The cry goes up early. ‘That’s gold I tell you!’
‘No, that’s cheese,’ my companion replies dryly.
‘What about that? Eureka!’
‘That’s a banana. Just eat your lunch.’
We are on a smooth, green hillside overlooking the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh, only a few kilometres into our walk on the Great Dividing Trail (GDT), and I’m already smitten with gold fever. Central Melbourne, from where we’d caught the train to the trailhead this morning, is clearly visible 40 kilometres away. I resume eating. We’d have plenty of opportunity to look for gold on our week-long, 140 kilometre walk to Castlemaine.
Our hike will be along two of the four sections that comprise the GDT, a total of 270 kilometres of trails forming an inverted ‘Y’ centred on the beautiful old town of Daylesford, which links Castlemaine and Bendigo to the north with Bacchus Marsh and Ballarat to the south. Gold country, all of it, and despite its proximity to Melbourne, much of it surprisingly wild.
After lunch we continue north along the well marked trail, the denuded hills around town relenting to the forest covered hills of the Lerderderg State Park. Although the ground is harsh and stony the lowland forest we pass through has a stunning variety of flowering wattles and peas, the spring sunshine slanting though the trees to glow on tussock grass and illuminate the reddish new-growth of the eucalypts. The variety of birdlife in the 20 500 hectare park is impressive too, with choughs, robins and gang-gang cockatoos examining us curiously–despite this section of the GDT having being opened since 2005 hikers still seem to be a novelty (we only see a handful of other hikers all week, all of them utilising short sections of the trail for day-hikes).
The scenery is beautiful, including stunning views of the 300 metre-deep Lerderderg Gorge that bisects the park to our east, but there have been some steep sections for first-day-legs and we’re grateful to make camp about sixteen kilometres from Bacchus Marsh. Although there are four official campsites along the route, three with facilities (water, toilets), hikers will need to be prepared to bush-camp for at least a couple of nights.
As it had been a reasonably wet spring we thought we might be able to get a little water from the nearby Korkupenimul Creek. At first glance it appeared to only consist of a few small stagnant pools, but with closer inspection we were able to find a trickle of water sufficient for cooking (Hikers won’t encounter any water until they reach the Lerderderg River, 33 kilometres from Bacchus Marsh).
We set about preparing a simple dinner but find that in our early morning start we had forgotten to pack the fuel canister for the methylated spirits stove. An empty can of tuna makes a surprisingly good substitute. After eating we are asleep early enough to embarrass a six-year-old.
A glorious morning chorus of birds cajoles us awake. Back on the trail we briefly leave the forest’s shelter to be buffeted by strong winds as we cross farmland and climb steeply–as in straight up–Mount Blackwood. At 736 metres the mountain affords superb views back towards Melbourne and, more pleasantly, north over a sea of undulating green forest that we are yet to cross: the Wombat State Forest.
Back down among the trees former goldmining activity starts to become more apparent: diggings, rusty iron, shards of thick glass and colourful fragments of pottery. We follow Square Bottle Track through a lovely glade of grass trees and low ‘egg and bacon’ shrubs towards Whiskey Creek. The miners who named these creeks and gullies in the 1850s must have been a thirsty lot as vodka, champagne, gin and rum all get a mention as placenames.
We descend steeply into Whiskey Creek where I’m hoping to find a single-malt on the rocks. Alas, although the rocks are there, the creek is dry. But it makes a perfect spot for lunch with cockatoos wheeling overhead heckling. Then, hobbling on stiffened legs, we continue along the trail until we reach O’Briens Road. Here we leave the trail to follow the well-made dirt road for about three kilometres as it descends, with exasperating meandering, to the O’Briens Crossing campground.
We manage to stay up slightly later, perhaps until about eight, when the murmur of the river and the cacophony of frogs lull us into another deep sleep.
In the morning I head to the river with my plate.
‘I hope your not going to wash your plate in the river,’ my companion says sternly.
‘No, no,’ I say casually. ‘It’s already clean. Just taking it for a walk.’
To avoid ridicule I’ve learned to affect casualness about my gold-prospecting activities. My plate is roughly the same shape as the mining pans they used in this very spot a hundred and fifty years ago. I scoop up a plateful of river sand and swill away the lighter grains–slowly, slowly, careful now, a little more–until I am finally left with. . .a very clean plate. Perhaps my technique needs a little refinement, or else the miners really did find every last skerrick of gold.
