Aussie gold, the first Chinese takeaway

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
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Trip End Oct 22, 2004


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Thursday, June 24, 2004

05/05/04

We bid a semi-fond farewell to the Shipwreck Coast and headed due north-east along the Hopkins Highway. We were heading for Ballarat, Victoria's largest inland city, for a spot of gold-mining, and in our own little gold rush we overlooked the fuel gauge and rolled into town on the last thimble of petrol.

We secured a powered site at the award winning Goldfields Caravan Park and shot straight back out for a day at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat's town within a town. Apparently it was a full-size working gold-mining town complete with actors in costume, built on the site of an old mine, and at $29 each (£12) it had better be good.

It was better than good.

To enter the town you'd walk through a small museum that set the scene of the times and then through a cosmic-portal loosely disguised as an emergency exit where you were literally transported back in time as you crossed a historical threshold into a nineteenth-century living museum.

The first area was the diggings and had a bubbling brook where tourists and schoolchildren panned for (real) gold using the tools of the era and around the edges sat various businesses and a couple of horses walked around in circles attached to a wooden wheel providing horsepower for the early mining equipment.

We peered into a tent and a little old lady in full pinafored regalia was busying herself making lunch, and as we stood there watching another guy in costume walked by and asked when lunch would be ready. They then played out a little scene while we stood there agog as if we were watching a 3-D movie and were invisible to the characters.

Along the path was a little wooden hut where three Chinese people sat around a table making little curios and on the other side of the creek was a fully functioning blacksmith. The main street had more choices of shops than we had seen in real Aussie towns with a jewellers, printers, post office, drapery, foundry, pottery, tinsmith, candle works, furniture warehouse, theatre, apothecary and loads more.

At certain times of the day a special event would take place and at 1.30 a line of redcoat soldiers marched along the street to a small square where they let off their muskets and raised the Union Jack. The amateur dramatists would then go somewhere for a quick costume change and return to the streets in a new guise. A little boy had recognised a wealthy gent as being a soldier from a previous sketch and pointed it out to the guy, and was told without a flicker of guilt that it must have been his brother. Later on in the day a couple of drunken newlyweds staggered out of the pub and put on Oscar winning performances as they bumped into the wealthy guy and had a right old verbal bust-up, then into the jewellers they went where they bought some pearls to show off to the crestfallen gent who had waited outside.

A horse-drawn carriage rumbled around the town giving tourists rides, a couple of Bobbies patrolled the main street and a school yard was full of period-dressed schoolgirls playing old fashioned games. We asked a teacher where they had come from, a real school or a child acting troupe and were told they were from a local school and were here for a couple of days, upon which the headmaster walked to the entrance of the hall and lined the children up in two rows before leading them into the classroom in a very orderly way, we even had the chance to take a peek at the lessons which were conducted authentically. Along the road we walked into one of the little houses with smoke billowing from a chimney where we came across a lady who had fallen asleep in front of the fire whilst reading. We watched candle dipping, metal spinning, wood turning and visited a bowling alley of a bygone era before heading into the town's bar for a couple of schooners.

Our final destination was a tour of the gold mine which was conducted by the guide to beat all other guides. He was an ex-army captain (didn't look old enough) who had also spent a few years living in London's Earl's Court which he drolly referred to as 'Kangaroo Valley' in recognition of the Aussie residents there. A tour through a goldmine could easily have become a snooze-fest and one of the reasons we had come along was the promise of a train-ride on a little underground railway, but this guy could have made a tour of a soft-furnishings shop sound riveting (sorry T&B, couldn't resist), and he even knew of Charlton Athletic's wildly over-optimistic European aspirations this season (sorry B, couldn't resist as well, now what other family members have I missed out for a good cutting remark?).

We exited the mine straddled on a runaway train, filled with golden knowledge and intending to chuck our cheap silver rings into the nearest furnace replacing them with gold sovereign rings and 24-carat crucifixes dangling on both our hairy chests.

Our ticket also gave us admission to the gold museum across the road from Sovereign Hill and we wandered through a modern building that touched on everything associated with gold with pride of place belonging to the biggest gold nugget in Australia.

'Living museum' was the perfect adjective for Sovereign Hill and was far more interesting than a regular museum as it could hold your attention longer and was just as informative and educational. Sovereign Hill had been one of those attractions that we weren't sure we'd enjoy, but once again this proved the opposite, and by the end of the day we were wishing we'd bought a 2-day pass so we could spend another escapist day on 'the other side'.


6/5

It was the morning of the Chelsea-Monaco second leg so into the TV room I skipped optimistically for the second half of the game . . . enough said. Safe to say not a croissant or a cafÈ au lait will be passing my lips for a good while.

