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All that glitters in Ballarat
Underground mine tours, crocodile feeding time, a tangled maze, real-live knights jousting, and sky-high stacks of pancakes. Rebecca Lawson discovers it’s all here for the taking in Australia’s Eureka town.

An easy drive from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport lies one of Australia’s gems – Ballarat. It is the dusty, colonial history of the place that attracts most visitors – and this will not disappoint – but there is a lot more than the sweat and toil of the early Australians to discover here. Make sure you find time in your visit for flora and fauna, delectable dining and the medieval castle – yep, I said medieval castle.

Getting wild

A few games of I-Spy, a round of Row-Your-Boat and a brief description of the gold-rush period later and our drive from Tullamarine airport comes to its end at the first stop on our itinerary, Ballarat’s Wildlife Park – and what a great way to start a family adventure. The first thing the kids see when walking through the gates is a tawny, windswept expanse dotted with the occasional hardy bush doggedly clinging to life. This is just what Aussie scrub should be and it’s the perfect place to feed a kangaroo, which is just what we do within minutes of entering the park. However, as excited as the kids always are to have a joey eat from their hands, theirs wasn’t the most anticipated meal-time.

Two-year-old GiGi can’t wait to touch the plump, snuggly wombat (safely held by the trainer) despite the ‘I bite fingers’ sign clearly displayed on the fence. But that isn’t the only bite we are interested in – it is also lunch-time in the croc enclosure and six-year-old Harry, along with about 20 other fascinated youngsters, fight for front-row window space as the messy meal plays out just a metre before them, courtesy of a very brave (and perhaps slightly reckless) ranger who hand feeds the beasts.

After watching the crocs chow-down, we have worked up an appetite ourselves, so dinner at the peaceful Boatshed Restaurant, reclining on the edge of the stunning Lake Wendouree, is looking pretty good. A delicious modern-Australian menu and wine list ensures parents can enjoy a gourmet delight (I demolish the Porterhouse fillet while my husband can’t pass up the pork belly with Vietnamese mint salad) while the laid back atmosphere and boat-shed location keep the meal on the casual side, just how families with small children (or even teens) like it to be.

Moats and mazes

After a quiet night in, we fill up on a humungous breakfast of pancakes, bacon and in GiGi’s case, a lake of golden syrup at Pancake Kitchen in down-town Ballarat. Then it’s time to brave the wind and rain to tackle the Tangled Maze a short drive away in Creswick. I’ll admit to some reservations due to the miserable weather, but I definitely needn’t have worried – the friendly staff are ready with disposable raincoats and the kids still carve it up on the maze’s treasure hunt, despite (or perhaps because of) the muddy puddles. After we find our way out of the maze, it’s time to travel back to the medieval days of sorcery and dragons, fairies and yet another maze. Kryal Castle is everything kids love most about theme parks. Huge turrets welcome visitors who, once inside, can try their hand at the sword in the stone, watch real-live jousting in the arena and visit the Wizard’s Workroom. A little warning though – the dungeon is pretty graphic and I wouldn’t recommend squeamish kids (or adults) even peer in the door.

Panning for gold

An expansive and dusty colonial village meets us as we enter the star of Ballarat Tourism, Sovereign Hill. We begin with a walk through the digger’s tents. The conditions here are a real wake-up call for children of the modern age who have been softened by hot water on-tap, electric lights and television. Harry simply cannot understand the concept of an outside toilet and no Wii, and can’t help asking where residents park the car. Later, when we visit the local school house, the pen you have to dip in an ink pot is equally amazing, but he simply refuses to believe that the teacher with cane-in-hand was ever allowed to hit his pupils.

As we wander further through the village, costumed ‘locals’ give us insightful information, taking the time to regal the kids with all the juicy details of ‘life in the olden-days’, impressing and horrifying them in turn. When we get to the river ready to pan for gold, GiGi insists she’ll find enough to make herself a ring – and who am I to argue? We all crouch down and slosh water around in pans and other gold-seeking implements. All I get out of it are wet jeans, but the kids have a ball.

Harry and GiGi pull off the dark and deep Gold Mine Tour with ease despite their young ages. In act, I think they enjoy the spooky ghost tale about early Oriental gold diggers more than most. There are different lengths of tours to choose from, so it is easy to pick according to the ages (and levels of claustrophobia) in your family.

 

There are plenty of great activities on to quickly fill up the day. They include sweet making and horse-drawn carriage tours around the village. There is noisy musket firing, steam machinery at work, a redcoat soldiers parade, and visitors can also watch gold smelting, but candle dipping is the surprise hit of the day for our family. Standing around huge vats of coloured wax, the kids love creating the rainbow colours. Turning out all the lights at home and watching the candles burn still makes Harry and GiGi feel just like ‘those kids who lived in the olden days’.

The Colonial Way

Do you like the idea of a back-to-basics holiday where the kids can learn all about ‘the olden days’ in authentic style? The Colonial Way is the perfect company to make it happen. Based out of Rheola in Victoria, they hire out horse-drawn gypsy caravans to families who want to explore the goldfields in a unique way. Now that’s a fly-drive with a delightful difference!

 

REPORT CARD

Ballarat Regional Tourism www.visitballarat.com.au  

Getting there: Ballarat is a short hour and a half’s drive from Tullamarine Airport.

Eat:
Such N Such www.suchnsuch.com.au
The Boatshed www.boatshed-restaurant.com
Da Vinci’s www.ballarat.com/davincis.htm
The New York Bakery www.sovereignhill.com.au
The Pancake Parlour www.pancakeparlour.com

Do:
Ballarat Wildlife Park www.wildlifepark.com.au
Tangled Maze www.tangledmaze.com.au
Kryal Castle www.kryalcastle.com.au
Sovereign Hill www.sovereignhill.com.au
The Colonial Way www.colonialway.com.au

 

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