With Christmas over, not to mention 2020, it was time to start exploring again. I headed north of Melbourne to the old gold-mining town of Castlemaine.
Gold was discovered at Mount Alexander on September 1851, just a few miles north-east of Castlemaine, and along with finds at Bendigo, Ballarat, Clunes and Buninyong, it became one of the greatest gold bonanzas the world has ever seen, attracting almost 100,000 immigrants to the area from all over the world.
I spent two nights at the old Globe Guesthouse, just one block from the main shopping centre. It could have done with a bit of a paint job inside but apart from that it was extremely comfortable: a good firm bed, a television that worked, a little kitchen with food laid on for breakfast and a proprietor who kept on insisting on making me real coffee. So nice. The car stayed in its place and I mostly walked around.
I love the streetscapes of old gold-mining towns.
The towns were quite well-off for awhile, so they ended up with some pretty substantial-looking buildings.
The massive Old Castlemaine Gaol sits atop a hill overlooking the town. Constructed between 1857 and 1864, it served as a goldfields gaol, a reformatory school for boys, and then a medium security prison, before closing in 1990. It’s closed at the moment due to Covid, but in the meantime is being developed as a space for installations of art, sculpture and unique collections, as well as for special events. I’ll be back. I love walking around old prisons with their histories and their ghosts.
I wandered up a hill near where I was staying to discover a monument to what’s known as the Burke and Wills expedition. A group was sent out by the Royal Society of Victoria to explore along the western border of Queensland and inland, but in particular to beat the South Australians in being first to travel from the south coast of the country to the north.
Robert O’Hara Burke, Castlemaine’s superintendent of police, was chosen to lead. It was a horrendous journey, seven of the party dying along the way. Burke reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in February 1861, but died on the way back. Locals raised money for the monument, and the foundation stone was laid on 1st July, 1862, the anniversary of Burke’s death. The granite obelisk was completed in July, 1863.
On my way out of town, I stopped at Forest Creek Historic Gold Diggings, the site which sparked the world’s second gold rush. A 400-metre long loop has been mapped out, showing the environmental impacts of various types of alluvial gold mining: shaft sinking, tunnelling and hydraulic sluicing.
There’s not much there now, other than a couple of shafts and some rusty equipment, but the signage is terrific, giving you a really good idea of what the place would have been like at the time with its miners, women, children, stores, brothels and the large Chinese community, along with scuffles with the police and the odd murder or two. A pretty interesting place, I’d say.