Sophie’s Story

Sophie Skarbek has been a dear friend of ours for forty years. Myrna met her at one of Helen Brack’s art classes and they have pursued their interest in art together ever since. But she has become an important part of our social life as well, a character bubbling over with warmth and brightness and a Polish Australian very proud of and interested in her heritage. We seem to have quite a few friends who have Polish backgrounds, enough to awaken a keen interest in the vagaries of Polish history and to spend time travelling there. Sophe was chief among them.

Forty years is quite long enough to see many life changes, some significant like the death of her much admired husband Andrew. So the stories of the forty years beforehand appeared only as hints or passing mentions in another context. For us anyway. Her children might have got stronger doses. But as she has got older the need to connect the parts of those early years and to leave a record has become stronger.

This would be a remarkable story any time: ten years of wandering without any clear destination in parts of the world that might seem, from our parochial perspectives, exotic. Three when it started and 13 when she arrived in Fremantle, Sophie’s story while quite probably endlessly rehearsed in her mind is still an outline. A different type of story would have been contained in her mother’s journal which, in the process of attempts at publication, somehow became lost.

But stories like this have new relevance at this time when displacement is coming in waves — from Africa, from Syria and now from Afghanistan, and in the future from the impact of climate change — to a less receptive collection of possible hosts where this issue is being used to shore up brittle forms of nationalism and the political insecurity which breeds nativist thugs.

Just how hard could it have been, even with the support of the Polish Army? And when the Polish Army is taken away, what then?

My Journey

Sophie’s mother Helena and father Tadeusz.

My mum Helena Antonina Ney was born in 1907 in a town called Zabno near Krakow. There were seven children in her family, five girls and two boys. Apolonia Eleonora — Ciocia (‘Auntie’) — was the eldest. Mum, 15 years younger, came last. Teofil (at right) who was born just after Ciocia is the best known and appears in Polish Wikipedia. He was a spy catcher.

I know very little about my dad’s family. His name was Tadeusz Kurzeja and he was born in a town called Novy Sacz in the foothills of the Tatry mountains which separate Poland from Slovakia. He had brothers and was the same age as my mum.

My mum met him in a town called Kamien Koszyrski south of Pinsk, in what was then eastern Poland (Polesie) now Belarus. My mum was a teacher and my dad a school inspector — that is how they met — and  Kamien Koszyrski was where I was born on 11th August 1936.

I was just three when Germany invaded Poland from the west in September 1939 and Soviet Russia from the east three weeks later. My brother Janusz was eight at the time. Auntie was visiting us when the war broke out and that is why she remained with us over time. It was a visit that lasted ten years. She was married but had no children.

Both my dad and Teofil were officers in the Polish army. (Ciocia’s husband had died as a result of ill health during the First World War.) My uncle was a major, later a colonel and my dad a lieutenant in light artillery army reserve based at Pinsk. So when the invasions occurred they both were called to arms. They were captured on the eastern front sometime in the March or April of 1940. Shortly after both were executed at Katyn along with 22,000 other Polish military officers and community leaders. (That is why today we belong to the Katyn-Syberak Organisation.) We did not know the truth of what happened to them because for a while we kept receiving letters from my dad.

[See below at the end of the blog for more about Katyn.]

1940

On 14th April, Auntie, Mum, Janusz and I along with hundreds of thousands of Poles were exiled to Russia by the NKVD, the ‘People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs’, the Russian secret police. They knocked on our door at 3 o’clock in the morning. I remember Mum was sick with a cold. The officer was reasonably nice. She asked him where we were going. He wouldn’t tell us but told her to pack plenty of warm clothes. We had only a few hours to pack — we each had bundles and we had some hot bread and Polish sausage — and were put into a train consisting of cattle trucks. Our truck had 30 or 40 people in it. That journey took over two weeks. We all cried when the train crossed the Urals. We were leaving Europe behind. Our neighbor, Mrs Lancucki and her son Christopher were in in the same wagon and we children played together. How we survived I still don’t know.

The train stopped somewhere in pitch black darkness at night and we were told to get out. We had arrived … at Glubokoye in northern Khazakstan. For two years we lived on a small kolkhoz, a Russian settlement which included a farm worked by a collective of families and labourers under the direction of the Soviet government. There were all sorts of people there, like Japanese who had been captured in the skirmishes between Russia and Japan in the early 30s as well as Kazakhs, Mongols and so on. It seemed like the end of the world. Once again I don’t know how on earth we survived.

These are photos taken at Glubokoye round the time Sophie and her family were there. But as she says her dwelling was a mud rather than wooden hut. These people, perhaps carefully chosen because it is a ‘propaganda’ photo, almost certainly look healthier than the Polish Siberaks would have been. But it is probably accurate in terms of the representation of men and women.

My brother went to Russian school, Mum worked in some factory and Auntie looked after the children. There was not much nourishment and they were very hard conditions. We lived in mud huts, two families to a hut. The Lancuckis shared ours. The buildings were surrounded by huge steppes (open plains) where nothing much grew, no trees, only grass and tumbleweed. I remember wolves howling at night and being very scared of their noise. There were cows and we children collected their dung for heating our living space. In Winter the temperature could sometimes be minus 40C. Then in Summer it could be plus 40C.

My mum knew Russian so she got a job in a factory for which she was actually paid. As a result we had some income. Mum was also able to exchange things we managed to bring from Poland for food. The women loved her lipstick. We mostly ate flat bread and potatoes. Occasionally we were given some wheat grain and Ciocia had to make flour out of it. But we were always hungry.

The letters from Dad stopped coming. Mum used to go to the NKVD offices to ask about him and was told ubyl which means ‘gone’. That was all. The same thing happened to letters she sent to him. Ubyl.

1942

In 1942 Germany invaded Russia and the Polish government/ army operating from ‘Free Europe’ and London began negotiating with Russia to fight against Germany. One of the difficulties was that Polish generals were enquiring about the whereabouts of the officers who had been captured. The Russians said they escaped, but of course they were already dead, most of them killed at Katyn.

One of the conditions of these negotiations was to allow the Polish people who had been forcibly taken to Russia to leave the country. Only about 200,000 of a million or more Poles who were displaced were allowed to leave before Stalin decided to ‘close the border’, taking offence at the Polish negotiating group’s horror at the discoveries at Katyn by the International Red Cross.

We got out because a Polish soldier said we were his family and we were given a pass to travel within Russia. My mum decided the only way out was to get to a big train station, that was in Petropavlosk about 130 kms north from Glubokoye. We got there in a lorry mum hired with all the money we had left that she had managed to save.

Polish refugees, children, at a camp in Uzbekistan during the early years of WWII.

It took us two months, always travelling south, always south, [several thousands of kilometres] to get to Uzbekistan where the Polish army was forming. We went through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea from where we could get to Persia (Iran now), and the re-forming Polish army.

A Polish army lorry in Persia.

This army gradually grew strength and fought on various fronts — North Africa, Italy (where Mussolini was sympathetic to Germans). At the famous Battle of Monte Cassino which was one of the turning points of the second world war the Polish flag was the first to fly in victory. Polish pilots also played a role in the Battle of Britain. Once we found the army we would had their protection and we could also live in camps alongside the soldiers.

Late in 1942 the Army, which we had found by this stage, arranged for us and other refugees to travel across the Caspian sea in an open rusty old boat to Pahlavi in what was then Persia (now Iran). It was a horror of a journey for most of two days as it was extremely hot and the boat had no overhead cover. It was jam-packed, a lot of the passengers were very sick and we stayed as close as we could to the rails. I have a memory of white shadows tipping over into the water. They would have been the dead.

Polish refugees arriving in Iraq, a British newsreel, click here.

After landing we were transported from the coast of the Caspian to Tehran, again in the back of lorries, a beautiful but very rough journey. The camp where we lived for nearly a year was just outside Tehran. Our camp was near the Polish army camp, and so schools and hospitals were very well organised. My mum was able to restart her teaching career.

A Polish refugee camp near Tehran.

At one time here my brother, Janusz, got very sick with diphtheria and was admitted to the army hospital. After he recovered he became an army drummer boy and led the army band in their daily marches. We smaller kids followed them and sang along with them. I also spent a few weeks in the infectious diseases part of the hospital with scarlet fever. I was only allowed see my mum through a window, but some nurses were Polish so that was reasonably okay.

We loved Persia. The Shah, Reza Pahlavi, treated us like guests and had parties for children where we used to entertain by dancing our Polish folk dances. At that time Persia, which remained neutral during WWII, was very ‘westward looking’ and wanting to be European, and Tehran was a very beautiful city with huge bazaars. We were given a little money with which we bought lots of fruit, melons, watermelons, halva and nuts. We loved pistachios best. We had no idea about this but for a week at the time we were there Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt held a meeting to decide the ‘Big Three’ strategy for the next phase of war which included the invasion of Italy.

The ‘Big Three’ at Tehran.

However, for us, Tehran was only a transit place. Again we had to leave and climb on board a lorry for an unbelievable journey — very hazardous over mountains on steep curvy roads, and very scary. The army people with us told us not to look down, but we could see where cars and trucks had come off the sides of these roads and gone down the cliffs. We were fed Sao biscuits and canned corned beef with powdered Vitamin C orange-flavoured drinks. This trip also provided our first taste of American chewing gum. After a few difficult days, we reached the city of Ahvaz near the top of the Persian Gulf where it was as hot as blazes.

Our camp was on the sandy beach of the Persian Gulf. We swam in the sea among drifts of smelly oil. There were oil tanks everywhere, full of oil ready for export I suppose.

I lost a little gold medallion that Ciocia gave me in the sandy seashore. But amazingly this was found. We considered this some sort of miracle!!! I still have it, with the dent where the boy who found it stepped on it.   

The Persian Gulf was one of the most dangerous places then with German U-boats patrolling day and night, silent and unseen. But we travelled safely through the Gulf on our way to Karachi which was then an Indian port.

The Batory which left Poland the day before war was declared, and thereafter became an important component in the transport of Polish refugees. By the look of the costume, this photo may have been taken in more settled times.

Can you imagine our delight when we boarded a ship called ‘Batory’? It was a pre-war Polish luxury tourist ship with Polish sailors and Polish food. At night the ship had to have heavy drapes on the portholes to keep it as dark as possible. Our beloved ‘Batory’ had to be returned to communist Poland after the war. However some of the crew left the ship and to our greatest delight the captain of the ‘Batory’ was second-in-charge of the ship which eventually carried us to Australia. After the war he entered the British commercial navy.

And astonishingly here he is — Captain Eustazy Borkowski in 1937 at the ceremony of the bestowal of the ship’s ornamental badge.

Anyway we had a most beautiful if scary journey. Every day we had drills of getting into lifeboats in case of emergency and I was terrified. A young sailor said to me, ‘Young lady if you don’t get in I will have to put you in by your pigtails’. I was quietly in love with him and I always wondered what happened to him in the end.

As my mum was an important person being a teacher we sat at the captain’s table for meals and I was made to eat meat which was something new to me.

1943

We arrived safely in India (now what is Pakistan) after a few days. We cried saying goodbye to our Polish sailors and our Polish ship. The crew cried too as we were considered a very special cargo.

The town of Karachi was set in a desert-like landscape. It looked like a desert and felt like a desert, very hot. There were  two seasons in the year. It was either very dry and hot or very wet and hot.

Polish girls dressed up at Karachi Refugee camp. Sophie believes that SHE, amazingly again — this is a photo plucked from the internet — is the girl second from the right. She remembers the scalloped border on her apron.

The camp where we lived for nine months (in 1943) was outside the city. It was called ‘Country Club’ for fun. We lived in huge white army tents with maybe 16 beds in each. Showers and toilets were separate and had to be shared and we had to walk to them. At night we needed torches and we were scared of the jackals which were howling away. We did have potties ‘just in case’ in the tents. Women and children were separated from boys over 16 and any men who happened to be there, but we could still be together as a family.

The refugees were mainly women and children. The men were doctors, teachers or administrators along with those sent to rehabilitate after being wounded at the front in northern Africa. We had a hospital that also consisted of tents. School, where we started learning English, was ‘under the stars’, in the fresh air or tents. There was no electricity, except in the hospital. The only permanent building was the chapel on the hill which was made of wood.

The camp was very close to both the US and British army and air force bases. Hence we were surrounded by soldiers, and pilots flying very close to our camp just to show off to the young Polish women, I am sure. They were very good to us, especially the US guys. Their smart uniforms were made of a lovely soft khaki material and they looked very swish. The Brits uniforms were khaki as well but they looked starchy. They wore shorts. We were in the tropics after all! A few of the Yanks had Polish names, and there was a young black guy whose name was … Kwiatkowski.

The army guys and women loved us as they missed their families so much. Once again we entertained them with songs and dances in their canteens. At Christmas we were invited to their camps and each kid was given a toy, and that is where my talking doll ‘Elzunia’ came from. She was made in Canada and used to cry and say ‘mama’ when you squeezed her. Her eyes moved as well. She was the size of a 3-month old baby. Her torso was soft but her hands, feet and head were made of a sort of porcelain. Elzunia had a sad end at Clifton Street when Bo dropped her.

People got malaria and some other tropical diseases. My mum had headaches often. We received pretty strong anti-malaria medication as well as inoculations for a million diseases like cholera, yellow fever, typhoid and so on. In Poland all kids got smallpox inoculation soon after birth. Antibiotics were available as was nylon. My auntie got some nylon from parachutes and she made us blouses but made a few mistakes at first as she ironed them and they melted of course.

1943-1948

Karachi was just a transit camp too, so we found ourselves transported to a permanent one in Valivade in southern India, again hundreds of kilometres ending up well south of Bombay. I remember when we arrived in Bombay and had a bit of stopover time. We saw it at night, all lit up as we travelled along the bay, and it looked absolutely beautiful. This time our journey was overland by train and took several days. We stopped at Pune one of the busiest railway stations in the world then. Finally we boarded a local train and went down to Kolhapur and from there to Valivade about 15 kms away.

Our settlement here was built for us, brand new, and was absolutely fantastic. We had long barracks divided into apartments of 3 rooms and a kitchen, there was a verandah and a garden with banana and papaya trees. The  communal bathrooms and loos were a walk away but it was okay because the place was well lit up at night. We were so happy as it was much nicer and more comfortable than where we lived at Karachi.

My mum taught at the school next to our ‘apartment’ and I went to school there. My brother was already going to high school. The settlement was very well designed into ‘suburbs’ and we were close to the church and a hall on the hill where we had theatre, plays and films, most of them in English. English was our second language at school, sort of, with teachers knowing the language but pronouncing it in a Polish way and, as you can imagine, our English was not very good. There were trade and other schools for the older students. Education has always been highly valued by Poles and there was education for children and young people wherever we went.

There was also the town square where speakers announced the news, both local and world. So we were well informed about current affairs, with the main interest of course being in what was happening with the war. We had access to Free Europe Radio but we also had Polish newspapers delivered to us just a few days after they were published in London. It was then news about Katyn started filtering through. We had been notified that our father was ‘missing in action’, but names started coming as well.

The doctors and dentists lived the ‘high life’, that is they had electricity in posh houses. We didn’t, using these huge gas lamps for study, for Ciocia to sew and for my mother to prepare lessons sitting round our huge table. We had Xmas and other parties with yummy food.

Polish refugees at a Polish Refugee camp in India enjoying a Christmas party with a Maharaja.

There was no running water but Indian ladies brought both milk and water every day in beautiful pots carried on their heads. They also did our laundry and cleaned and polished our mud floors with dried cow dung. This was perfectly fine and hygienic to use. It had been through a baking process and it did not smell. It sounds peculiar but I assure you it was fine. The Indian ladies would go along our streets and advertise in Polish ‘prac, mazac, mam’sia?’ — in other words ‘wash and polish (smear) the floors, madam?’

Indian people and Poles had shops well stocked with everything we needed. So apart from the tropical diseases like malaria, we were happy and pretty healthy. My mum and Janusz both got malaria badly, but Ciocia and I did not. We had constant jabs for things like cholera.

Something we loved was catching a horse carriage which would take us to Kolhbapur. Everyone, and there were about 5,000 of us (almost all Poles at this stage) who lived in Valivade, loved it.

We were better off than some of the village people but not rich and not in charge of our lives. Indian people liked us and, as you know, hated the English. There were many small revolts against the English government, but it all went very badly when Mahatma Ghandi, ‘the Great Soul’, who wanted a peaceful solution to the departure of the British was assassinated. It all went horrid. We cried along with the Indians but rejoiced with them when they got independence from Britain in 1947.

But it was not the golden solution as India was divided into two or three really with Muslins moving and moved to East and West Pakistan, leaving India for Hindus and Buddhists creating another dreadful and scary problem with a lot of violence.

1948-50

That meant our idyllic camp had to close. We had an opportunity at that time to go to England which my mother would have liked. There was a Polish soldier with exactly the same name as my father who we could have gone with, but we would have had to leave Ciocia behind as she was too old to meet the conditions for entry (over 40) and that was unthinkable.

