The Genuine Article
There is nothing like a nugget of gold to get the heart racing. Especially if you have just fished it out of a muddy stream that offers more such nuggets and there is a bank up the road that will exchange it for hard cash. If greed gets the better of you there’s an underground mine nearby that has surrendered pure gold boulders the size of adolescents. Then you can drop into the local foundry and watch $50,000 worth of molten gold poured into a bullion bar. Sovereign Hills offers this and much more.
To walk around this genuine 19th-century mining town 115km (71 miles) west of the state capital Melbourne is like waking up and finding yourself in an episode of Deadwood. Costumed locals go about their business in 19th-century garb and atop horse carriages.
Stores and workshops line the thoroughfare with a blacksmith hammering out horseshoes and a candle maker displaying his waxy goods. Aproned grocers operate Wild West versions of a 7-11 convenience store and jewellers sell everything from the genuine article (you guessed it—gold) to tourist trinkets. There’s a tavern bar that offers old time bowling and a museum displaying rocks and coins from the era. You can take a stage coach tour of the surroundings and in the mine you can see a replica of the second biggest nugget in the world, a 69kg (152-lb.) monster known as “the Welcome Nugget.” If it all gets too much you can lie down in the local hotel and literally sleep on a goldmine.
It was gold that made the south eastern state of Victoria. The early convict settlers at the turn of the 19th century were literally tripping across the stuff in what must have been a supreme and bitter irony as they discovered their open jail was literally paved with gold. The real rush began in 1851 and it saw the biggest migration of fortune seekers in modern times. The population increased by half a million over 10 years as Scots, Irish, Cornish, and Chinese all got wind that there was something in those hills and it shines. Soon the region produced 20 million ounces of gold, one third of the global output. Melbourne took off as a centre of trade and commerce and Australia in general began to stand on its own two feet. The mines are also credited with establishing the country as an independent political entity. An uprising by disgruntled miners in 1854 known as the Eureka Rebellion was brutally repressed by the British colonialists but it lead the way to a fairer system of civil rights and one man one vote.
On the river it is one man and his pan as lines of visitors fish for some glinting rock. Children especially love Sovereign Hills and history buffs are in their element. It just so happens that element is gold.
Tours: Melbourne Hosted Tours ( 61/3/9755-6085; www.melbournehostedtours.com). Melbourne’s Best Day Tours (61/3/9397-4911; www.melbournetours.com).
When to Go: Year-round.
Melbourne (115km/71 miles).
$$$ Crown Promenade Hotel, 8 Whiteman St., Southbank, Melbourne ( 61/3/9292-6688; www.crownpromenade.com.au). $$ Alto Hotel on Bourke, 636 Bourke St., Melbourne ( 61/3/8608-5500; www.altohotel.com.au).