In step with the doomed

As darkness falls, David Adams joins a walking tour of a town said to be the country's most haunted.

Photographs that come to life and try to speak. The fresh smell of baking in a bakery long disused. Spectral images of the dead appearing in windows.

They're just some of the stories Nathaniel Buchanan has to share as we walk the darkened streets of Ballarat in search of the supernatural.

Buchanan and his partner, Suzanne McRae, launched Ballarat Ghost Tours in October and he says since then, the stories of the former gold mining town's haunted past have flooded in.

"From all over different parts of town ... " he notes, adding that the tour's itinerary has been constructed drawing on information gleaned from newspapers, books and the internet as well as interviews with Ballarat residents and even those who come on the tours.

Buchanan has previously led tours in Europe while working with Contiki and has also worked at Port Arthur in Tasmania, where he was a guide on the ghost tour. He and McRae, who works during the day as a corsetier, decided to start the tours in Ballarat after seeing the potential in a town that has sometimes been referred to as Australia's most haunted.

Buchanan recently joined with the Ballarat Steakhouse and Craig's Royal Hotel to offer dinner and tour packages and so it's at the Ballarat Steakhouse that we begin our journey.

Having enjoyed fine steaks and exemplary service, we set off to Ballarat Railway Station.

The light is fading as we arrive and, along with 20 or so others, gather under the clock tower to meet Buchanan, who is attired magnificently in an outfit that is a cross between what a Victorian gentleman might have worn and what you'd expect someone leading a tour of the macabre to be wearing, and his similarly dressed assistant, introduced as Miss McRae.

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The starting point for the tour is what is now a disused cellar but was once known as the New York Bakery (there's a replica of it built at nearby Sovereign Hill).

There's an air of expectation among us as we gather in the cellar, located under Reid's Guesthouse, to hear how a mysterious woman wearing an apron has appeared in the room, including to some of those on Buchanan's tours. Then there's the time that one of those on his tours felt someone grab his hand and throw his watch across the room. And the baker who swore he could smell fresh baking as he came down the steps.

And that's just the beginning. During the tour Buchanan pauses outside many of the town's historic buildings, including Her Majesty's Theatre and the former Ballarat jail, to regale us with tales of their former inhabitants and strange happenings following their deaths.

Further tours may be on the cards. While the tour currently takes in an area around the town's centre, Buchanan says he and McRae have come across numerous ghost stories relating to parts of Ballarat outside their route. "The ghost stories certainly aren't limited to the area we do," he says.

"There's definitely the possibility for us to do all kinds of tours, like driving tours, and we're in the process of starting to think about a cemetery tour."

About 1½ hours after setting forth, we finish with a drink at Craig's Royal Hotel, under the gaze of a portrait of the premises' namesake.

Buchanan had earlier informed us that several decades ago a businessman was staying in the hotel when he was woken in the night to find a spectral figure of a man in the room, its mouth moving as though trying to speak. The man nonetheless was able to get back to sleep before again being woken: this time a portrait of a man's face on the wall had come to life, the mouth again moving. Needless to say, the man left the room for the night. It turns out the portrait, which now hangs in the foyer watching us, was of Walter Craig, the former owner of the hotel who apparently foresaw his own death.

The burning question, of course, is whether Buchanan has had any supernatural experiences.

"While I've never had anything that would convince me either way," he says, "I've definitely seen the reactions of people who have had various experiences, which have made me think there is probably a lot more out there than what we know."

We finish our drinks and head home, not having encountered anything supernatural ourselves but, with our heads filled with spooky stories of those who have professed to, we're not really that disappointed that we didn't.

Ballarat Ghost Tours runs walking tours nightly every Wednesday to Sunday. The tours, which last about 1½hours, commence at 9pm (8pm outside daylight savings time). The cost is $25 an adult, $20 concession and $15 for children or $65 for a family of five. Phone 0423 653 512, see eerietours.com.au.

David Adams was a guest of Ballarat Ghost Tours.

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