All images © Aleney de Winter
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.