DESTINATION: VAUGHAN SPRINGS, VICTORIA
When you travel a lot around Australia, you find that some places have a way of surprising you and Vaughan Springs is definitely one of them. Situated near the Loddon River in the heart of the Victorian goldfields, this picturesque camping area is surrounded by rolling green hills and a vast network of walking tracks. The huge slide is an all-time favourite with kids and adults alike, and free camping makes it a great place for budget-conscious travellers.
Vaughan Springs is part of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, the largest non-indigenous protected cultural landscape in Australia. Added to the National Heritage List in 2005, it has outstanding heritage value and importance in Australian history. The park is home to mineral springs and is a wonderful spot to discover gold relics.
GETTING TO VAUGHAN SPRINGS
We arrived on a sunny morning and quickly set up while the kids ran around the spacious hill-top campground. We were a little surprised, however, to find the nearby amenities block was closed. Seeing the perplexed looks on our faces, fellow campers Karleen and Athol informed us the showers were indeed nice, but the ranger had locked the building the day before our arrival. Unfortunately, this meant a hike down the hill to the nearest toilets, which the kids didn’t mind but, after several trips within the first hour, my muscles started to complain.
The slide provided the ultimate entertainment for the kids, who had no trouble running up the tall staircase again and again. I ventured down the long slippery slope a couple of times until I ran out of breath and positioned myself at the bottom to simply watch.
The area is also a fantastic place for photographers and, on the first night, Chris ventured out to capture a beautiful sunset a few kays down the road. Ruins from bygone eras with interesting relics scattered around made for breathtaking photos.
Gold miner Jim Paull discovered the mineral springs in 1909 while clearing debris from a flooded sluicing plant. In those days, it was a large township called The Junction, popular with Chinese miners and market gardeners. Today, the strong Chinese presence is evident in the Chinese burial ground, which is located at the entrance to the park.
Gold was first discovered in July 1851. More than 20,000 people flocked to the area and, by 1852, the population had swollen to 40,000. The Castlemaine goldfield was, for a period of three years, the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfield, turning beautiful forested areas into barren wastelands. One newcomer remarked that the place had the appearance of “a great cemetery in which all the graves had been opened and emptied of their contents”.
One way to discover the goldfields is by exploring the 210km Goldfields Track, which connects the towns of Bendigo, Castlemaine, Daylesford and Ballarat. The track is part of a network of walking and mountain biking trails, providing access to the region’s hidden treasures. The Dry Diggings section is 61km long and links Castlemaine with Daylesford – it crosses the Loddon River at Vaughan Mineral Springs, just below the weir.
A day trip to Castlemaine via the Vaughan-Chewton Road is a great way of seeing some historical sites. As you leave the camping area, turn right and follow the sealed road. On your left you will see the remains of the Duke of Cornwall engine house, which was erected in 1869, and serves as a reminder of the mining activities that once took place. The area is fenced off so you can only admire the building from a distance.
Continuing your trip, you pass through Irishtown and Fryerstown. Turn left when you spot the sign for the Wattle Gully Gold Mine. A short walk leads to a small area with an information sign. The gully was first mined in 1854 and stripped of its cover of native wattles, then the shaft was sunk in 1871 and, by the 1890s, it was 122m deep. Steam-powered crushing mills pulverised the rock and the waste was dumped in the gully. In the 1930s, the 400m deep mine became Victoria’s premier producing mine for about 30 years, yielding some 341,047 ounces of gold. The mine was closed in the 1980s – sadly, seven men died during its years of operation as a result of underground accidents.
From the Wattle Gully Gold Mine, the township of Chewton is a couple of kilometres down the road. Cross the Pyrenees Highway and follow the signs to the Garfield waterwheel. The 22m diameter waterwheel, the largest in Victoria, was completed in 1887 and provided power to the stamp battery for extracting gold from ore produced by the Garfield Mine until 1903.
An impressive piece of 19th century technology, the waterwheel had 220 wrought-iron buckets and revolved in 45-55 seconds, driving a 15-head battery from 70-86 falls per minute. Water was supplied by the nearby Expedition Pass Reservoir, so named by Major Mitchell when he led his expedition through the hills in 1836. An 8km return walk takes you to the water supply, which is now a popular spot for fishing, canoeing or a picnic.
Returning to the Pyrenees Highway, turn right and head toward Castlemaine. The Forest Creek Gold Diggings are on your left and there is a large parking area. Once called “the bank till free to all”, this goldfield yielded great profits, with some finding as many as 1000 ounces of gold, worth $500,000 at today’s prices. Others were not so lucky and became destitute. In some cases, miners went insane or died.
10 informative signs guide you through the area along Forest Creek and provide insight into the miners’ ingenuity, as well as the destructive consequences of their activities. One particular method, called sluicing, involved directing a jet of water at the cliff face until it became saturated and collapsed. The operator then used a hand-held nozzle to wash the mixture of gravel, dirt and gold along a channel to a big hole where it was lifted by a gravel pump to the sluice box.
The bottom of the box was lined with coconut fibre matting to trap the very fine gold pieces.
The water cannon pumped out about 10,000L of water a minute at tremendous pressure. It had a box of stones on the back that acted as a counterbalance to prevent the nozzle from bouncing around and injuring its operator. The force of the water was such that its roar could be heard 3km away and, at night, the quartz rocks would create great sparks of light as they smashed against each other.
Another short trip brings you into the historical township of Castlemaine. The city centre is awash with heritage-listed buildings, mostly in Georgian style. It is a friendly town where people still greet you in the street. Every Saturday morning, the city centre comes alive with music as retired music teacher John Ferguson provides entertainment outside the visitor information centre.
In the 1800s, gold attracted miners to the region, hoping to strike it rich. These days, this national heritage park has an appeal of a different kind, enticing visitors to explore this beautiful area in the heart of the Victorian goldfields. The park is bound to surprise you in more ways than one and you’ll want to go back to discover more.
· Vaughan Springs, located in Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, is 120km north of Melbourne and 10km south of Castlemaine.
· Goldfields Track: Walk or cycle all or parts of the 210km track between Bendigo, Castlemaine, Daylesford and Ballarat.
· Forest Creek Gold Diggings: Historical and informative peek into the area’s gold-mining past.
· The Vaughan Springs camping area has toilets, cold showers and a tap with creek water. No fees apply. The small campground has limited space for large vans. Maximum stay is two weeks. Fuel and groceries are available in Castlemaine.
· For more information, get a copy of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park Visitor Guide. Contact Parks Victoria on 13 19 63 or visit www.parkweb.vic.gov.au.
· For information about Castlemaine, phone 1800 171 888 or visit www.maldoncastlemaine.com.au.
Originally published in Caravan World #518, September / October 2013.