Before leaving Ballarat we stopped for a while to look around a town that boasted wide streets and beautiful 1860's buildings that stood shoulder to shoulder with hideous 1960's shopping malls and out of town we sped on the Western Freeway heading towards Melbourne for a route which is known as 'The Macedon Loop'.

The idea is to hang a sharp left just before you reach Melbourne airport and head north-west along the Calder Highway towards another town with strong gold-mining links, Bendigo. Along this stretch of highway we visited the Organ Pipes National Park, famous for its tubular lava flow formations from a long dormant volcano. There used to be loads of volcanoes in Victoria but they all became extinct with the dinosaurs, which is a bit of a shame because sometimes the Victorian landscape could do with a bit of livening up, you know the sort of thing: hot molten lava rushing down the local high street with screaming locals with singed eye-brows hopping into their four-wheel drives for the safety of higher ground.

A little further along the highway was the town of Sunbury, famous as the original site of the burning of a bail in 1882 after a touring English cricket team won a game against their hosts thus beginning the contesting of 'The Ashes' as a tradition. Apparently you could visit the original site of the arson but unfortunately we had as much luck as the English cricket team in getting our hands on them. None. Aaaaaaaaah, bring back the spirit of 1882 when our fine young strapping chaps in white gave the uncouth loutish locals in off-white a good old British pasting.

A little further north was the prosperous town of Macedon and a steep winding climb led us to the Memorial Cross on Mount Macedon with views across the Keilor Plains towards Melbourne with it's skyline just visible through the haze.

Another 10km along the road was the striking sight of a six million year old mass of solidified lava called Hanging Rock that has been made all the more famous by the film about the picnic which went wrong. We walked past a friendly little kangaroo and into the information centre that drummed up the rock's mystery value with the help of some movie props.

A twenty minute walk led us to the summit where we found ourselves alone and afraid . . . very afraid. Hanging Rock seemed to be suffering from the popularity of other Aussie attractions and being the only ones there it was all eerily quiet.

The views were outstanding and the strangely shaped boulders seemed to hide terrible secrets. We stood pondering the moment engulfed in an aura of suspense until I finally found the nerve to speak:

"We've pretty much climbed every worthwhile object in the world now, it'll be Everest next."

And Soph relied: "Yeah, or K9", at which point I nearly fell off the summit.

We liked Hanging Rock a lot and didn't want to come down, well I didn't anyway, it had gripped me like a whodunnit and I was at one with the rock and wanted to stay there to solve the mystery of the missing girl from the picnic. Right, now where did I leave that marijuana?

We made our way back to the van, passing a little rock wallaby on the way and were confronted with a field full of kangaroos taking it nice and easy, and after a good old gander at the mesmerising marsupials we made our way along the Calder Highway to our overnight stop of Bendigo.

First impressions were good as we cruised along the high street. Fountains, statues, classic architecture, parks, lakes and modern museums were dotted willy-nilly along the now standard motorway-widthed main thoroughfare that is a feature of all Australian towns. Bendigo celebrated the gold rush like no other city and the finds here were legendary.

We found the Ascot Caravan Park and settled down for the evening eating meat pies and beans and watching our favourite programme in the TV room. Later in the evening Soph tried to ring her big sis on her birthday but it was all in vain as dated payphones provided a stumbling block.

Talking of meat pies, what does an Aussie call a 7-course meal?

A meat pie and a six-pack of beer.


7/5

Yay! A nice sunny day for the first time since we left the penguins of Phillip Island and after a whirlwind tour of Bendigo, a quick feeding session with the ducks and a visit to an Italian barbers for a scalping we headed westwards towards the Scottish sounding Grampians mountain range through the Australian town of Castlemaine and the English town of Maldon, along a European road called the Pyrenees Highway and onto the Middle-East sounding town of Ararat. Around the world in 180 kilometres so to speak.

Castlemaine was a pleasant looking town and home to Melbourne's artists and authors (not XXXX) and Maldon was a pickled and preserved 19th century town where we stopped for a bull boar pie and vegetable pastie (pronounced parstie in Oz).

Early evening we arrived at Halls Gap, the main town in the Grampians and our home for the night and we pulled onto a grass patch littered with kangaroo droppings, and on the edge of the caravan park stooped three roos munching on their grassy dinner.

After our customary barbeque (never go two nights without one), Soph found a late twentieth century phone and got through to her big sis to wish her a belated happy birthday.


8/5

Our tactics today were to drive east to the town of Stawell, pick up the Western Highway heading north before turning a sharp left just before the town of Horsham so we could drive the whole 140km length of the Grampian mountain range from top to bottom.