We were transported to Africa, to what was then British East Africa and what is now Uganda, at that time a peaceful place. Once again we travelled by ship this time to Mombasa, then by train to Nairobi. From Nairobi we went to Koja, a camp south of Kampala on a promontory that went out into Lake Victoria, where there were already many Poles who had come directly to Africa. There were at least four other different camps in states like Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

For newsreel footage of Polish refugees in Africa, click here.

This camp was surrounded by African villages. We could hear the drums most nights and watched the smoke from their fires which might have been signals across the villages. The Africans were very friendly to us and we used to do trades with them for fresh fruit and vegetables with things that we had.

Africa was beautiful but the camp was so disappointing after Valivade even though the climate was much kinder than hot, monsoony India. We lived on the banks of Lake Victoria so we got this ‘cooling effect’ from the water.

Polish girls arriving at an African refugee camp.

We lived in huge mud houses, one for the family, once again with no electricity but they had very basic bathrooms and loos (a hole in the floor). I went to high school, Mum taught, Janusz was doing his HSC-Matriculation and Ciocia was running a restaurant for people who worked. We were well off as both women brought money into the family. A local boy, ‘Guiseppe’, helped Ciocia in the kitchen.

Malaria and the deadly bilharzia from parasitic worms in fresh water were the two main diseases. We were not allowed to swim in the lake which was full of crocs and hippos, but we used to go and get water lilies which were beautiful.

There was an English priest there who took it on himself to learn Polish so he could talk to us. He used to run all sorts of activities for us, like scouts and excursions around the place. He was a good man who was very nice to us.

We did some travelling. We went to Entebee not far from the beginnings of the Nile and where there was an airport. We also took a trip to Murchison Falls and had other excursions into the jungle.

We all dreamed of going to Poland after the war but Mum said no as it was run by communist government and we knew by then that we had lost our father. So there really was not much to go back to. Our Polesie had become ‘Belarus’ and the whole map of pre-war Poland had changed.

Trouble was beginning in Uganda. Violent uprisings were becoming more common and it was no longer a safe and happy place to live. We knew, again, that we would need to leave. In 1950 we heard that Australia was looking for white migrants like the Italians who lived in Africa, but heard they would take Poles as well. Mum thought it would be a place where her children could get educated and there were conditions on other places which made it difficult for Ciocia. Both age and health conditions had to be satisfied.

A train took us from the camp back to Mombasa, the port we would leave Africa from. This was a memorable trip through beautiful landscape and with any number of animals to see: giraffes, elephants, deer, all the things people go to Africa to see. Sometimes the train stopped to let us look more closely.

You can read more about the Poles in Africa here.

1950

We boarded an old American army ship, the ‘General Langfitt’, for the journey to Australia. That was where we found that our ‘Batory’ captain was second-in-command and where we reconnected with other Poles from Africa who hadn’t spent time in India, including Christofer Lancucki who had been in the same cattle wagon as us during our expulsion from Poland and whose family shared the same hut at Glubokoye ten years earlier.

After three weeks of a pretty awful sea voyage, in February 1950 we arrived in a very drab Fremantle, bereft of people and trees, such a different port to Mombasa, so colourless and boring. We were transported to Northam by buses and left in an disused Army Camp with corrugated iron barracks. Again we had no running water but we did have electricity. The barracks were divided by grey army blankets into ‘living spaces’ for women and children with boys over 16 settled in the Men’s Barracks. Janusz was now over 16 so he lived separately from us.

The Camp had people from various European countries: Hungarian, Czechs, Italians, even some Germans. We thought, where the hell did we arrive? The Australians in charge thought we all spoke German so announcements were made in German: ‘Achtung. Achtung’ … We thought, Christ what’s going on here?!

The food was mutton and other Ozzie delicacies. The communal barracks were hot; the loos and showers were miles away. We cooled water by filling canvas army bags and hanging them on tree branches. Ice cream would have melted by the time we brought it ‘home’. There was a Canteen where Saturday dances and other recreation activities were held.

English classes consisted of teaching songs like ‘Goodnight Irene’. We all had to laugh when a lady put her hand up and said in a sing-song Polish voice to the teacher, ‘Very sawrry/ but I have to go to larvva – tawry’.

My mum in her fashion, got bored and sick and tired of waiting, so she went to Perth to a CES office and said, ‘I want a job’. And she got one in Christ Church Grammar School as a House Mother looking after the boys who boarded there. I found my way to a Catholic Boarding School, Mum helped Ciocia to find a job and my brother made his way to Perth as well and got a job in a factory.

The beginnings were very hard indeed, a bit funny in a way, but even with our broken English somehow we managed.

Okay. I just had to write this down because we thought we were brought to a very peculiar country but we were happy as it was free, far away from Europe and wars.

  • * * * * * * *

The Katyn Massacre

The massacre at Katyn occurred in 1940 in a forest which is nearly exactly half way between Moscow and Minsk. It sets off and otherwise frames Sophie’s Story.

On 1 September 1939, the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany began. The Soviet invasion of Poland began from the other direction on 17 September. The Red Army advanced quickly and met little resistance, as the Polish forces facing them were under orders not to engage. It was widely understood that the Russians were coming to help Poland resist the Nazi forces. However a pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and Russians, had been agreed which among other things secretly provided for the (fourth) partition of Poland: half, more or less, to the Germans and half to the Russians. Somewhere between 250,000 and 450,000 Polish soldiers and policemen were captured and interned by the Soviet authorities. Some were freed or escaped quickly, but 125,000 were imprisoned in camps run by the Russian secret police, the NKVD. Many thousands of Polish civilians were also deported to the Soviet Union. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance estimates roughly 320,000. Other historians suggest two to three times that many.

Lavrenty Beria had turned the NKVD into a vehicle for establishing and maintaining a regime of terror to shore up Stalin’s authority, at the same time establishing his own form of control. Evidence suggests that even before the war had begun he had developed plans and made arrangements for the subjugation of conquered states, with Poland as the first target. His strategy was to execute the country’s core leadership.

The same strategy — in this case adopted by the Nazis — is described on the walls of the original concentration camp at Oswiecim, better known as Auschwitz. First the army officers, then municipal and other government officials, then educators and other professionals. Young people will be taught another language and enough maths only to work effectively in factories. Nothing else. I remember standing there reading it and being struck by the importance attached to education and educators … and the urgency attached to their destruction.

The document at left is Beria’s proposal to Stalin (with Stalin’s scrawled endorsement) to execute 25,700 Polish ‘nationalists and counterrevolutionaries’ kept at camps and prisons in occupied western Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet leadership, and Stalin in particular, viewed the Polish prisoners as a ‘problem’ as they might organise resistance to Soviet rule. They decided the prisoners inside the ‘special camps’ were to be shot as ‘avowed enemies of Soviet authority’. This status was determined via intensive interrogation and the names of prisoners who showed signs of demurral were added to the list.

Those who died at Katyn included soldiers — half the Polish officer corps (including Tadeusz Kurzeja and Teofil Ney) — 200 pilots, a prince, major landowners, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, many hundreds of lawyers, engineers, and teachers, and more than 100 writers and journalists. For whatever reason 395 were saved.

The executions were carried out individually. The banality of the details of the process is among its most horrific aspect. It makes it real. The first transport carried 390 people but that was too many to execute overnight. Numbers were subsequently kept to 250 per night. The executions, a single shot to the back of the head, were carried out with German-made pistols supplied by Moscow because the alternative Russian weapons recoiled too violently. Shooting became painful after the first dozen executions. The chief executioner for the NKVD, Vasily Blohkin, is reported to have personally shot and killed 7,000 of the condemned over 28 days in April 1940. This information was drawn from a Belarussian participant decades later. He’d forgotten nothing.

Something so appalling was of course kept secret.

In a twist, in June 1941 the Polish Government-in-exile signed a treaty with Russia to pursue the war as allies against the Nazis (who has just invaded western Russia), with a Polish army to be formed in Russia. The Polish General undertaking this task sought to locate the missing officers. Stalin assured him that they had all been freed but that Russia had lost track of their whereabouts. They may have gone to Manchuria he surmised.

It was the Germans who made public the discovery of some of the Katyn graves containing ‘the remains of many thousands of Polish officers’. Goebbels used the find to try to drive a wedge between the two new allies. He wrote in his diary: ‘We are now using the discovery of 12,000 Polish officers, killed by the GPU (the Russian State Political Directorate), for anti-Bolshevik propaganda on a grand scale. We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found. Their reports now reaching us from ahead are gruesome. The Führer has also given permission for us to hand out a drastic news item to the German press. I gave instructions to make the widest possible use of the propaganda material. We shall be able to live on it for a couple of weeks.’

The Russians immediately and vehemently denied any responsibility placing the blame on the ‘German hangmen’, taking it so seriously as to withdraw from the agreement with the Polish Government-in-exile accusing it, of all things, of collaboration with the Nazis.

In 1943 during the course of the Nazi retreat, the Russians returned to this area. Part of Goebbels entry in his diary on 29 Sept 1943 reads: ‘Unfortunately we have had to give up Katyn. The Bolsheviks undoubtedly will soon “find” that we shot 12,000 Polish officers. That episode is one that is going to cause us quite a little trouble in the future.’ And so it proved. The Russians made every effort to destroy evidence (which included no documents found related to any period after 1940, the state of the deterioration of the bodies and so on) and to influence the international commissions investigating the massacre. Kim Philby appears to have blocked the information about it coming to the British Government from agents in Poland.

It wasn’t until almost 50 years later in 1989 that Soviet scholars confirmed that it was Beria and Stalin who had ordered the massacre. In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev went public with the admission that the NKVD had executed the Poles and confirmed that there were two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn. And yet today there are still countless documents including some which could finally confirm the identity of the dead which remain embargoed by the Russian Government.

Even after 80 years the memory of Katyn runs deep.

Part of the Katyn Memorial at Wroclaw.

Coronaviral days: The Houses of Fawkner

Howard Arkley (1993) Australian House, held by the Hamilton Art Gallery

ART TALK

From Crawford, A. and Ray, E., Spray: The Work of Howard Arkley, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1995, pp.88-89:

… Arkley’s homes are far from ironic – they appear as if painted by a proud owner. Yet, ironically, given Arkley’s engagement with feminism, it was the suburbs that feminists often accused of locking women into the subordinate role of home-maker. The movement which had motivated his earlier work could be seen in his celebration of the house, regarded throughout the modern era as a woman’s domain, far from the masculine world of work. Yet one could also contend that his emphasis on the suburban exterior reasserted a masculine image of the home for it was often a male responsibility to maintain the suburban façade, with its driveway, ornamental garden beds and neatly mown.

Regardless of these issues, the Australian dream is to own one’s own home, and here the ambition was writ large and loud as Arkley took the house as a commodity and rendered it as a marketable façade with a Pop aesthetic. This was a Pop sensibility attuned to the Antipodes and pulsing with knowing and self-awareness. Arkley knew his audience would recognise the message and identify with the dream of the house. His confidence was reflected in the stridency of the airbrushed panels, throbbing and resonating with a keen sense of an Australian aesthetic. When Arkley first showed his vibrant interpretations of this symbol, it was as if the penny had dropped not only for the artist but for the public. Pop had come to the Australian suburbs and the suburbs had come to Pop:

ARTIST TALK

‘What I am trying to do, I believe, is explicitly the right thing, and if it isn’t me, it will be someone else. It has to be done. And we’re not just talking about the work, but inspiring a whole generation of future artists to delve into this area and exploit it. It looks like an overstatement, like it’s obvious, and I would rather make subtler art, but I don’t think it will get across.

What I would actually like to do is equivalent to when you’re driving along in the country and you look at the landscape and you say ‘Oh, there’s a Fred Williams.’ You change the way people see it. And you can make people look at it. In the same way that David Hockney has changed the way people can look at Los Angeles, the swimming pools, Hollywood’s Mulholland Drive, good God, that could be Lower Templestowe Road! I just want people to see it.’

* * * * * * *

Fawkner is a child of the 60s. At the time, once you passed Mahoney’s Road you were on your way to Sydney. On the limit, crossing the boundary. It consisted of cheap housing, quite a lot of which was erected at the government’s behest set in rectangular and repetitive town planning punctuated with green bits left to memorialise Charles Mutton and Someone Evans, but raw and perturbing like all such sites.

Sixty years later the massive expanses of the Cemetery remain, dividing the world quite carefully by religious denomination (although ‘Baptist B’ is plumb next to ‘Chinese’). (Could it be that the journeys of the different sections have discrete features which can’t be shared, or even … that they arrive at different destinations in the after-life!?)

But it is the other side of Sydney Road which interests us on a warm sunny Coronavirus Sunday afternoon with the carwash closed and bowls and netball just off.

Mutton and Evans were replaced years ago by Martinelli and Evangelidis and their countrypersons from Greece and Italy.

But now, 60 years on, Fawkner is Turkish: a land of kebabs, gozleme, saksuka, pide, iskender, pilav, borek and lahmacan. And of hot cars, muscles bulging out of black T-shirts and, where the women are not veiled, dramatically glamorised femininity.

These are not Turks from the heights of Istanbul. They are more likely to be from places closer to Syria and Iran than the Bosphorus. What do they make of Fawkner with its shopping strip in Bonwick Street off Jukes Road? (Bonwick. Jukes. What?) What do you hold on to? And how do you respond to an urban setting 50 or 60 years old compared to one 1500 or far many more years old?

I suppose you first of all attend to the primary structural elements of life: food, shelter, family, soccer, and then over time turn your attention to embroidering them at will, perhaps pleased with the fact that you can do so much to mold things as you would like them to be, perhaps daunted by the scale of taking what you might think of as a wasteland and making it homely and to your taste. You look at the housing stock and you might just be grateful there is a roof to put over your family’s head. Or you might think how weird and alien is this? Why would they build houses like this and on these blocks that are all the same size? And so badly tuned to the climate? And separated from each other? In fact why is there all this focus on separation? Where do we sit and drink our coffee and smoke our cigarettes? Where is the market? Where is the sheesh palace? Where is my village?

Right here perhaps. Partly anyway.

I understand this as a major physical manifestation of culture, the filling out of detail in personal and civic preferences for the look and feel of buildings and their surrounds, how they operate, how they relate — a constant and unrelenting process of change and adjustment in the context of a constant and unrelenting process of preservational push back. But when it has been going for 60 years you must get a different result from an operation which is a millennium or more old.

The Turks are now giving Fawkner an identity. Opposite Mama Lordy’s pizza joint is a brand new and very stylish house clad in up-to-the minute corrugated iron which flies three Turkish flags. But I wander.

When the original housing stock of Fawkner was built it was pretty much of a piece: double-or single-fronted Howard Arkleys. It is gentrifying quite rapidly and so you get two-storey infill of brick veneer and Blueboard or tight little rows of units. Or, as you will see, someone’s wet dream in semi-rusticated concrete block. Or set off with palm trees. But it is also showing the distinctive character, and choices, of the people who live there, diversifying quite wildly. Perhaps especially in the relationship to the garden. And that draws us back closer to thinking about the Turks and the general question of how you might make a home and what such a thing might look like.

Because it is not a millennium that these houses have been here those choices are more visible. I find them intriguing. Let’s have a look at some of the ones I chose to take pics of as we walked (sometimes for rather obscure personal reasons like a concern with stormwater drainage).

And because whenever you go for a walk there is always something to look at, some surprise …

Not Turkish at all. Look you just never know what you’ll come across do you?

What would Howard make of all this? I think he’d probably love it.

I include the photo of this tree as a matter of self indulgence. (It’s not even in Fawkner. Fawkner begins on the other side of the road.) But every time I go past it — which is regularly, a daughter and family live 150m to the right — I think what a simply magnificent creature this is, and what a remarkable example of survival.

WET MOUNTAINS

During the last relief from being locked down we visited the mountains. Jessie and Myrna climbed up Mount Buffalo’s Big Walk on a cold day with, apart from a few brief breaks, a heavy dripping mist clamped down on everything.

We were sitting having a late lunch (provided by the estimable Support Team) and across towards the Gorge was the brief revelation pictured below. Drama.

It’s Jessie’s photo with her flash new phone. Superb.

From the other direction Crystal Brook was spilling over the Gorge to another version of itself several hundred metres below.

With the wrinkles and creases of its eddies, Crystal Brook drains Hospice Plain, sometimes under snow, more frequently under water but most often dry. This was an occasion.

Wet wet wet. Weather persons like to conjure up distress at the prospect of rain. ‘I’m sorry Pete. It’s going to be wet for the next few days.’ ‘But we can look forward to some better weather next week can’t we Jane.’ ‘Sure can Pete.’

From almost any point of view — almost, unless you’re a house painter for example — there’s nothing wrong with weather like this. We could start from the proposition that we couldn’t live without it and move from there. But stormy weather on a mountain is profoundly good for the soul as well.

