With campervan loaded for adventure, Elissa Blake and her family rumble into a historic past.
''Gee, she's a big unit," says Barry Cubitt, the ranger at the Abercrombie Caves Reserve, deep in the gold country of NSW. "Sure you can get it across the bridge?" Looking at the narrow concrete causeway separating the car park from the two camping grounds and then back at my "big unit", a four-tonne, six-berth campervan, I'm not sure at all. I opt to park under a nearby tree. Even then, I manage to scrape the airconditioning unit. At 3.5 metres, this van is mighty tall, too.
I'm at the mid-point of a family tour of the goldfields, a rough circle on the map bounded by Bathurst, Forbes, Young and Goulburn, encompassing the picturesque townships of Sofala, Hill End, Canowindra and Grenfell.
These are sedate country towns now, but it wasn't always so. It's reckoned that after news of the first gold discovery at Ophir in 1852 got around, an estimated 370,000 migrants flocked to the area within a year. This mass movement would forever alter the social and economic fabric of the state and generate some of its most enduring mythology - that of its bushrangers.
It was near our campsite at Abercrombie Caves, for example, that Ralph Entwistle and his bushranging Ribbon Gang once hid, thinking themselves safe in its limestone caverns, only to be captured in a shootout with troopers dispatched from Sydney.
Things aren't quite so exciting now. In fact, it's eerily quiet in this park, which is accessed via a winding three-kilometre road that snakes down the valley off the main road between Bathurst and Goulburn. The nearest township is 15 minutes away, Trunkey Creek, a dot on the map that used to be a bustling base camp for hundreds of diggers. Apart from a couple of tents pitched across the river, however, today we are the only people here, and like almost everyone else who makes the detour, we're here to see the caves.
Guided tours of the limestone cave system take place twice a day (four times during holiday periods) and there's nothing that Barry doesn't know about them. Self-guided tours are allowed to view the cave system's features, which include the largest unsupported limestone arch in the southern hemisphere and the goldminers dance platform, which dates from 1880, when the caves were used as an entertainment venue.
We picked up our van - a six-berth Euro Deluxe on a VW chassis - at the Apollo depot in Mascot.
First test: nosing the unfamiliar and very large seeming campervan into the merciless traffic on Gardeners Road before easing it up King Street in Newtown, and then on to Parramatta Road. Driving-wise, it doesn't get any harder than this. Next stop, Katoomba.
The first thing you notice is the noise. It's the rattle of crockery and cutlery for six people, the bottles in the fridge, all the stuff we brought along. The ruts of Parramatta Road make it sound like a washing machine loaded with nuts and bolts. It takes a while to acclimatise. Once you're in tune with the truck, however, it feels surprisingly easy to drive, though reverse parking anything this large requires a spotter as well as the reverse-angle monitor installed on the dash.
After a tense 15 minutes trying to find a Katoomba car park big enough, followed by lunch at the historic Paragon Cafe, it's back on the road for the drive to Bathurst and our first night sleeping in a van. The BIG4 Bathurst is about as gentle an introduction to the vanning lifestyle as you can get. Powered sites, communal kitchen, a kiosk-style shop with free DVD rentals, free PlayStation for the kids and a waterslide. This camping malarkey doesn't seem so hard. But then I don't get to sleep on the van's best bed in the space above the driver's cabin. No, the kids claim that as theirs. Hubby and I make do with a mattress of cushions at the back of the truck. Tolerable, but not exactly comfortable.
Setting out early, we take in Bathurst's Gold Fields Museum for a two-hour history lesson with Kathleen (in Victorian costume), who takes the kids through the museum exhibits and teaches them to pan for gold out the back. And wouldn't you know it? There, in the black sand left in the pans, are yellow flecks of the precious metal. Only about 5¢ worth, Kathleen confides, but enough for the boys to get a taste of gold fever. Next stop, Sofala and Hill End. On the Turon River north of Bathurst, Sofala is said to be the oldest surviving gold-rush town in Australia. It's hard to imagine, but the town's population once topped 40,000. These days it has a population of about 200.
Tonight's camping spot is at Hill End. In its heyday in the 1870s, Hill End boasted a population of 10,000, 28 pubs, an opium den and an oyster bar. Since then, the population has dwindled and many of the town's buildings have fallen into disrepair, fit for demolition only. Thanks to inspired use of period photographs, however, many of the empty plots in the town have a visual record of what once stood.
The next morning we push on to Forbes, once the home of bushranger Ben Hall, who for more than two years from 1863 bailed up mail coaches, innkeepers and squatters with his gang. In these parts, he is still spoken of with a respect that borders on reverence. A room in the town's museum is dedicated to his exploits. His crime spree was a brief but prolific one. More than 100 robberies were attributed to Hall until he was caught in a police ambush in 1865. His body, riddled with 15 bullets, was paraded through the streets of Forbes as a lesson to all.
The next day we press on to Young, the town in which the social impact of the gold rush was most sharply felt. It was here, in 1861, that the Lambing Flat riots erupted, in which thousands of locals and miners were up in arms against Chinese migrants. Young's excellent Lambing Flat Folk Museum, a stone's throw from the place where authorities literally read the Riot Act, is full of memorabilia relating to the town and a dark chapter in its history. Protected under Perspex, the anti-Chinese "Roll-Up Banner" is still a powerful symbol of the xenophobic passions roused in times of significant social dislocation.
By contrast, the pretty and tranquil Chinese Tribute Garden just outside town is an equally potent symbol of what can be achieved when thoughts turn to reconciliation.
The writer and her family travelled courtesy of Apollo Motorhome Holidays and Destinations NSW. visitnsw.com.
Apollo's NSW branch is close to Sydney's Kingsford Smith International Airport at Mascot. Rates vary according to type of van, duration of trip and extras required. 1800 777 779, apollocamper.com.
Bathurst, 200 kilometres west of Sydney, is an ideal place to start a goldfields tour. Allow at least three hours to get there.
BIG4 Holiday Parks are located in Bathurst and Forbes. Powered camping sites from $54 a day. Sites with "ensuite" bathroom facilities from $65 a day. 1300 738 044, big4.com.au.