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.