It could be suggested that the aesthetics of these conditions might be best enjoyed from snug interiors with good windows. Like this one in fact.

Breakfast at Chestnut Tree Apartments looking towards, but not seeing, Bogong.

Or this one, with not one but two fires which we just happened to find in a shelter hut near the Chalet — a real surprise. Go Parks Victoria.

The view out its window.

Or even from the warmth of a car.

The slabs near Mackey’s Lookout, all slick with a centimetre or so of run-off.

But there’s nothing like being out in it.

Eurobin Creek near the entrance.
Not the weather, but the sort of thing you go to Mount Buff to see.

While the Support Team undertook rehabilitation at the Bright Gym next day, the Intrepid Adventurers went back up on the plateau for another long walk: Long Plain, Mount Dean, Dingo Dell, wet feet most of the way and a certain amount of snow and ice.

Another masterpiece from the new phone and its owner-manager.

Ice crystals in an old foot print.
The Horn (and peak) of the buffalo from near Cresta carpark.

And then on the way down it all cleared and suddenly there were the Buckland and Ovens Valleys in all their late afternoon shimmering splendour.

* * * * * * * *

Determined to make the most of the break in lockdowns we headed off to the Grampians almost as soon as we got home from the Alps.

Weather? Yes of course. Wet. In this case, standing on top of The Pinnacle after walking from The Sundial, majorly wet in driving sleet. (Hmm ‘majorly’. You can think about that. Is he just trying to keep up with the young people I wonder?) And very very cold — freezing — just there, a big wind chill factor.

But not wet all the time.

I have wondered about the tendency to look at rock formations and anthropomorphise them. (‘Anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate human tendency.’) This takes concrete form in the naming process, say as something domestic (The Flat Iron, The Cool Chamber) or otherwise familiar (Fallen Giant, The Alligator, Elephant’s Hide, The Grand Canyon). I’m sure that’s better than naming them after obscure — or famous — humans.

I have commented elsewhere about the tendency on Mount Buff to name everything: The Sarcophagus, The Piano, The Cathedral, the Monolith, Mahomet’s Tomb, Giant’s Causeway, The Leviathan, Whale Rock, The Sentinel, Og Gog and Magog etc etc etc. Perhaps not strictly anthropomorphism, but wandering round the ball park.

Maybe we need to do that, or maybe we used to, and, as nature has been experienced (and understood) at a rapidly increasing distance, that’s dropped off. I notice in the Grampians most of the signs that used to be attached to such formations have been taken away. Too cheesey perhaps? Too 1950s?

This cold day I found myself thinking whether formations like the one above have ever had a name, especially a Jardwadjali or Djab wurrung name? Perhaps they are too common in the Grampians to matter in that way. Perhaps only the really remarkable sites/ features/ spectacles (of which there are more than ample) received that sort of attention.

Just going on a bit randomly, if I call this a bus stop, or a group of friends lining up for a mass selfie, am I betraying something about myself? And should I quit right now?

Perhaps I should marvel from a more elevated non-verbal perspective. That’s probably right. So much thrilling to see everywhere you look.

Equilibrium.
Pink heath, Victoria’s floral emblem. Just thought I’d note that. Flowering unseasonally on a sheer rock face.
Anything Mount Buff can do the Sundial range can do just as well.

A lot of tracks become water courses after rain: they’re cleared, they’re often lower, they’ve often been chosen because they at are the bottom of two inclines. Or, in New Zealand, because you won’t care or notice the difference.

This is a track on the Tongariro plateau.

Even when they’re raised on rocky ribs like this one they hold water.

Another one of those formations … hmmm The Artichoke, The Bag of Lollies, The Hand Grenade, The Transplanted Hair, The …

* * * * * * * *

The average annual rainfall on the eastern side of the Grampians is double that on the west. The next day we were thinking of a walk with Robert near where we were in the central Grampians. But the weather looked shocking, enough even to turn us back and barely worth a 90-minute drive from Horsham. However, he had an idea about a walk near Troopers Creek, and the further north we drove the more the weather improved. (‘Improved’. An unnecessary judgment right there.) The more the prospect of life-giving rain diminished. (Much better.) Can I say it turned out to be a lovely day? No I didn’t think so.

This track was a discovery: brand new and part of the very slowly evolving Grampians Peaks Walk, from Mt Zero, the northern tip, to Dunkeld in the south. There will be 100 km of new track as well as 60km of established trail and Parks Victoria thinks it will take 13 days.

The part of this track that Robert knew about, ‘Lower Waterfalls of Gar (Mt Difficult)’, had just been opened, brand new, and very carefully and thoroughly constructed: ‘Troopers Creek’ to Beehive Falls below Budjun Budjun (Briggs’ Bluff). ‘Troopers Creek’ has a very new and well appointed camp site now. I have thought, known really, that Troopers Creek is about 4 km south of this site and that the creek that runs through it is really Dead Bullock Creek, but this is more of that name quibbling business.

It did have waterfalls and they were wonderful, running enough to justify the naming process, and, to me, completely unknown. We didn’t do it all — it was a Sunday arvo stroll — but what we saw was compelling.

This rather ordinary photo was taken from the car as we headed down Roses Gap Rd towards Wartook. It all reminded me again of what I wrote about the Grampians in my remembrance of when we lived there.

Over Djibilara (Asses Ears) through Glenisla Crossing towards Billiwin at sunset from Reed Lookout.

Much of the Grampians out of the tourist swarm has a very particular and striking flavor. It resonates with something that is difficult to describe. It’s incredibly particulated but of a piece; it works; but it’s not you, or me anyway. Both fragile and resilient; scrubby but graceful; worn out but enduring; brimming with life but a lot of that life is crepuscular or nocturnal.

What a place. Really.

The Richest Place on Earth #7

Specimen Gully to Harcourt North

12 February, 2021. A wet cool morning which cleared up to mid 20s. 16.37km

We started at Specimen Gully in misty rain.

When I asked the taxi driver to take us to the memorial for the discovery of gold she was nonplussed. I thought it was everywhere, she said. But she did know where Specimen Gully Road was and we had no trouble finding the right place.

The plaque says:

The first gold from the Mount Alexander goldfields was discovered in this gully by Christopher John Peters on 20th July 1851.

Associated with him were John Worley, Robert Keen and George Robinson.

This cairn was the gift of R. Owen Owens and was unveiled by him on 10th October 1931.

Ah my goodness. It was a bit like the experience of seeing and reading Captain Cook’s actual journals.

Look at it. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Where gold was found 170 years, four months and nine days before this picture was taken. Every millimetre of it worked over. It might have been the quality of the morning but I found my skin tingling with the gravity of it all. Or something. I’m not sure I have suitable words because those on offer seem to be about the condition — affected, moved, touched, struck, stirred — rather than the cause.

Memorial stone, cairn, Heritage slate hut.

I told the story in the first of these blogs. Whatever version you find, it’s the same, even the same words. It goes:

‘On 20 July 1851 gold was found near present-day Castlemaine, Victoria (Mt Alexander Goldfields) at Specimen Gully in today’s Castlemaine suburb of Barker’s Creek. The gold was first found by Christopher Thomas Peters, a shepherd and hut-keeper on the Barker’s Creek, in the service of [Dr] William Barker. When the gold was shown in the men’s quarters Peters was ridiculed for finding fool’s gold, and the gold was thrown away. Barker did not want his workmen to abandon his sheep, but in August they did just that. John Worley, George Robinson and Robert Keen, also in the employ of Barker as shepherds and a bullock driver, immediately teamed with Peters in working the deposits by panning in Specimen Gully, which they did in relative privacy during the next month.

‘When Barker sacked them and ran them off for trespass, Worley, on behalf of the party “to prevent them getting in trouble”, mailed a letter to The Argus (Melbourne) dated 1 September 1851 announcing this new goldfield with the precise location of their workings. This letter was published on 8 September 1851. “With this obscure notice, rendered still more so by the journalist as ‘Western Port’, were ushered to the world the inexhaustible treasures of Mount Alexander”, also to become known as the Forest Creek diggings. Within a month there were about 8,000 diggers working the alluvial beds of the creeks near the present day town of Castlemaine, and particularly Forest Creek which runs through the suburb today known as Chewton where the first small township was established. By the end of the year there were about 25,000 on the field.’

But that’s not it, is it? Christopher Peters — Chris, were diminutives in vogue then? I think he has to be Christopher — what does he know about gold? Unlike Hiscock finding his reef at Buninyong he wasn’t prospecting, he was tending sheep. He might have seen a glint in some quartz in the dry gully, somewhere he could have been dozens of times before. Specimen Gully is quite pronounced and runs for hundreds of metres. It could easily have been pyrites, fool’s gold. It’s not till you isolate a piece, try to bend it and it snaps that you can be certain otherwise. He would not have been formally well educated, but he could well have had a deep and thorough informal education, enough to be conscious of the possibility that what he was looking at was gold, possibly one surprise among the many that he encountered every day in this foreign land.

But what would he have thought? I’m rich? Or, just as possibly, I’m in trouble. A retired fossicker who recently found a 2kg nugget near Ballarat didn’t sleep for four days after his find, not so much disturbed by excitement as just disturbed. His life wasn’t going to be as it was. Christopher, quartz in hand, talks to his mates as they sit around their bark hut. July. Almost certainly quite cold and possibly wet. Their fire would be particularly smokey, inside as well as out. They’d be so habituated to the smell that they wouldn’t be bothered trying to wash it out of their clothes. Did he have a cup of tea? I think he would have, but I’m not sure if he would have had the stomach for the damper and mutton that was on the table.

Would they argue? Is it, or isn’t it? Who knows? Who could know? Was it Christopher? You would have to imagine that he was the most invested in the idea. But of course it’s an issue. They’re earning a few shillings a month while having contact with more than one squatter who seems to be making a good fist, and money, out of the new life. They’re conscious of class distinction, but already it’s not like it is in England. Already Jack has ratcheted several steps up the social ladder at the same time as his master has descended. Struggle is a great leveller. You could change your circumstances, and the medium was formidably simple: money. Nothing else. Just money. But still they laugh at Peters and the improbability of it all.

I think they would have gone for a look, maybe that night with a lantern. They wouldn’t have been able to help themselves. Is there any more there? When will we find out? How would we find out? I am thinking that John Worley might have been the smarty of the group, at the same time the most sensitive and the most conscious of the moment and impact of their discovery. He wrote the letter. But I think this night he would have been holding the lamp while Christopher got his chisel out and poked his way into the stone with increasing vigour and less care about the accumulating pile of cobbled quartz. ‘See?’, he might say. ‘It’s still there. It’s still running.’ They go back to the hut but no one sleeps. They talk sporadically all night.

Next day Robert Keen turns up with his bullock dray to haul some timber for fence posts back to the homestead. They tell him. He’s a mate but older and more mature than the other three. They respect his opinion. ‘What do you think Robert?’ He thinks. ‘Let’s get some tools.’ And then, after chipping out some more stone which still has those sparkling veins in it, ‘I think we should show Barker. It’s his run.’

As they go up to the homestead the four of them are gripped by anxiety each expressing it in their own way, Keen’s barely decipherable. Dr Barker meets them on the veranda. They’re not invited inside. ‘What?’ he says. ‘Give me a look.’ He looks long enough to give himself time to think, and one of the things he thinks is, I am making a mistake by spending so much time looking. My reaction should have been crisp and decisive. I should have just thrown it away immediately. ‘Fool’s gold Peters. Don’t you know fool’s gold? It looks a bit like gold, but you don’t find gold here Peters. There’s no gold here. Not in the colonies.’ He can’t keep the piece of quartz because it’s sort of theirs, so he throws it away, but not extravagantly. He has to measure between a short contemptuous throw that allows them to pick the stone up off the veranda and take it away with them and a long powerful throw during which he runs the risk of both executing the throw poorly and expressing his concern and uncertainty about the situation. ‘Now get back to work. I don’t want to hear any more about it.’ It is important that there is just a hint of geniality in his instruction — thanks for letting me play in this interesting game — because otherwise they’ll know it really is serious.

They walk off, each now convinced, if not equally, that what they have shown him is indeed gold. Of course they wait till they are out of earshot — Barker has gone inside, but probably not far so he can see what they’re up to — but then Christopher says quietly to Keen, ‘Can you find us some more tools?’ Keen says, ‘Yes.’

The homestead is on the creek (‘Barker’s’) at Harcourt North about 6km, a difficult 6km, from the find which in addition is about a kilometre and a half off the main track. There would be no special reason to go there. The four of them get a month’s digging in before O’Giles, one of Barker’s trusties, is sent to check just what is going on. There have been stories, and Peters and Worley haven’t been spending as much time near the homestead as usual. When he finds what looks like a busy camp, O’Giles says nothing but next day returns with Barker and six other men.

and that’s where we were, looking at the skeleton of a cow on the other side of the road, in the middle of history.

* * * * * *

What a day this was.

We’re up on the Barker’s Creek hill looking across the Faraday valley and its orchards to Mount Alexander (hidden in cloud) which from now on we are going to call Leanganook because that’s its name, the walk is called the Leanganook Track and we’ve already been calling lots of other things ‘Mount Alexander’.

Take 2 minutes 49 seconds to look at this. Click.

We’re going to climb up the well-rehearsed tracks on Leanganook up the southern side, sidling along the western side to the top, down east and then north to get ourselves to Sutton Grange Road where Graham and I have dropped our car. This is quite simply a great day’s walking. All day.

From Specimen Gully you climb up over the top of the hill where someone has built a house with somewhere near the last word in commanding positions. It’s well considered and not gaudy. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo. There seems to be a rather nice small stone house on the same property which Chinese purchasers or lessees can read about in their own language (租金 $260/周 on 2017年10月, 距离市中心106.55公里).

At the bottom of that valley is the Calder Freeway which you have to get across and there is a very helpful underpass for that purpose. A lot of attention has been paid to wildlife by the people who designed and built the Calder, much fencing, some crossings (not so many). I hope it’s effective. From the dirt roads on the other side we saw a paddock bounding with kangaroos. I counted 98, Myrna 86: the story of our lives really. There was a nice wooden crawl option for creatures with claws to get through the tunnel. To Faraday.

I’m not sure you can talk about Faraday without talking about Lindsay Thompson.

Lindsay Thompson was for a time Deputy Premier and the longest-serving minister (24 years) in Victorian parliamentary history. His parents were both teachers, his father dying when he was two and he was raised in difficult circumstances. However, he got a scholarship to Caulfield Grammar where he eventually became school captain and dux. This might surprise those of us who worked in education during his tenure (12 years) as Minister when his main quality seemed to be ineffectuality. He had also served for three years during the Second World War which was three years more than many of ‘us’ had.

But in 1972, my first year of teaching, the entire population of Faraday School, a teacher and six school children (all female), were taken hostage by a man called Edwin John Eastwood who demanded a $1m ransom to release them. Thompson personally took the ransom money to the prearranged site in Woodend. However the teacher and children had escaped from the van in which they were locked before that was necessary. Notwithstanding, he received a bravery award. Less well remembered is that five years later, after Eastwood had been released from jail he again kidnapped a teacher and a group of students, this time at Wooreen in Gippsland. Mr Thompson flew to Gippsland, again intending to offer himself in exchange for the hostages. But before he could do so, Eastwood was arrested in a shoot-out with police. The bravery of his intentions was again publicly honoured.

Once you get out of the tunnel you’re in the paddocks which was, this day, delightful. Then a series of dirt and gravel roads as you work your way across the foothills to the mount.

The highest point on Leanganook is only 744m above sea level, and it rises only a few hundred metres above the surrounding land, the fertile orchards and vineyards of Harcourt and Sutton Grange.

We’ve very definitely left gold country and its clays and gravels. These are rich granitic soils, and shortly, up the hill, we will get to the tors which provide clear evidence of this.

But first we need to climb over a stile

and follow our way along this easement which includes a simply magnificent red gum as well as the beginnings of the tors.

This pic is included for its characteristic qualities. ‘Yeah I know that’s what the waymark says, but…’

And then just up through the granite. Everyone takes the same pictures but it doesn’t mean they’re the wrong ones.

There’s a biggish set of steps in the middle rear of this picture which gets you up quite quickly.

Ed’s seat (seen here being used by sketch recorder) is made out of fence railings originally intended to provide an enclosure/reserve for koalas. We have already noted way back near Creswick how effective such things are for keeping koalas in, here as elsewhere. But this granite platform provides a wonderful view due west to Mt Tarrangower and Maldon.

You will notice the cloud breaking up as it turned into a warm clear day. The sketcher was being watched at the time.

Stone photos. They just get bigger and more sculptural as you climb.

And the highlight, what whitefellas call Lang’s Lookout, but the Dja Dja Wurrung would have a much better name for it.

At the very moment Myrna took this photo her phone went ping. It was Dan. We had plans to walk somewhere near the edge of that horizon over the next two days, but Dan said no. It was going to be a hard lockdown for the next five days and we were to go home and await further instructions. So that’s pretty much exactly what we did.