Leaving O’Briens we are relieved to avoid the long trudge up the road by taking a path behind the toilets that rejoins the GDT after about a kilometre. This section of the route, following the Lerderderg River to the hamlet of Blackwood, is one of the most beautiful on the trail. A narrow path cut into the side of the wallaby grass covered valley slopes down to the gently flowing river valley. The path follows the course of an old ‘water race’, a gutter like construction made by the miners to move water to normally dry areas. As water was essential for gold mining operations it was often shunted vast distances so it could be used in breaking-down gold-bearing earth. The area around Blackwood was at the heart of a network of 150 kilometres of such races which follow the lay of the land like contour lines. They now make for ideal hiking paths, a feature utilised for the bulk of the GDT (most other sections are along seldom-used 4WD tracks).
As the path bends we can see the meticulous dry-stone buttressing supporting the race, the local rock fitted together like puzzle-pieces, an impressive feat of gold rush engineering, and perhaps the handiwork of a celebrated character called Pauline Bonford, a Frenchwoman who defied the mores of her day to make a living building races, earning a reputation for enforcing her contracts with the back of her spade.
Next to the path a mineshaft leads into the hillside. The air temperature drops dramatically as we follow the head-high tunnel underground, and although we venture as far as we dare I fail to uncover any missed seams of gold.
Seven kilometres from O’Briens we reach the lawns and picnic tables of Blackwood Mineral Springs Reserve, a perfect place for a break. The springs were believed to have been discovered by Chinese miners during the sluicing of the river bed and banks. Sluicing, the use of running water and a riffled wooden box to sieve earth, has left a legacy of eroded rivers throughout the goldfields. But the reserve is still a shady, pleasant place, one of the designated camping grounds on the GDT, with the springs still trickling beneath small protective rotundas. Although the waters are renowned for their health-giving properties I am unable to enjoy them as they taste like rusty radiator water.
Nowadays Blackwood is a quiet little town with its clutch of houses including a few old log cabins, a pub and a general store, but in the mid-1850s it was a mining centre with a population of 13 000. The demand for timber for use in houses, mines and for firewood was so great that a 1890s royal commission described the Wombat forest as ‘ruined’. Today, although many scars remain, the forest is substantially recovered, the old diggings blanketed by a dense layer of herbs, shrubs and trees.
After a dirt-road section where we encounter a noisy troupe of trail-bikers, we leave the Lerderderg State Park and enter the Wombat where we will stay all the way to Daylesford, 36 kilometres away.
We soon come to another former mining settlement of Simmons Reef, now home to the Garden of St. Erth, an 1860s sandstone cottage surrounded by an exuberant exotic garden and fields of daffodils, as well as a nursery and cafe. We then enter another beautiful, narrow section of race along the Lerderderg, through damper forest of huge blackwood trees, sedges and tree ferns. Finally we come to our resting place for the evening, near Nolan Creek picnic ground, tucked amongst the lush forest at the junction of Nolan Creek and the upper Lerderderg. (Camping is permitted anywhere in the Wombat State Forest although not within the Nolan Creek picnic ground as suggested in some of the GDT literature, as it is too close to the heritage-listed Lerderderg River). Our tuna tin cooker is still functioning well. We get a little crazy and stay up to quarter past eight.
Heading out from Nolan’s early the next morning the low sun illuminates the dense banks of flowering wattles and hakeas along the track. We take morning tea by a pair of large, stone chimneys, the most visible sign of an old Forest Commission camp, known colloquially as the ‘Balt Camp’ from the Baltic States origin of many of the refugees that worked here after the Second World War. These men–whatever their background, doctors, lawyers, electricians–were required to serve two years of forestry duties such as cutting firewood and road making in order to pay back the cost of their voyage, a tough welcome to a new home.
Then it was on towards Daylesford, through some sections of recently logged forest (logging still occurs in the Wombat, but under community management), the logged areas notable for the lack of diversity of the regrowth. The closer to Daylesford we get, the more weeds we began to see, until we arrive at Lake Jubilee. The lake was constructed in 1860 to supply water to the local gold mines, but a subsequent bout of gold fever led to it being drained so further mining could be carried out. It’s now a lake again, surrounded by a pleasant park with the caravan park by the shore just one of the many accommodation options Daylesford provides. After a 25 kilometre day we take the soft-option of a cabin with a hot shower.
With 50 per cent of the nation’s known mineral water outlets Daylesford, and nearby Hepburn Springs, have long been associated with the rejuvenating properties of their spring water. That tradition continues today with towns offering a plethora of options for stressed Melbournians or tired hikers: day spas, massage, fine cuisine, cellar doors, galleries, boutiques and historic streetscapes. We content ourselves with a pizza and a bottle of wine.
