THE TOWNS THAT GOLD BUILT
See why the Loddon Valley and Bendigo is one of the best value-for-money adventures in Victoria
WORDS BY FRED WRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN HABERFIELD
Central Victoria… I mused as I fuelled up the Isuzu MU-X for its maiden voyage towing the Crusader Excalibur. We’d had a wonderful time in parts of this region last year, having met some of the nicest and most truly unforgettable people along the way. With this in mind there were definitely high expectations for this trip in Bridgewater on Loddon.
Robyn Vella, tourism manager for the Loddon Valley Shire had phoned me a little over a month earlier and invited us back to visit the brand new caravan park at Bridgewater – suffice it to say, we couldn’t wait to visit!
Some 900 odd kilometres from Sydney brought us to our destination at a cost of 150 dollars for diesel although the fuel needle showed I had just over half a tank when we left. “What remarkable mileage” I thought, especially for towing a 3 tonne caravan with an engine that’s not run-in yet.
Our base caravan park was virtually brand new with spotlessly clean amenities and a recreation area with two new stoves and two new fridges as well as microwaves! There are more than 100 powered, grassy sites and beside you is a sullage pit, water, a power outlet and a dumpsite not too far away – things really couldn’t be better. Resident managers Deb and Harry are both seasoned motorhomers themselves, so from experience they know just what RVers want.
A quick check of our maps and a walk by the Loddon River revealed stunning birdlife, so we were convinced that this caravan park would be perfect for our needs. The moment we set up camp and I felt lush green grass under my feet I realised why locals were as proud as they are of this caravan park. We were determined to enjoy this trip on a budget and with that in mind, we were delighted when a group of locals volunteered to show us around.
Our first stop was at Pat’s Bridgewater Bakery, a hive of activity with people lined up to buy his bread, cakes, slices, coffee and other tempting treats. Over 600 or so a day visit Pat’s – and it’s not just because he makes bread the old fashioned way with zero preservatives, or for his freshly-roasted coffee, but for his remarkable customer service.
Determined to see just how this remarkable little business got the job done, we dropped by at 2:45 in the morning! Pat and his team were in full swing baking bread, pies and even cream-filled chocolate éclairs. We learned that the team had been hard at it since 11pm the night before, and the scent of freshly-baked goods was, let me tell you, – simply intoxicating stuff.
Graham, our team leader for the day, took us to the Water Wheel Winery where we met the owner, Pat – no relation to the baking master mind you! Pat quickly came across as a genuine character and his wines are worth the trip to his cellar door. He went on to tell us about the unique way his Shiraz wines are made: all wines are made white and the red wines get their colour from the way red grape skins are plunged.
‘Tumbleweeds and toadstools opposite the bakery was one of those quaint welcoming shops where you can find hand-made clothing, and stuffed toys. We like to give Aussies a go wherever we can, so we spent some time and money in there.
We went on to enjoy a picnic lunch beneath the shade on the banks of the gently-flowing Loddon River. It wasn’t long before we noticed three locals jump straight into the watering hole, while an older couple calmly sailed past in their canoe. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not hard to fall in love with this place and I’ve got to say, the river plays a big part in that.
Our first day ended with a happy hour outside our Crusader van and after we said our farewells to our local guides it was off to the hotel for a tiptop pub meal. It was great value for money and cooked beautifully.
Day two began with waking up to an azure-blue sky and gentle breezes and we prepared to head south-west to Dunolly. It was there at the Dunolly court house that we met up with our guide, Fiona. Inside the court house you’ll admire the faithful restoration and discover that once upon a time women were not allowed inside unless they were prisoners – I’m happy that times have changed I can tell you that much! Apparently the court house had been moved several times and once because the judge complained that he could not hear the court proceedings properly. I enjoyed the way that you could don a Judge’s wig, take a court script and conduct your own court hearing.
If you look carefully you can find the imprint in a brick of a cat’s paw – the signature of the original bricklayer. There’re also old police stables for horses and a criminal lockup to complete this fascinating tour.
Wright on Broadway is an amazing outlet selling local produce, wines and art. It’s tastefully furnished with comfortable lounge chairs and a charming décor to boot! The cooking smells ever so enticing so why not drop in and sample the hand-made food on offer? Superb for a happy hour on the town you might even say.
Look for the steel anvil on which the Welcome Stranger gold nugget was broken up and reflect on the fact that the gold rushes of the 1850s and 60s Dunolly and surrounding districts saw more gold nuggets found than anywhere else in Australia. It might be a plan to follow the Golden Triangle of towns and see if you can strike it big!