But on our way down we saw something that was going to be our constant companion for the next 20kms: looking decidely wonky as it often did, here is a tiny portion of the remarkable Coliban channel.

Harcourt North to Sandhurst Reservoir

12 March, 2021. Mid 20s, mostly overcast. 21.87km

OK. That’s it really. Val and Maya dropped us off at Harcourt North and we followed the Coliban Channel for 20km to the Sandhurst Reservoir. And it’s a channel, so you wouldn’t expect much up and down would you? No, and that would be correct. But it’s a prodigious channel; it’s a remarkable channel; it’s a channel that makes so much possible. And I had never heard of it. And even after its company for a day and 20km, I was still finding it odd.

In this context why does it matter? For that we’ll turn back to ‘The Argus’ 1862 study of the goldfields:

One of the essential requisites in gold-mining is a constant supply of pure water. Whether the miner is simply a tub and cradle man, or a puddler, or a quartz-miner, the command of water all the year round is equally important. …Around Castlemaine it is no uncommon thing for the labours of the puddler and the tunneller to be suspended for four months in the year, for want of water. The Loddon ceased to flow above Newbridge for many months last year, and along its bed whole piles of washdirt were accumulated from the tunnels, only to be washed away in the first of the winter floods. … On Bendigo the want has been seriously felt for years, and, unfortunately, it has not been remedied by the formation of the Bendigo Waterworks Company, whose artificial lake, situated at the head of Kangaroo Flat, supplies sufficient water only for the domestic purposes of Sandhurst.

Unfortunately, the rivers that flow through those older fields are intermittent. Taking their rise in the Dividing Range, and flowing northwards towards the Murray, they carry down immense bodies of water in the winter; but their volume gradually diminishes as summer advances, until at last they lose themselves in the great plains south of the Murray, leaving dry channels to mark where rivers have been; or they resolve themselves into mere chains of waterholes, from which supplies may be drawn by the miners, but at an expense which exceeds the profit.

After giving consideration to artesian water, which would have the added advantage of providing a geological profile of the area where the bore was sunk, he refers to two major schemes which had been mooted, but focuses mostly on one — the one which will cost, initially, £254,000, about $62m today.

The Coliban water scheme has now been before the colony at intervals during the last seven or eight years. The simple proposition is this—water for sluicing purposes is much wanted in Fryer’s Creek district, around Castlemaine, and on Bendigo. …

It is proposed to meet that want by forming an immense reservoir near Malmsbury, at the point where the railway crosses the Coliban. Here would be stored a large portion of the storm-waters that are now wasted in the winter floods, and while the volume of the river itself would not be seriously diminished, a quantity of water would be retained sufficient to meet the requirements of the districts already named, and give employment to 6,000 or 8,000 miners. …

It is proposed to carry this supply to Sandhurst, by way of Elphinstone, or the Gap in the Mount Alexander range, known as Major’s Pass, and thence eastward of Mount Alexander, coming into the Bendigo Valley north of the Big Hill tunnel, in an open aqueduct of fifty miles long. …

The main questions are three—first, Is there a necessity for the work being done ? second, Can it be carried out? and third, Would it pay for itself? As regards the first question, I may say that I met with no one who doubted the utility of the plan. It is admitted that there are hundreds upon hundreds of acres of auriferous ground all along the line of the aqueduct not now worked for want of water. … Nor would the water be useful for mining alone. Whether carried through pipes, or in open channels, to the distributing reservoirs, the construction of a few filters, and the connexion of distributing pipes, would make it available for domestic use.

That the work could be constructed, and would secure the calculated supply, there is still less doubt. … That the supply of water would pay a very handsome profit to the state, seems to be equally clear; though I should be disposed to insist on that argument less strongly than on the more important one—the good which the scheme, if carried out, would do to the districts directly benefited, as well as the colony generally.

And so it came to pass. The Coliban was dammed at Malmsbury and 70km of gravity-fed channels took its water north. This scheme was surveyed and designed in 1863 by Irish engineer Joseph Brady who did all sorts of other clever things as well, and water flowed for the first time into Sandhurst Reservoir at Big Hill on the outskirts of Bendigo in 1877. Prodigious.

I haven’t forgotten about the Romans or that the Zaghouan aqueduct in Tunis, now about 2000 years old and lined with opus signinum, a rammed mixture of broken ceramics and lime and still completely water proof, runs for 90km and with some adjustments remains operating, nonetheless … prodigious. Most of Bendigo and Castlemaine’s water is still provided from this source. The Guidebook tells me that the whole Coliban system now includes 20 reservoirs and more than 500km of open channels. Prodigious.

It was this sort of morning: overcast, the sun taking the game up to the clouds over on the horizon. For 5km or so, open on this side, the channel sidling along hills on the other. Red gum country, suffused this morning with birdsong and the heady smell of eucalypt blossom.

The water, about 30-45cms deep, was belting along in the channel. I dropped in a leaf which seemed to go about three times our pace. If that’s right, a bit of water, let’s call it Reg, which left Malmsbury promptly at 9 would be at Bendigo in time for a late lunch. But as we proceeded it was clear that there was both dawdling along the dug and weedy sections, and wild acceleration down falls and sharply angled races. So Reg’s actual movements would be slightly indeterminate, and it might be better if the lunch was wrapped and left in the fridge.

The channel turns corners, sometimes quite sharply. Not all the corners had bracing like this, but it would be helpful to keep the walls together in a situation where the soil, the weather, the vegetation and both the substance and motion of the water would be conspiring to open cracks.

I was interested in the daunting quality — and quantity — of the maintenance process. Here for example we have blackberries climbing in (and, just as it happens, looking back the way we had come, a useful cross section of the walking experience along the maintenance road).

But, also completely by happenstance, looking back down the channel is a new section — remediation completed in 2019 of 2.7km at six different sites at a cost of $4.6m. Although there were only two significant leaks we noticed, there seemed to be ample opportunity for more renewal. This concrete is 60-70 years old and can’t be expected to last like the Roman efforts.

A lot of the channel sits on the ground in these concrete troughs, but a certain amount of it doesn’t.

Some of it runs over rock and some of it is just dug through through soil and clay, and I did wonder about wastage and whether or not it might not be better enclosed to reduce evaporative loss and to keep weeds and wildlife out. We did find the bloated carcass of a dead kangaroo bouncing up and down on the wall of a low weir 10km further along. But then I thought of the cost. The Romans enclosed the Zaghouan aqueduct with large panels of sandstone, but they did have the advantage of slaves.

It also runs through two tunnels.

At the first of these, the Wirth, 623m long, there is is a very nice place to sit, a table made out of dressed granite with an equally suitable bench.

As we had a morning cup of coffee there, four very cheery and active older women came down the hill towards us, going onto the very short list of people we saw on The Track.

From the top of the hill there were good views south. Leanganook was obviously visible, but either here or on the next climb I am sure I could see Mt Franklin in the far far far distance.

Three kilometres along you come to the next tunnel, Brennan’s, 453m long, and the track breaks up badly over the hill. At the top we encountered the five cyclists some of whom were desperate to get off The Track. When we got over the other side we could see why, a very degraded and difficult zig zag descent which would have been a real nuisance on a bike. They had to ride, or walk, their bikes, for another 8km to get to any bitumen but a lot of that ride should have been a pleasure along a flat dirt road. They were from Bendigo and had planned an interesting route roughly following the Goldfields Track but on quiet country roads rather than The Track itself for a three-day expedition to Ballarat.

A bit of excitement at Woman’s Gully, and shortly after at Cuneen’s Gully, taking about 50m out of the altitude.

The country had changed by now too, shifting back to stringy bark and box. We were moving back into gold country.

An entry, but not sure to where, or what.

We found the reservoir, well down it seemed despite the best efforts of the channel which was still streaming into it. We found our way around the fence and through a tangle of tracks back to where we hoped our car would be, just near several sets of spectacularly layed rubber at the gated entry to the reservoir. And there it was. Hoorah.

Sandhurst Reservoir to Bendigo Central

13 March, 2021. Mid 20s again but overcast and very muggy. 16.75km

If you’re still with us, thank you for your patience. But this is it. Last day. The splendid Val has dropped us back where we left the car yesterday at the entrance to Sandhurst Reservoir, and it’s a short-ish leg into Bendigo, and therefore The End. And the walk is okay, but as is often the case of transitions into suburbia it’s not the walk of the century.

We’d got up early again, and this is the blazing Bendigo dawn.

I am sitting having breakfast on the balcony outside our motel room listening to the roar of endless twin cab maxis surging up and down the Midland Highway as the tradies go to work.

Scott Morrison would be proud.

This is where we are walking, dirt roads through the heavily tracked bushland of Bendigo Regional Park traversed with a lot of water races and more organised channels feeding and drawing from the reservoir we’d just passed and others. Classic Bendigo bush really. A sense of struggle. The patches of Ironbark come and go.

We had just walked through Map 32 of 33 in the Guidebook so the end was nigh. But first we met this fossicker in Golden Gully who said he was just as intent on cleaning up the bush as he was in finding anything of value. He hadn’t found anything of value but knew someone in Ballarat who had.

Diamond Hill is a landmark on the way in from the south.

Apparently it was called Diamond Hill because of the shape of a quartz bed in its summit. This is what’s left of that. In fact this area has been MINED. Did I read that 11 mines were built into the sides of this hill? I think I did.

But this was a cup of tea stop and 20 or 30m from the ravaged summit was a platform of tailings more or less transformed into a nice place to sit and do some more Angela Williams (do it everywhere!) School of Sketching.

It is possible that the most interesting thing about this point was that the view, essentially north, east and west, was full of trees. Just a few buildings obtruded.

It was not always thus.

George Rowe, 1858. The End of the Rainbow, Golden Square, Bendigo

* * * * * *

A quick digression. Bendigo. Odd name? Sure. From 1853 until 1891 the official name for the town was Sandhurst, after the British Military Academy for goodness knows what reason. But the locals, some of them anyway, had been calling it Bendigo since very early days of white intrusion.

But why Bendigo?

While one source says most assertively that it was named after a miner whose name was Ben Digo (mmm well… yeees), the received version is that the name came from the nickname of a shepherd who was also a boxer. And that that nickname was derived from the nickname of a famous English boxer — and Methodist local preacher — William ‘Abednego’ Thompson (at left).

Ah me. Keep following. Note it wasn’t Tom Myers who was called ‘Bendigo’. It was the nickname he gave to one his shepherds, whose actual name we don’t even know, who had a hut on the creek — so ‘Bendigo’s’ Hut on what became Bendigo’s Creek. But apparently we do know that ‘the shepherd with the nickname of “Bendigo” later ‘shot through to California when news of the gold rushes there reached Australia’. He wasn’t even around to appreciate his eminence. He ‘shot through’. Wonderful. People used to do that. Should be more of it.

Perhaps ‘Abednego’s’ pugilistic qualities were such that he could walk unaffected through fire (but then, why not ‘Shadrach’ or ‘Meshach’?). However to get to the naming of a Victorian country town we’ve got to make that step, then proceed to the next step, then the next tenuous step, then leap forward still teetering, then … .

More than anything else, this story might be about the randomness of the naming process and the way any collection of syllables can be attached to anything by popular usage. ‘The Bendigo Advertiser’, first published in 1854, never called itself anything else. A plebiscite to finalise the matter was held 28 April 1891 and resolved very much in favour of ‘Bendigo’. But Catholic churches in the region are still overseen by the Bishop of Sandhurst.

Recorded uses of the terms ‘Bendigo’ (red) and Sandhurst’ (blue) in local newspapers: 1800-1950

* * * * * *

An eroded anticline

Bendigo sits on 38 parallel waves of rock. The ripples, rising in anticlines where most of the gold was found, are about 300m apart for nearly 12kms, roughly east-west. The longer line ridges, often cut on the surface by creek beds, and attendant gullies run for about 30kms north-south.

In 1851 alluvial gold was discovered in many places here, especially along the Bendigo Creek. The Bendigo fields, mined above then below ground for 153 years, have been the most prolific of the eastern Australian fields and second only to the Boulder/ Kalgoorlie fields in WA in all-time Australian productivity.

Steam-powered machinery for reef mining and its products was being set up as early as 1855. By 1861 the Sandhurst mining district had 41,000 people spread through a score of mining settlements.

‘By the early 1890s [after two booms and two busts] the town was untidy, disordered, brash and with conflicting land uses right in the heart of the city. The early ethnic mining groups were overlaid by new social divisions of wealth and power. A wider range of housing appeared during the 1870s and 80s. The pattern of segregation was often a product of topography. The elite found hill tops to build on and cottages were found in low-lying gullies.’ (From a study for a Civic Heritage Overlay.)

And here it is in 1886.

This substantial painting was done by James Edward Meadows for an exhibition in London extolling the successes of British colonialism. In a previous blog I queried Von Guérard’s depiction of Ballarat on the basis that he was in Germany at the time he painted it, but at least he had spent time in Australia. Meadows never left England.

But, you know. Good job. Rosalind Park with a mine head and a crusher planted in it and the rather immoderate Post Office are in the foreground. The Shamrock and the Town Hall are there, as is the Alexandra Fountain down in the bottom right hand corner. You could never argue that Bendigo doesn’t have some grand building.

The Shamrock Hotel
The Town Hall
Camp Hill (Government) Primary School

It looked like a prosperous gold town as we walked through its suburbs. Gentrification had been hard at work through the miners’ cottages however low-lying the gully in which they were located. But we found this house, ‘Derwenter’, in Belle Vue Road just around the corner from Val and Col’s.

I’d say late ’60s, early ’70s. Exterior of very plain concrete block that has weathered nicely, and I think if we went inside we would find an architectural style that had created an interesting flow between the opened-up living spaces. Completely unpretentious and I imagine a very pleasant place to live. But its distinctive feature is the way the house has been absorbed into this wonderful native garden, simply an extension of the bush we have just been walking through. The major colour palate of the whole is limited, but with a staggering range of variation on those major themes. It is tended, but not over-worked. It would manage the weather conditions without intervention much better than a garden full of exotics. I thought it was great. Perhaps this should be one of the iconic photos of the walk: how to live with nature.

The Guidebook — my now outdated version of it anyway — says at the Railway Station we would find a Goldfields Track Entry poster on the city side of the platforms.

Not on the city side; not on the Quarry Hill side. We couldn’t find it anyway. But nothing daunted.

From the start we had imagined that the walk really finished at Bendigo’s crossroads, the heartland, where Pall Mall, the extension of Macrae Street, a portion of the Midland Highway, meets View Street part of Mitchell Street named after the Major, leader of the first white intrusion through this part of the world. He and his cohort travelled — some would have walked — about 2,800km, and one day would have followed the next. You might think that he was also heroically going through ‘virgin territory’, ‘bush-bashing’ as we say today. But I have no doubt he would have spent quite some time following ancient roads, no waymarked posts, but clearly marked in their own ways if you were smart and sympathetic enough to be able to read them. Without being especially aware of it, we would have been too.

The GPS records, the ones which begin each chapter of these blogs, say we walked 234km in 12 days over four months. We were interrupted by Christmas and COVID, but that pace and distribution allowed us to savour what was on offer and to learn more about it: to say ‘Korweinguboora’, to look askance at the Red Knobs and puzzle over the pyrethrum daisy fields, to wonder what happened to Mount Franklin’s spring water, to get that big view north from Leanganook and, as though finding a landscape from a dream, having that arrival at Vaughan Springs. It was impossible not to think about the land, and its various forms of management and exploitation. It was also impossible not to marvel at the evidence of the frenzy that the prospect of finding gold had generated. Gold … whatever that’s for …

Now that they can’t travel overseas, a lot of people are discovering more about where they live, and we’re two of them. In so many ways, it was good, very good.

The Richest Place on Earth #6

Castlemaine

20th January, 2021

It’s a bit hard to know where the major entry to Castlemaine is because of the variety of creeks, gullies and ridges of which it is composed and the way, following the creeks, it meanders out to include Chewton, Campbell and Barkers Creek. But someone has determined that the place to put a statue signifying entry is at the junction of Hargraves and Forest Streets with its chief aspect east towards the Melbourne (‘Mount Alexander’) road.

People say there is a higher proportion per capita of a) Ph.Ds, b) book clubs, c) unemployed clowns (professional), d) letter writers to ‘The Age’, and e) former teacher unionists in Castlemaine’s population than (why limit it?) anywhere else on earth. And why cavil? That would surely make it an interesting place to live. And read it how you like, but I’m pretty sure that this statue is a Doctor of Philosophy with a hipster moustache and beard imparting wisdom to his adherents while at the same time ignoring the chap at left caught in quicksand and, fist clenched in frustration, about to go under.

Another thing that Castlemaine specialises in is local historians, so it is to them you should turn if you want a serious and complete account of the town and surrounds.

