially recorded find (near Bathurst by the colony’s assistant surveyor) occurred. There were other finds: to the north at Aberdeen and to the south in the Monaro. Another find was made near the mouth of the Tamar in Tasmania. It periodically appeared that wherever Europeans went in this country they might happen on something precious. This was of course in accord with a profound hankering. Why else would you live in this godforsaken place?

But, look, what do you do? You’re running a penal colony in a place you know next to nothing about. The ‘free’ element of the settlement is tiny and, even so, without special favours inclined to become bolshie. Even for getting what might be deemed essential done, labour is at a premium. Do you want someone running round shouting ‘gold? In fact ‘GOLD!!!!’ Not if you want a quiet life and a bit of steadiness.

The second headmaster of Sydney’s The Kings School (1839-40) was the Reverend William Branwhite Clarke who of all things had come to Australia because he believed the sea voyage would be good for his health. He was also, in the way of the times, an accomplished amateur geologist (eventually informally crowned the Father of Australian Geology). In addition to tending to his parishioners spread across the dales and hills of western Sydney, he spent time ‘ascertain[ing] the extent and character of the carboniferous formation in New South Wales’ (from his letter to the SMH, 18/2/1852). He found gold embedded in quartz at a number of places, most notably at Locksley just on the western side of the Blue Mountains in the 1840s. Early in 1844 he showed Sir George Gipps, the governor of New South Wales, some specimens he had found. Gipps asked him where he had got it and, when Clarke told him, famously said, ‘Put it away sir or we shall have our throats cut’.

Governor La Trobe provided much the same advice to a farmworker named Smith who found gold in Victoria’s Ovens River in the same year.

In 1846 gold was found in the Adelaide hills of the ‘free’ settlement South Australia. This find was greeted with great enthusiasm. Its first products were turned into a brooch for Queen Victoria. A company was formed with a public share offering which initially skyrocketted. Regrettably its total all-time output came to 24 ozs. Another gold story. You don’t always get what you want. The finest prospect can be a chimera.

But back to Victoria, the number of these finds began accelerating, and they were not confined to any particular area. Hundreds of kilometres separate Chiltern, Smythesdale, Bright, Warrandyte, Daylesford, and Omeo. Publicity about the 1848 Amherst find in central Victoria prompted what might be called the first ‘rush’ in that colony. About 100 potential diggers travelled to the site, but Governor La Trobe sent troopers to thwart any trespass on Crown Land (almost all of Victoria at the time). Nonetheless samples and nuggets were trickling their way secretively to Brentani’s jewellery shop in Melbourne’s Collins St for payouts. The cover was blown. (Another gold story. Word will get around, and ever so smartly.) The impact of the news of Hargraves’ find at Ophir (just north of Bathurst in NSW) in February 1851 was already being felt in the Victoria. ‘Panic’ is the word used to described the reaction amongst the populace. How that would play out in practice, apart from immediately packing and setting off for Ophir, I’m not sure.

Just before Hargraves’ find, a mineralogist, George Bruhn, determined to conduct a survey of Victoria’s mineral resources. He found confirmed samples of gold on David Cameron’s station at Clunes in March 1851 and made this knowledge selectively public. James Esmond, at that time working as a builder in the area, discovered further payable deposits of gold nearby. Bruhn forwarded specimens of gold to Melbourne which were received by the Gold Discovery Committee on 30 June 1851. On 1 July 1851 Victoria became a colony independent of New South Wales … and the first gold rush, with Clunes as its focus, began.

But it wasn’t just Clunes. Gold seemed to be all over the place: finds at 31 different locations were reported in the new colony between July and October 1851. The fever had gripped. Brentani’s was receiving so much gold they regularly ran out of currency.

Who made these early finds? Workers of course, people with their eyes casting about and their hands in the soil. On 20 July Christopher Peters, a shepherd and hut-keeper, made the first find at Specimen Gully near today’s Castlemaine, an area which over time produced 5.6 million ounces of gold. He was ridiculed for picking up fool’s gold, and the sample was thrown away by William Barker, the station owner, who didn’t want his workmen to abandon his sheep. But, perhaps understandably, they had other ideas. Three other shepherds and a bullock driver immediately teamed up with Peters to work the deposits. In ten days chipping away at the quartz with chisels they made as much as they otherwise would have in a year. When Barker sacked them and ran them off for trespass, one of them, Frank Worley, wrote a letter to Melbourne’s Argus newspaper ‘to prevent them getting in trouble’ which announced the precise location of their workings. This letter was published on 8 September 1851. Within a month there were about 8,000 diggers working the alluvial beds of the nearby creeks. By the end of the year there were about 25,000 on the field. (Alluvium: material deposited by water, surface material, which could be sand, gravel, soil or, in some cases, gold.)

