When gold was first discovered in Victoria there were no roads to the goldfields. Everything had to be carried by horses, bullocks or wheelbarrows on the journey from Melbourne, which sometimes took as long as the sea journey from England.
There were two routes to Ballarat. One went via the Adelaide overland route on the Gambier Road via the Keilor Plains. The other went via Geelong: travellers went part of the way on steamer and the remainder on foot. Whichever way diggers went, in winter it was boggy, in summer it was a dustbowl. In the rain, horses often got bogged up to their bellies in mud and diggers often lost their boots.
An amazing maze of carts and drays
Travelling to the Diggings. The Keilor Plains. Victoria
John Alexander Gilfillan
Courtesy of the La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria
On her way to the goldfields in 1852, Ellen Clacy wrote she was amazed diggers even found their way to the goldfields.
"I must here observe that no distinct road is ever cut out, but the whole country is cut up into innumerable tracks by the carts and drays, and which are awfully bewildering to the new-comer as they run here and there, now crossing a swamp, now a rocky place, here a creek, there a hillock."
William Howitt, an explorer and anthropologist from Nottingham in England, came out to the Victorian goldfields with his father and brother in 1852. Howitt was struck down by dysentery on the journey from Melbourne to the goldfields, and it ended up taking him close to two months. Because of his illness, he was forced to spend a month at Euroa to recuperate at a squatter’s home.
Here he heard endless stories of the dangers of the road. Diggers who stole vegetables and fruit, ripe or unripe, constantly plundered the squatter’s gardens. In the autumn of 1851, one group of diggers stole a sack full of peaches and their route could be traced for 10 miles by the unripe peaches they threw away.
Howitt was appalled by the poor condition of the road, and was quick to criticise the colonial government.
"This same Government, so eager to impose taxes on the diggers at both ends, has not done a single thing to make the road to the diggings passable. There is scarcely a wooden bridge over a gully; and there is not a dangerous piece of hillside or precipice where the Government spade or pick has left its trace. The diggers, and the carriers of the supplies of their necessaries of life, whom the Government were in such haste to tax, are left to make their way up the most terrible roads conceivable, as they can. Their carts and drays are dashed to pieces; their good are shattered and damaged; their horses are injured and even killed, by scores, on roads, so called, for the making of which is resigned by Mother England. Yet this Government which does absolutely nothing on the roads, takes care to sit at the end of the road, like a dragon ..."
He was also astounded by the cost of basic necessities like food and water.
"Everything is monstrously dear on the roads, the nearer you get to the diggings," he said. Everywhere they camped, goods were stolen or went missing.
Barbecued cockatoo and possum
Polish adventurer Seweryn Korzelinski made the journey to the diggings in 1852 with some fellow countrymen. He was elected cook for this part of the trip, and got his first taste of bush tucker (damper and cockatoo, and possum cooked on skewers) on his way to the diggings.
Korzelinski and crew bought horses at the twice-weekly Melbourne horse auction to carry their belongings.
"The journey was not easy. The horses were used to English words of command, which we did not know, and so did not respond to our Polish. We travelled only about a mile and near the township of Flemington pulled off the road to prepare our camp for the night. Next morning we harnessed the horses to the wagon with the intention of starting off, but no matter what we did we couldn’t make the horses pull."
No wonder the horses couldn’t pull the load. It contained six mattresses and all their other supplies. After several days of rain, the mattresses soon became waterlogged and impossible to transport. The Polish miners, like many others who had underestimated the difficulty of the terrain, were forced to leave their mattresses on the side of the road.
Most travellers brought too much and the route to the diggings was soon littered with discarded belongings, from trousers to tablecloths, prospecting pans to pannikins.
But losing their belongings was the least of their worries: bushrangers and thieves were the most dangerous threat. The area known as the Black Forest was notorious for bushranger attacks.
"Sometimes they tie their victim to a tree and leave him to the ants, mosquitoes and hunger. Very rarely is the unfortunate found in time. More often one finds a skeleton tied to a tree," said Korzelinski.
Ellen Clacy also reported bushranger attacks in the Black Forest. While camping there one night, a group of diggers told how they had been attacked by three bushrangers, then found human remains strewn on the ground by a broken-down cart. The captain of Clacy’s group was so scared by this tale, told around their campfire in the Black Forest, that the next morning he resigned his post and returned to Melbourne.
By July 1853, four enterprising Americans who had worked on the Californian goldfields on Wells Fargo stagecoaches established their own coaching firm in Melbourne.
Freeman Cobb, and his three partners set up Cobb & Co using the light leather sprung Concord coaches built in the United States. By the end of 1853 the journey could be made in a little more comfort, but with no less danger.
By Helen Pitt
John Chandler, Forty Years in the Wilderness, Loch Haven Books, 1990.
Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.
William Howitt, Land, labour, and gold: or two years in Victoria with visits to Sydney and Van Dieman’s Land, Sydney University Press, 1972.
Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.
Geoffrey Serle, To the Diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.
Hazards on the Road, From the State Library of Victoria's virtual exhibtion Life on the Goldfields