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.Read More
The California goldrushes of the 1840s captured the popular imagination around the world with tales of the huge fortunes to be made gold-prospecting, and it wasn’t long before Australia’s first goldrush took place – near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1851. Victoria had been a separate colony for only nine days when gold was found at Clunes on July 10, 1851; the goldrush began in earnest when rich deposits were found in Ballarat nine months later. The richest goldfields ever known soon opened at Bendigo, and thousands poured into Victoria from around the world. In the golden decade of the 1850s, Victoria’s population increased from eighty thousand to half a million, half of whom remained permanently in the state. The British and Irish made up a large proportion of the new population, but over forty thousand Chinese came to make their fortune too, along with experienced American gold-seekers and Russians, Finns and Filipinos. Ex-convicts and native-born Australians also poured in, leaving other colonies short of workers; even respectable policemen deserted their posts to become “diggers”, and doctors, lawyers and prostitutes crowded into the haphazard new towns in their wake.
In the beginning, the fortune-seekers panned the creeks and rivers searching for alluvial gold, constantly moving on at the news of another find. But gold was also deep within the earth, where ancient river beds had been buried by volcanoes; in Ballarat in 1852 the first shafts were dug, and because the work was unsafe and arduous, the men joined in bands of eight or ten, usually grouped by nationality, working a common claim. For deep mining, diggers stayed in one place for months or years, and the major workings rapidly became stable communities with banks, shops, hotels, churches and theatres, evolving more gradually, on the back of income from gold, into grandiose towns.
Black Saturday bushfires
Black Saturday bushfires
February 7, 2009 will be forever etched on most Victorians’ minds as the start of Australia’s worst bushfires in history. “Black Saturday”, as it is known, killed over 170 people and thousands of animals, destroyed over a million acres of bushland, wiped out townships and left 7500 homeless. The state’s worst affected areas were northeast of Melbourne in the Kinglake and Yea–Murrindindi regions, encompassing Marysville, Toolangi, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Strathewen, Steels Creek, Narbethong and Flowerdale. In the Gippsland region, southeast of Melbourne, a fire was started deliberately in Churchill and quickly spread to Callignee, Traralgon South, the Otways, Horsham, Coleraine, Dargo, Bendigo and Beechworth. Fires also destroyed thousands of acres of bushland in Wilsons Promontory.
Residents in Victoria’s southeast were told to prepare for extreme conditions the day before; temperatures exceeding 47°C and winds of up to 120km/h were predicted, combined with tinder-dry land due to the previous week’s heatwave and long-term drought. Many of the places devastated were set in hilly, forested country, including the picturesque village of Marysville. Established in 1863, with a population of just over 500, Marysville had experienced many bushfires during its 146-year history, but none like that in February, which killed one in five residents and reduced the town to ashes. To the west, flames moving at over 100km/h swept through the small hamlet of Kinglake so quickly that people didn’t even know they were in danger. Many fires continued to blaze out of control for over a month afterwards, and national parks in the area, including Kinglake and Yarra Ranges, were closed to visitors.