Ballarat hasn’t drawn all the region’s mining heritage into its historic core, so set the sat-nav for Buninyong.
Buninyong is a small town with a big story. The earliest inland settlement in the then Port Phillip District of NSW, it was born in the 1830s of Western District pastoral interests and grew up in the frantic gold rush.
Buninyong’s blacksmith Thomas Hiscock made the region’s first official gold strike (earlier finds went undeclared for fear the Crown would reclaim the land), just weeks before the Poverty Point (soon known as Golden Point) find that brought thousands to the fabulously rich Ballarat diggings and changed Victoria forever. The first protest against licences on the goldfields, which ultimately led to the Eureka Stockade, was in Buninyong.
The name is thought to derive from the Aboriginal words for “man lying on his back with his knees raised,” which is how the Wada Wurrung people saw the extinct volcano overlooking the town. We start our drive through the lesser-known gold country 19km south of Ballarat with the hill-and-plains view from atop landmark Mt Buninyong.
Down from those 719m heights, we pick up a Buninyong Visitor Guide from the old library (1861) and explore on foot: Italianate town hall and court house; stone and brick churches; grand homes; botanic gardens planted with donations from Ferdinand von Mueller; Sheppard’s Crystal Malt Brewery (1855).
The Whykes family supplied Buninyong with meat from 1864 to 2000 and their shop is now Espresso Depot, a great spot for coffee and cake.
A visit to Victoria’s second registered cemetery, about 3km west of town, just past where Hiscock found that gold, reminds us just how tough life was in the early days, when too many died from illness, injury and childbirth.
Now it’s south through farmland and the gold hamlet of Durham Lead and west from Mt Mercer. Having turned south onto Colac-Ballarat Rd, we leave it just shy of Dereel and head for Berringa, on an unsealed road which loops around Enfield State Park through coarse regrowth scrub typical of gold country.
The rotting remains of a small trestle bridge make a great photo stop before we veer left at Staffordshire Reef towards Newtown. About 5km along, Jubilee Rd (track on left) takes us to the Jubilee Goldmine Historic Reserve.
An easy walk (although the track start is not obvious) passes water races, mullock heaps and battery foundations, relics of large-scale quartz mining from 1899 to 1912 (although the cyanide works date from the 1930s) that yielded more than 125,000 ounces of gold. Along the way we see grass trees in flower, exquisite purple fringe lilies, and two people working the ground with gold detectors.
Next stop is Newtown and a detour to Nimmons Bridge. Built for the disused Ballarat-to-Skipton rail line and now on the Ballarat to Skipton Rail Trail, this magnificent 19th century timber trestle bridge spans the Woady Yaloak River.
North again in rose-filled Smythesdale, with its old wares and vintage shop. We walk the police precinct, peering into the bluestone cell block and studying with morbid fascination the restored gallows from HM Prison Ballarat and then toast the past at the restored 1856 Courthouse Hotel, directly opposite.
To finish our drive, we make tracks to Beaufort, via Snake Valley, through windy scrubby country that looks like it’s got nothing going for it – except perhaps untold undiscovered gold reefs! Horses graze a few properties. Then we’re out in open sheep and cattle pasture.
The drive ends in Beaufort, on the Western Hwy, with its gorgeous lace-trimmed rotunda and train station art gallery (Friday-Monday only). The highlight of Beaufort, however, is undoubtedly the Big Garage Sale, a treasure trove of antique furniture and glassware, rusty metal wheels, bottles, jerry cans and much more irresistible stuff.
The owner even invites us to bring our greyhound through – after he’s secured his dog-unfriendly cat in a filing cabinet for our protection.
See royalauto.com.au for more Melanie Ball cycles, drives and walks.
Ballarat hosts Cycling Australia’s annual Road National Championships so you could ride the 10.2km race course, taking in Mt Buninyong’s lower slopes. Then again, you could ditch the two-wheel climbing and instead pedal the gentler profile of the Ballarat-to-Skipton Rail Trail, enjoying an elevated view from Nimmons Bridge.
Mt Buninyong is the starting point of the Goldfields Track, a 210k shared walking/mountain biking trail that meanders through gold history all the way to Bendigo. Step out in the footsteps of prospectors and gold-era entrepreneurs for a few hours, a day or overnight.