Australia’s second-smallest state, Victoria is also the most densely populated and industrialized. Although you’re never too far from civilization, there are plenty of opportunities to sample the state’s wilder days when it was a centre for gold prospectors and bushrangers. All routes radiate from Melbourne, and no destination is much more than seven hours’ drive away. Yet all most visitors see of Victoria apart from its cultured capital is the Great Ocean Road, a winding 285km drive of spectacular coastal scenery. Others may venture to the idyllic Wilsons Promontory National Park (the “Prom”), a couple of hours away on the coast of the mainly dairy region of Gippsland, or to the Goldfields, where the nineteenth-century goldrushes left their mark in the grandiose architecture of old mining towns such as Ballarat and Bendigo.
There is, however, a great deal more to the state. Marking the end of the Great Dividing Range, the massive sandstone ranges of the Grampians, with their Aboriginal rock paintings and dazzling array of springtime flora, rise from the monotonous wheatfields of the Wimmera region and the wool country of the western district. To the north of the Grampians is the wide, flat region of the Mallee – scrub, sand dunes and dry lakes heading to the Murray River, where Mildura is an irrigated oasis supporting orchards and vineyards. In complete contrast, the Victorian Alps in the northeast of the state have several winter ski slopes, high country that provides perfect bushwalking and horseriding territory in summer. In the foothills and plains below, where bushranger Ned Kelly once roamed, are some of Victoria’s finest wineries (wine buffs should pick up a copy of Wine Regions of Victoria, available from the visitor centre in Melbourne and other towns). Beach culture is alive and well on this coastline, with some of the best surfing in Australia.
The only real drawback is the climate. Winter is mild, and the occasional heatwaves in summer are mercifully limited to a few days at most (though they can create bushfires that last for weeks, For more information, see Gippsland), but the problem is that of unpredictability. Cool, rainy “English” weather can descend in any season, and spring and autumn days can be immoderately hot. However, Victoria suffered severe weather in early 2011 when weeks of heavy rain caused flooding. This affected the north and west of the state: forty towns were evacuated and eighty roads were closed as rivers rose rapidly and broke their banks across the region. Towns such as Maryborough were inundated, and will take time to recover and rebuild.
Semi-nomadic Koories have lived in this region for at least forty thousand years, establishing semi-permanent settlements such as those of circular stone houses and fish traps found at Lake Condah in western Victoria. For the colonists, however, Victoria did not get off to an auspicious start: there was an unsuccessful attempt at settlement in the Port Phillip Bay area in 1803, but Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) across the Bass Strait was deemed more suitable. It was in fact from Launceston that Port Phillip Bay was eventually settled, in 1834; other Tasmanians soon followed and Melbourne was established. This occupation was in defiance of a British government edict forbidding settlement in the territory, then part of New South Wales, but squatting had already begun the previous year when Edward Henty arrived with his stock to establish the first white settlement at Portland on the southwest coast. A pattern was created of land-hungry settlers – generally already men of means – responding to Britain’s demand for wool, so that during the 1840s and 1850s what was to become Victoria evolved into a prosperous pastoral community with squatters extending huge grazing runs. From the beginning, the Koories fought against the invasion of their land: 1836 saw the start of the Black War, as it has been called, a bloody guerrilla struggle against the settlers. By 1850, however, the Aborigines had been decimated – by disease as well as war – and felt defeated, too, by the apparently endless flood of invaders; their population is believed to have declined from around 15,500 to just 2300.
By 1851 the white population of the area was large and confident enough to demand separation from New South Wales, achieved, by a stroke of luck, just nine days before gold was discovered in the new colony. The rich goldfields of Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine brought an influx of hopeful migrants from around the world. More gold came from Victoria over the next thirty years than was extracted during the celebrated California goldrush, transforming Victoria from a pastoral backwater into Australia’s financial capital. Following federation in 1901, Melbourne was even the political capital – a title it retained until Canberra became fully operational in 1927.