Sunday, 26 April 2009

Castlemaine by Pod

The problem with imagining the gold rush era in regional Victoria is one of the imagination: how do you revive the exciting chaos of those days within the peaceful, settled scenery of today?

It's also a challenge for those aiming to popularise history. Static displays of old household objects or photographs just don't cut it anymore (if they ever did). There's nothing more exciting than feeling a real emotional connection to days past, a visceral understanding of what it was like to be there, then. And this is, apparently, where 21st century technology steps in.

I'm in Castlemaine, in central Victoria, Australia, researching a mini guide for The Age. The town was founded in 1851 as a direct result of the gold boom. The gold eventually ran out but it left the place with a fine collection of Victorian-era buildings which mysteriously survived the godawful architectural trends of the post-WWII era.

But what of its evocative rough-and-tumble early history? That's where the tech comes in. The local tourism authorities have commissioned a series of podcast audio tours of the town and its surrounds, which can be downloaded from the Web or listened to via an MP3 player borrowed from the visitor information centre.

On Thursday I was driven to three of the sites on the Gold Rush to Mount Alexander tour. This is what I experienced:
  • Pennyweight Flat Cemetery: Not far out of town, this small fenced-off area feels rather forlorn, surrounded by dry grass and dotted with gum trees. Throughout the cemetery in a seemingly random pattern are tiny circles of stones with faded headstones. They're small because this was a children's cemetery that was only in use for a few years at the height of the rush. Interestingly, there are Chinese markings on some of the headstones, a contradiction of the usually strict racial separation of those days. The commentary, by local resident Jan Wositzky, leads to a folk song commissioned especially for the tour. It's wistful, emotional, and beautifully pitched to summon an impression of the sorrow of those who lost a child here. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
  • Garfield Water Wheel: Further out from town, up a hill in the middle of native bushland, is a bizarre remnant of the gold rush years. It's a pair of towering brick walls in a trapezoid shape, looking like some strange ruin of the Roman Empire. What's even more surprising is to discover they once supported a gigantic wooden wheel more than twice their height, bearing hundreds of buckets that scooped water from the trench below. The pod tour, after explaining the wheel's role in the gold mining process, gives way to an old woman telling a true story of a young girl who once had her head caught in the wheel and survived, but was marked for life. It's an intriguing story, all the more powerful for being heard on the spot, the listener peering up at the stone walls and trying to imagine the scene. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
  • Monster Meeting: I've always liked the term the Eureka Stockade era protesters had for their mass demonstrations against the iniquitous mining licences of the 1850s. 'Monster meeting' summons up images of thousands of humans forming a single angry organism ready to devour the corrupt state. It turns out these meetings weren't confined to Ballarat - the monster meeting held on a slope above a creek outside Castlemaine attracted some 15,000 people, and is apparently still the largest gathering ever held here. The pod tour really gets into its stride here, with a stirring hell-raising speech against the government, complete with shouts from an angry crowd. Then the podcast takes the liberty of bringing Governor La Trobe, who it admits was never there, into the rally to fruitlessly address the miners. Without this fantastically effective element of the audio tour, I'd merely be looking at a dry, bare hillside with a monument. (Listen to the pod tour segment)
All history is, of course, composed of stories about people; it's tours like this which help you reach them through the barrier of time.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.