A road trip through rural Victoria plunges David Whitley into Australia’s surprising frontier history
The map is extraordinary. It shows the secret underground city beneath Bendigo — a staggering network of nearly 6,000 mine shafts and the tunnels branching from them. On the surface, Bendigo is all well-preserved 19th-century architecture, but the massive funds required to build it came from what lies beneath. In 1851, gold was discovered being washed down a creek, and from then on a gold rush spanning nearly a century transformed the fledgling Australian state of Victoria.
The Central Deborah mine is now the preserve of tourists rather than miners. Visitors are taken down the shaft in a lift, then guided underground. Part of the experience is seeing the rich seams of white quartz — the rock in which gold is usually found — up close. One section that still has speckles of gold in it is understandably guarded by a protective barrier. But the tour is much more about learning what conditions were like for miners down there: “The man on the steel platform’s job was to load a truck with rocks,” says the guide. “He had to fill one truck every four minutes for seven hours. It was a huge amount of work.” Then there are the drills, which replaced hammers and chisels in 1886. “This one was called the widowmaker,” offers the guide. “Because of the dust.” Quartz is a natural glass, and getting tiny shards of it in the lungs was not conducive to a long, healthy life. And that’s before you even address the deafening noise striking it makes.
But, without the gold that mines such as this produced, Australia would likely be a very different country. The precious metal turned Oz into a desirable place to seek one’s fortune, bringing in people beyond the original British settlers, as Californians and Chinese prospectors came to try their luck. Bendigo, and the other goldfield towns, played a massive part in the country’s independent wealth — and, later, its political independence.
Australia isn’t generally thought of as a heritage destination, but it has a history that continually surprises. The aim of doing a road trip from Melbourne was to get out into the bush, perhaps enjoy some regional food and wine, and spot a kangaroo or seven along the way. But, at every stop, tales from the past battle to the fore.
This is most definitely the case in Echuca, arguably the finest town on the mighty Murray. Australia’s longest river is the lifeblood for much of the country. The farms in its basin are reliant on it for irrigation, and given that there’s not too much fertile land elsewhere, this means the Riverina is Australia’s foodbowl.
Echuca’s position as the closest point on the Murray to Melbourne route made it strategically important, and in the 19th century, it was the third largest port in Australia. Food and wool would be taken to Melbourne by rail from there, and goods would go the other way, distributed along the Murray using paddle steamers — which, as a key ingredient of the past, have been remarkably well preserved. They depart from the gigantic wooden wharf, built in 1865 and stretching over three levels so that it can still be useful whatever level the river’s at.
The old town itself is laced with rogueish old pubs that wear their past as illegal drinking dens, complete with smugglers’ tunnels, well. The steamers are used for cruises rather than freight these days; the last one built for the riverboat trade was the PS Alexander Arbuthnot in 1923. This grand old dame has been restored, and chugs lugubriously along the Murray, with one poor soul downstairs shovelling coal to keep the noisy, clanking engine suitably fed. He doesn’t get to appreciate the — typically Australian — scenery. The banks of the Murray are lined with glorious gum trees: bare, ghostly,silvery trunks reaching for the skies, with a thin canopy of eucalyptus leaves up high. The drive through Victoria’s High Country provides plenty of views like this, interspersed with farmland, vineyards and foodie pockets. The target is Beechworth, a splendidly preserved old town that combines legendary bakeries, goldrush history and swoony buildings with timewarp verandas. It’s also the epicentre of Australia’s extraordinarily lucrative Ned Kelly industry. Down under, Kelly’s a folk hero: a Robin Hood figure to some; a brutal murderer to others.
Walking tours from the Town Hall take in some of the sites from the Kelly legend, including the courthouse where he was first tried for horse-stealing and the cold, temporary jail cells where sympathisers and associates were locked up. The circuit condenses the story into a digestible 90 minutes, which swings from anti-British resentment in Ireland to the short-lived dream of an independent republic in north-eastern Victoria. On the way, there are bare-knuckle boxing bouts through the streets of Beechworth, corrupt cops, a forest shoot out that left three policemen dead and the country’s biggest ever bounty on Kelly’s head, as well as the charred corpses of the Kelly gang members inside the burned-down hotel where they staged their last stand. It’s a rip-roaring tale with a zillion shades of grey, and no outright good guys.
Tobacco to wine
Stringybark Creek, the site of that forest shoot-out, is now a campground in the middle of the marvellously named Wombat Ranges, and the drive down there heads through the lush
King Valley. Here, cockatoos flutter all over the road, and Italian-sounding names crop up on signs. After the Second World War, it was thought that this area might be prime territory for cultivating tobacco. Many Italians came to the region to try their hand at growing the plant, and when it became clear that other crops would fare much better, they switched, leading to the rise of both agriculture and viticulture. And it’s the latter that’s now the most prominent, with the King Valley rapidly gaining a reputation as Australia’s prosecco capital.
At the Pizzini winery, cellar door master Robert Wellard says that the trials and tribulations of the tobacco-growing period had a long-term impact. “Our founder, Alfredo Pizzini, always says that once you know how to grow tobacco, you can grow anything.”
The winery is at the forefront of Australia’s push away from its stock red wine varietals, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Wellard reckons Pizzini was among the first in the country to make a sangiovese, and aside from the prosecco, that’s what it’s now best known for. A few glasses of wine amid the vineyards, where a wallaby could hop by at any moment, was the original inspiration for this road trip. But the back stories encountered along the way helped me really get to know this slice of Australia.