Dunolly Gold rush.                                                        Image library

A week’s visit to Australia’s Victorian gold fields.


‘Welcome Stranger’ – and what a welcome. Sold for £9000 in 1869 this huge (109.59kgs) natural gold nugget would be worth about US$4.5M today. As a natural nugget, this amount would be much more, but to be accurately weighed, it was broken up soon after being found.  It was alluvial gold, unbelievably buried in just a few inches of soil. And there could well be more with many active searchers throughout the goldfields district in recent years, recovering gold in rewarding amounts.


We are here to visit family and enjoy the many historic towns in the area, from Dunolly itself to nearby Maldon, Maryborough, Inglewood, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Clunes and Daylesford. There are others we will have to save for another time.


Arriving at Tullamarine late afternoon we are soon behind the wheel of our pre-booked Thrifty hire car, upgraded from a 4 door hatchback to a small SUV, giving us a bit more space which is nice. We are driving away about 6:30pm in twilight and take the north road towards Sunbury.  Somehow we miss the connection to the Calder Freeway and meander through Melbourne fringe suburbia  and small towns.  Suddenly a sign appears out of the gloom pointing us in the Freeway direction.  Zooming along at 110kmh soon eats up the kms.


With Bendigo somewhere in the far distance, we are looking for the Fogarty’s Gap exit at about the halfway point. This is a secondary road with a very small brown coloured sign which we just manage to pick out and being our first visit to their new home, family are waiting there as pathfinders for us. What a relief.  Another half hour and we are warming up in front of their roaring log fire. Being quite inland this part of Victoria is very cold and now down to single figures.  Aggravated by very low (40%) humidity and rising wind speed it feels Siberian, compared to Auckland with its much higher humidity.  Tomorrow is expected cold but sunny.


We wake to blue skies with high cloud at a brisk 8C.  We are off to investigate Maldon today (pronounced Mulden), about 35kms from our location and 130kms north west of Melbourne.  First discovered at Cairn Curran, gold figures largely in the town’s history, attracting many 1000s of would be miners.  Some small claims did very well while others  yielded little.


Maldon is a delightful, authentic 19th century village, with charming restored buildings, along with interesting shops offering new and second hand wares. There are several great spots to choose from for a casual coffee or yummy lunch.  It is very encouraging to see locals actively maintaining Maldon’s special identity. With the thermometer dropping sharply as the afternoon draws to a close, it's back to the welcome log fire and enthusiastic greeting of two aging border collies.


Today we head to Bendigo where several billion dollars' worth of gold has been found since 1851, making it the 7th richest field in the world.  

We aren’t after gold today, not the yellow metal anyway, but gold in the form of Bendigo heritage of which there is plenty. Our first stop is the beautifully kept Rosalind Park Botanical Gardens. Happily walking through the gardens, my wife suddenly says, ‘what is that dreadful smell?’. I can’t really smell anything, maybe something slightly acrid, but then I look up and there high in the branches of the huge trees surrounding us are thousands of bats hanging upside down as they do. Having spotted them I could now smell them. Not so pleasant.  Apart from this, the Botanical Gardens are very lovely and almost directly across the road is the wonderful ‘Book Now’  second hand book shop. Most of the stock is in excellent condition and the shop is intriguingly designed with a central stairway leading to a surrounding library style gallery. Its huge and well laid out and we find a few titles we can’t resist.


Lunch today is at neigbouring Balgownie Estate Winery, boasting a history going back to 1969.  One of the pioneers of Victorian winemaking. Balgownie Estate has changed hands twice over the years and is now owned by Prestige Group, which plans to continue expanding accommodation offerings and the production of premium Victorian reds. We sit out in the covered loggia with a view down to autumn leaved vines, warmed by winter sun and enjoy superb food and wine. 


Maryborough is next on our agenda, earmarked for today so we can visit its weekend market. The market is made up exclusively of local producers and traders. Arts and crafts, produce of all sorts and ready to eat offerings.  I couldn’t help noticing the large organic produce stall with everything on offer grown and packed by the proprietors. Orange, larger than life carrots; large halved cabbages with tightly packed green hearts and a large basket of Jerusalem artichokes which are an unusual and welcome sight these days. If our stay wasn’t short I could have collected all our produce needs here. Also, available is very good coffee, which is indispensable on a 7C morning. We don’t bring the 2 border collies as they are not so used to people and noise, but there are many 4 legged friends of all descriptions, mostly very well behaved and obviously regular visitors.  Maryborough is large enough to be a city, albeit a small one, and easy to find your way around.  Like other centres through the district, gold plays a significant role in its past. In excess of 30,000 people called Maryborough home in19th century days. There is much to see well warranting the best part of a day and certainly not to be missed is the Railway Station built in 1874. Mark Twain when visiting in 1895 called it a Governmental curiosity.  This substantial, well proportioned building, is beautifully kept with an excellent café which has a warming log-fire burning and a restaurant along with an arts gallery displaying local art for sale.


