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 race 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 another 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.

3 thoughts on “The Richest Place on Earth #2

  1. Pingback: The Richest Place on Earth: GOLD | mcraeblog

  2. I had read in books that art is not easy
    But no one warned that the mind repeats
    In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
    The black swan of trespass on alien waters.
    Ern Malley
    Any connection here David?

    • I think there would be no doubt Andrew, given Ern’s track record and his relationship with the Australian cultural landscape, that there would be some intimate connection. But for the moment I’m at a loss to put my finger on it. You might be the only person in Australia, which is to say in this context the world, to quote from Ern Malley.

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