I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published March 17th 2020
Goldfields Discovery Tour
There really is a little bit of everything in Victoria's Central Goldfields, making anywhere in the district a great 'get out of town' destination. I've put together a list of my Top-10 favourite attractions in the region and have barely scratched the surface.
Rest assured a trip to this fascinating and historic part of Victoria will not disappoint.
1 Sovereign Hill, Ballarat
The minute you enter Sovereign Hill the clock is turned back to the 1850's and there is little to shatter the illusion that you've stepped back in history to the Victorian gold rush era.
Along Main Street, you will find shops going about their business just as they did in the 1850s. You can purchase gold at the Waterloo Store, have your photograph taken at the authentic Red Hill Photographic Rooms or mail a letter at the fully functioning Post Office. There's the cabinet makers workshop, Soho Foundry and the Criterion Store, the Gold Office, The Colonial Bank of Australasia and, for those with a sweet tooth, Brown & Co Confectionary.
Sovereign Hill is a larger than life goldfields experience. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Little wonder then that this is a multi-award winning attraction of world standard.
When: Daily except for Xmas Day, 10 AM to 5 PM (5.30 PM during Daylight Savings)
Tarnagulla, originally known as Sandy Creek, is 186-Kilometres northwest of Melbourne and 47-Kilometres west of Bendigo. It is a very well preserved historic goldrush town surrounded by mullock heaps, shafts and tunnels.
In late 1852 a group of diggers en-route to the Korong diggings made camp on Sandy Creek very near to the present day Tarnagulla golf course. For some unknown reason, one or more of them chose to sink a hole in the creek bed and found very rich deposits of gold. Within weeks an estimated five thousand diggers were competing for space along a 3-Kilometer stretch of the waterway and the Sandy Creek 'rush' was on in earnest.
Tarnagulla and surrounds is littered with abandoned shafts and tunnels some of which you can explore safely. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Tarnagulla was home to the Poverty Mine that gave up 13 tons of gold in just over 12-months.
Walking and cycling tracks allow easy access to the district's attractions – just be careful not to fall down one of the many exposed shafts found here.
In spring the ironbark forests are ablaze with golden wattle and countless wildflowers.
The Central Deborah Gold Mine, the last commercial mine operating in Bendigo is today a multi-award winning tourism attraction and offers one of the best underground tour experiences available with many original features remaining to ensure visitors get a truly authentic mining experience.
The underground tour at the Central Deborah Mine is an experience not to be missed. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media.
The VGR provides an intriguing link to the States gold rush history around the city of Castlemaine and the township of Maldon, both the scene of rich strikes at the very centre of the world's greatest ever gold rush.
The historic Goldfields Railway is based on the remnants of a branch line which ran from Castlemaine on the main Melbourne to Bendigo line, to Maldon. It was opened on 16th June 1884 and originally carried two trains five days a week, quickly increasing to three return trips a day. In 1891 a 10 mile (16 Kilometre) extension to Shelbourne was opened with a daily service.
A trip from Maldon to Castlemaine and return on the Victorian Goldfields Railway is a great way to step back in time. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Although passenger trains were suspended during World War 2 services continued to Shelbourne until 1970 and to Maldon until 1976.
The closing of the line was quickly followed by the formation of the Castlemaine & Maldon Railway Preservation Society, a group of enthusiasts and local residents who immediately set about acquiring the line, suitable rolling stock and the necessary government approvals to allow for the establishment of a tourist railway.
Ten years of restoration work and the acquisition of additional rolling stock saw a partial reopening of the line by Easter 1986 with the official opening ceremony conducted by the noted historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey on 29th March. Day one of the operation though was barely a glimmer of its former self with only a little more than a kilometre of track available and the engine pushing carriages out from Maldon and pulling them back.
It was 1996 before the track was open to Muckleford and December 2004 before the first Victorian Goldfields Railway train reached Castlemaine.
When: Seasonal schedules operate throughout the year.
Check the website for specific times.
Victoria's goldfields architecture ranges from abandoned mine sites surrounded by mullock heaps to lovingly restored miners cottages and the wide thoroughfares of cities such as Ballarat & Bendigo lined with affluent mansions, grand public buildings and cathedrals you might expect to find in London, Paris or Rome.
In the mid, to late 1800s the Bendigo goldfields were far and away the richest in the world and the cities wealth is displayed in its architecture.
Ballarat Town Hall is a classic example of outstanding Victorian goldfields architecture. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
It's a similar story in Ballarat and in smaller cities and towns such as Castlemaine, Maryborough, Talbot and Creswick
6 Bendigo's Golden Dragon Museum
The best way to get a truly fascinating insight into Bendigo's, and the central goldfields, Chinese history is with a visit to the Golden Dragon Museum located on Bridge Street.
The museum is best known for its collection of eight dragons and in particular LOONG, the oldest Imperial, or five-clawed, dragon in the world.
