Hidden fortunes

Ben Stubbs goes fossicking in a town once consumed by the gold rush.

The world's largest single mass of gold ever found resembles a well-rounded old lady – 1.5-metres tall and shaped like a babushka doll. This incredible lump weighs 286 kilograms and by today's standards it would be worth more than $9 million.

You might expect something so valuable and exotic to have emerged from Ciudad Perdida in Colombia or the jungles of West Africa.

The story of the Holtermann specimen is quite different. In the central west of NSW, along the parched ridges of Hill End, it was discovered at Hawkins Hill in 1872.

The town of Hill End is our ultimate destination as we head north-west from Bathurst on the four-wheel-drive route that traces historic Bridle Track, hoping there might be a few specks left along the ridges.

We set out in the rain and it's not hard to tell it has been a long time between drinks out here. The Bridle Track dates back to the 1800s, when it was created to give farmers and miners at the Turon Goldfields access to Bathurst. There are still visible remnants of the original track lined by dry-stone reinforcements. It follows the Macquarie River through farmland studded with outcrops of quartz, reminding us that the mineral deposits here once made it the second most populous place in NSW.

We wind through the hills in the drizzle, past wet-feathered rosellas and purple hardenbergia flowers. The Bridle Track is on our left as we descend to the Winburndale Rivulet and there's the curious sight of cacti plants in the paddocks along the side of the road. My travelling companion tells me that there used to be drinking dens all along the Bridle Track for thirsty travellers when the area was booming in the 1800s and the plant was chopped up and put in whisky for flavour. The watering holes are long gone but the hardy cacti remain along the track.

We hit dirt at Willow Glen and shift into four-wheel drive as the car slips through soupy gravel and begins the climb towards Monaghan's Bluff. The single-lane track hangs on the edge of cliffs that descend into the Macquarie River. In the deepest crevice below us, we can see the mangled remains of a white van – a reminder, in the absence of barriers or signs, to venture slowly. As a precaution, we sound the horn at every blind corner along the weathered bluff.

As our vehicle churns through the mud I can only imagine how difficult this crossing would have once been with temperamental horses and wagons loaded with gold.

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At the Turon River crossing we clear the causeway in a metre of water and get out on the other side to explore abandoned mines and the ruins of miners' cottages hidden in tangles of blackberry. On the hill above is an old quartz stamper rusted to the ground and too heavy to move. With our torches, we peer into unmarked mine shafts; some look to be 15 metres or more deep. We are kilometres from anything, the only sound an occasional thump of kangaroos speeding through the bush.

In today's cold rain, I can hazard a guess at the obsessive drive that must have consumed the miners as they sought their fortunes. I imagine them squatting in mud, panning day after day for an occasional thimble full of gold, barely enough to keep them fed until the next discovery.

We jump back in our mud-splattered vehicle and complete the Bridle Track. The road is wider here and the odd letterbox and driveway begin to appear again. With the dirt turning to bitumen we arrive in Hill End by mid-afternoon.

In the 1870s there were more than 30,000 people living in and around Hill End – panners and miners and those who served their needs. It had a China Town, a German Town, an Irish settlement, three banks, a brewery and 28 pubs, where the miners could spend their fortunes or drown their sorrows.

Hawkins Hill is now an eroded slope on the edge of town; the plaques and photos from Merlin's Lookout show the mines that used to burrow into the hill. It contained "the specimen", as well as numerous other gold deposits. This stretch is still the richest quarter mile length of gold discovered in the world.

The specimen was uncovered in the Star of Hope mine on the October 19, 1872 by German Bernhardt Holtermann. This sparked the Hill End gold rush and the creation of the Sydney Stock Exchange to deal with the syndicates and sudden wealth of the mining boom.

Barely two years after the famous specimen on Hawkins Hill was discovered, the area was sucked dry. Virtually all the gold that was accessible at the time was gone. Just as quickly as the crowds arrived, Hill End was abandoned.

On this stormy afternoon we wander the quiet streets. The heritage general store, the Royal Hotel and three beautiful old churches offer a glimpse of Hill End's former glory. Hill End is now a renowned artist's retreat and we wander the streets looking at the restored cottages along Beyer's Avenue that have inspired artists such as Brett Whiteley and Donald Friend.

From the post office we take the two-kilometre Bald Hill Mine walk, through diverted creek beds and past the ruined stone walls of the Bald Hill Mine. Glen, a local tour guide, gives us hard hats and torches and lets us in for a wander by ourselves before his next group of 50 school children arrive. The restored mine is reinforced with timber beams and the pick-axe marks and divots along the milky quartz veins show where miners once scoured the tunnel for gold. With the equipment available in the 1870s – steam power, horses and hand-operated drills – it was possible to dig only three metres a week, Glen says. By the end of the gold rush, Bald Hill mine had returned no gold at all, prompting a Sydney Morning Herald correspondent to comment at the time: "Bald Hill is as bald within as it is without."

It's twilight when we return to town and we head to the only place with lights on. At the bar of the Royal Hotel we sit with a few locals who tell us there are miners who believe there is another big score to be found in Hill End. Maybe they're right – an exploratory project near Kissing Point, two kilometres from Hill End, has drilled 800 metres into the earth looking for gold.

Our conversation is interrupted by the electronic rattle of the pokies in the next room. I put $2 into the "Where's The Gold?" pokie to have my final spin at Hill End's fortune. Like many before me, I concede defeat and order another beer.

Out the window, among the utes and rusty Holdens, I spy a polished cherry-red Corvette. It comes to a stop outside the hotel and the publican exits. For a moment I imagine he's found another fat old lady in the hills around Hill End that he hasn't told anyone about.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The 68-kilometre Bridle Track starts in Bathurst (2 hours' drive west of Sydney) and is partially paved, though four-wheel-drives are recommended for the trip along the Macquarie River to Hill End.

Staying there

Hill End Lodge has apartments on the edge of town that would suit families or school groups. Rates from $35 a person. Phone 6337 8200, see hillendlodge.com.au.

The guidebook, 4WD Treks Close to Sydney, has detailed information on the Bridle track. See visitnsw.com.

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