The next day we continue on the GDT to the town’s other picturesque artificial lake, Lake Daylesford, from where we follow the winding Sailors Creek out of town. Evidence of gold mining is everywhere: water races, pits, stone heaps, walls, boarded-up mines, even a section where miners had redirected the creek by blowing a hole through a rocky promontory to expose the creek bed for mining. Colourfully named gullies give a glimpse into a miner’s life and humour: Linger and Die Gully, Christmas Gully, Humbug Gully, Keep It Dark Gully and Don’t Wake Em Gully. There are plenty of rock pools that are sure to be great for a dip in summer, although they didn’t look too tempting on a cool, blustery spring morning.
A foraging echidna noses about on the side of the path, shunting great clods of earth aside with its powerful front legs as it jams its nose into the earth like a jack-hammer in the pursuit of ants. At various times along the GDT we also encounter kangaroos, swamp wallabies, a huge variety of birds and a single koala, resting comfortably in the fork of a tree, only rousing himself for a slow scratch.
It was near here that the vegetation starts to subtly change to a drier mix of box type eucalypts that dominate the drier northern sections of the trail. We also saw some glorious candlebark trees, tall and smooth-trunked, their bark so pale as to be almost luminous in the dim light of the overcast day. The path again became lined with blackberry, gorse and broom, a fair indication that we were approaching another town, this time Hepburn Springs. As it began to rain heavily we again took the soft option, checking into Continental House, a rambling old guest house with a vegan share-kitchen and pleasingly erratic colour scheme.
In the morning the rain continues as we eat breakfast but by the time we are finished the gusty wind has temporarily blown the clouds away and sunshine plays on the water drops. Back on the trail we pass more mineral springs near the Hepburn Springs Bathhouse, a hundred-year old complex currently undergoing renovations, then leave the town behind as we climb into the surrounding hills through lean, desperate-looking box, peppermint and stringybark forest.
It’s midmorning and we are just thinking about taking break, and perhaps boiling up some water for a warming cuppa, when we stumble upon a weary hiker’s fantasy. A chocolate shop. A chocolate shop out here deep in the woods.
The couple who own the Chocolate Mill, as the business is called, are a talented pair, for not only are they able to use Belgian chocolate and fresh local fillings to create delicate confections, but they also built the straw bale building the business is housed in. We savour some hot chocolate and nibble at some chilli chocolate before taking their warming effects back out onto the trail.
We follow the red clay Sawpit Road north through farmland, a rare stretch out of the cover of the forest. A fresh front brings a sudden plunge in temperature and a hammering of hail. For a brief moment the fields are covered with a layer of jagged white. It is so cold we can see our breath and are forced to march rapidly with our hands thrust deep in our pockets. To our west there are views of the pine-clad crater of Mount Franklin, an extinct volcano, and potential campsite for hikers (although it is a slight divergence from the trail).
The road becomes a track and then we are back following narrow water races through the forest. This area is also particularly abundant in mining relics and we see the remains of stone chimneys, walls, pottery and pits. From 1851 to 1854 the Castlemaine area was the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfield, a legacy now protected within the 7 500 hectare Castlemaine Dry Diggings National Heritage Park. The density of the pits gives us some idea of the level activity this area must have experienced at the height of the rush.
We make camp in Browns Gully, a beautiful sheltered spot among manna gums, about 18 kilometres from Hepburn Springs. It is still relatively early so I have some quality prospecting time. As there is no water in any of the gullies I have to rely upon stumbling upon a nugget. I stumble upon various other things, like branches, logs and rocks, but the closest I come to finding a nugget is unearthing an ancient crushed can of Solo lemonade. Overnight the skies clear and we can see the stars among the waving trees.
Our final day on the trail. Again there are lots of mining relics including rusty cans, bolts and machinery parts. We find a spider orchid beside the path, a prelude to the abundance of orchids we will find closer to Castlemaine.
Descending to the Loddon River at Vaughan Springs we leave the dry, harsh hills and enter an oasis of shade and water. The weir where we cross has created a lovely swimming hole, and the reserve’s toilets, water, barbeques and grassy banks make it a good place to camp. But we press on, up out of the Loddon valley and onto the surrounding plains with names that prove that plain names don’t necessarily have to have plain: Chokem Flat, Murderers Flat and Deadman’s Flat.
We pass through Fryerstown, another former booming gold rush town, now a tiny village strung out around its grand gold rush era buildings such as the red bricked Burke and Wills Mechanics Institute.
Seven kilometres from Castlemaine we come across ‘The Monk’ a rocky hill alive with orchids and wildflowers. Bright yellow yam daisies, purple waxlip orchids and the blotched golden flowers of leopard orchids all in the most incredible profusion, enough to drive a plant-nerd into a frenzy.
As we begin our long slow descent along Poverty Gully race into the grand old town of Castlemaine I’m finally content to stop looking for gold.
This article originally appeared in Wild 116