Suffice it to say that it too is on Dja Dja Wurrung country. Squatters had already selected a great deal of the land round here before gold was discovered in 1851. (See more about that in the next blog). Dr William Barker (see?) owned the run where this occurred and left his name behind for the creek which runs north-south through the town roughly parallel to the major street also named after him. Europeans originally called the area Forest Creek after the creek which runs roughly east-west, and broadly defines the richest alluvial gold fields which have ever been discovered.

We are looking north over Forest Creek in this painting by Edwin Stocqueler, ‘Castlemaine from Ten Foot Hill’ (1858). It is interesting to note the number of brick buildings already erected. These things happen fast. Photos from the time (see Golden Point, also on Forest Creek, far below) indicate a much more blasted landscape. A little later, and only just a little later, ten or 15 years later, Castlemaine had its share of crushing plants, engine houses, shops and more orderly roads.

1865. I think this might be looking west along Hargraves Street, but that could be way off.

It had become Mount Alexander, somewhat confusingly for our purposes here, because shortly we are going to be climbing over ‘Mt Alexander’ some distance away. But anyway this is where the Mt Alexander Road which begins in Melbourne quite close to where we live was headed. Then in 1854, the local Goldfields Commissioner, Captain William Wright, renamed it ‘Castlemaine’ in honour of his Irish uncle who was a Viscount and possibly good for a quid or at least some career advancement. By choice, you’d change it to something different wouldn’t you?

There were ‘8000 people on the creeks’ by 1852, possibly the town’s largest ever population (7,500 in 1880; 6,757 in 2016). A gaol had been built there by 1853, another presence which has remained continuous. More crucially, the Castlemaine Football Club was established in 1859, making it the second oldest football club in Australia and among the oldest in the world. Ron Barrassi Senior (another one for you Kurt) came in from Guildford to play, and it was Dusty Martin’s last club before the Bendigo Pioneers and Richmond.

As a place to live, Castlemaine has great charms. You can see why immigrants from Melbourne are pushing up its property prices.

* * * * * *

After arriving at Vaughan Springs by foot we wisely decided to rest instead of the planned day on The Track — just to have a look around, a driving look around.

We began the day at Pennyweight Flat cemetery just out of town, an experience which I found deeply moving. The information board says: ‘1852-1857. This site is a rare surviving example of a Gold Rush cemetery. Shortage of water, contaminated water, poor diet and frequent accidents took a heavy toll of those who flocked to the diggings in search of their fortune. Those children who accompanied their parents and babies born on the gold fields were particularly vulnerable to the harsh conditions. Between 1852-57 about 200 bodies, including children and babies, were buried here at Pennyweight Flat on the fringe of the Mount Alexander workings.’

Walking round through the grey box looking at the graves, some marked and some not, many with a contemporary toy near the headstone, provided an acute emotional sense of how things might have been — more than anywhere else on The Track I think. I was very glad we went there.

Our drive continued through Fryerstown where we found this splendid piece of industrial archeology. Its plaque, erected by the Cornish Association of Victoria and the Rowe family with Cornish antecedents, says, inter alia: ‘The Duke of Cornwall’ Engine House erected 1869 for the Australian United Gold Mining Co. This plaque commemorates the Cornish heritage of the Castlemaine area, the engineers and miners and their families who with their skill and labour developed Victorian industries and communities.’

Chimneys like this with their voracious appetites helped to eat the local forests. The ‘engines’ could be used for many things. Later in this blog there is a description of one of the most common, providing the motive force for stampers (crushers) which turned quartz into ‘particles as fine as flour’.

We moved on towards Vaughan Springs. I wanted a more leisurely look at it, and also to check where the outlet track went. On the way we drove past Red Knobs, the product of a mining process known as hydraulic sluicing.

High pressure jets of water blast away large areas of earth to wash it down to be run through a sluice box. It was Arthur Bradfield and his sons George and Ray (one of whom is pictured at left) who blasted most of this hill away in the 1950s before being stopped by the Council because they were getting too close to the road. Ray Bradfield, now a local historian, has said they ‘made wages at Red Knob.

We also visited the Vaughan cemetery where we found this wonderful sculpture.

‘Portal’, created by local artist Jessie Stanley, has been here since 2015.

The cemetery also has a

but it is not the more renowned Vaughan Chinese Cemetery which is more or less over the road. This, however, is an important area for understanding Chinese participation in the gold rushes.

In 1861 ‘The Argus’, one of the colony’s newspapers, commissioned an inquiry into the state of the goldfields. ‘Two questions occupying a considerable share of public attention in the colony are whether the older fields are showing signs of exhaustion; and the second relates to the social condition of the miners engaged upon them.’ This inquiry was conducted over many months and became the prompt for and precursor to a Royal Commission. The product, written in brisk and lively language by J. Wilson & McKinnon, 78 Collins St East, offers the sort of detailed and luminous account which only eye-witnessing can provide. In its discussion of ‘Chinese on the Goldfields’ this document editorialises briefly about intercultural relations: ‘The conclusion at which I have arrived—that these people are a most valuable addition to our labourers on the gold-fields—is shared by all who look at the Chinese question, as it develops itself in Victoria, apart from the prejudices of race and the undefined and ignorant ill-will that is occasionally found to exist between peoples and tribes even not so remote from each other as Saxons and Chinese.’

Some extracts from the report on this topic:

“Guildford [a few kilometres from Vaughan, current population: 333] has long been the main Chinese village in the colony, some five or six thousand Chinamen, and one Canton woman, the wife of a travelled shipwright of that city, having formed the population of the ‘Camp.’

‘In this valley there had been rich alluvial diggings, but it had been well worked out by European diggers before the advent of the Chinese. Here the Chinese drew together, and, in large associated bands, they introduced the system of paddocking or benching (at left), stripping the [already worked] soil, taking out the wash-dirt bodily, and then restoring the ground to something like its first condition.

It is understood that many of these men were brought in by capitalists of their own nation, under contract to work for small wages for a fixed period, thereby gaining their emancipation. This, probably, was the case, but whether bond or free, ‘John’ [Chinaman, for some reason] was alike frugal and saving when he was out of luck or in debt, and equally enterprising and liberal when in good fortune.

‘Rapidly the camp grew, in regular lines of streets, narrow and primitive, but highly populous and busy … In the days of its greatest glory, ‘the Camp’ had its permanent theatre and circus performers, and in every street its temples devoted to Joss were numerous. All the arts flourished in it—down to the making of alloyed gold—as they did at home. The restaurants, the tea-houses, the gambling saloons, the cobblers’ stalls, the tailors’ shops, were as they are in Canton; and the student of Chinese language and literature, manners and customs, politics and laws, might have studied and graduated here as well as in Pekin [Beijing] itself.

‘There were shops for literature and shops for art; there were scholars to write your letters and interpreters to read them; there were doctors, and perhaps quacks, with peculiar rules of practice and medicines to suit—surgeons of whom it could not be said they did ‘too muchee sawee.’ At this period of its history, ‘the Camp’ was the frequent resort of strangers, who rambled through it, amused at the strange contempt the Chinese seemed to entertain for domestic comfort or privacy; the open, eager, constant, childish delight they took in their own forms of gambling; the simplicity of their faith in the divining rods of Joss; and the quaintness of all their motions, proceedings, and notions, their drama, their music, their song, their dress, and their banners. 

‘Of late, however, ‘the Camp’ has been greatly shorn of its glories, and become but the semblance of what it was three years ago. Maryborough has drawn away a large portion of its inhabitants; Ballarat has possessed itself of its circus and theatre; and a thousand or two of the last who deserted Campbell’s Creek are now to be found on the old lead at McIvor [near Heathcote]. …

‘They have their own benevolent societies. To their relatives in distress they are kind, though to strangers of their own nation they show an apathy as peculiar to the race as that which they exhibit for their own sufferings and distresses. Of their honesty as diggers, in the observance of the regulations laid down by the authorities, I might quote numerous stories, as creditable to them as the oppressions practised upon them by miners of other nations are discreditable to the authors of those outrages.’

The religion of the Chinese diggers was conducted in ‘joss houses’, temples where ‘joss’, incense, was burnt. These seemed to attract the particular ire of European diggers and settlers. Twelve of these were built in Castlemaine.

At left is one which was built at Ten Foot Hill and in May 1908 was the subject of litigation.

The background: ‘Between 30 and 40 years ago the Chinese of Castlemaine built a Joss house on a portion of section 144, which building was still standing, though not in its pristine glory. It had been continually in the possession of the Chinese by themselves, by exercising acts of control, and by custodians and caretakers, and during the whole of that period there had been no cessation of possession on the part of the Chinese. It was not the only Joss house, as there was another one not far from it. The Joss house was the Chinese temple. The Chinese remained in undisturbed possession until seven or eight years ago. Mr Williams acquired, or professed to acquire, some sort of occupancy to the land on which the Joss house stood and proceeded to fence in about two acres, including the building.’

Mr Williams was Edward David Williams, businessman and politician, enriched from selling groceries in Lancefield and Ballarat, with extensive gold-mining investments at Castlemaine, Campbells Creek, Chewton and Fryerstown, had interests in dredging companies, was chairman of the Castlemaine mining board and — in 1908 — was Mayor of Castlemaine.

He himself failed to get rights to the land adjacent to his property on which the joss house stood, so he put in an application on behalf of his wife. Then a further substituted application was made to have the land put up for sale. It was advertised in the Government Gazette under the heading of ‘Land, Site of improvements by E. D. Williams’. Shortly thereafter his groom, William Noland, was observed removing bricks from the joss house (over two months, more than one thousand) which were used in building stables for the Williamses. Then Noland was seen digging up the flagstones at the entry to the temple and removing them in a cart belonging to Williams.

Williams then suggested informally to the Borough’s Surveyor and Sanitary Inspector, Egbert Lock, that he might think about making an inspection of the condition of the joss house at least partly because ‘There were bricks loose in the walls.’ Lock inspected the place and reported to the Council on 27th December (1907), recommending that it be condemned as unsafe and insanitary. The Council determined to have the structure removed or made habitable. ‘The minute book (produced) gives a correct version of what took place, and the minutes of the meeting were signed by the Mayor’, ie Williams.

Williams then proceeded to fence the whole of the property. Evidence was provided as follows.

‘Shortly after starting the fence Lee Pack [the representative of the Chinese owners] came to Williams and said, ‘ You fence in the Joss house? ” Mr Williams replied, “Yes, I have taken up the land as a residence area.” Lee Pack— “You take Joss house ?” Mr Williams— “No, I don’t want the old Joss house.” Lee Pack— “How we get in ?” Mr Williams— “I don’t want to interfere with you; I will put a gate there (in the north-west corner) for you.” Lee Pack—”No ; we want go in through main gate near stables like always.” Mr Williams—”No; I don’t want you to go through that way.” Mr Williams then erected a gate near the corner of Greenhill and Preshaw streets [which no longer meet], but never gave them the key as he only had one key. He altered the gate afterwards to a smaller size, and the key being left in the lock on one occasion disappeared. The gate had been locked ever since.

— Thanks to the ‘Mount Alexander Mail’ of 10 May 1908

Although the joss house is no longer there — of course, perhaps — I can’t tell you the outcome of the case. But I can tell you that Williams didn’t have long to enjoy the products of his larceny. He died early in the subsequent year.

* * * * * *

Pursuing our tour we decided we would like another look at Vaughan Springs. It does have an odd magnetic quality about it.

The weir — so small, so shallow — had become an impressionist painting. It was hot enough for Myrna to swim and for me to lie in the shade. And that’s where we began from ten days later when we came back to the Track.

Vaughan Springs to Castlemaine (the ‘Cry Joe’ or ‘Look out! Cops!’ Walk)

30 January 2021, mid 20s again. 21.14 km

A taxi took us from Castlemaine to Vaughan. People seem to like to know these things. It was early and slightly crisp for the fine exit up through various levels of the Loddon valley, a really nice two kilometres. Low sun does have its aesthetic attractions.

Almost all the country between Vaughan and Castlemaine has been powerfully influenced by mining one way or another, and if you want to see the consequences in all their various glories, this might just be the right leg of the Walk.

You get to the Chewton road and you’re looking at yet another one of those profoundly eroded gullies. At the top of the next rise you find a horseshoe-shaped hummock of earth which has once been an improbable dam.

At Deadman’s Flat/ Irishtown the diggers appear to have wanted to scrape all surface material off leaving this exposed bedrock with its remarkable patterns.

You couldn’t argue that this wasn’t sedimentary rock —at left in layers of mudstone and sandstone perhaps — with these strong colours. In real life the material in this photo is about 200mm from top to bottom. It extended just like this over 20 or 30 square metres. Assume the colours to be more vivid.

It was not all beauty. An alluvial pit, 10? 15? metres deep just a short distance further along had been turned into an informal rubbish dump.

And you can get sights like this another kilometre along just over the Campbell’s Creek Road …

… degraded soil, hosts of blackberries, poplars alive and dead, introduced weeds and grasses — all a bit sad really just there.

And then Fryerstown which once had a population of 15,000, a lolly shop, a boot factory (still there in form if not function) and, reflective of local priorities, 25 hotels. The population at the last census was 228.

Two places of interest. The Burke and Wills Mechanics Institute (still being used; the board leaning up against the wall was advertising some community activity which has slipped my mind). Burke and Wills though … Like tens of thousands of others, they certainly did travel all the way up the Mount Alexander Road, but in the end they made a profound mess of things. They must have made quite an impression on the area or at least had a good local spruiker. The largest memorial in Castlemaine in one of its most prominent positions is for the expedition but primarily for Burke, the dullard nong who made most of the bad decisions. Ah well. The elegant building on the right is the old court house, now available for rental should you wish via Air BnB.

I have considered using this pic as the motif for the whole walk. No such thing is possible of course; it was too various. But it would nonetheless be a candidate. Castlemaine was awash in agapanthi, the ‘love (agape) flower’. Maybe they survive dry climates, and are pest resistant, colourful and easy to grow … in fact, unsurprisingly, yes and yes yes yes, but they are also notably non-indigenous. In New Zealand aggas are classified as an ‘environmental weed’ and only vigorous action by associations of gardeners has stopped them being added to the National Pest Plant listing (no propagation, sale or planting). They come originally from Africa but in several countries, Australia included, they are described as having been ‘naturalised’. I wonder in that case where they stand with taking the pledge. Still and all, without aggas Castlemaine and environs would be mightily diminished.

A couple of kilometres out of Fryerstown and well off road we came across these two blokes. They were memorable simply for being there. In 234 kilometres we saw one man digging for worms (Nerrina), one man yabbying (Barkstead), one man fossicking (Golden Gully), four (short distance) walkers and five cyclists keen to find a way to get off The Track (Sedgwick), two serious day walkers (Poverty Gully Race), and these two. That’s it. In 12 days of walking. They were also memorable for being so well equipped, so nice, so interested in us and what we were doing and the fact that they gave us everything they had found that day: a belt buckle (which could also have been a shackle), a dolls comb (maybe), two buttons (old) and (they said, see Heathcote Pursuit’s comment) a musket ball with a sprue from its mould. We found the stick pin nearby ourselves. Varena (Lithuania), the mushroom capital of Europe. Tell me what that was doing there?

And then Spring Gully mine which operated for more than 80 years beginning in the early 1850s.

It announces itself (walls, diggings, collections of ashlared stone) a kilometre or so before you get into the thick of it. But there could be more ‘mine’ here than anywhere else on The Track. Here are bits of the massive mullock piles … today, his and hers.

This is the stone wall of the loading dock from which quartz was tipped into the stamping battery which would have been related to the four now decomposing massive blocks of wood in the foreground. Just nearby are the remnants of a fallen chimney, piles and piles of bricks stamped ‘Northcote’. There is a deep shaft 50 or so metres away with, like so many of them, a peppercorn tree growing in it. Dust mitigation is all I can find for a reason.

But how did these crushers produce gold? I find this very interesting, but I can understand why others mightn’t. If so, skip to the photo of Myrna sketching on top of The Monk. Otherwise this is the account to be found in the 1862 Argus study of the goldfields.

“In a quartz-mill the stone is reduced almost as fine as flour, by means of stamps. They are arranged in batteries of four, five, and six heads, driven by steam, the stamps being lifted by means of discs on a cam, so arranged as to make the stamps revolve. They work in iron boxes, with false moveable bottoms, the stone passing in on one side by a slide—fed by the weight of the stone, or by a feeder, whose ear detects, by the peculiar sound of the blow, when more quartz must be thrown in. On the other side of the box is fixed an iron grating, perforated with about one hundred and eighty holes to the square inch. The crushed quartz exits through this grating onto a ripple table, spread out in front, over which the whole of the crushed material passes, carried down by warm water let into the stamp-boxes. In the stamp-boxes a small quantity of mercury is introduced, and in grooves in the ripple-tables more quicksilver lies, into which the gold drops as it passes.

