Deep below the earth's surface, a small map on the wall makes you realise you're not alone. The mine shaft of the Central Deborah gold mine has a bewildering network of tunnels springing from it at various levels. It feels like a hugely expansive operation, drilled out over decades.
But looking at the map is a little like looking at a diagram of the constellations in the universe. Then, our solar system is suddenly dwarfed into insignificance. And it's similar here. The shaft and tunnel system of the Central Deborah mine is one of thousands carved out beneath Bendigo. And there are several more mines that have never been properly charted. There's essentially a city beneath the city, much of it abandoned. The mines on the Deborah reef were among the last to open and the last to close.
The Central Deborah mine ran from 1939 to 1954, but as guide Pete explains before we head down into its depths, the story of the goldfields began nearly a century before then.
"In the 1850s, gold was found by ladies washing their clothes in the creek," he says. "Although this was probably an excuse to cover for the fact they were looking for gold without a licence.
"They walked to Castlemaine in order to sell it and made the mistake of telling people where they found it. By the time they got back, there were 400 blokes digging here."
Ballarat may be the goldfield town that evokes misty-eyed romanticism – largely due to the Eureka Stockade – but Bendigo was where the real riches lay, producing almost as much gold as the rest of Victoria put together.
It was more than just a boom here – it was an industry. And it took World War II to essentially kill it off. Industries were classified in relation to how useful they were to the war effort, and gold mining was put in the lowest category, so the miners ended up going elsewhere to mine other minerals. The mines that kept going or reopened were no longer commercially viable.
That means that there is still plenty of gold beneath the city – it's just that no one can make enough money dragging it out. Heading down into the mine in the hope of snaffling some is extreme wishful thinking, but it's something to keep the mind off the claustrophobia…
The Central Deborah shaft has been widened considerably to allow bigger lifts to get down. The original cages were tight four-man affairs, and if they broke down, the only way up was climbing a relentlessly vertical ladder. From the bottom of the mine, that'd take an extremely fit miner an hour and a half.
Here, they were the lucky ones. Central Deborah goes down 411 metres. Others beneath Bendigo are three times as deep.
Originally, the gold here was alluvial. But the easy pickings washed along the creeks were soon snaffled up, and the early miners had to get their shovels out. What they found was a remarkable concentration of white quartz rock reefs, which is where gold is generally found. Licences to dig for it were bought eagerly, and the remarkable disjointed network of subterranean diggings began to take shape.
The tours focus not so much on the incredible riches dug out from beneath Bendigo, but the people who did it. We head past the cramped, rock-hewn "crib room", where miners would huddle to eat their lunch. A canteen with full kitchen facilities was never going to happen, so often it was a case of munching a pastie – a culinary innovation brought over by miners from Cornwall. They'd be pretty jealous now, as nearby a function room has been hollowed out in order to host weddings, work seminars and birthday parties. Underground booze-ups are the new gold, it seems.
The miners thoroughly earned their breaks though, as the work was full-on and phenomenally dangerous. The early miners used a hammer and tap method to break down the rock, ever-so-gradually chiselling away. But it was when drills came in 1886 that the carnage truly began. Pete fires one up – and it's deafening. Being underground with these going off all day must have been pretty hellish – especially given the glass particles in the quartz rock that ended up in the miners' lungs via the dust.
Thankfully, Pete is using a later era model, which comes with an air and water supply to minimise the dust.
But glass particles aren't the only dangerous substance down below Bendigo. The underground city would be an underwater city if the groundwater wasn't pumped out. And, unfortunately, it can't be channelled back into the creek as there's arsenic in it. "If we weren't pumping arsenic out, it'd be coming up in people's gardens," says Pete.
There are some secrets, it seems, that you don't want to discover…
Bendigo now has its own Art Series Hotel, inspired by artist Mark Schaller's studio and full of original artwork. Rooms at the colourful, niftily designed Schaller Studio cost from $129. See www.artserieshotels.com.au/schaller
SEE + DO
The Mine Experience Tour at Central Deborah Gold Mine costs $30. See www.central-deborah.com
David Whitley was a guest of Visit Victoria.