Ballarat is a city where history comes alive through what I believe is the most amazing immersive theme park in Australia. From the moment you walk through the gates of Sovereign Hill – www.sovereignhill.com.au, the world transforms into 19th century Ballarat. You’ve heard the statement seeing is believing right? Sovereign Hill is the place where visitors are whisked back in time to the Australian Gold Rush and can see, touch, hear, and even taste what life was like during that era.
Opening way back in 1970, Sovereign Hill has been a destination that overwhelmingly heads most Victorian itineraries. There’s a reason for that. It is impressive and has the ability to delight both young and old.
I spent my first year of university in Ballarat and spent days at Sovereign Hill when I needed a little escape. The thought of visiting with my family has always been on the cards, so an invitation to vist was incredibly exciting. I anticipated a day of fun and adventure. Little did I know that that day would stretch into two (remember to validate your ticket when you go so you can go the following day for FREE!).
Be prepared – when you go to Sovereign Hill you really are moved through time. Whilst visitors are very much part of the 21st century with our iPhones at the ready to capture everything, you’ll find everyone else is in full character. Throughout our visit, the doings of a typical 19th century day happened around us. Yes, total immersion!
When we first arrived we were given a hot tip that the mine tours sell out very quickly on busy days. The mine tours aren’t included in the entrance price, so we made a beeline straight for the ticket booth at the other end of Main Street so we wouldn’t miss out. There are currently three tours on offer: Secret Chamber, Trapped and Journey through the Labyrinth of Gold. We chose to do two of the three as the family was divided on which ones we wanted to see! We started with Trapped where you are taken back to the 1882 Creswick Mine disaster and the heroic attempts to save 27 miners trapped by an underground flood and then followed up later in the day with Journey through the Labyrinth of Gold which was by far our favourite of the two and provided us with an up and close experience of the dangers of working in one of the gold mines that made Ballarat rich and famous.
Both tours started at the tour meeting point where we were greeted by our tour guide who was in full character. She led us to the mine tram which would descend underground. When you hop into the tram your guide will tell you that no cameras, phone or lights are to be used during the descent into the mine. This allows your eyes to adapt to the darkness. By darkness I mean complete darkness. I waved my hand in front of my face and could not see it at all. Be prepared, it may be a little scared for a few minutes. We were literally thankful to see light at the end of the tunnel. On departing the tram, both tours weaved us through sections of the mine. They then became quite different. Trapped was part visual effects, part voice overs. The kids had trouble engaging with the tour at different points, although it was quite fascinating for the adults (I think I cried a little). By contrast, Journey through the Labyrinth of Gold piqued their curiosity and had them asking questions throughout the tour. Furthermore, it included separate train ride at the bottom of the mine which they found exciting.
On the completion of our tours we headed back down Main Street. The kids immediately spotted the old Cobb & Co stage coach (Cobb & Co. was the leading transport company here in Australia during the 19th Century). Of course they wanted a ride so we purchased a family ticket for $17.00 which provided us with a lap around the site. I was a little disappointed that we had to share the ride with another family (even though the were super nice) but enjoyed the trip nonetheless. Again, I recommend getting in early. We noticed that from lunchtime onwards there was a huge queue!
Gosh how time flies. After doing the tours and the stage coach ride we found lunchtime had crept up on us. We hadn’t put much thought into where to eat and decided to try the New York Bakery. Argh! Half the tables were reserved and there was a queue. The kids were starving apparently so we headed up to the Sovereign Hill Café where once again we found a long line BUT we secured a table pretty quickly. It wasn’t my first choice as it predominately sold standard take away food and the servers weren’t it character, but when the kids are hungry…..
After lunch we realised we had time to catch the candlestick maker talk. It’s right at the other end of Main Street. When we got there we noticed that the kids can dye their own candles using an old style dyeing processes. We had to do it! A bumpy candle cost $4.00 while a smooth candle cost $3.00. Using only 3 pots of colours, the kids dipped their candles four times to create five different colours. We then watched the candlemaker in action learning that tallow (animal fat) was used to make the candles back in the 19th century hence why the store was so far out of town (tallow, in warm conditions, would stink!). The kids were quick to grasp that candles were the only light source at night and in the mines back in the 19th century and learned that there was a colour difference between the candles used in homes which were imported from England and white, and those used in the mines. You could actually go to jail if you stole one! The importance of candles as a time piece, oxygen indicator, and light source was our learning point for the day.