The station platform is exceptionally long and is covered with an elegant, curved, pergola style  glazed roof.  We leave Maryborough late afternoon and by the time we are near home base the temperature is plummeting.  We hear there is snow in the high country and predicted in Ballarat, about 40kms south of us. With the wind whipping by at 40ks an hour,  bleak is my description. The log fire soon thaws us and later under the duvet we sleep soundly, warm and snug.


A new day and we head for Inglewood.  Springing up in the mid 19th Century, this small rural town is home to some notable people, the more well known being Sir Reginald Ansett (Ansett Airlines) and Sir Julius Vogel who was PM in NZ from 1873-1876 – Vogel House in Wellington.  Strongly linked to gold, even in quite recent times, with the $1M nugget ‘Hand of Faith’ discovered near Kingower, Inglewood today is full of worthwhile heritage.


The 'Welcome Stranger' town of Dunolly is our ‘local’, being about 15 minutes’ drive. It's a small village with one main street, Broadway, loaded with heritage. The Museum is packed with 19th century treasures and memorabilia from gold rush days. A realistic model of the 'Welcome Stranger' nugget has pride of place. It is a whoppa at 109kgs! An hour or two here is well spent  with the two Curators on duty the day we visit able to share lots of local history. Other significant gold nuggets have also been found nearby (4kg plus) in very recent times, firmly cementing Dunolly as the local modern gold hunters centre.  An excellent coffee at the local café helps chase the cold.


Another destination on today’s must do list is Clunes which has a real claim to fame as only one of fifteen towns worldwide to be called a 'Booktown', a European concept. Clunes has the largest collection of books in Australia for one day a year  on the first weekend of May. The town is given over to everything books and incredibly it is on the weekend we have chosen to visit.  I have never seen so many books in one place, with the main street closed off and filled with individual book stalls. With so much choice, we wish we had more time to browse slowly through treasure troves of new and second hand books.  We are, however, very lucky to be here to enjoy this special day.  Clunes is not famous  just for literature, as it was here that Victorian gold fever started in the mid 1800s  with gold discovered on a farming ‘run’ called ‘Clunes’. There are many well preserved buildings from that era and the whole town is a step back into life 150 years ago.


Gold, of course, is large in the history of Castlemaine which is where our travels take us next day. It is officially a city yet the population is well below 10,000. Various industries have thrived then declined over the years with the main economic driver today being tourism. There is plenty of heritage to see in Castlemaine, plus good cafes and restaurants. Of special interest is the intriguing Mill Market where lots of individual stall holders display and sell antiques and second hand goods. Allow at least two hours to have a good look at this. The various stalls are unattended leaving visitors to browse at their leisure, perhaps select an intended purchase, which can then be made at the central office counter where each stall is identified by an item tag. It works very well and visitors don't feel obliged to buy.  An excellent Vienna style café is attached to The Mill offering great coffee and lots of traditional Viennese treats.  Castlemaine takes up the best part of the day as we are quite a bit further from home base - at least an hour’s drive away.


One more day left before we deliver our Thrifty rental back to Tullamarine and fly to Auckland.  We have saved the furthest away town till last and this is Daylesford. Historically gold is the main reason for Daylesford, or Wombat as it was originally known. Nowadays, being very near to the Macedon Range district which attracts many tourists, Daylesford benefits economically along with the attraction its several mineral springs bring  in their own right. The Mill Market here is very similar to Castlemaine, operating in the same way, just bigger. With a lot to see and consider, allow at least two hours, better still three or four.  From time to time your eye can fall on something which just has to find its way into your life. Peppermill Café on site, is a definite for a coffee and savoury or sweet treats after all that walking, browsing and buying. A late lunch at Koukla Café in Vincent Street, then an hour investigating the town centre was all the time we could spare as we are 11/2 hours from home and an early start in the morning.


Saturday morning and following an emotional farewell to family, we are driving away by 8am, due at Tullamarine by 10:30. It's much easier retracing our route in daylight and we make the Calder Freeway without any deviations. Delivering the rental back to Thrifty is completely seamless and we can wheel our cases over the air bridge directly into the departure concourse. The Air NZ check in is quick but then the big holdup is the queue for security although the security staff, in the main are pleasant and polite. An hour relaxing in the Koru Lounge and a smooth take-off for Auckland 3 hours away.