The world’s largest recorded nugget of gold – the 64.5kg Welcome Stranger – was discovered near Moliagul in 1869, and Victoria’s goldfields have continued to deliver the goods, so to speak, ever since. The 27.2kg Hand of Faith nugget was found near Kingower in 1980, followed by a 4.1kg chunk and 2.5kg nugget in 2016 – and that’s just a few of the known finds. For obvious reasons, the majority of prospectors keep their eureka moments to themselves.
Although the value of the dollar can wax and wane, gold prices are currently at record levels, and searching for it is a great reason to explore the great Australian bush. While goldfields cities Ballarat and Bendigo showcase their rich history at Ballarat’s open-air museum, Sovereign Hill and Bendigo’s Central Deborah Mine, the many villages and ghost towns of Victoria’s Central Goldfields make it one of Australia’s most fascinating – and potentially rewarding – regions.
Victoria’s gold rush began at Clunes, 86mi northwest of Melbourne, in July 1851, when Irishman James Esmond registered Victoria’s first gold strike.
This discovery triggered a rush that was to change the course of Australia’s history. Tens of thousands of people from more than 20 countries flocked to the goldfields, which proved to be extraordinarily rich – between 1851 and 1896, the Victorian Mines Department reported that 1,898,391kg of gold was mined in Victoria. And that’s only what was recorded.
Like many gold-rush towns, Clunes sprang to life in tandem with the arrival of gold-hungry prospectors in the 1850s, then all but faded into obscurity when the gold ran out.
During its halcyon days, Clunes had more than 60 businesses, 23 hotels, dozens of sly grog-shanties, imposing public buildings and seven goldmines.
By the 1970s, Clunes resembled a ghost town; many of its shops had been closed for decades and its few industries were in decline.
These days, Clunes is regarded as one of Australia’s most intact 19th-century towns, and is a favourite with movie-makers – Mad Max (1979) and Ned Kelly (2003) were both made here – and is an ideal starting point from which to explore the Central Goldfields.
The city of Maryborough, 20mi north of Clunes, boasts colonial architecture, including a railway station so grand that, in 1895, visiting American author Mark Twain called it a “railway station with a town attached”.
Maryborough is home to Coiltek Gold Centre, which supplies the latest gold detectors, and runs regular prospecting tours for novices.
Prospectors in the know, such as Andy Gladdis from Coiltek, say that old goldfields – such as Tarnagulla, Amherst, Bealiba, Goldborough, Rheola, Inkerman and Dunolly – continue to give up rewards.
Gladdis drives along a scenic web of backroads passing several ghost towns, including Havelock, once home to thousands of people and now a series of paddocks without so much as a chimney standing.
He passes the site of hundreds of graves at a place called Lunatic Gully; sees kangaroos bound at another ghost town called Adelaide Lead; and wanders around Daisy Hill, once a village of 800 Chinese prospectors, where the remains of a bath house can still be seen.
Before manning the detectors on this fascinating tour, a visiting group learns about the environmental features prospectors looked for. Old diggers called wild cherry trees “gold trees”, says Gladdis, because they often ran along mineralised zones. Flax lilies, which deep-root in clay (gold is found in clay too), as well as fractured pieces of quartz from decayed quartz reefs, can also be found here.
They try their luck prospecting in the bush near Dunolly, 15mi north of Maryborough. Along with gold rush towns Moliagul and Tarnagulla – which make up what is known as the “Golden Triangle” – Dunolly is said to be the site of the world’s richest deposits of alluvial gold.
Home to more than 45,000 people during the gold rush, Dunolly features a parade of historic buildings dating back to a time when the town was hectic with theatres, bowling alleys, pubs, brothels and scores of shops.
“It’s like playing golf,” says Gladdis, as the group listens for the beep a detector makes when it passes over metal. “The more you swing a detector, the better you get at it. Gold fossicking requires good equipment, patience – and plenty of luck.”
Nine miles north of Dunolly is Tarnagulla – a town which sits amid a landscape of verdant paddocks, yellow fields of canola and flowering golden wattle.
Cocooned in a time warp, Tarnagulla now has a population of just 150 – but back in 1865, it was around 20,000, when the town had two breweries, a newspaper, nine general stores and four hotels. Today there are plenty of closed-down shops, and the Golden Age Hotel, dating from 1857.
At the Golden Age, a local prospector suggests an exploration of Waanyarra, 5mi south – where, he claims, “the purest gold in the world – 99.9%” has been found. Set amid the Dunolly State Forest, Waanyarra became a bustling town when gold was discovered there in 1852. Today, little remains except the long-abandoned Mortons Welcome Inn Hotel, built in 1852 – nevertheless, it’s a peaceful spot to swing a metal detector and hike the 4.3-mi Waanyarra Walk.
Timor, a dot on the map 5mi northwest of Maryborough, is another find. At its zenith in the 1880s, Timor’s streets thronged with thousands of people who slaked their thirst at 38 hotels. Today, there is little to indicate this was once a boomtown except the ruins of the Grand Duke mine, a landscape covered with mullock heaps, an old store and police lock-up, and a school.
Amherst, 16mi south of Timor, is another ghost town that remains popular with prospectors. It’s difficult to believe it was a pandemonium of 30,000 people in the 1860s, but while all Amherst’s buildings have been destroyed by bushfires, relics of one of Victoria’s busiest goldfields still exist 3mi away at Talbot.
Once busy with around 100 hotels, today Talbot is a sleepy village. A stroll around town reveals a museum, library, town hall, old banks and Courthouse Hotel, dating from 1859, which serves traditional pub fare.
More fascinating sites around Talbot include ancient Aboriginal drinking wells and, just off the Maryborough Road, a shelter tree – a large hollowed-out gum said to be about 700 years old – where women of the Jajowurrong clan gave birth.
Nearby is the 1,675-ha Paddy’s Ranges State Park – home to more than 140 recorded species of native birds and 230 species of wildflowers, as well as a good site to view gold-mining relics.
“There’s nothing better than walking through the great Australian bush,” says Andy Gladdis. “And if a piece of gold pops up, what a bonus.”
So, is there another Welcome Stranger waiting to be unearthed in the Central Goldfields? “Without a doubt,” said Gladdis. “It’s just the swipe of a metal detector away.”
And will you be the one to discover it? There’s only one way to find out.
To prospect for gold in Victoria, a current fossicking permit (known as a miner’s right) is needed. This costs 25.20 dollars (£14) from the Victorian Government’s Earth Resources and is valid for ten years.
The Central Goldfields Visitor Information Centre in Maryborough has maps and brochures of the region. For more information on visiting the Central Goldfields region visit www.centralgoldfields.vic.gov.au