The tiny state of Victoria is made for day trippers. In one day from Melbourne, you could drive part of the Great Ocean Road, sip sparkling wine in the Yarra Valley, hike among the wildflowers in the Dandenongs, hit the beach on the Mornington Peninsula, quaff Pinot Noir in Red Hill, or explore Australia’s gold mining history in the Goldfields.
On the weekend, I did the latter. David & I drove from Melbourne to Ballarat, one of the largest towns in the Goldfields. We spent about an hour in Ballarat before heading to Sovereign Hill, an open-air museum celebrating Victoria’s Gold Rush heritage.
The Gold Rush
Australia’s Gold Rush played a fundamental role in shaping Australia’s history, multicultural population and our national relationship with democracy.
The Gold Rush made Melbourne the richest city in the world and changed Australia’s convict colonies into multicultural cities. Moving from a predominately prisoner population to one made up of free settlers was an important step in the development of Australian cities.
In 1851, prospectors struck gold in NSW and Victoria, sparking Australia’s first gold rush.
After the discovery of gold in 1851 at Poverty Point, hopeful diggers swarmed what is today’s Goldfields region. The town of Ballarat sprung up virtually overnight and within weeks, had a population of 10,000.
In just twenty years, from 1851-1871, Australia’s population tripled from 430,000 to 1.7 million. Immigrants came from the UK, Europe, the United States and China.
Sovereign Hill is a historically-recreated village, based on Ballarat in the first decade of the Victorian Gold Rush. The open-air museum is one of Victoria’s most popular attractions.
To celebrate Christmas in July, fake snow fluttered through Sovereign Hill during the day and after dark, the town lit up for the Winter Wonderlights show.
Sovereign Hill comes alive with the fully-costumed actors strolling the streets, staying in character as they interact with visitors and answer questions about the Gold Rush.
We didn’t make it to the gold melting demonstration and we decided we were a bit big to be making gingerbread, but we did watch a 19th-century police officer show off his weapons.
He brought out a club, a sword, a rifle and, to finish the show with a bang (literally), a musket. During the demonstration, he explained how Australia’s original police force was corrupt and how it eventually led to the Eureka Rebellion. To drum up extra cash, the government made a law that every person over the age of 12 – digger or not – must have a Gold Mining License on them at all times. If caught, the police officer made half the profit, which was around 2.5 pounds.
At the time, the annual salary for an officer was 22 pounds, so with a bit of creative enforcing, issuing fines was a lucrative business. Unfortunately, officers started tearing up digger’s licenses before their eyes and fining them anyway. Life in Australia was tough enough as it was, and the diggers went from being a bit pissed off to absolutely ropeable pretty quickly. Before they knew it, the officers had a full-blown rebellion on their hands.
We didn’t make it to any other demonstrations but had fun exploring the historical village. One section is full of diggers’ houses, some of which are open for some nosing around. I couldn’t believe how tiny they were!
Ballarat was freezing on Saturday, which got us wondering how people stayed warm during Victoria’s bitter winters in the 19th century. We concluded that they must have drunk a lot, because our many layers weren’t doing all that much to keep out the cold! Diggers were also probably made of tougher stuff.
We ate at the “New York Bakery” in the afternoon, keen to get out of the cold for the last hour before the light show. David’s gnocchi was yummy, my salmon burger was okay. For what is essentially a theme park, I was impressed by the menu and the decency of the food.
I missed White Night this year (on purpose, at the last minute). I was excited to see Melbourne’s buildings painted in crazy patterns with bright lights, but the insane crowds put me off.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because Winter Wonderlights is basically a cuter, smaller version of White Night. The main street’s 19th century buildings are lit up in beautiful, crazy Christmas patterns, which change every few minutes.
Sovereign Hill wasn’t on my radar before this weekend and David & I were the only child-free couple in the place, but I’m really glad I went! Wandering through Sovereign Hill was way more fun than shuffling through a museum and the light show in the evening was a sweet way to finish the day.
If you do have kids, I’d seriously recommend spending the better part of the day at Sovereign Hill. Australia’s history is fascinating, not that you’d know it from the way it’s taught in school. I learned about the Gold Rush in primary school and all I retained was the phrase “Eureka!” and the conviction that panning for gold seemed like a dull way to spend a day.
Sovereign Hill makes this fundamental part of Australia’s history come to life, and I wish I’d been able to visit as a kid.
It was an easy day trip from Melbourne – we left home at midday and were back in Melbourne at around 7:30 pm. For more information about Sovereign Hill, visit their website. The Winter Wonderlights celebration ends on Sunday 12 July, so get there this weekend if you can!