And it wasn’t just male workers. Among those credited with being responsible for the first finds near Bendigo were two women Mrs Margaret Kennedy and Mrs Julia Farrell who panned for gold with Margaret Kennedy’s four children: John 9, Mary Ann 7, and Mary Jane 2, and baby Lucy. John was among those formally credited with the first find but it appears likely that he and Mary Ann were helping to look after the other children. The nod is generally given to Henry Frencham, a journalist, who certainly made the loudest public fuss about his find. But he walked the talk. Between the end of November and Christmas Day 1851 he had mined enough to deliver a 3 lb bag of gold to the Assistant Commissioner.

Victorian goldfields, with the most productive areas (over 15 million ounces) circled. Unmentioned elsewhere, the Woods Point/ Valhalla fields are to the right.

By 1854 rewards of £1000 were being gifted to those who had made the breakthrough, Hargraves in New South Wales, a team led by Louis Jean Michel in Victoria and Thomas Hiscock who made the find at Buninyong which began the Ballarat rush. Any thought of containing the rush had vanished. The fever had exploded.

At the peak of the period we are talking about, more than three tonnes of gold per week flowed into Melbourne’s Treasury Building. During the decade of the 1850s Victorian diggings were responsible for 43 percent of the entire world’s gold production, worth in today’s terms about $12 billion a year. It is believed that the gold exported to Britain in the thirty years from 1851 paid off all of Britain’s foreign debt. Even more certainly, it was a key factor in bankrolling the British industrial and commercial revolutions of the second half of the 19th century.

The Victorian Gold Discovery Committee wrote in 1854:

The discovery of the Victorian Goldfields has converted a remote dependency into a country of worldwide fame; it has attracted a population, extraordinary in number, with unprecedented rapidity; it has enhanced the value of property to an enormous extent; it has made this the richest country in the world.

S. T. Gill 1854: ‘Successful diggers on the way from Bendigo’
S. T. Gill 1853, ‘Improvident digger in Melbourne

* * * * *

What is gold? Where does it come from? And why was there such an abundance of accessible gold in Victoria?

Stardust is close to one correct answer. Strap yourself in carefully now.

It can be firmly asserted that the only elements which existed in the universe 13 billion years ago were a lot of hydrogen atoms, rather fewer helium atoms (generated by fusion reactions) and a small amount of lithium — very simple elements. More complex elements were formed by the heat and pressure present in the cores of stars. Explosions would disperse this matter across the universe.

But elements like platinum and gold were too complex to be formed in this way. Current theory has it that they have emerged from the collision of two neutron stars.

The first documented supernova (monster cosmic explosion) event

Neutron stars are born from the explosive death of other, larger stars, a violent supernova which blows the outer layers off the original stars. In astronomical terms these stars are physically tiny, about 20kms across, but with a mass about 1.4 times that of our sun with an incredibly dense core. Gravity presses the material in on itself so tightly that protons and electrons combine (‘melt’ is one description) to form neutrons and that’s where the stars get their name. On average, gravity on a neutron star is 2 billion times stronger than gravity on Earth. In fact, it is strong enough to significantly bend radiation from the star in a process known as gravitational lensing, allowing astronomers to ‘see’ some of the back side of a neutron star at the same time as the front side. The nature of their birth causes immensely rapid rotation sometimes as fast as 43,000 revolutions per minute.

The earth is about 4.543 billion years old. Gold was not present at its origin. It didn’t begin to arrive — as stardust (or meteorites and other space objects peppering the earth’s surface) — until at least 200 million years later.

There is gold everywhere on earth including in the oceans, but mostly in insufficiently concentrated form to collect. The most common natural method of concentration of gold is through the ancient workings of immensely hot fluid inside the Earth’s crust. These fluids have often moved through rocks over a large area and dissolved gold and other minerals. When these fluids cool or react with other rocks the dissolved gold precipitates into cracks or fractures forming veins. In Australia this concentration of gold took place in the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago in the eastern states, and thousands of millions of years ago in Western Australia (where even larger deposits have been found).

As well as gold, these fluids can carry other dissolved minerals, such as quartz. This is why gold is often found with quartz. These are known as primary gold deposits and to extract the gold the rock containing the veins of gold has to be dug up, crushed and processed. Adding a note of controversy and danger, cyanide is often an important part of this processing as it can be used to dissolve and bind to gold.

