I’ve never heard of Ballarat until one of my favorite television shows featured the city in one of its episodes. In that episode, they visited the city’s biggest attraction, the gold mining open-aired museum of Sovereign Hill — and I thought to myself then, that if I ever make it to that part of Australia, I was definitely going to drop by this village.
So when the time came… I did. Hello Ballarat!
One Day in Ballarat
Ballarat is located in the state of Victoria, about 100km west of the state capital city of Melbourne. Gold was first discovered in the region in the mid 19th century — and the city boomed into one of Australia’s major gold rush settlements. Much of its success is still evident in the city’s well-preserved grand architectural buildings.
I was based in Melbourne for most of my visit — but I spent a day touring the Great Ocean Road (you can read about my day’s journey here), and Ballarat was our stop for the night (and the next day). My friends and I were in the city to experience two things — first of course was a visit to Sovereign Hill; and second, to get up close and personal with Australia’s most lovable animal, the Koala.
Ballarat Wildlife Park
Our first stop of the day was at the Ballarat Wildlife Park, a privately owned wildlife park opened in 1987 by Greg Parker. The park is still run by the family with the help of their team of wildlife lovers — and it spreads over a lovely expanse of natural bush land that is filled with kangaroos and emus roaming free. They also have other animals like the koalas, tasmanian devils, birds, reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles in glass enclosures; and their most popular resident, the huge 30-year old wombat, Patrick.
We arrived at the park at the 9am opening time, hoping to beat the crowds and have the animals all to ourselves. Tickets to enter cost A$33.00 per adult (A$18.50 for kids). We also booked and paid extra for a personal encounter with one of the beloved animals in the park — guess who!
Animals at the Park
There were not many people around in the early morning, so we were mostly by ourselves as we walked through the park visiting all the animals in their private enclosures. I liked how the park is very well signed, with explanations of some of the animals on the boards in front of their cages. I also finally had the chance to see a tasmanian devil, doing its morning run around its keep. So cute!
One of my favorite sections of the Ballarat Wildlife Park has got to be the wide open field where the kangaroos roamed freely — well, actually most of them were just lying down and tanning under the sun. I tried luring them with the corns and nuts we had, and even though some got excited and hopped towards us, most just simply ignored us and continued being lazy. They were only willing to lift their heads and nip on my nibble-filled palm when it was in front of their faces; so in the end I gave up, and decided to lie down on the ground too!
The Koala Encounter
At the top of my list of things to do during my visit to Australia was to interact with a koala. Unfortunately, cuddling a koala is illegal in the state of Victoria, so most of the zoos and sanctuaries in central Melbourne only allow visitors to see them over the fence. The Ballarat Wildlife Park however, provides the next best thing — we were allowed a supervised visit into the koala enclosure. This was the main reason I came to the park!
We ended our visit to the Ballarat Wildlife Park with some precious moments with the koalas. One of them is called Mathilda; and when we approached her, she was a little curious but mostly shy. I still got to pat her though, and took a lot of photographs. She ended her session with us by heading back to her branch to sleep. It was just so adorable! We got to see three koalas altogether, and I had such a lovely time with them.
The koala experience costs an extra A$40.00 (expensive, yes, but I really wanted to do it) and is scheduled two times a day; 11.30am and 1.30pm.
After a steak lunch at the Hog’s Breath Cafe in town; our second stop for the day was the village of Sovereign Hill — a village remodeled to resemble a gold-mining town during Victoria’s gold rush era. Spread over an area of 60 acres, the village could easily take a whole day to explore, but we only had half a day. Tickets cost A$54.00 for adults, and half price for kids.
It was so exciting stepping into the re-created town for the first time. It was like stepping into time — historical buildings, costumed staff, carriages, the dirt road… even small details like books, posters, photographs, signboards brought us back to the 1850’s. We first arrived at the center point of the village where gold panning activities were taking place. I tried my hand at it for a bit, but was pretty unsuccessful. So where’s the gold?!
My first sight of gold was at the $150,000 gold pour, where we witnessed a goldsmith pour pure gold of that amount into a three-kilogram bar. If only I could run away with that! As we were short of time, we decided to just stroll along the main street and peek into the many interesting shops along it — we dropped by the stables, the photography studio, the grocer, the bakery, the bank, and the many ‘smith’ workshops.
Just off the main street, we passed by lovely little cottages with pretty flowers. We also had a go at nine-pin bowling like how they did in the olden days, which was real fun! And during our visit to the blacksmith, I got myself a horse-shoe souvenir with my named carved into it for A$7.00.
Other than the activities, workshops and exhibitions — Sovereign Hill also has interesting mine tours. The first tour we went on was the Red Hill Mine Tour, which is a self guided tour. While walking along the underground trail, we learned about the ‘Welcome’ Nugget — the second largest gold nugget ever found in the world.
The second mine tour we went on was the Sovereign Quartz Mine. The mine runs a guided 40-minute tour that costs an additional A$7.50 (A$4 for kids). We had to make a booking, and had three tour options to choose from — Secret Chamber (about the adventures of 2 Chinese diggers), Trapped (about a mine disaster that was one of Australia’s worst), and Journey through the Labyrinth of Gold (about the dangers of working in the gold mines of Ballarat).
We opted for Trapped because the timing suited us most. After going down on the mine train into the depths of the earth — we were guided along a long tunnel while being told the accounts of the 1882 Creswick Mine Disaster and the 27 miners that were trapped inside. It was cold, dark and damp all throughout the tour, which ended with the sound of water gushing down into the mines.
At the End of the Day
I had an engaging and delightful time at Sovereign Hill, learning a little about gold-mining and spending the afternoon back in the Victorian gold rush period. We ended our tour when the village closed at 5pm — and made our way back to Melbourne, a one and half hours drive from Ballarat.