I love history! There, I said it. I am officially a history nerd. So when my Melburnian friend asked me whether I would like to see Sovereign Hill I naturally jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know how fantastic a place this would be.
Sovereign Hill is an outdoor museum about Australia’s days during the famous gold rush. It’s a replica frontier town complete with main street, shops, an industrial complex, civic buildings, a theatre, a slum, and of course a mine. It’s huge. It’s like a Disneyland for history lovers – the size really surprised me.
But not just the size is exceptional for an outdoor museum like this – it’s the many, many details that are truly astounding. Just take a self-guided tour through the many shops along the main street – all of them open for business – where you can look at the pharmacy’s inventory, or check out what the sweets shop has on offer… the interiors are just lovely up to the very detail, polished wooden surfaces, lots and lots of drawers, handwritten labels, old-fashioned packaging. Shop assistants are, of course, in costume and sometimes in character. And all of them extremely knowledgable about their specific trade and the history of nearby Ballarat.
There’s the sweets shop and the soap shop, the jeweller, the photographer and lots lots more! Expect to spend some money here to purchase some traditional candy or other beautifully packed souvenirs. What I really loved was that the bakery for example would only sell “old-fashioned” soft drinks like ginger beer and not coca-cola.
Then there is the whole industrial complex awaiting you. Again, I was totally surprised by the size of the whole area – you can watch the artisans and craftspeople at work, working metal, making candles, boiling sweets. The most impressive bit is probably the wheelwright, with the hole shed used up by a massive original-looking machine that would noisily do its work of making wheels. Or the lovely girls at the candle works who would show you the painstakingly slow art of candle making.
Residential areas encompass a whole village with workers’ huts (where you can see a meat safe, something I never knew existed), and the picket-fenced white houses of the richer residents, plus a whole Chinese community complete with makeshift tents and a Buddhist temple (where you can light an incense stick, if you like). This is also where the kids can try their luck panning for gold in the little river that flows alongside the camp.
Speaking of gold – this is of course the main reason this part of Australia was populated in the first place. The little town of Ballarat next door is a prime example of the endeavours of the first settlers and pioneers. Sovereign Hill has its very own mine where you can learn everything about the business of gold mining. However, this is an attraction that will set you back some extra dollars, so in the end we decided to take the smaller mining tour which is included in the regular ticket price. It is a bit corny… with voices coming from a tape and the group being guided through a network of underground tunnels that take turns in telling you a story about the dangers and rewards of gold digging, but at the end of the day I am sure the kids in particular will love it.
Museum staff (and I am sure many of them volunteers) are all wearing traditional dresses, and there are many smaller, random acts that you can witness. There’s the hobo lady and the policeman, the theatre director and so many other characters who ensure that these buildings are not just a scene but also a place with lots and lots of stories to tell. Their interactions and conversations happen in the main street rather spontaneously, something that delights not just the children but also the grown-ups.
It is probably not the cheapest attraction in Australia but the scale of the operations and the love for detail justifies the price you will pay. In my view a great experience not just for the kids (besides, very educational, too!) but also for the adults. I certainly had a blast exploring the different areas of Sovereign Hill and chatting to the people who work the stores and the workshops. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring the kids but Sovereign Hill is definitely a museum that I will make sure they will visit before they have grown up. Highly recommended!
Sovereign Hill, Bradshaw Street, Ballarat VIC. http://www.sovereignhill.com.au/