Some rocks containing gold veins are exposed on the surface and erode away. The gold that these rocks contained has been washed down into creeks to form alluvial (or secondary) deposits. Because gold is heavier than most of the material moved by a creek or river, it can become concentrated in hollows or trapped in the bed of the river. These deposits can be worked using a gold pan or cradle and it was those deposits which produced most of the gold found early in the rushes of the 1850s. The largest alluvial goldfields extended over distances of around 10 kilometres and produced more than 100 tonnes of gold.

S.T. Gill 1855, ‘Tin dish washing’ (panning)

Why in Victoria? As noted, larger deposits have been found in Western Australia, but at much deeper levels.

Gold is found in cracks and fissures of sedimentary rock. There are major volcanic geological zones in Victoria, but there also substantial sedimentary areas which are riven by a series of fault lines running roughly north-south: Yarramaljup, Moyston, Avoca, Mt William, Governor, Kiewa. Several of these fault lines are closely associated with gold sources. Major earthquakes, slippage and movement along fault lines will expose new strata, but it is believed that in the case of Victoria more frequent small-scale earth movements were far more influential in making gold accessible.

Conditions were optimal for finding surface gold and an unusual proportion of nuggets. Far more gold is found in ‘reefs’, veins most frequently found in quartz.

A competitor to The Welcome Stranger for the largest single deposit of gold ever found is the ‘Holtermann Nugget’. And right here is Holtermann with his ‘nugget’. A Prussian who left his country to avoid military service, he set up a mining operation near Hill End in NSW which for many years was unproductive. Then on 19th October 1872 a midnight firing of explosives revealed a ‘wall of gold’ of which the ‘nugget’ was part. Weight: 630 lbs, Height: 4 ft 9 ins, Width: 2ft 2ins, Av thickness: 4 ins, Value £12,000. But it is not a nugget. It is a ‘specimen’, a matrix of slate, quartz and gold, reef gold, which when crushed produced 3000 troy ounces of gold, quite enough to make Holtermann a rich man.

I wanted to put in a photo or two of the goldfields but even in Rod Hall and David Moore’s giant and superb Australia: Image of a Nation 1850-1950 there are no photos of goldfields or gold miners. There are paintings and sketches. S. T. Gill, the most prolific and insightful, is represented above. Von Guérard has some offerings but they are in strange circumstances which will be described below. On first try I found one photo of ‘Sandhurst’ (Bendigo) in the early-1880s, but the mining had become industrialised by then.

It’s not a digger with his 8 foot by 8 foot claim (expanded to 12 foot by 12 foot after the Eureka rebellion), just arrived from … anywhere. There are lots of remnants of Cornishmen in the diggings, but name them really and you won’t be wrong: Italy, Sweden, Russia, California even, and China beginning a relationship that never really got past awkward. Scotland. The entire collection of my forebears arrived in Victoria between 1852 and 1868, the McRaes in 1852. There was at least a gully full of Canadians at Ballarat. There were Murderers at a Flat out of Castlemaine. Anyone from anywhere really.

A digger wrestling with the quartz and wondering when he’ll hit a lead, freezing and wet in the middle of a Ballarat winter, wasting away at the height of a Mount Alexander summer. Using what for a bathroom? Finding food where? And, although they weren’t allowed to work on Sundays, not daring to take a holiday or even to leave his/her claim. When gold was discovered at the Forest Creek diggings just out of Castlemaine it is reported that some diggers stretched themselves out over their claim and didn’t move for several days (they must have, but you get the idea) until there was some formal recognition of their right.

The first photos were taken in Australia in the mid 1840s so the technology existed, and you might have thought it would have been applied to the most momentous events occurring. Perhaps photographers had turned themselves into diggers and were just too busy. Or perhaps it was such a specialised activity it didn’t find its way into the higgledy-piggledy world of the diggings.

But now I have had expert correction. There were photos taken of the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, thank you Deidre, by Antoine Fauchery and his mate Richard Daintree. On review their photos of local Aboriginal people of the time are quite simply remarkable, but those of the diggers can look a bit posed or washed out.

Fauchery, 1858, Group of Diggers
Daintree, 1861, Barkly-Navarre Goldfield

For my own reasons I have chosen to let this choice stand: twenty years later (1872), and not in Victoria at all but at Gulgong, not so far from Hill End.

