The pros and cons of the last 24 hours –
CON: I accidentally set fire to my slippers (beware the wrath of full bore heaters on polyester);
PRO: Just as I noticed the sun setting, J___ proposed a road trip. Leaving in 15 minutes. No destination in particular, just somewhere new. I threw a few token items into a small token suitcase and slid into the borrowed Impreza as it rolled down my street.
It’s a Tuesday night in Melbourne. I’ve been confined to my house lately, nursing a virus, chasing Lemsip with red wine and obsessing over plant cuttings in my snotty cabin fever frenzy. So as Melbourne’s glow shrinks behind us and the bright-starred country sky grows overhead, I feel pretty soothed. The fresh, whirring air tickles my convalescent nostrils as we zoom through the black silhouetted landscape, down long dark highways, past unfamiliar signs. At last we find ourselves on border of a town we’ve heard of, and wanted to explore – Ballarat – so we putter down the main street, watch the cinema’s bright light bulb array snuff out, fetch ourselves a delicious burger.
We book in at a nearby Hostel over the phone. The room is a corner of a tiny, free-standing building and its light boasts a grim fluorescent glare, so we make a trip down to the servo for candles. As I’m scanning the aisles a man climbs out of his ute and bursts through the automatic doors in a flannelette dressing gown. “Man, Queen are AWESOME!” He bellows. I tell him about my experience seeing one of their reunion shows the other week. He makes his purchase and races out again. “Getting ready for a blackout?” asks the attendant as I present my 6-pack of waxy batons.
Back at the hostel it becomes clear that the lighter she sold us is empty, or otherwise faulty, so we find a Google image picture of a candle and prop that up instead. We sip wine and research jokes invented by computers. At some point, morning comes around.
It turns out the hostel is right behind one of Ballarat’s biggest tourist attractions – a place I’d never heard of until my cousin mentioned it in passing the other night. It’s called Sovereign Hill, and it’s a fully operational replica of an 1850’s Australian gold rush village, the sort of settlement you would have come across in Ballarat a century and a half ago. After sleepily slurping a cup of caffeine in 2014’s Ballarat we commit to paying the (not inexpensive) entry fee and wander inside. The next few hours are a sort of otherworldly swirl.
Wikipedia describes Sovereign Hill as an “open-air museum,” though that doesn’t seem exactly right to me. Museums, at least conventionally, de-contextualise and narrate; artefacts and images get boxed and framed and a plaque or a person explains everything.
Sovereign Hill isn’t like that. It’s more like stepping out of a slightly faulty time machine, one where the smokey chimneys and trotting Clydesdales and painted taverns and prospector’s tents are at their nineteenth-century best, going about their daily business, but spatterings of contemporary tourists have snuck through the wormhole, too, fusing the two timelines together.
These fellow modern visitors aren’t plentiful or conspicuous enough to topple the pioneer village’s fourth wall: rather quickly I’m immersed, forgetful of the world I just left behind. We’re served tea by suited and petticoated waitstaff in the New York Bakery; we inspect the mineral specimens and phrenologists’ charts at the Mechanic’s Institute and Free Library. We go nine-pin bowling in the wooden saloon, chat to the blacksmith, watch the children calculate the pennies in a given number of shillings at the on-site “costumed schools.” We befriend the town doctor, a portly fellow with a grey-white “English” moustache, tails and a top hat, who tells us some good jokes and shows us a secret room in the local theatre hall. We pan for gold down at the alluvial diggings; we watched molten gold being poured (J holds a freshly smelted pure bullion bar worth $135,000 and contemplates seeing how fast she can run). We visit the Chinese Village in the prospectors’ camp; the undertaker’s; the candlestick maker’s; we watch – and certainly hear – the Redcoats fire their muskets.
If last night’s robe-clad servo visitor gave me cause to think about my recent experience of Queen in New York a few weeks back, this exploration of Sovereign Hill rekindles memories another experience I had that week: visiting the elaborate “Sleep No More” immersive theatre/installation piece, an abstract period drama spread out over 100 or more carefully decorated spaces. While Sleep No More is infinitely more trendy/edgy/whatever and Sovereign Hill is a somewhat dorky, family-friendly tourist attraction, there’s a similar attention to detail in a huge three-dimensional space; a commitment to building a self-contained, full-scale, immersive world. Though it aims to “recreate” the past, Sovereign Hill both deliberately and inevitably does so in an edited way that’s filtered through certain individuals’ visions. It’s as much “art” or “theatre,” as “museum,” and the historicity of it raises its own dilemmas: how much of the past’s less glamourous truths can you include while keeping the experience fun and playful? How many can you omit, without being irresponsible in your depiction of a time and place? To Sovereign Hill’s credit, its installations make explicit the racism of Chinese-only taxes, the dubiousness of Wild West justice on digging sites, the harsh discipline of school children – and successfully implies the extravagance of monarchist loyalties in the colony. Meanwhile, it’s not at pains to paint a dire picture of the era: most of the town is brimming with cheer. Yet glaringly obvious is the lack of any Indigenous presence, any acknowledgement of the region’s Wathaurong people and how as Ballarat grew they were forced to the fringes – or out altogether. Ostracism, dispossession, disease – an all-too-common thread of cultural destruction. Perhaps this undercurrent was deemed too dark a chapter in our history to observe in this context; or perhaps a satisfactory way to depict it has yet to be reached. In any case, it’s a haunting and telling omission.
We stroll walk back into 2014, score an incredible op shop haul and get back on the road to the big smoke. Two towns, 226km and 164 years in 24 hours. Not a bad result, for an unplanned mid-week jaunt.