“A theme park?”, I asked my guide as we strolled around Melbourne. Cartoon characters and wild, adrenaline-inducing rides immediately sprang to mind. “Well, no”, she replied, “it’s more like an open-air museum. If you’re interested in history, you’ll love it there”. It was the first of several times that day that a local recommended a visit to Sovereign Hill once they found out about my solo road-trip around Victoria. I was intrigued but the idea of visiting a theme park (not one of my favourite things to do when I travel) still left me doubting if this was something I wanted to do.
Visiting Sovereign Hill
Sovereign Hill is located in Ballarat (1.5-hour drive from Melbourne), a historic town famous as the ‘Gateway to Victoria’s Goldfields’. The gold rush in the 19th century brought much wealth and people from far-flung places to Ballarat, and the influence of this era can be felt and seen till this very day. A stroll along one of the town’s broad, tree-lined boulevards reveals a lot about this history and the people who settled here in their search for gold.
Little clouds of doubt still lingered in my mind as I drove to Sovereign Hill just outside Ballarat’s town centre. I really wasn’t sure what to expect but I chose to follow one of my favourite mantras: “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it”. That’s the beauty of travel isn’t it? It always presents all sorts of opportunities to challenge preconceived judgements. Well, I was up for the challenge!
It hit me the minute I passed through the ticketing office and stepped onto Main Street, a dirt-road lined with beautiful houses, shops and cafés. I spotted several mine-workers, law-enforcers and shopkeepers walking down the road – all actors of course – dressed in clothing from days bygone.
Those little clouds of doubt evaporated in an instant and were replaced by a mixture of bewilderment and awe. Sovereign Hill aims to recreate life in the gold-rush era and they do it in a convincing and highly-educational fashion. The first thing that struck me was the minute attention to detail. It truly felt like I’d stepped back in time. The buildings looked incredibly authentic and the costumed actors who walked the streets or manned the stores played their parts to perfection. I was impressed!
I took the time to immerse myself in this history. I dressed up as a gentleman for a photo; visited a drapery, the gorgeous Victoria Theatre and the amazing Boiler & Engine House; and witnessed how smolten gold is poured into a cast to create a solid bar of gold. I also went on a mine tour in which visitors travel on a little train into the depths of an old mine, then proceed on foot through the tunnels to see how the miners worked in those days under pretty horrific circumstances. The guide expertly mixed bits of facts and figures with fascinating rags-to-riches, but often gut-wrenching stories from this era.
I also got to do a spot of gold-panning and lo-and-behold, I found a speck of gold! My guide seemed impressed by my panning skills – “You must’ve done this before. You’ve got a great technique!”. Errr, thanks! I’d never touched a gold pan before. Later that afternoon, as I was presented the costumed photo of me, I couldn’t help but notice how comfortable I looked in those clothes. Perhaps… in a past life? A rags-to-riches story? Hmmm, perhaps not.
That evening, I was treated to a spectacular sound-and-light show which tells the story of the Eureka Rebellion, a battle between gold miners and government forces in Ballarat on 3 December, 1854. There are no actors in the show; the expert use of audio and visual effects creates the drama and suspense, whilst a voice-over guides visitors through those historic moments. The gun battle and the subsequent burning of the Eureka Hotel are absolute highlights of the show.
I left Sovereign Hill with my teeny-weeny speck of gold, safely stored in a little glass capsule, and a grin on my face. My mantra had taught me once again how important it is to overcome any preconceived judgements in order to learn and simply have an unexpectedly good time. And it’s those moments that make travel truly special!
Note: this trip is part of the iambassador #MelbourneTouring project in partnership with Tourism Victoria and Royal Brunei Airlines. Velvet Escape maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.