Abundance of quartz having been brought up, the work commences, and proceeds night and day, the men employed succeeding each other in shifts of twelve hours. A battery of twelve stamps can process from 150 to 200 tons of stone per week, according to the hardness of the material and the weight of the stamps. If the crushing is for a party of miners, one or more of their number will remain in the mill during the whole process of reduction and washing [wouldn’t they just], sometimes making his bed on the cover of the ripple-tables, to ensure that no product of their labour be removed. The ripples are cleaned of their quicksilver in the same way, and the copper-plates carefully washed down. The whole of the mercury having thus been collected and washed out from the quartz is taken from the stamp box.

The quicksilver is lifted in some pounds weight at a time, and placed in a clean porous chamois leather cloth. The ball it forms is squeezed with a muscular hand, and the thin fluid oozes in small white beads through the skin, falling into a bucket placed below. 

More quicksilver is added from time to time, and squeezed, until the whole has passed through, leaving in the cloth a heavy white mass, called the amalgam”, varying in size according to the quantity and richness of the stone crushed. The amalgam is the gold-coated mixture with quicksilver, and contains more or less of the precious metal, according as the gold is fine or coarse —that is, minutely disseminated through the stone, or occurring in it in large pieces or in small nuggets.

The amalgam is then covered in a retort, which is placed in a good charcoal fire, with the mouth of the pipe led into water. A few minutes of the heat suffices to drive the mercury from the gold in the form of a vapour, which passes through the pipe and is condensed in the water, leaving the red gold in the retort in a discoloured, strange-looking mass, which an easy process afterwards refines into the yellow gold so eagerly sought after in civilized life. There is nothing more to do but carry it to the scales.

The whole process is extremely interesting to a stranger, whose ears are not deafened by the heavy monotonous beat of the stamps, and who can watch with unshaken nerves the action of the hungry iron giants, whose cravings for more food are insatiable. There is no prettier picture to be found on the gold-fields than a neatly-arranged quartz-mill, nestled by its sheets of water, under the shelter of the evergreen forest, with its white steam escaping, and evidences of life and labour around it. 

Just for interest: you can touch mercury, in fact you can drink it and it will pass through your system. But if you smell it … ‘the inhalation is likely to produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal’.

We climbed up The Monk a few hundred metres off The Track to have lunch. I think it is probably Tarrangower looming over Maldon on the horizon to the far left. I was hoping that it was Mount Franklin, after a short walk easily visible to the south from here — it is quite a landmark — but a long way away, suggesting how far we had come. At the base of this climb were the first I noticed of the very black ironbarks which begin dominating the forests nearer to Bendigo.

And then Poverty Gully Race: a spectacle of some proportions. It’s (mostly) very deep — the trench is anyway, about 1.5 – 2m — and it just goes on and on, a formidable bit of hand cut engineering. As noted above we met two people here, it was Saturday arvo, and both of them commented what a wonderful walk it is along the bank. The Guidebook says: ‘It contours tortuously for 2km around gully heads with a precipitous drop on the north side. Lots of rough patches with tree roots abounding.’ Might have been a bad day, although I must say I was glad to get to the reservoir, now full of exotic plants, which signalled not too far to go to downtown Castlemaine, iced coffee and a lot of water, at Tog’s Place.

Big day. Great day.

Specimen Gully to Castlemaine

31 January 2021, cool morning and we’d finished by lunch time. 12.41km

A short day with one highlight to terminate this long long blog. But just before we leave Specimen Gully (early again), numerologists among you might be interested to note that yesterday’s walk was 21.14 km and today’s 12.41. No? Ok. Moving on then …

Just for convenience, we’re going backwards. Taxi out to Specimen Gully, from where we’ll start again in a fortnight’s time, walk back in to town where our car is. Not a long walk, just tidying up before going further north.

Ah the taxi. He’d been driving cabs here for a hundred years. As proof he was appropriately well-upholstered, possibly even to the point of it being a challenge to get in and out of the car. This was a 20 dollar ride from the middle of town and he didn’t know where we were going. Nor, not that it really mattered, why.

Specimen Gully … maaaaaaate. If you live in Castlemaine you’ve got to know about Specimen Gully. The next blog will explain why. Anyway we got there. Corner Specimen Gully Road and Swanton Track, walking through plantations of old pines — lovely in the morning. Then there’s this quite startling variation in the dirt road we’re on. The Guidebook: ‘There’s an extreme heavily rutted pitch’ which might be better expressed as ‘a heavily rutted extreme pitch’, and yes my word there is. It doesn’t go up vertically, but my goodness for a 100m or so it’s incredibly steep. I have no idea how they drive vehicles up there if they do.

There are tracks, vehicle tracks, everywhere through this neck of the woods. This is one of those areas near a biggish town that is heavily used for all sorts of purposes. It was Sunday morning and nearer town there were joggers and dog walkers, and twin cab maxis &c. (I’m not counting these as being on The Track. They were sort of ‘in town’.) But the first section was lovely — a stiff-ish climb and, once up, some views east across to Harcourt and Mount Alexander. Out of the pines we followed an easy gradient down past a number of Houses in the Bush to Golden Point

Richard Daintree, 1854, Golden Point on Forest Creek

I have said already that Forest Creek is the site of the richest alluvial gold diggings ever found and Golden Point (still about 8km from Castlemaine proper) was one of its richest sections. It doesn’t look like this any more, but it’s still pretty chewed up.

It was a lovely morning and we were ambling along not taking photos, so to some degree it’s hard to remember. I can recollect turning right up Welsh Street but missing the Welsh Village. A group of joggers came down that hill. Then we hooked up with a race for a while, sauntered down a gentle hill found a set of steps, looked up and there was …

the Garfield Wheel, or really not the wheel but its monumental housing. This is the wheel. Just, wow!

And below this is it being built with a better look at its remarkable flume.

The Mining Surveyor’s Report said, inter alia: ‘The Garfield Company have confined their operations to re-erecting their crushing plant adjacent to a new water wheel of 70 foot [22m] diameter in form rather like a large wheel of a bicycle. The water to be obtained from the V.W.S. race [fed by the Coliban channel via the Expedition Pass Reservoir, see the next blog] carried by a flume 790 feet [240m] long, on a sapling frame from 20 to 58 feet high will fill 220 wrought iron buckets … The wheel revolves (according to the force of water) in 45 to 55 seconds driving a 15-head battery from 70 to 86 falls per minute. This process affords employment to over 60 men.’

As the company’s profits, initially very substantial, declined, the English investors who had stood up the money in the first instance decided to put it elsewhere. But that wasn’t what did in the wheel. On windy days the sheer size of the wheel rendered it useless, and the resulting wear on the cog gearing caused it to be shut down in 1903 and dismantled in 1904, giving it a life of 16 years, which for mining apparatus mightn’t be too bad. They had to move the stampers twice during that time because of ground subsidence underneath them. That would make sense wouldn’t it.

Just the stone supports are left today, with their very own shall we say spiritual quality.

We passed the Manchester Reef mine with its horizontal entrance and the pines of Moonlite Flat before hooking up again with the path along Forest Creek — almost back in Castlemaine by this stage.

A little art on the way.

We had been watching the creek area getting more and more degraded as we got closer to town. But with a kilometre or two to go we noticed that the blackberries had been poisoned, then cleared out with a massive reveg planting program evident on both banks. Then we came to a Landcare sign saying how this program and the volunteers who do the work had been devoted to cleaning up this stretch of Forest Creek. Just before we got off the creek path to go into town, it looked like this.

What an estimable program Landcare is. It began in 1986 with a group of farmers near St Arnaud supported by Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell (Warracknabeal farmer, then President of the Victorian Farmers Federation, and Rahda’s mum) and the Victorian Government. The late Rick Farley and Phil Toyne were the main lobbyists for it to become a national program. Launching the national version of the program in 1989, Bob Hawke said: ‘The degradation of our environment is not simply a local problem, nor a problem for one state or another, nor for the Commonwealth alone. Rather, the damage being done to our environment is a problem for us all — and not just government — but for us individually and together.

I wonder if we could get a politician, any politician, to say that today, and not just say it but act on it.

Next time: granite tors, a climb, big views and yet another astonishing feat of engineering, before we wave from the Alexandra Fountain.

The Richest Place on Earth #5

The Sailors Creek Circuit

18 January 2021, mid 20s again. 14.14 km

A classic walk. No self-respecting guidebook to walks in Victoria would leave it out. Easily accessible entry, comfortable length, but you don’t have to do it all. There are three or four places to get off and go back to the Hepburn Springs-Daylesford Road or more directly into Hepburn Springs. It’s straightforward. You’re just following Sailors Creek which you can do either side. I think the educated preference is for the eastern side: you get higher and the views are longer. Interesting features. Well maintained. Depending where you start and how far you want to deviate from the track, there are three, four or five mineral springs, two of which are sure to be running. The end, going in our direction, is the gardens and terracing surrounding Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa and, if you’re so inclined and have made a booking, the pools, the baths and the attentions of the Bathhouse itself.

We have arrived at a place, a pot of gold swathed in warmly non-discriminatory rainbow colours, which now makes its living out of your comfort and pleasure.

What to say? Queen Victoria memorial fountain, cnr. Raglan and Howe Streets. Erected in 1902 via public subscription including proceeds from a well-attended performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. Made out of rubble and concrete it was in a bad state of disrepair by 1991 and so we are looking at a copy about 30 years old, the male caryatids looking determined if a little unhappy to support their dish, the women simply resigned to their lot. In the background a hotel with cast iron lace, a period feature. But from here we are within striking distance of dozens of food shops or, as one might say in Daylesford, providores, and ambitious restaurants — we are looking towards Kadota, but as well The Lake House, Frangos, the Farmer’s Arms, Sault, Larder, Bistrot Terroir, and on — as well as some less aspirational but still mostly satisfying. Because we are in Daylesford, and that’s what you have in Daylesford.

And in Daylesford (with Hepburn Springs, although you’d never say it out loud locally, the northern suburb) you also have a sybaritic range of health spas, therapy centres, sanitariums, meditative retreats, masseurs, cosmeticians, and manifold operations promising to both excite and relax your senses, often at the same time. And then there’s the antique shops, the markets, the Convent, the lake, the botanic gardens. Both scale and style are right. As Alla Wolf-Tasker (Ms. The Lake House) says in a recent advertising supplement: ‘There are no large brands here. This is a region of small local makers and growers. When you visit local establishments, it’s often the artist, the restaurateur, the winemaker, the brewer, the baker saying hello’, or in the case of the Himalaya Bakery and Cafe the person making the corned beef and salad roll you’re going to eat at Breakneck Gorge.

Let’s get moving. The day will have gone and you’ll still be sitting at the all-day breakfast place thinking about whether you’ll have another short macchiato with almond milk on the side.

Our motelier (Hepburn Springs Motor Inn: rooms 7.8, service 9.9; more on her below) had driven us back into Daylesford and dropped us at the Town Hall, another one of those best-foot-forward gold era buildings. We strolled down Raglan St and got back on the Track at Tipperary Springs.

This is a good example of how well this track is waymarked. In 210 km I can think of only two places where the waymarking left any uncertainty. Pretty remarkable, and another incentive to try your hand for at least bits of The Track.

Tipperary Spring. ‘ … the best spring in the district, next to Hepburn.’

Quite effervescent with high levels of total dissolved salts, bicarbonate, inorganic carbon, calcium, sodium, potassium and iron.

In the clearing at Tipperary Springs is this striking tree which I am going to designate E. viminalis. When I consult my copy of Eucalypts of the Mount Alexander Region (Slattery, B., Perkins and Silver, and highly recommended) I find that viminalis is Latin for ‘like a willow’ and refers in this case to the way the foliage weeps. They are sometimes called ribbon gums, and here there are a plethora of bark ribbons. I also find that the common name, Manna Gum, is derived from white nodules exuding from insect holes in the bark which are, or perhaps were in the past, relished by Aboriginal people — manna.

But whatever it is, it’s a superb tree.

Looking back over the creek: a characteristic view. Heavily forested bank on the other side, the creek, somnolent, finding its way through the rocks. I think I like this walk best in winter when the valley is often full of mist and rain. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sailors Creek running hard, although it can as a picture below illustrates.

This is what it’s like where we are.

Unless it’s like this …

… with a cloud of everlastings floating down the hill. It would be Egg and Bacon if it were closer to Spring.

But wherever you look, closely, there is the prospect of something quite exquisite.

There are several reminders of gold along the way. The shaft (at left) of the old Mistletoe Mine is about 2m square, heavily fenced off and housed in a decaying corrugated iron shed. But, along with its tailings and mullock, it’s there, caged, moodily brooding.

Closer to Bryce’s Flat all the signs of diggings begin to appear, but they pretty much stop there …

Flagstones crossing the creek at Bryce’s Flat. Here for aesthetic reasons only.

… before starting again at the party trick of this stage of the walk, The Blowhole.

The area around The Blowhole had been closed for three years before the Victorian LABOR GOVERNMENT provided $250,000 to stabilise the area and build a new set of stairs and viewing platform. Now it’s open again, and just so you know who’s who and what’s what about opening the repairs, MARY-ANNE THOMAS, LABOR MEMBER FOR MACEDON gets in the front of the ‘Ballarat Courier’s’ pic while the Parks Victoria folk who have probably done or at least supervised and had a part in designing the work melt into the background. But unless you’ve got a very keen eye for the detail of khaki jackets, I’m not sure you’ll recognise Mary-Anne when you see her next. You might in fact consider this a picture of low-key banditry taking a rather static selfie in the bush. Anyway an excellent job has been done (and thanks Mary-Anne, AND DAN (LABOR)).

So what’s The Blowhole?

Just a bit further north, Sailors Creek seems to break into Jim Crow Creek and Spring Creek. The Jim Crow gully (at right, Raintree’s photo, 1854, devastation) was very heavily worked for gold and a group of miners, European and Chinese, decided there must also be gold to be found a bit south and that there was an attractive opportunity for getting at a creek bed which they could dry out. Sailors Creek takes a big loop right at this point, so to divert the water, they blasted and dug a hole through a rocky spur to make a much more direct route for the creek. That dry loop was very intensively worked over without much profit leaving behind The Blowhole as something of an oddity in Victorian goldfields mining, something now just to exclaim over.

I have never seen anything remotely like the situation at left, but it was flood damage that shook up the rock strata and maybe left this memento.

If you look at the water in this photo, in which intrepid photographer taking photo of tree trunk jammed in Blowhole has scaled cliff face, you will note just how fast the creek was flowing.

A lot of walkers get off the track at The Blowhole, but the northern section of the walk repays investigation. The gully walls get steeper and much deeper which does make the walking harder but, just for example, you can poke your head up over the lip of the gully wall (here called a gorge) and have a look at the Hepburn Recreation Reserve which you otherwise might miss. That’s important. Despite a score of visits to Hepburn Springs I never knew it existed. We also found a metre long brown snake sunning itself on the path before rushing off to its next appointment, and the backside of a rash of grand designs along Main Road including a 5-Star hotel (‘Clifftop at Hepburn’. Marvellous). Golden Spring was dry and being repaired, but just nearby was this superb creature. Fabulous or what? In his or her absolute prime.

To finish the day you cross the creek and climb up through the Baths. And, after that big pump up in the intro, it was actually quite hard to find anywhere to eat: in Hepburn Springs/ Daylesford! Outrageous. It’s the COVID.

Hepburn Springs to Vaughan Springs

19 January 2021, began round 20, low 30s by the time we got there. About 28 or 29 km.

[This particular map is not very helpful, although it may indicate a state of mind. The battery in my phone and hence the GPS conked out at the Porcupine Ridge Road crossing. I began conking out shortly thereafter. We finished near the second ‘d’ in ‘Guildford’.]

It began at 5.45am which is well before the time I start functioning. Hours before. A long day was ahead. The guidebook’s distance is 28 km and that’s plenty, but we always seem to wander a bit beyond official distances. It was going to get hot as well, so good to get as much distance under your belt by lunch time as possible. Plus we needed our car at the other end because we were moving accommodation from Hepburn Springs to Castlemaine. I asked the excellent motelier at the HS Motor Lodge if she would consider following me to Vaughan Springs and then bring me back so we could make all that work, and she most obligingly agreed.

And so it was we both drove off before the sun rose. The road out of Hepburn takes you up a steep hill past a thick assortment of 4- and 5-star hotels clustered for easy access to the Baths before topping out at a lookout, Jackson’s Lookout. There was a Track waymark right at that point. We were going to start the morning with a climb up to a lookout. Eeeeeeeeeeee. Then the bitumen swirled up and down through the gullies before meeting up with the Midland Highway which because of its seniority in the road world tends to have had its ups and downs ironed out. We veered left of Mount Franklin through paddocks with early sun just slithering over them, the noise of the cars enough to disturb the herds of kangaroos. The Mount with its odd basin haircut of pines loomed as a shadow. By the time we got to Guildford I was starting to think, mmm this seems a very long way. After we turned right and had dodged around a bit to get to Vaughan I was pursing my lips and breathing deeply. Hmmm … it was going to be a big day. This was all new country for us and I hadn’t really got a feel for its contours and distances.

