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Ballarat

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Golden Moments

Ballarat

Aleney de Winter and family travel back in time in Ballarat, the heart of Victoria’s historic goldfields.

“I’m rich,” shouts my six-year-old daughter gleefully, not a minute after she first starts sluicing water and dirt back and forth in her pan. And sure enough, in her pan is a glittering fleck of real gold that probably has a value of somewhere in the vicinity of one or two cents. She may not have made her fortune yet, but it’s a golden moment in a weekend that is proving to be rich in learning, fun and family bonding.

Ballarat

Gold fever

Australia’s biggest and best outdoor museum, Sovereign Hill, whisks families back through time to Ballarat’s gold rush. Spread over 25 hectares of original alluvial goldfields, the recreation gold rush town brings the decade after the discovery of gold in Ballarat in 1851 back to life.

But this is no ordinary museum: it is a living, breathing place that kids will never tire of exploring because it provides education, adventure and solid-gold family fun.

We explore the underground mines, enjoy historic reenactments and take a horse-drawn coach tour around the village. The kids test their skills at nine-pin bowling and watch skilful tradesmen use authentic Victorian machinery to build and create wheels, spin metal, make lollies and melt and set gold ingots.

Around every corner and down every alleyway of Sovereign Hill, opportunities abound to meet, interact and share a laugh with the many costumed characters. Of course, the children want to join in so we head to the Photography Rooms and get fully dressed up in their finest Victorian gold rush gear for a family portrait to remember. But for the kids, the star attraction is the Red Hill Gully Diggings, where they’re both struck with a serious case of gold fever. Indeed, they even managed to sluice their way to half a dozen pieces of the glittering stuff.

We tear them away from their panning to go underground on the Red Hill Mine Tour, to find out more about the dark and dangerous world of mining, then on a mine tram through a dark tunnel into the Secret Chamber, to follow the adventures of two Chinese diggers as they search for gold.

As darkness falls, Blood on the Southern Cross transforms Sovereign Hill into an explosive and immersive sound-and-light extravaganza that tells the story of the 1854 Eureka Uprising, a dramatic battle between gold miners and government forces at Ballarat. Though it is late when the spectacular show finishes, we’re staying at the Sovereign Hill Hotel, a mere 30-second walk from all the 1850s action, so we’re able to have the kids tucked away in bed and dreaming golddusted dreams as soon as the show finishes.

Ballarat

All that glitters

It is more than just the precious metal it’s famous for that gives Ballarat its shiny family appeal and we fast discover that, in this part of the world, all that glitters isn’t always gold. In fact, this treasure of a city is a heritage-heavy wonderland of fine bluestone and handmade brick structures that rose with the fortunes of the gold-hunters, when banks and governments flocked to the city during the gold rush. Today, the gorgeous buildings have been repurposed as theatres and galleries, and its laneways are filled with art and bustling cafes.

We visit the Ballarat Tram Museum, stopping to check out the collection, before taking a ride on a rattling vintage tram along one of the city’s original tracks through the beautiful Botanical Gardens on the west side of Lake Wendouree, where the kids are excited to spot an even older horse-drawn tram circumnavigating the lake.

Australia’s most significant cool climate garden, the Botanical Gardens, is breathtaking. We visit the goldfish ponds, stroll down the Prime Ministers Avenue and head for the Adventure Playground, where the kids immediately lose themselves in its vast wooden network of towers, bridges and slides. There’s also the lovely Indigenous Playground, a magical play space of mosaic artworks, native plants, story boards and musical play equipment.

We enjoy close encounters of the wild kind as the kids meet an assortment of free-roaming native animals at Ballarat Wildlife Park. Keen for a little more furry fun, we also find time for a stop at Donegan’s Farm, a working farm around 20 minutes from Ballarat, where my daughter delights in feeding the baby lambs and chooks.

At M.A.D.E – Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka – we introduce the kids to the ideas of democracy through interactive and immersive exhibitions. Located on the actual site of the 1854 Eureka Stockade, when gold prospectors made a stand against unreasonable restrictions by the authorities, the Eureka flag is the museum’s centrepiece. While some of its significance is lost on the little one, my history-mad son is hooked. And I spend the rest of the day enjoying discussions on the concept of democracy and answering his many questions.

Ballarat

Surely you joust

Too much history is never enough for us so we end our Ballarat adventures even further back in time. Kryal Castle transports us back another 700 years or so as we watch live jousting, jesters, jugglers and fire-eaters doing their medieval thing. The kids polish their plastic swords and dive straight in to this enchanting world of fearsome dragons, gallant knights and wily wizards. At least they do after they find their way out of the Dragon’s Labyrinth with its dark shadows, heavy armour and evocative skeletons.

We spy thrones and royal folk wandering around, as well as archery and sword-fighting demonstrations and other outrageous medieval acts. Raff is especially entranced by the displays of combat and the thundering of horse hooves through the arena as the castle’s resident knights joust.

Both the kids love the Wizard’s Workroom in the Oggle Watch Tower, mostly due to its rather Hogwartsian vibe. And while Raff is intrigued by the Torture Museum, it’s too gruesome for me, so I take the little one off for sweeter adventures in the Tooth Fairy Lolly Shop to ensure a nightmare-free return back to the 21st century and home.

This article appeared in volume 54 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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