Tunnel vision

Chris Vedelago digs deep in search of tales from the mines and secret drinking haunts underground.

At some point, many of us feel like the weight of the world is pressing down on us. And sometimes, it almost is. Like when you're standing 61 metres underground in an old mine with an inconceivable mass of rock and earth above you.

Bendigo's Central Deborah Gold Mine goes down 412 metres - 1½ times the height of the Rialto Tower. Collectively, its various branching tunnels extend more than 15 kilometres over 17 levels.

Between 1939 and 1954, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock and quartz were blown apart, chipped away and hauled to the surface to extract about one tonne of gold. Since 1986, Central Deborah Gold Mine has been introducing visitors to this underground world with a tour that includes a look at the way the mine operated in its heyday and how things were done during Victoria's 19th-century gold rush. Even though the mine hasn't been used for decades, you get a sense of how tough conditions must have been.

The tunnels are humid, perpetually damp and yet still dusty. The noise of a mine in full operation must have been deafening, which is amply demonstrated when the guide turns on one of the old pneumatic drills for a moment.

You've also never seen true darkness until you've been in a mine with the lights out. The absence of light is overwhelming. And there's the ever-present sense of being closed in and a keen awareness of the enormous pressure of all that rock above you.

For some people, it's simply too much and they baulk at entering. But for others, there's something fascinating about catching a glimpse of what life was like for the miners who helped build this place and the city above it. The fascination has brought me back to the Central Deborah three times - and to many other places besides.

The Catacombs in Rome, troglodyte caves in France, lava tubes in Hawaii, a city-sized bomb shelter in Beijing, the New York City subway system, the Cu Chi and Vinh Moc tunnels in Vietnam - whether they are used to bury sacred dead, shelter for survival, fight a war or just get around, it's an interest I can't shake.

Victoria also has underground attractions in spades and visiting many of them is like stepping back in time. Bendigo and Ballarat are cities built with the proceeds from gold extracted from a veritable honeycomb of mining tunnels that run beneath them.

Walhalla, about an hour north of Moe, is another such place. It's a town that time forgot. Nestled along a dead-end road at the bottom of a river valley, this isolated town was once an epicentre of the 19th-century gold rush.

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Gold was discovered here in 1862 and, at its busiest, almost 3000 people lived and toiled in a series of mines, working what was the richest gold reef in the state.

One such operation, which can still be visited today, is the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine. It operated from 1871 to 1911 and, in that time, more than 13.7 tonnes of gold were extracted from its 8½ kilometres of workings.

But the boom couldn't last forever and when it ended, Walhalla was essentially abandoned, with nearly anything of value packed on to trains and carted away. By then, the vast pristine forests surrounding the town had been stripped bare to feed the boilers that drove the mining machinery, leaving behind bare rock hills that took decades to regrow.

The tour of Long Tunnel and the local history exhibits make clear just how tough life was in boom-time towns such as Walhalla. Standing testament to this fact is the local cemetery, where hundreds of former residents and workers are buried on a steep hillside.

It cost a lot in sweat and blood to get that treasure and just how dangerous mining was is brought to life with shocking clarity at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.

On December 12, 1882, in Creswick just north of Ballarat, workers in the New Australasian No. 2 Gold Mine accidentally broke through a wall separating them from an earlier, abandoned mine. Digging so far below the surface means flooding from underground water sources is a constant threat, with an enormous amount of energy devoted to pumping it to the surface. Once a mine is abandoned, the water quickly returns. When the neighbouring mine was breached, a wall of water swept through the works, flooding the horizontal tunnels that led to the shaft to the surface. Only five of the 27 men trapped in the mine made it out alive.

This harrowing event has been re-created in the underground Sovereign Hill attraction, Trapped, which uses light, sound and water to simulate the disaster, while a moving visual-effects show tells the stories of the miners and their families.

Victorian-era miners also had a hand in creating the spectacular Seppelt winery in Great Western. In the late 1860s, founder Joseph Best hired unemployed gold miners to dig a shaft and tunnel underneath what was then called the Great Western Vineyard, creating a place where he could store his wines at a constant temperature.

Over the years, these tunnels have been expanded into a massive subterranean system running for three kilometres, which has been recognised as a historical treasure by the National Trust of Australia - Victoria.

Seppelt offers a series of one-hour tours. Not to be left out, beer drinkers can also have a (brief) underground experience at the Star Hotel in Echuca. Built in 1867 to service the hefty drinking needs of those plying the Murray River system, the place and patrons were so notoriously rough that the hotel lost its licence in 1897.

After continuing to trade and getting raided by police, the publican built a secret tunnel running from the Star's Shades bar into an alley behind the hotel. It's worth a look to see just how much trouble people are willing to go to for a drink. And this in a town that had 78 other hotels at the time.

Victoria also boasts a stunning cave system at Buchan in East Gippsland, about 360 kilometres from Melbourne.

Discovered in 1907 and 1910 - and preserved almost untouched except for the addition of access points, stairs, safety rails and lighting - the Fairy Cave and Royal Cave are two networks of spectacular limestone deposits formed over aeons by long-disappeared underground rivers and the steady drip of rainwater from the surface.

Victoria. It's not just a place to be but a place to be under.

Chris Vedelago travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Sydney Melbourne Touring.

FAST FACTS

Central Deborah Gold Mine, Bendigo, entry $26.50 adult, $13.50 child, $65 family. Several tours daily. See central-deborah.com.

Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine, Walhalla, entry $19.50 adult, $49.50 family. Tours: Mon-Fri 1.30pm. Weekend, public holidays, school holidays midday, 1.30pm, 3pm. See walhallaboard.org.au.

Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, entry $41 adult, $18.70 child, $103.50 family. Tickets for Trapped and other mine tours are $7.50 adult, $4 child, $20 family. Daily 10am-5pm.

Seppelt, Great Western, entry $16 adult, $10 child. Tours: Monday to Saturday 11am and 2pm. See seppelt.com.au.

Star Hotel, Echuca, see starhotelechuca.com.au.

Buchan Caves Reserve, entry to one cave $14.50 adult, $8.50 child, $40.50 family; entry to two caves $22 adult, $12.50 child, $60.50 family.

See parkweb.vic.gov.au.

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