We made scheduled stops at a kangaroo viewing area where a little roo obliged us by posing for snaps; Reid's Lookout for striking views across the national park; and Boroka Lookout for a view back over Halls Gap which we had left a couple of hours earlier.

Emerging from the southern tip of the national park we joined the Glenelg Highway heading west for the South Australia border, passing through the typical Aussie towns of Hamilton and Casterton.

As we neared the border the overcast sky which had hung over us all day strangely dissipated leaving a perfectly blue sky. We'd heard South Australia has the lowest annual rainfall of all the states but the way the sky cleared as we crossed the border was just plain uncanny.

20km into our new state and we arrived in the town of Mount Gambier named after the extinct volcano on the slopes of which the city lies. The crater holds four lakes, the largest of which turns an intense blue between the months of November and March but as it was May it was a lovely dull grey and after a visit to the supermarket we checked into Blue Lakes Caravan Park literally perched on the edge of one of the rims.

After eating a barbequed mountain of mutton we hijacked the TV room for some Oz-TV and odds-on it'd be footy, rugby, reality TV or an American crime series, that is apart from the national channel ABC which pays homage to British TV programmes, and Sunday night's schedule read: 7.30 Monarch of the Glen; 8.30 The Bill; 9.30 Parkinson; and 10.30 Jonathan Creek. The Bill as prime-time Sunday night viewing, suddenly Last of the Summer Wine seems appealing.


9/5

Next door to the caravan park was a small wildlife park where we spent a good hour gazing at kangaroos perfecting their art of doing absolutely nothing before heading to one of the blue lakes to marvel at its greyness, and after satisfying our little van's thirst we headed north towards the town of Robe on the Southern Ports Highway.

Robe looked a really nice town with all the requisites needed for the title of 'really nice town' and was brimming with shops selling fresh crayfish, a speciality of the region.

Once again it was another beautiful day as we visited two of the towns landmarks, a beacon and an obelisk, which made a nice change from our usual diet of museums. The beacon celebrated the town's recent 150th birthday which seemed strangely youthful for such a grand landmark.

It was a Sunday which meant only one thing to Soph and it had nothing to do with religious convictions. It was elimination night on 'My Restaurant Rules', so we needed a caravan park with a TV room. But it soon became clear after a few phone calls that this small area south of Adelaide weren't in range to pick up the channel that was showing it.

Soph was inconsolable and this sort of peculiarity could soon turn someone against this country, so the evening was spent gorging on barbequed comfort foods. Soph did however venture to the TV room to watch another of ABC's British imports, Foyle's War, where a taciturn Michael Kitchen put a little bit of joy back into her life. She's the only Michael Kitchen groupie in the world bless her.


10/5

It was a cold, clear night that had us zipping our heads into our sleeping bags and the day broke into the crispiest of crisp days you could imagine, a perfect Autumnal day for driving along the Limestone Coast down a long empty road to the edge of nowhere.

To our left, between us and the sea sat a sandy seaside wilderness called the Coorong National Park. It's usually teeming with migratory birds stopping off on the way to their summer holidays, but at this time of year it seemed a lonely scrubland.

Along 150km of coast the only enticement to stop was the scene of Chinaman's Well. An olde worlde drive-thru McDonalds where Chinese prospectors used to arrive and stock up on their way to Victoria's goldfields some 400km inland to pan for golden McNuggets. By landing in the state of South Australia the Chinese avoided Victoria's £10 arrival tax but had to endure an un-sponsored walk of Beefy Botham proportions. We later stopped in a layby for leg stretching but retreated after being attacked by a tornado of man-eating flies.

At the northern tip of the national park we stopped to re-juice the van and clean the insect graveyard from the windscreen before taking a sharp left along the Fleurieu Way, over a little free ferry and south through the Fleurieu Peninsula.

We stopped in the 'nice town' of Gowra for refrigerator refuelling and another 15 minute drive saw us arrive at our destination of Port Elliott, another 'nice town', although at the moment the luminous sun-drenched weather would have made Basra seem like a nice sleepy fishing village.

As usual we checked into the caravan park and raced back outside for a walk along Horseshoe Bay, scene of another 42 or so shipwrecks and then back to the van for a late lunch of pies on a mountain of mash. We then popped into the site's convenience store for some bits and bobs and were surprised to see it was still open at ten past five when the sign on the door said it closes at five. I asked the lady why she hadn't shut shop and she immediately twigged on figuring we'd come from Victoria and crossed into South Australia without putting our watches back half an hour! It was a different time-zone and we'd spent the last couple of days half an hour ahead of everyone else.

The final part of our road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide follows shortly . . .


Goldie and the Groupie
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