Is this Victoria’s ultimate ghost town?
Love ghost hunting? Here’s why you need to visit Walhalla, the valley of the ghosts.
There’s something real nasty up there,” whispers the bloke in the Akubra. “Red eyes, there’s a pair of red eyes up there, you can see them at the front of the house.”
It’s Ken of Traralgon’s second time on the Walhalla Heritage and Development League’s Saturday-night ghost tour and for a minute I suspect he’s a plant, but no, Ken’s enthusiasm sits him genuinely at the ‘open to suggestion’ end of the sceptics scale, and it’s proving contagious.
Walhalla is home to a legion of supernatural residents.
It’s deeply dark and still in this tucked-away valley at the edge of the Victorian alps, and we have only lantern light and the spookily breathless (thanks to a cold) voice of tour leader Sally to guide our way. She tells us this is a “very active” area, and that poking ghostly little fingers into the knees of ripped jeans is a favourite trick of the restless child spirits that haunt the former school site in front of us. I’m not into distressed denim but the skin at my ankles feels awfully exposed. (More: RACV members can freak out with exclusive deals on a range of spooky tours.)
Whatever your position on the supernatural, Sally’s craftily told ghost tales are a helluva way to illustrate history.
We hear about the well-dressed gentleman who fades away like television static, the cemetery’s cursed grave, and ghostly nurse Emily who tucks in the sheets around B ’n’ B guests, interwoven with historical facts of jaw-dropping gold finds (more than Ballarat and Bendigo combined), cheek-by-jowl living conditions and the arsenic and mercury-fouled creek that, along with silicosis and typhoid brought early death (and a busy after-life) to so many.
But Sally’s most disturbing story needs no other-worldly embellishment. It’s the tale of 21-year-old bride Sarah Ann Hanks who fell ill with smallpox on the stagecoach journey to Walhalla in 1869.
“It was a quick death but it was a very painful death,” Sally explains. “They put her husband in quarantine, built an eight-foot fence around her house and left her to die. The townspeople reported hearing her screaming in agony, crying and then towards the end laughing hysterically.”
Sarah’s body was “thrown down a hole” on the hill behind the house, her grave newly discovered last year, and in March a memorial service was held to mark her short life and awful death.
She was one of hordes chasing fortune in the boom town of Walhalla. In its 1870s gold-mining heyday it had 3500 residents and 10 pubs. Today it’s home to one pub and 20 residents, but visitors to this out-of-the-way spot number up to 130,000 a year.
Star Hotel owner and shire councillor Michael Leaney puts it down to the ‘it’ factor of a real gold town preserved by its post-boom decline – “there are no pink three-fronted brick veneers in Walhalla” – and a planning scheme that mandates a gold-era style for all buildings. Its end-of-the-line location only adds to the appeal.
“You have a real sense of arrival,” says Michael. “You turn off from Traralgon or Moe and for the last 11 ks the road narrows, the trees get taller, the road gets windier and then you cross the river and you’ve literally got cliff face on one side and sheer mountain edge on the other, and a lot of people think ‘where the hell are we going?’.
“Then you come around that last bend and there’s a little cottage stuck on top of a hill, then the railway line jammed into the gorge beneath you, then there’s a cemetery perched on the side of a mountain and all the European trees… People drive around the corner and go ‘wow’, it’s like a hidden valley in the middle of nowhere.”
They find a town that is pretty and characterful, with rich history and must-dos including bush walks and four-wheel driving. The cast of local characters extends to a Scotsman who plays bagpipes in full kilt and caboodle from the elevated Tramline Walk above town.
But Walhalla is still more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t feel like anywhere you’ve ever been.
“It’s not Sovereign Hill, it’s a living town,” says Michael. “What makes Walhalla special is that it’s a bit rough around the edges.”
It has also been defined by the things it doesn’t have. Until mid-July there was no mobile phone coverage, and mains power arrived just 20 years ago when the Star Hotel was rebuilt. The cables were buried, leaving the town without power poles or street lights (all the better for a ghost tour) and visual clutter that you don’t notice until it’s blessedly absent.
We pass the mound marking Sarah Hanks’ grave on our sunshiney last morning, on the steep path to the cricket ground set high above the town. With flat land a rarity, miners lopped off the top of the hill with pick and shovel to make a flat space for sports and socialising.
We have this magical spot to ourselves, just creaking black-trunked trees and the drip of last night’s rain on singed leaves breaking the silence. Two months earlier Walhalla was almost three-quarters ringed by bushfire, and both hillside and pitch were blackened in parts.
“We had a divine intervention that night and got a dramatic amount of rain,” says Michael. “Walhalla’s not called Valley of the Gods for nothing.”
Where is it?
180 kilometres east of Melbourne; about 46 kilometres north of Moe and Traralgon.
Best time to visit
Any time, but May is best for blazing autumn colour.
While you're there
Tuck into huge counter meals at the low-key Walhalla Lodge Hotel, aka ‘the Wally Pub’.