Musket shooting. Yes, that was our next stop. One of the local policeman took a through a little history lesson of how the guns were used back in the 19th Century. This is one show where you will need to put your fingers in your ears!
Across the day there are numerous trades on show including the blacksmith, the candlemaker, the sweet maker, the wheel maker and so on. Having already packed in a full day yet only seen the candlemaker we made the decision to come back the following day and work through the talks that were timetabled. My gosh, Sovereign Hill is such a big day!
On the second day we arrived on opening. First up, gingerbread decorating at the bakery! This gave us adults time to catch our breathe and plan the day while the kids were busy designing and bringing to life their vision. Using the daily schedule we worked out what we wanted to see, what we could miss, and when we would eat. We decided to go and try our hand at gold panning along the Sovereign Hill creek early to miss the crowds. On our way there we spied the Red Hill Mine which is free and revealed the story of the famous 69kg ‘Welcome’ Nugget discovery. I was actually impressed. If you are a little apprehensive about spending extra money on the other tours, this one will still provide you with the opportunity to go underground but without the tram and train.
Gold Panning is free BUT it is recommended that you buy some sand which will have a little gold in it. We are an impatient lot and decided not to wait in the long line and just try our luck ourselves. We’ve been gold panning at Hill End so have some experience already. If it is new to you, buy the sand and spend some time panning. I would even look for one of the miners (you’ll easily spot them) who will help the kids out if they find it tricky. We spent a few moments here before going to explore the chinese temple and digger quarters.
Ballarat has a rich Chinese history. Back in the 19th Century, many Chinese men came to Australia in search of gold. Sovereign Hill recognises this and you can explore an authentic temple, grocery store and lodgings. It is fascinating and possibly one of my favourite parts of the site. As you leave you walk back up the hill and can also explore some of the miners lodgers from Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland.
As we ventured back up the hill onto Main Street we heard the school bell. We hurried up to the school house (there are actually TWO – head to the National School) just in time to find a desk. We had a quick practice using the quill and ink before the kids were ushered outside by the school mistress. They were asked to line up and were then marched inside to their desks ready for the lesson. Cursive writing was introduced and then the kids were asked to copy two sentences from the blackboard using real ink. They even had bloating paper. Their finished paper was then taken to their teacher for grading. Whilst no corporate punishment eventuated on our visit, the cane was produced and a short talk was provided about the life of teachers back in the 19th century. Did you know that female teachers were not allowed to continue teaching once they married!!
The day previous we had booked a portrait sitting at the Red Hill Photography Rooms which was apparently established way back in 1855. Here we chose a period crossing to dress in for our family portrait. I won’t lie, it was a little pricey – over $80.00 from memory, but it was a blast. Miss N couldn’t stop smiling. My top recommendation is to ring and book your sitting BEFORE you go. There was no availability for us on the first day and we were fortunate to be able to squeeze in a sitting on our second day. Ring (03) 5337 1128 or email email@example.com for details. We were asked to return after 2.00 pm to pick it up.
The day was moving fast! Before lunch we decided to have a little walk through Main Street and explore some of the shops. The Drapery Store offered us a chance to try on a variety of hats and for Miss N to source herself a new fan. Apothecaries’ Hall revealed some fascinating insight into the medical practice of the day and the Grocer store displayed a fine range of food, drink, spices and household wares. Of course the sweet store was a favourite and we stocked up on toffee apples and the famous raspberry drops. The printer is also a must stop where you can purchase a personalised poster created on an authentic 19th century printing press. The kids bought one each which has become an interesting feature in their bedroom.
Lunch came and went and we were soon walking along Main Street again. This time we headed to the Bowling Alley. It was fascinating to see and the kids were able to appreciate how much the game has evolved over time. They asked to stay for quite some time and then talked us into doing the candle dipping again.
Whilst we were still to fit everything in, home was beckoning. We made our way to the blacksmith for the last session of the day and watched him expertly using the anvil to hammer a length of steel into a fire poker. You can also order your own hand stamped horse shoes which is a lovely trinket to keep.
Exhausting? Yes! Sovereign Hill has so much on offer I feel it’s difficult to fit it all in. If you can, plan for two days! Book your tours early and use the daily activity schedule to work out how you will move around the site. A family ticket is currently $132.00 for two adults and up to four children. Kids under 5 are free. You may like to look at the VIP ticket which is $240.00 per family and includes unlimited coach rides, a portrait sitting, tours, and a free return pass valid for 12 months from the date of original visit. This may be more cost effective if you are going to do everything!
We were guests of Ballarat Regional Tourism. All opinions are our own.