I think the clothes would still be pretty close to the mark. Yes to the hats, the windlass, the mullock heap. Yes to the beards, probably the tools, certainly the type of locale … and the scale of the enterprise.

And it’s Gulgong, which allows me to include a joke which has given me enormous pleasure over the years. (Reflecting very badly on me. It is so weak!!) All I can plead is that it had some special significance for me at certain moments in the years I spent roaming western New South Wales.

Prince Charles was on a tour of Australia and Gulgong was included on his itinerary. (Nb. Let’s not talk Gulgong down. Anthony Trollope also visited in 1871.) At the official reception he wore something odd on his head that looked just a little like a Davey Crockett Hat. Or something. It was the talk of the evening of course and finally the Mayor summoned enough courage to enquire about it. ‘The hat?’ His Royal Personage replied. ‘Quite wonderful isn’t it!’ ‘ But does it mean something?’ the Mayor asked. ‘I’m glad you enquired’, responded His Terrific Eminence. (You must be using a Prince Charles voice here, right way down the back of the throat.) ‘I mentioned to my father, The Duke, that I was off to Ooooorstralia, and he said, where you going? I ran through a few of the places I was scheduled to visit then mentioned Gulgong. And he said, ahhhhhh wear the foxhat.’

* * * * *

This has been a long preamble to a series of stories about walking the Goldfields Track which starts at the pinnacle of Mt Buninyong and ends (for me, it must end, can only end) at the Alexandra Fountain at the intersection of View Street and Pall Mall, the absolute heart of Bendigo about 210 kilometres away.

I have known about the Track for years and owned a guide book for at least five or six. The Guidebook (this one now superseded by a new edition) is a work of great art, a really good guidebook prepared by capable people who know their business, and it was enticing.

But I couldn’t get over the idea that, regardless of the weather, which would almost certainly be terrible — too hot too wet too cold too muggy — it would be weeks of walking on quartzy gravel through unvarying, and undistinguished, grey forests of box and stringybark. Not much to see, not much of interest. Quite a few days you would have to end up nowhere and make complex arrangements to find a shower, some food and a bed. I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m disinclined these days to spend a day, or several, carrying a 25 kilo pack and then camping.

A confluence of events changed my view.

Covid came along and Melbourne’s second lockdown went for months and while you could go for walks — and we did endlessly to the point where I got very sick of the first 500 metres in any direction from our front door — you couldn’t go for a walk in the bush. Not only could you not leave town; you couldn’t travel more than 5 kms from your home. There are people so much worse off in the world, but I chafed.

One thing that had happened — and we knew about this from illegally walking through the gardens of Eaglemont, Heidelberg and Ivanhoe and the natural gardens along the Yarra — was that it had been a wonderful growing season, a comparatively long cold winter, a late wet Spring and, almost perversely, the natural world had never looked more verdant and fertile.

When the opportunity came to get out of town we took it quickly and enthusiastically. But what to do? How to really make the most of it? An old favourite or something new?

We’ve been walking around Creswick, one of the towns on the route, for years, good walks, 8.3/10 walks, interesting and varied. Creswick where W.G. Spence, one of the founders of the Australian Workers Union, grew up; home to the artistic Lindsay family; birthplace of John Curtin, quite possibly Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. A collection of big houses and worker’s cottages, some grand institutional building, some defining waterworks and other signs of unrealised ambition. Melbourne University’s forestry school was established here (with, tucked away in its arboretum, Australia’s Number One pinus radiata). There are two good pubs and, Lord help us, Le Péché Gourmand (‘the sinful eater’), a really good patisserie with outstanding coffee.

I knew the Track went through Creswick — we had often seen the waymarks — but I couldn’t quite figure out the prior leg. It’s about 20kms by road from Ballarat to Creswick and most of the way it is open paddocks until you get to quite a stretch of suburban Ballarat. How could you make that into an interesting walk? We could go and see, and if it was no good we would at least have been in the open air and seen our friends at Le PG.

So very early in the morning of November 16th 2020 we found ourselves walking down Mair St to the Ballarat Station in order to catch the bus to Creswick. The Track is usually described running from the south to the north. We were going the wrong way and we weren’t beginning at the beginning. But all that is easily forgiven. I think we were doing it backwards because we prefer to wrestle with public transport early in the day and our car was at Ballarat, and anyway we weren’t starting The Track, hadn’t really given any thought to that — we were just going for a walk.

The bus trip was pleasant and we got off somewhere near the right place, had a cup of coffee and a croissant with a selection of emergency workers easing their way into the day, and headed off …