And then something strange happened. We’d got past the Chinese Cemetery at Vaughan and some confusing Track waymarking (for the mountain bikers who also use a modified version of the Track) and had arrived at Vaughan Springs, and as we passed under the rustic arches at its entrance and followed the curves of the drive I thought, I’ve been here before.

Exotic deciduous trees, rotunda, two mineral springs one working, a weird fenced area which turns out to be a (very short) race track, toilet block with slate facing, 1920s recreation reserve masonry with thick thick mortar joints and not much attention to symmetry or style, a weir on a river, (in my memory, a big river), a paddling pool at its edge with 2″ galv pipe around the sides to hang on to … and that black box right in the middle of the picture. Because I think in that black box there is a miniature train, which had carriages which you could ride on. And 65 years ago my wish to go for a ride – only in a short circle mind you – was denied. Were all those memories so precise and sharp because of a perceived injustice? Quite possibly.

Vaughan Springs eh! Once known as ‘The Junction’, once a Chinese market garden with rich alluvial soil carried by the Loddon which runs through it, once a weekend venue for hundreds and just occasionally several thousand day trippers. Once, ice creams, footraces, egg and spoon contests, beauty contests, sack races, market stalls, queues to swing into the weir on the rope. Bloody hell. Was that where we were going to end up today? How amazing. Just as much history as the gold. I found a shady tree to park the car under and climbed back in with my driver. On the way back we discovered that she had been a senior administrative assistant of an education program I had begun, and that this experience had influenced her decision to leave Hepburn shortly to go to work in a remote Aboriginal community. As Henry James says: ‘Really, universally, relations stop nowhere.’

The return trip didn’t seem much shorter, although the kangas had got friskier and seemed to have multiplied. We were walking at 7.20.

The entry to this part of the walk is wonderful: through this gate, downhill to the bridge spanning the upper levels of the creek gully, and then onto the tarmac of the roads and car parks of the Baths surrounded by carefully tended lawns and gardens. It was a bit early to be testing mineral water so we ignored the springs and found the Goldfields Track signage on the fence line of the reserve, the manicured calm before something a bit more unruly.

Up through the Locarno Gully (below, which has its own mineral spring) on a track with quite a generous grade for a gain of 130m or so in a kilometre.

This area was burnt in the 2019/2020 fires which must have terrified Hepburn Springs and Daylesford. So close. Robert Walls was one of the people who had his house saved at that time.

We dodged off onto the little spur road at the top of the hill and climbed the lookout — doing The Track properly you see, later in the day we may have had quite a different idea — but the promised views were negligible, treed out. You cross the Back Hepburn road and edge along the Dry Diggings forest on a dirt road with Mt Franklin (Lalgambook) visible ahead to the north. It becomes a feature of the walk as you sidle past it to the east and then gradually look at it receding further and further into the southern distance. That happens in a day and provides a sense of just how far you really are walking. But Golden Summers or what?

We were heading for that swathe of bush in front of us, the Elevated Plains (which is a place name) part of the Hepburn Regional Park and were immediately back in the gully hill gully hill of gold country and almost equally immediately found ourselves following Beehive Gully: shafts, water races, mullock heaps all over the place. But most prominent was this poster child for The Eroded Landscape, 10-15m deep and running like some mini-Grand Canyon for most of a kilometre, trees, sometimes huge, dangling on the edges with most of their roots exposed.

Not beautiful, but unquestionably a spectacle, the sort that primitive versions of mining leave behind. Sophisticated modern versions offer something different: the problems are more carefully disguised.

Out past the Chocolate Mill on the Midland Highway and then backwards a kilometre along its side to the landmark snazzy letterboxes at the junction with Sawpit Gully Road. We seemed to have gone so far: but, one-fifth of the way. However Sawpit Gully Road, a gently undulating gravel affair for 3 km and then a pleasant dirt road after that, provided a chance to make up some time as well as things to look at because this was the land of the grand design, Toorak dreamings transported to the rural setting.

This house, either number 1 or number 2, was the only modest dwelling we saw on Sawpit Gully Road. I checked the property pages and it looks a bit like if you want 20 hectares or some such you pay north of half a million, and if you want a house on that block appropriate to the context you will need to think about beginning at three times that much. And you’ll need a dam about as big as a lake, and quite possibly your very own earth-moving equipment. An hour and a half from Melbourne where the mother ships probably are, what are you thinking?

We’re looking over the top of one of these with Mt Franklin in the background. (Just incidentally you can see the change in aspect I mentioned earlier. We’re a little bit short of due east now.) And we’re walking along a ridge between the Middleton and Tarilta Creeks, both of which would flow about as voluminously — and regularly — as Sailors Creek.

You’ve drunk the water, now see the hill: what spell has Mount Franklin cast?

“People also ask: Is Mount Franklin water from Mount Franklin?”

“The water in Coca-Cola Amatil’s Mount Franklin doesn’t come from Mount Franklin, as the name implies. Coca-Cola actually sources its water from various springs across five different states, one of which is in Queensland, more than 1800km from Victoria’s Mount Franklin.” To which could be added (from an academic study): ‘While the water associated with “Mount Franklin” brand lives on under the ownership of Coca Cola Amatil and has become nationally iconic and incredibly profitable to the Coca Cola company, no water has been extracted from the original site [about 10km north at the junction of the Midland Hway with Limestone Track] for approximately 35 years. The “Mount Franklin” mineral spring is no more and the area has become an overgrown and forgotten eyesore on the side of the Midland Highway.’ Another study: ‘In the late 1980s a water bottling company purchased [the land this spring is on], put a bore down into a saline aquifer and destroyed the spring. This was environmental vandalism.’

On another day we climbed to the top of Mount Franklin and wandered round its cone and, sure enough, saw no signs of tapping either spring or other artesian water. Even so I’m not sure why you’d want it to come from Mount Franklin. What is it about this modest mountain and its surrounds?

The on-line ‘Goldfields Guide’ says: ‘A gorgeous and peaceful campground rests within the scenic crater of an extinct volcano at Mount Franklin. Bordered by conifer forest, the crater has been decorated with ornamental trees such as Silver Birch, White Poplar, Sycamore and Californian Redwoods. A large, central lawn area is surrounded by a ring of campsites with picnic tables and wood fire barbecues. A toilet block and water tank/tap is located close to the entrance of the campground.’ All true. I can vouch for that. But would that draw you? There were 40 or 50 people camping or picnicking when we were there. Perhaps seclusion.

This Guide also notes that: ‘Mount Franklin was created by a volcanic eruption about 470,000 years ago. The crater … is one of the deepest in the Central Highlands. Lava flow from Mount Franklin and other volcanoes in the area had buried the gold-bearing creeks that would become the “deep leads” sought out and excavated by gold miners.’ And so that’s what a ‘deep lead’ is. I had wondered.

It seems to have always had some fascination for Europeans. Squatters called it ‘Jim Crow Hill’ connecting it — and its nearby creek — somehow with the racial segregation laws of the United States. It became Mt Franklin in 1843 after Superintendant La Trobe climbed it with Sir John Franklin, then boss of white Tasmania. Its eastern side in particular became a mining site in the 1850s until 1870, when the crater was set aside as a recreation reserve surrounded by another substantial area reserved as State forest. In a story on endless repeat in the historical cycle, deals were done to excise two large areas of the reserve for farming. Another repeat: this generated a public outcry which strengthened preservation (till today) of the remaining reserve. But introduced animals — first farm animals, later rabbits — destroyed much of the indigenous land cover. Then in 1944 a bushfire destroyed most of the remnant native vegetation and a decision was made to replant with the exotic species which are all too evident today.

This has a fairly precise parallel with the treatment of the indigenous population, the Gunangara Gundidj clan of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Good evidence suggests that Lalgambook (‘smoking grounds’, suggesting immensely long contact) was an important cultural site and that frequent and large ceremonial gatherings took place there. How widely was that understood in 1840, … or today?

In 1840, the government took over Mount Franklin and the surrounding area for the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate Station. Initially there was to be an inner reserve of one square mile (258 hectares) on which ‘every effort was to be made to induce [the “protected” Aboriginal people] to engage in the pursuit of agriculture or other regular labour.’ This was within another area with a five-mile radius which was set up for the purposes of hunting which was explicitly anticipated to be temporary as the habits of diligent European labour took hold. The purpose of this, as with the three other protectorates established round the time was ‘to safeguard the natives from encroachments on their property, and from acts of cruelty, of oppression or injustice’, with a longer term goal of ‘civilising’ them. Ah, the irony, the irony.

Richard Daintree, 1858, Barkhut residences at Franklinford

And the customary sad story, rigid with inevitability, plays out. The hub of the protectorate was established at Larne-ne-barramul, ‘the place of the emu’, what is now called Franklinford just on the other side of the Midland Highway from the mountain. A homestead, church, school and several out buildings were constructed. One commentator thinks that ‘Franklinford provided a very important focus for the Dja Dja Wurrung during the 1840s where they received a measure of protection and rations, but they continued [as you might imagine, hindsight makes things so wonderfully clear] with their traditional cultural practices and semi-nomadic lifestyle as much as they could.’ From time to time there were at more than 200 Aborigines living at Franklinford, however, in 1850 when the protectorate was finally closed there were only 20-30 there. In the subsequent years only one family, pictured below, remained.

Richard Daintree, 1858, Franklingford

One of these dignified and composed people is Tommy Walker, the last Dja Dja Wurrung person at Franklinford who eventually walked off to Coranderrk.

Another sad story plays out via the man in charge, Assistant-Protector Edward Parker. He was appointed to this role from his home in London by people who were equally distanced, geographically and otherwise, from this reality. A history of his life and times (Holst, below) describes three phases of his identity:

  • vigorous but poorly informed idealism. An active campaigner against slavery, he trained to be a Methodist minister but violated the terms of his probation by marrying (albeit the daughter of a Congregational minister). After arrival in Australia he set up initially near Sunbury so he wasn’t too far from Melbourne and wrestled constantly with his employers about regulations, supplies, payment and the nature of his role. (Parker also spent time elbowing away Sievwright, another Assistant-Protector and former policeman, from pressing his attentions on his wife.)
  • learning about politics while fighting to set up and consolidate his operation. Among the endless other issues, the five squatters with adjoining ‘properties’ kept encroaching on the protectorate’s land or at least disputing its boundaries leading at times to violent altercations. Parker was slow to set up a school despite this being ‘of the highest priority’ (it began in 1849 and closed in 1864, a short life), but he was able to set up a semi-functional community. Two of his sons describe his relationship with his protectees as respect bordering on reverence. This is contested. He appears to have been scraping off quite a lot of money from the products of the protectorate (which included lime from the Franklin aquifer destroyed by Coca Cola) for his personal benefit. But …
  • he ended up a member of the Victorian Legislative Council, a magistrate, a fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria and the holder of a very extensive property once known as the Loddon Aboriginal Protectorate. In 1850 he was granted the pastoral lease for the land it occupied amounting to 62 square miles (16,000 hectares) as well as retention of its equipment, stores and stock. He occupied this land as his own for 25 years. In his will he described his occupation as ‘landholder’.

[To read more: Heather Holst (2008) ‘Save the People’: ES Parker at the Loddon Aboriginal Station Aboriginal History Vol 32]

A footnote: ‘On 26 May 2004 Susan Rankin, a Dja Dja Wurrung elder peacefully reoccupied crown land at Franklinford in central Victoria, calling her campsite the Going Home Camp. Rankin asked the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment to produce documents proving that the Crown has the right to occupy these lands. According to the 2 June 2004 ‘Daylesford Advocate’, local DSE officers admitted they “cannot produce these documents and doubt that such documents exist”.’

• • • • • • • •

After that long digression, back to the people puffing their way along the Track on an increasingly warm day. After crossing Porcupine Ridge Road we found ourselves in open forest busy with regrowth.

It would have provided a field day for identification of juvenile eucalypt leaves.

We were walking north through the southern section of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park at this stage. The area would be called Glenlyon even though we’re five or six kilometres from the town, like so many of these Central Highlands townlets, picturesque and attractive. We visited, really just for purposes of orientation, on the day 100mm of rain fell in a few hours. I didn’t know then that the town began its life as an experiment in Christian socialism. It’s better known these days for its wine.

Ruined hut, Brown’s Gully

Around the time we came to Brown’s Gully the signs of human intervention were becoming more pronounced, even to things like this, a pile of handily squared-off stone, in this case natural, in others the work of a chisel and a mallet. But these have been busy diggings.

Sebastopol Gully was not far ahead, like Forest Creek and Specimen Gully nearer Castlemaine, a very rich Mt Alexander digging. Also nearby is Italian Hill, Irish Flat and, perhaps as a necessary consequence, Fighting Gully. Claim jumping would be only one reason why altercations broke out in groups of men from all over the place tense with gold fever.

I wish I’d been more alert to this stretch of the walk. There was regular evidence of both vertical and horizontal mining, plenty of hills to climb just here, empty water races, heaps of tailings, eroded gullies. At one of the bigger digs, Tubal Cain mine, you find the old mine dam now full of reeds standing out from the rest of the landscape. (Tubal Cain, תּוּבַל קַיִן, descendant of the biblical Cain and, according to biblical record, the first blacksmith). I was too tired to chase up the other evidence of this venture.

The scenery changed quite regularly, and the Track allows 5-600 metres along (another) Sailor’s Gully Creek which was refreshingly cool and flat as well as being full of open shafts like this one.

The Guidebook says ‘you will find a long uphill section to Gurr Track with under two kms to go to Vaughan Springs’, … that would be approx 5mm less than two kms. That’s how it felt anyway.

It’s very hard to photograph ‘steep’ or ‘high’ so you’re just going to have to imagine it. But you might like to chafe your thighs a bit first, bash your feet around, stand on your tip toes in the sun and avoid any sort of liquid refreshment for a day or two. You’re just not as alert as you should be, more just one foot in front of the other. Even after we got onto Gurr’s Track there were things I should have been looking at that I didn’t see.

Plus there were quite a few false dawns in these last kilometres. I thought I could see the weir at Vaughan Springs several times before I was eventually walking across its wall. Long hot days can do that to you. But this too is some fabulous walk.

I got my head under this spring, the Lawson, and, ignoring its internal redemptive qualities, luxuriated in its bracing temperature. I got properly wet and thought, given that it is going to start in the mid-30s next day, we (meaning I) probably won’t want to walk the next 20kms into Castlemaine immediately. Not straight away. Not just then. We could just enjoy a day in another of these wonderfully interesting towns.

In the far distance under a tree is the small red Audi, unmolested and waiting. Just near the miniature train, just … well look, I should have been allowed … don’t you think, no but really Yeah I know I didn’t have any money but I was only six. Other kids were … not fair.

The Richest Place on Earth #4

Creswick to Blampied Road

11 December 2020, low-mid 20s and clear, a beautiful day. 19.01 kms

What a day! So many good ones, but this might have been one of the very best.

A very comfortable night at the Creswick Motel (highly recommended for those, like us, with unslaked addictions to country motels) before heading off just a little south of east, not necessarily the most obvious direction. Daylesford, the end of this stage is to the north, but we were going east to Mollongghip to make the most of the Creswick Regional Park before heading north into the Wombat Forest at Barkstead towards Rocklyn and Korweinguboora.

I’ve written all that just so I could type Mollongghip and Korweinguboora. My father used to occasionally say Korweinguboora (Ka-winjee-borer, he said; I wouldn’t know) simply for the pleasure of it. Very occasionally it would turn up on the news for its rainfall or degree of chill. But when via Google I investigate ‘How popular is the baby name Korweinguboora?’, I find not so much at the present time. But I do find that it is an Aboriginal word probably meaning ‘where the crane eats frogs’, and that would make perfect sense. We might even have seen that happening. On this walk we’ve walked through let’s say 15 places I’d heard of but had no idea where they were and 40 or 50 that I had never heard of. It has been a wonderful education in so many ways.

But we weren’t walking to Korweinguboora this day. Our destination was the corner of two roads … you can’t say in the middle of nowhere. People live there. There are two houses nearby, but let’s just say not much else. We were counting on the ever reliable Lord Rowland to find us, pick us up and bring us back for another night at the Creswick. To allay any distracting anxiety that was just what happened.

For the sake of interest we varied our route out of Creswick leaving via St George’s Lake Rd instead of along the creek as usual and the first thing we ran into was the heartland of Melbourne Uni’s Forestry School or, if you prefer, the School of Ecosystems and Forest Sciences of The University of Melbourne. This was established at Creswick, according to its long term Principal Bob Orr, because of ‘the damage done to this landscape during the gold rush era – with the land being dug up – that alerted people to the importance of managing the land and its resources in a responsible way.’ Excellent. Unstinting approval.

It turned out to be a hospital anyway.

1863. The Creswick Goldfields Hospital. Three wings surrounding a courtyard. A serious building set now, as you might imagine, in rather sumptuous arboreal surrounds. The Forestry School converted the 30-bed hospital into the School’s library in 1912 so the hospital idea is from the long rather than the short form of yesterday.

