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Much of the wealth that flowed into Melbourne and made its stately Victorian architecture possible was generated from a gold rush that began in 1851. News spread quickly around the world. Thousands of eager immigrants mounted the gangplanks of ships bound for the promised land. Mt. Alexander Road, a nugget’s throw from here, was the yellow brick road that led to the diggings of Bendigo and Ballarat.

The city emptied. A third of the inhabitants left for the diggings. Prospectors would set out along Elizabeth Street on a seven-day trek, stopping for the night at a swamp forming a chain of ponds, now Queen’s Park in Moonee Ponds. The miners turned it into a tent city, with blazing campfires, horses and bullocks. There the men would swap stories and, with luck, get some sense of what their adventure into Australia might bring them.

The settlement doubled in size in a year. By the time the rush was over, one hundred million British pounds worth of gold had been wrestled from the earth and shipped off to Europe. The fortunes that remained rested in the hands of merchants and businessmen. By 1861, barely twenty-five years after its founding, Melbourne was on its way to becoming a thriving city of 125,000 immigrants.

On Easter Sunday, we set off in search of gold of a different sort– the premier rails-to-trails bike path in Victoria. It is called Murray to the Mountains, a nice bit of alliteration but a bit misleading. The trail actually begins in the town of Wangaratta and ends in the town of Bright, at the base of the region called the Australian alps. The trail is paved, pastoral, and, with one singular exception, fairly flat.

The exception is a short section that mounts from the modest community of Everton to the historic town of Beechworth.

Gold was discovered in Beechworth in February, 1852. By November, it is thought there were 8000 miners camped in the area. Through the use of hydraulic sluicing and other environmentally degrading methods, approximately two billion dollars worth of gold (in current valuation) were extricated from the region during the next fourteen years.

What remains seems like a ghost town. Honey-colored granite buildings haunt the streets and beckon busloads of tourists.  Now, there are far more banks, churches, grand houses, hospitals, and other civic structures than necessary to handle the needs of the  busy little tourist mecca Beechworth has become.

Although the ride from Everton to Beechworth is only fifteen kilometres, it is almost entirely uphill. I could easily imagine the train that had threaded its way up through the wooded hills. What I had to visualize was me and my wife, astride our tandem recumbent bike, doing the same thing. “I think I can, I think I can.” We huffed and we puffed. Slowly moving the wheeled beast up the paved path.

The leaves were turning, the weather was wonderful, crisp and clear. We were alone in the woods, enjoying the muscles of our legs, hearts and lungs. And now, at last, we could see the old Beechworth train station, freshly painted. We would ride into town, stretch out our legs at a cafe, soak up the sun like cats with cappuccinos. Then, when the time was right, we would turn our backs on the past, on the gold and the ghosts, and sail back down to the valley below.


Burke & WillisRobert O’Hara Burke had a number of things going for him. He was Anglo-Irish gentry; he had been in the Austrian military; he had lived in Victoria for eight years. He was “tall, well made, with dark brown hair… a magnificent beard; he had fine, intelligent eyes, and a splendidly-formed head.” If you were looking for the right person to lead a dangerous, logistically-complex, and physically demanding expedition across Australia from south to north, what more could you ask for? Qualifications, character, suitability, perhaps? Let’s not be petty. We don’t expect that in astronauts or presidents, why explorers?

The whole thing started with another Irishman by the name of Ambrose Kyte who came to Melbourne as a young man “humble and objectless.” He did very well for himself in land speculation, and decided to offer a thousand pounds to help finance an expedition into the interior. The Philosophical Institute of Victoria agreed to raise the rest of the money, select the leader and outfit the expedition.

Camels had recently been introduced into the American west, and it was decided that ‘ships of the desert’ would be ideal for crossing the Australian Sahara, so camels were imported. The disaster in the making was assembled in Royal Park, home of the Melbourne zoo. It is adjacent to University College, our first home base in Melbourne.
The purpose of the expedition was exploratory, scientific and a little vague. Burke and young Wills (the surveyor of the company) were to attempt to explore the country between Cooper’s Creek and the Gulf of Carpenteria (keeping an eye out for another explorer by the name of Leichhardt who had gone missing in 1848.) They were to cross 1700 miles of extremely inhospitable territory. And come home again.

Camel

Royal Park was then on the outskirts of Melbourne, “practically in a state of nature.” Burke hoped that it would help accustom his men to bush life. The nineteen men had relatively modest provisions for a journey that could take two years. They were well supplied with equipment, however, which included an oak table. Their goods weighed at least 21 tons.

On August 20, the explorers headed out in some disarray, providing live entertainment to thousands of spectators from the City. Their first stop was at Queen’s Park in Essendon, a five minute walk from our front door. One of the wagons broke down on the way and at dusk a horse broke loose and ran away. It was an omen of things to come.

It was a long, arduous, and ultimately disastrous journey. After making a series of terrible decisions, Burke left Cooper’s creek in central Australia at the hottest time of the year with three companions, six camels and one horse. Only one man made it back alive.

There is a very good account of the expedition on the Wikepedia site as well as at: burkeandwills.net. A re-enactment of the tragic tale was made in 1985. The scenery is stunning.

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