Shocks and holes in Bendigo

Shirefolk like to live in holes in the ground, at least according to The Hobbit. Although this particular hole was definitely more suited to Durin’s Folk. It even ran with dragons’ blood.

After some very tasty pizza at La Porchetta we retired to our motel in Albury for an early night. Prior to falling asleep I watched a little bit of Sherlock Episode 2 on ABC iView and was bugged by the familiarity of one actress.

When I awoke the television had Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit showing and I was surprised to see the same actress (Gemma Chan for the record)! But recognition stemmed from Doctor Who, which has featured so many British actors.

We ate cereal and toast from the free motel breakfast then quickly crossed the Murray River into Victoria. Alex fell asleep and we continued down the Hume highway before turning off towards Murchison. I’m not certain that it was the most direct route to Bendigo, but we were just following the car’s GPS.

At least it was a fairly scenic route, a two lane road that, for much of it, passed under a corridor of trees. But the types of eucalypts, the colours of the soil and gravel and the farms behind the fence line changed as we drove along. We passed over creeks and irrigation channels, the phantom level crossings of closed railway lines. Through pretty little towns with Sunday morning emptiness.

Murchison and Rushworth were two towns that seemed especially pretty, though we sadly didn’t stop.

Finding the entrance to our hotel, the Schaller, proved a little tricky, as our car GPS had lost its signal and Google Maps had it in the wrong place. Sometimes I prefer the paper versions. Anyway, we arrived and checked in.

The room is more akin to a Japanese business hotel in size, but as an Art Series hotel it is also filled with quirky touches and friendly staff.

As our schedule is quite packed and involves a number of trips outside of Bendigo we thought we’d better hurry up and explore. But first lunch. That actually proved quite tricky on this Sunday, but we ended up in a shopping complex eating standard food court fare. Fortunately, it was adjacent to our first sight, the Bendigo Discovery Centre.

It may not be as large as Questacon in Canberra, but in many ways this is a blessing, as all the hands on science activities are very accessible. They have an electricity theme running at the moment and our visit began with building simple circuits. Alex has played with our electronics kit at home, so I think the biggest challenge for him was manipulating the alligator clips.

Then came a show about electricity which I thought was really well done. I can see Alex playing with static electricity and balloons at home. Afterwards we wandered around playing with the standard displays. Most are simple but educational and a lot of fun. I’m not certain how much Alex stopped to understand the principles behind the displays, but he’s young and the experience is still educational. I especially liked the theremin and the visual perception tricks, but it’s hard to fault any of the installations. Well worth a visit.

Alex refused to go on the vertical slide, as did we, so we hurried off to the next attraction: The Central Deborah Gold Mine.

Bendigo was built on gold mining, first for the alluvial (surface) gold, then the gold trapped in underground quartz seams. There were once 3,500 gold mines in the city and there is still a lot of gold trapped below, but it’s not currently economic to extract it.

I’ve visited the Central Deborah mine twice before, but it was still well worth taking Alex for his first trip below. Our guide Laurie began the tour at the surface by describing the ride down in the tiny cage lift which held four, while the opposite cage carried a cart of gold and rock up for processing.

The cages, which are still used for some of the deeper mine tours, hurtle down at terrifying amusement park ride speeds, so I was very glad not to be taking that trip. Instead, after being kitted out with helmets and headlamps, we took a much slower elevator down to level 7.

It’s cool and damp beneath the ground, thought at level 17 it’s apparently a constant 33 degrees Celcius and soaking wet. Only our headlamps lit the tunnels as Laurie described the terrible conditions that the miners worked under. Almost all the early workers would die of silicosis before age 30, though their causes of death were attributed to turburculosis by the doctors working in collusion with the mine owners. Each worker had to fill fifteen metal trucks every days, starting at 5 in the morning and not going home until late at night after being frisked for any hidden gold.

The quartz seams ran through dark grey sedimentary rock contaminated with arsenic. The rock was hard and the early miners came from Cornwall, where they were used to handling such challenges. It was a very tough existence, yet many queued for the opportunity.

Eventually the mines closed in the mid fifties, a little over a hundred years since gold was first discovered in the area. Some seams have been tapped in more recent times, but again it is uneconomic to continue. As the pumping of water from the many mines ceased with their closure so has the water table risen and reclaimed tunnels, making access difficult.

Waiting for the lift down

In the tunnels

Our guide Laurie showing the quartz seam and fool’s gold

A “bugger”, used in later times

“Dragon’s blood” – seepage from the surface contains many minerals.

The tour was absolutely fascinating and well worth the return visits. We will actually have to return later on this trip as we didn’t have enough time to explore the outer areas of the mine, which also look very interesting.

Our room at the Schaller is equipped with a microwave so we thought we’d save money on dinner by going to Woolies to buy ingredients for a simple pasta. Though the others seemed to enjoy it I was not very impressed with my cooking!

Tomorrow we head off to experience other aspects of life in the goldfields at Sovereign Hill near Ballarat.