Made in Fatt Shan near Canton LOONG was 60 metres long and made his first appearance in the Bendigo Easter Procession in 1892 and thereafter every year until his retirement in 1970. Briefly taken out of retirement LOONG's last appearance was in 2001 when, after much refurbishment and being reduced in length to a mere 29 metres, he was a prominent feature in the State's Centenary of Federation parade.
Nothing speaks to Bendigo's depth of Chinese heritage quite like the Golden Dragon Museum and its collection of Imperial Dragons. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
LOONG's replacement, SUN LOONG came from Hong Kong in 1970 and at over 100 metres in length is the world's longest Imperial Dragon. Comprised of 6,000 scales, 90,000 mirrors and 40,000 beads SUN LOONG requires 57 carriers with another 52 on stand-by to step in and help as required.
Bendigo's dragons parade for special occasions and cultural festivals. They are a key part of the city's annual Easter Festival and parade.
When: Tuesday to Sunday 9.30 AM to 5 PM. Closed
Mondays and Public Holidays.
Maldon was declared Australia's first 'Notable Town' by the National Trust in 1966 and awarded the title of "most intact historic streetscape in Victoria' in 2006.
In 1853, as gold fever swept the colony, a German prospector named John Mechosk found gold on a local sheep run, Cairn Curran, located at the foot of Mount Tarrengower. The resultant goldfield was named 'Tarrengower Fields' and within a month 3000 diggers had arrived. A Post Office opened in March 1854 and by 1856, with a population estimated to be between eighteen and twenty thousand, the settlement was surveyed and named Maldon after the village of the same name in Essex, England.
You'll find these old quartz kilns at Maldon's North British Mine which was still in operation as late as 1926. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
In the decade 1861 to 1871 Maldon was Victoria's eighth largest town with a population in excess of 3000 and supporting twice that number of miners in the surrounding district.
Today the township boasts a permanent population of about 1000 and relies heavily on the tourist trade for its continued existence. The majority of businesses go to great lengths to retain their colonial appearance and lend a genuine 19th Century air to the town, ensuring that Maldon continues to be recognised as Victoria's best-preserved gold rush town.
Maldon is also home to the Tarrangower Times newspaper, first published in 1858 and holding a unique place in Victorian history as the longest continuously published newspaper in the State – a true piece of living history.
Where: Maldon is 145-Kilometres northwest of Melbourne, just
over a 90-minute drive via the Calder Freeway/M79
and Fogartys Gap Road.
Telephone: Maldon Visitor Information Centre (03) 5475 2569
Kyneton, Victoria's agricultural hub during the gold rush years, has reinvented itself as a booming culinary and lifestyle tourism destination. Piper Street, with its 19th Century building facades, offers a broad range of eating & drinking options as well handcrafts, old-wares and regular markets.
By-passed by the Calder Freeway Kyneton has reinvented itself as one of Victoria's top culinary hot-spots. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Kyneton is also home to some of the best-preserved colonial bluestone buildings in Victoria, including the local museum.
Housed in the old Bank of New South Wales building, an imposing bluestone structure built in 1856, it's a symbol of the wealth generated in the district by the gold rush. Complete with the Mangers upstairs residence and a secret vault the museum offers a fabulous insight into the district's history.
Where: Kyneton is 90-Kilometres northwest of Melbourne, just
over an hour's drive via the Calder Freeway/M79.
Telephone: Kyneton Visitor Information Centre 1800 244 711
or (03) 5422 6110
You can't miss Bendigo's Shamrock Hotel on the corner of Pall Mall & Williamson Street.
The preferred watering hole for miners during the gold rush years the story goes that staff would pocket significant amounts of gold dust swept up off the floor at the end of each day.
For my money home to the best cold beer in Bendigo - the imposing Shamrock Hotel, circa 1854. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
A long list of dignitaries, including Dame Nellie Melba, have stayed here. Dame Nellie is alleged to have asked for the Town Hall Clock, just across the road from the hotel, to be turned off because its chimes were keeping her awake at night.
Today the Shamrock still serves a great cold beer in a historic goldfields atmosphere.
Castlemaine is another classic goldfields town displaying a typical laid-back country image but, with a population of not much more than 8000 people, it punches well above its weight in terms of facilities and events bringing in large numbers of visitors.
You can't go past Castlemaine for a classic goldfields experience. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Castlemaine developed as the centre of the Mount Alexander goldfields, the site of the richest alluvial gold finds in history. Its Botanical Gardens are one of Victoria's oldest public gardens, established in 1860, and the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, created to highlight and preserve mining relics, covers 7,500 hectares to the south and east of the town.
Where: Castlemaine is 130-Kilometres northwest of Melbourne, a 90-minute drive via the Calder Freeway/M79 and the Midland Highway/A300
Telephone: Castlemaine Visitor Information Centre
(03) 5471 1795
Why? Discover the history and present day attractions in Victoria's central goldfields, the scene of one of the greatest gold rushes the world has ever seen and an event that changed Australia for ever.