MARYBOROUGH AND NEWBRIDGE
Maryborough is south of Dunolly and with a population over 8000, it’s definitely somewhere you could spend your time exploring. There’s a magnificent railway station, post office and a park in the middle of town with shady trees, flowing water and green grass – perfect for an afternoon stroll or for a quick bite of lunch.
We’d dropped into Coiltek Gold Centre (where the entry was free) on the way into Maryborough to discover what was on offer for the travelling prospector. Here you can purchase your miner’s right and get useful information on where to dig and not to dig. There’s everything from the traditional pick and shovel to sophisticated and easy to carry metal detectors. I wouldn’t count on making my fame and fortune but many people have and some have not only paid for fuel but have found enough gold to pay for their entire trip!
Possum Gully Fine Arts was close to town so we paid Trish a visit. She shows the works of local artists and is happy to discuss and explain everything.
Heading off to nearby Talbot we came across Stoney Creek Oil. This is a working factory that takes seeds and crushes them into oils. Fred’s an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to oil based products! Check with your doctor first but for those suffering with arthritis, there may be some relief for you here.
Our first stop of the day was at a delightful freedom camp on the Loddon River at Newbridge. The Newbridge Recreation Reserve Camping Area was a 10 dollar a night, payable at the shop over the bridge or in the hotel across from it.
Campers there made sure we spent a delightful time with them and we also met local councilors keen to explain how visitors are welcome. You’ll find hot showers, toilets, wheelchair access, rubbish removal and a tennis court. Dogs are allowed but make sure you never park underneath the river red gum trees – don’t do this anywhere in Australia for that matter – they drop their heavy limbs without much warning. Oh, and if fishing is your passion then this may be the camp for you.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Bendigo, which was once one of the richest towns in the world. We went underground in Central Deborah gold mine with Zoe, our guide. We operated a drilling machine and above ground, we even tried our hand at panning for gold. There are trips that represent great value for money with easy walking: just ask the friendly staff. Why not hop on the Talking Tram and see Bendigo’s highlights on a hop-on-hop-off tour?
Bendigo Military Museum in the main street was fascinating! Cliff, a Vietnam War veteran showed us the reading room where you can read the actual letters written by the troops to their loved ones in WWI. A large adjacent room houses models of kitted out soldiers from many wars in Australia’s history.
The Bendigo Joss House where the Talking Tram terminates was our next stop and Michael, our guide, showed us around. These Joss houses were vital for the Chinese community who lived here in tent cities during the gold rush. The Joss houses were important not just as a spiritual place, but a community centre as well.
Bendigo Pottery was not new to us but we chose to see their newly stocked antiques and collectables. We were not disappointed and you’ll want to devote at least an hour here. There’s plenty of parking even for large caravans and motorhomes.
Indulge Chocolates caught our attention and Hayley, the chocolatier par excellence, has invested heavily in expensive chocolate making machines. I tried my hand at actually making tasty treats but alas, I think more practice is needed! You won’t be able to resist these chocolates and they’ll be lucky to last until you get back to your fridge because they’re just that yummy. Make a note to start the day after you leave this place!
The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion was one of the most impressive places I have ever visited. Engineered with special steel and concrete to last a thousand years, this giant Buddhist monument is rapidly taking shape. I made a promise to return when it is completed, including a 2.5 metre tall jade statue of Buddha for Universal peace as a centerpiece. Once complete it will stand over 50 metres tall, making it the largest Stupa in the western world.
A FINAL STOP IN CASTLEMAINE
In Castlemaine we visited Buda Historic Home (after Budapest in Hungary). This magnificent stately family home spanned some 100 years of occupancy. You’ll love the interior of the home with rooms featuring furniture of the period and enjoy walking through its beautiful gardens.
It seemed that we had seen it all until we arrived at Brian Nunan’s Artist studio and gallery. Brian has travelled to the Kimberley for the past 30 years painting and sketching real people. Do yourself a favour and spend time here to admire an amazing artist’s work that true-blue, through and through.
We were soon off to Castlemaine Railway Station to board a steam train ride to remember. Your train ride stops at Maldow for two hours for lunch and a good look around. This historic township was declared Australia’s first notable town in 1966. You’ll get a real insight into life in the gold rush era while enjoying the best this region has to offer.
Shades of Gray is comprises a studio and gardens. Ring before you come and be rewarded with works of art created from recycled steel materials.
We topped off our Castlemaine visit with some exquisite apple cider at Henry of Harcourt. Located in Harcourt this is the largest collection of English and French cider apples – the chilled cider really hit the spot!
Has Central Victoria got it all? Well the locals who love it certainly think so and invite you to share it with them.