But one of its medical practitioners was Dr Robert Lindsay who arrived from Londonderry just one year after it opened. He and his wife Jane Williams, daughter of a Wesleyan missionary, had 10 children, half of whom became significant figures in Australia’s cultural topography: Percy, Lionel, Norman, Ruby and Daryl — artists and/ or writers. (I can only count eight children in this family photo. That would be often be considered enough. And you may have already noted the relative placement of man and woman.)

Norman (top right in the photo I’d say) — self-described ‘artist, etcher, sculptor, writer, art critic, novelist, cartoonist and amateur boxer’ — is probably the best known, and for The Magic Pudding as much as his intoxication with female flesh.

He wrote of his father: ‘He wears a tussore [stylishly coarse] silk coat and grey bell topper with a flowing puggaree [a thin muslin scarf of Sikh heritage worn for sun protection]. If I select a key word to describe his personality it would be the word ‘aplomb’. All his life he got into complicated situations, social, professional and domestic, and strolled out of them without ruffling a feather.’

Moving on to another version of culture, I wish to insert this photo here to recognise the critical importance played by the rider mower in the life of homo rusticus, and the number of times we saw this practice playing out. This was a special case because as he drove he was talking to a mate who couldn’t hear him. Plus there was a particular sort of tenacity about his style, a determination to get The Lot.

But we’re not out of Creswick yet.

Our first real destination was St George’s Lake which I’ve mentioned already. It has recently had its wall renewed and this is the result. We have rarely seen anyone anywhere on The Track, but in this case there was a dog walker nicely placed at the end of the concrete finger. We walked around the northern side of the lake which is always pleasant, and then we were off into the bush. Great walking this.

Four kms out of Creswick you come to this, a stile and bits of what has been quite a complex fence built by students from the Forestry School for a koala reserve. There’s another one of these near the top of Leanganook/ Mt Alexander which was just as successful. As a commentator says, after a week or so (of stocking the reserve) you could find plenty of koalas around here but anywhere except in the reserve. Anyone who has seen koalas climb would probably understand this.

This is an old track and carefully calibrated. I see diggers with wheelbarrows full of stuff just around the next corner on tracks like this. And I do. Their barrows have a small open metal wheel, no tyre of course, the pan is a worn wooden box which was once well made. They have an intent look on their face largely unconscious of their immediate surroundings, and they are going much faster than we do. These tracks wander because they are careful about staying close to the contour. Here’s an example. The track on the left is the track on the right negotiating its way round a gully. The Lerderderg Forest is full of tracks like this.

There actually hadn’t been much sign of diggings to this point, but then the country opens up a bit, the vegetation changes, you start crunching quartz under foot and the earthworks start appearing.

Down to the left from here are the cobbles and mullock heaps indicative of a busy field which pretty much stop as you get to Jackass Road. You have a choice now for a side trip to Eaton’s dam. There and back is not far, and it’s interesting and represents a formidable exertion of energy. I read somewhere that it had never held water — that would be a gold story too, and you can imagine it being the case with the sort of soil around here and the hand construction issues. You can’t always make a dam hold water; it takes a great deal of skill and knowledge. Anyway other sources say not only did it hold water …

but when it was breached (see above) in the 1930s, the consequential flow flooded Creswick.

It is also a good place for the first cup of tea.

A steady haul up the Wallaby Track which at this point is a heavily rutted dirt road, one of the very many in these forests. To the left are pine plantations and off to the right is Jackass Gully with a tributary of the Creswick Creek occasionally running through its crease.

And you come to a surprise. You’re not in the middle of nowhere, you’re scarcely out of town; but it doesn’t feel like that. So when you see this plaque tucked away under an elderly fruit tree, you can only wonder what could have been going on here.

And it is a surprise.

It is the site of the home of W. G. Spence who grew up here as a child, but seen here — in a rural version of the man in question — standing in the doorway. The plaque refers to his role as the Superintendent of the Creswick Presbyterian Sunday School but it is not for that that he is generally known.

He was aged eight at the time of of the Eureka Rebellion (1854), but it is claimed that it influenced him so significantly he made it his mission to organise mine workers into a union. Thus in 1874 Spence was among the mine-workers who formed the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria, an organisation which became the springboard for the real foundations of Australian unionism. After leading the merger with similar unions in the other Australian colonies to form the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Australasia, he became the first president of the national Shearers’ Union which established 85 per cent of Australian shearing sheds as ‘closed shops’, accessible only to members.

He led the amalgamation of the miners, shearers and rural workers unions which produced the Australian Workers’ Union in 1894, remaining a senior office bearer until 1917 (as well as a federal parliamentarian from Federation until 1917). This was in the context of a collapse of the Australian (and world) economies in 1891 coupled with a massive attack on organised labour using the weapons of law and imprisonment. Charges laid included sedition, ‘unlawful conspiracy and inciting riots’. He must have had a backbone of steel and a (Presbyterian?) sense of purpose. None of which has answered the question, what were he and his family doing just here? Answer: he had a family that was looking for gold, and just a few hundred metres from the cottage.

From Spence’s cottage we turned right instead of left as we often do. New country for us, which opens into regrowth stringy bark forest with longer views north to pasture and in time a grand design: enormous dam with island, ducks, swans, a range of sitteries with differing vantage points mainly east, painted wooden fence (for the horses, very expensive and a lot of upkeep), stables. Almost certainly fabulous, but what do you do when you go there? A glass of first quality white wine at each sittery perhaps? But that’s in the evenings. Endless work perhaps, in the garden/ orchard/ vineyard/ olive grove? Or maybe inside on the computer wishing you had a better internet connection.

We saw quite a few of the these, including a whole long road’s worth which we will come to … but when the project is complete, when the dog has caught the car, what then? Try the beach?

We on the other hand were free as the breeze wandering down … country lanes we could say, but dirt roads assuming at least equivalent charm, between banks of everlastings and phalaris that had seeded from the pasture on the margins of the forest, herds of Angus to our left, hosts of crimson rosellas and carolling maggies to our right.

This House in the Bush (below) was a special case. You don’t often see such high order tree houses, actually constructed round the trees rather than by or in them. As well as somewhere to stick the kids this one might be for the evening glass of white wine. Might be. Probably not. Among other things I’m thinking of the mossies.

And then looking north over towards Newlyn and Scrub Hill a massive paddock of … what?

Cut flowers? No. Another sort of cash crop. Something to stop the mossies. These are Pyrethrum daisies.

‘The flowers are pulverized and the active components, called pyrethrins, contained in the seed cases, are extracted. This is applied as a suspension in water or oil, or as a powder. Pyrethrins attack the nervous systems of all insects, and inhibit female mosquitoes from biting. When present in amounts less than those fatal to insects, they still appear to have an insect repellent effect. They are harmful to fish [and cats], but are far less toxic to mammals and birds than many synthetic insecticides. They are not persistent, being biodegradable and decompose easily on exposure to light. They are considered to be among the safest insecticides for use around food.’

All news to me. There were a dozen or more fields of this scale.

This was one sign that we had moved from the sedimentary gold country to the startlingly rich volcanic soils of Dean and surrounds — spuds just here — and also that we were on a patch of 10-12 kms walking between paddocks, something I’d expected a great deal more of.

And pretty pleasant walking …

On our right heading north up the Dean-Newlyn Road were crowds of ibis and what I think were herons working over a swampy field (more correctly, I discover, a swamp), probably eating frogs! To the left hundreds, maybe a thousand choughs foraging in a crop. Myers Road offered an exhibition of the range of options for damming dry country, and we arrived at our destination, unexpectedly denoted thus.

Blampied Road to Sailors Falls

12 December 2020, another beautiful day. 24.76 kms

Next morning our hostess from the Creswick Motel drove us back to the exact spot we’d left the night before. When we say doing it properly that is what we mean. 200m down the road was this study in symmetry and pattern, a most beautiful thing.

Quite soon the Track veers off onto a dirt 4WD track full of steep angles. Off to each side Houses in The Bush began to appear through the trees. At the very modest township of Mollongghip, where ‘it snows most years’, it finally turns north beginning the long stages through the Wombat Forest.

It’s a strange stretch of landscape, apparently lacking in complexity but sometimes striking if not beautiful.

This is looking towards the sun mid-morning: absolutely motionless grey pool (it had rained a few days before, I’m glad to say there were several large pools full of tadpoles), silver flicker from the swaying of the bracken intersected by the black verticals of the young trees, almost but not regular. You turn around and the gingerbread and caramel browns and sprinkles of green re-appear. But the tree growth is still comparatively regular, and the understorey sparse. For kilometres burning off, seemingly so unnecessary, had left all the trunks blackened to a metre or two.

People keep tidying up the Wombat Forest. Or cutting it down. The reason it looks like this is because it is almost all regrowth.

This stretch of The Track is known as the Andersons’ Tramway Walk.

John, James and William Anderson left Scotland in June 1851 taking advantage of assisted passages for agricultural labourers and country tradesmen. While they landed at Adelaide they quite soon joined the rush for gold in Victoria. They dug at Castlemaine, Mt Korong and Bendigo and, it seems, made a good deal of money. With this capital they retired to Collingwood, a suburb of Melbourne, and set up as building contractors.

Their mother Sarah arrived in 1856 with her three younger sons Thomas, Robert and David. The older brothers had moved to Dean (through which in this story we have just walked) abandoning gold digging for timber milling, a new enterprise to supply the mining and building industries of Ballarat. Within 10 years the Andersons became the biggest saw millers in the Wombat/ Bullarook Forest with mills at Dean, Barkstead and Adekate Creek (just three of the 38 timber mills in the Wombat Forest in the late 1860s). By 1866 they had constructed 12 km of timber tramway with numerous bridges, cuttings and culverts at a cost of £9 000 and employed 60 men building tramways and felling timber in the forest and at the mill.

They built the tramway because they had stripped all the timber from Dean and its surrounds. The tramway itself was no small thing: the rails were laid on sleepers, deep cuttings, bridges. It was wide enough for two horses abreast to pull the wagons laden with logs. These horses were eventually supplanted by steam locomotives. At its furthest extent it ran from Musk Vale to Barkstead, 23 km. Below, a bit of what is left that we followed for a time.

Gib Wettenhall takes up the story:

All good things come to an end. No sooner had [the Anderson brothers] secured the two specially commissioned steam locomotives from a Ballarat foundry, pulling 3-4 train trips of logs into the Barkstead mill, day in, day out, than – surprise, surprise – the trees within their license area ran out, a mere 15 years since their start-up sawpit at Dean. 

So what did the Andersons do? They brought on a bush war, encroaching on the licensed territory of two other powerful sawmillers, Thomas Crowley and Patrick Fitzpatrick. This was to prove a fatal mistake. Crowley and Fitzpatrick had mates in the Victorian Parliament and they complained that the Andersons were ‘ravaging’ their forest. So, in 1879, the Andersons lost both their sawmill and tramway licenses and were forced to abandon Barkstead.

Or more correctly to shift their operations to Smeaton where they had established an equally ambitious flour mill still very much in evidence today.

In the interests of full disclosure, it is noted that one of these environmental vandals, probably David, is the great-great grandfather of my children.

But we were slow walking through here because the blood descendant of the Andersons kept finding things to look at on the ground: often tiny, various, remarkable.

The Common Fringed Lily, and, once we started noticing them, as well as being superb they were common.

This bloke and his dog get a run because he is one of the five people we saw on or near the track in more than 200 km. You probably can’t see him, but he’s over on the edge of Mullens Dam at what he called Barkstead and what the map calls Rocklyn with a yabby net cleaning out his traps. He also has a bucket half full of yabbies which he is ‘going to go straight through’.

Wombat Station, and a cup of tea. You can get here by driving along Rocklyn Road; I can’t imagine traffic would be heavy. The only sign of the town that used to be here (more than a thousand people at its peak), Wombat, is a culvert and a flat patch of land where a railway station once was. This — along with Broomfield, Allendale, Newlyn, Rocklyn, (Wombat), Leonard, Sailors Falls and Woodburn — was once a station on the Ballarat to Daylesford line. Now no more; now looking like this a short distance from the rotunda (an initiative of the Goldfields Track Association).

We follow the empty line for 5 or 6 km marveling at the feat of construction. Consider how many shovels full of earth and how many blows of a pickaxe to break rock it would have taken to make this. This is just one of the cuttings and not the deepest; one is 80m deep. And for every cutting there is a fill.

It might have been the time of day but I had quite a strong sense (confirmed later by a closer look at the map) that we were climbing, if only gently, most of the way to White Point Track where we got off the old rail line. But that was offset by a flurry of eight Monarch butterflies that we raised at the very beginning of this section of the track and which accompanied us for several kilometres, stopping when we did, getting going again when we did. Engrossing.

I was ready to get to our destination that night: Sailors Falls Winery, which makes fine wine — and should be patronised — but also has very pleasant accommodation.

I had spoken to Margaret McDonald, our host, about some dinner (yes, excellent wood-fired pizza) and breakfast (yes, brilliant range of exactly what we might want). We slept soundly in our neo-Tuscan villa.

Sailors Falls Winery to Daylesford

13 December 2020, same weather again. 11.23 kms

One reason Margaret and her husband Rob had been so good to us was that they were enthusiastic walkers themselves. They had walked in all sorts of parts of the world — Nepal and Peru suggested they had good legs — as well as having done the Goldfields Track themselves. ‘Over a year. A bit at a time. In a group. Mainly to enjoy the lunches.’ They’re the bits I remember. But after slightly baffling me with directions about how to get to the Falls and back onto the Track from here, she very generously offered to come with us and show us the way. We discovered without thinking too much about it that we had friends in common.

Somewhere tucked away under this foliage are the Sailors Falls, perhaps Fall this day. Later when we walking along the creek that feeds the falls I checked the flow in at about a litre a minute and I would say it was about that which was coming over the rocks.

But at the base of the falls area was this (at left) — the very first mineral spring we encountered. That was significant because we would come across plenty more. This area of Victoria has 80 percent of all Australia’s mineral springs. I like to check, and the water tasted as rusty as it looks. Strong on iron this one.

Sailors Creek valley was an infestation of weeds. Bad bad bad bad bad.

Blackberries mainly, but broom, some gorse, Scotch thistles plus plus plus. Blackberries can grow a centimetre a day and besides their ferocious thorns, they often establish a net or a web of branches which makes it impossible for native animals to follow their tracks. We saw a Landcare attack on them along Forest Creek outside Castlemaine which had been most successful so something can be done about them. But here, no good I’m afraid. In fact, bad.

It wasn’t all like that. There was just as much stringybark forest with very little ground cover. We walked along rutted 4WD tracks and near Musk Vale one surprise popped out. Her grin suggested that she hadn’t seen anyone else on the track that day either.

Then an interregnum.


We just stopped in the middle of the path and … ah … there was … ah, a dance class. Thursday. 11 o’clock. It’s a rule. Stop what you’re doing and dance. I think this might be the first time a participant in an African dance class has actually been on The Goldfields Track or, rather, that anyone on The Goldfields Track has participated in an African dance class. I mean, on the actual track. On the … Certainly the first time Melbourne Djembe has had a participant actually on the track.

I was, of course, full of admiration demonstrating this by finding a place under a shady tree to lie down. As I did so my phone rang. Don’t worry. I’m in it. I’m part of the digital world too. But it was our host from the Winery, Margaret’s husband Rob, and as soon as he said his name it all flooded back. We had been close colleagues once 35 years ago. And he had 30 minutes of fascinating stories to tell me and, in time I hope, much much more. The thrill of the unexpected. I thought it was great. And then the dance class finished.

The last few kilometres into Daylesford are not the best part of the walk, not till you get out of the blackberries anyway which is about when you get to Sutton Spring. You’re out of the woods there, onto the slate pavement, and the tamed world.

Two boys named Sutton sluicing for gold (you can’t escape this round here, there’s always a connection) found this spring in 1890. The info board says, ‘In 1900 a trench was dug into the sandstone’ — we are most certainly back in gold country — ‘and steps cut. A horizontal pipe was driven into the “eye” of the spring which remains in use today.’ I’ve often wondered how they do that. It mightn’t always work.

Anyway Sutton Spring, a) quite sulphuric, and b) the location of a long and very pleasant conversation with a young-middle-aged-ish European-Australian couple who looked incredibly fit and happy but who couldn’t quite figure out what we’d been up to and why.

Daylesford was just up a long hill. There we could get a vanilla thick shake, a cup of English Breakfast and a taxi back to Creswick where we would find our car. Just a bit short of half way.

Next time: a walk we’ve done quite a few times, but it felt different. The circumambulation of Daylesford and Hepburn Springs following Sailors Creek. Always good. Always better than you think it’s going to be. And then the glories of finding the way to the Mount Alexander diggings and Castlemaine. A strong and fascinating section.

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 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.

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 …