Waiting for that Eureka moment

Dugald Jellie is drawn by a tattered flag and Ballarat's rich cultural pickings.

I have stars in my eyes. How else can I explain a dawn bus trip from Melbourne's Southern Cross Station to Ballarat to see a tattered flag, made of petticoats and Indian cotton twill, that's thought to embody a nation's spirit? I think of it as our own Bayeux Tapestry. I think of the alchemy of sewing that's manifest in the emblematic constellation of this hand-crafted history lesson in Australian politics.

Ballarat's that sort of place: Victoria's largest inland city, a 19th-century boomtown, flashpoint for a mining tax issue, the electorate of Alfred Deakin and home to Australia's most potent symbol of independence and liberty - the Eureka flag. It's a standard that's become a shared national heirloom, co-opted by all sides of politics for all sorts of reasons since an Irish-born mine-digger ran it up a makeshift flagpole on Bakery Hill on December 1, 1854, and swore allegiance to the Southern Cross.

"The flag is greater than Ballarat," says the city's mayor, Craig Fletcher. "It's a treasure that's come to represent the country's shared aspirations. It has a national thread that tells of a story of having a fair go."

I've come to Ballarat for the flag but also because the inveterate traveller Mark Twain came here by train in 1891 having heard the tales. "A celebrity so prompt and so universal has hardly been paralleled in history," he wrote in Following the Equator. "It was as if the name Ballart [sic] had suddenly been written on the sky, where all the world could read it at once."

Its renown spread from its rivers of gold, first found at Poverty Point in 1851, and from the strike by Cornish miners of the world's largest single mass. "Ballarat was a great region for 'nuggets'," Twain wrote, and the 69-kilogram Welcome Nugget was the biggest of them all - until the Welcome Stranger was dug up near Dunolly in 1869. A spell had been cast and its fix was golden.

"Half an hour in any direction and you're on a goldfield," says Kate Kent, at the Mining Exchange Gold Shop, a high-street jeweller with an ad in the window for a second-hand metal detector. Inside, it's a fairy grotto of bling: gold bracelets, gold rings, pendants, nuggets - one of which is shaped like Tasmania, weighs 154.5 grams and comes with a $13,500 price tag. "Nugget prices are done by aesthetic value and weight," she says.

The Welcome Nugget, thought to look a bit like a horse's head, fetched £10,500 when first sold in Melbourne but not before Ballarat mothers rubbed their babies' bottoms on it for luck. It was later displayed in Sydney, then exhibited at Crystal Palace in London, before being bought by the Royal Mint and pressed into gold sovereigns. A replica can be seen on Ballarat's main street on the Gold Monument, which lists other notable local finds in an honour roll (Sarah Sands, Lady Hotham, Bakery Hill, Native Youth and more).

The monument is my starting point on a heritage walking tour of Ballarat's heart and on a long weekend of sightseeing in a city of rich cultural pickings. We drink good coffee and fine wine, visit art galleries and museums. We marvel at the abundance of glorious Victorian-era architecture and step into a theatre where Dame Nellie Melba once sang. And whenever we look up, a Eureka flag never seems far away.


Our enjoyment of Ballaarat, as it was known originally from a corruption of an Aboriginal word said to mean "resting place", is abetted by two nights at Craig's Royal Hotel, a grande dame of hospitality where Twain stayed, Melba sang from a balcony and where prime ministers and governors have drunk at the bar and taken a room upstairs. It's a fabulous place, all pomp and circumstance, with polished marble and plush drapery, crystal chandeliers and leather Chesterfields and a facade as ornate as a wedding cake.

It helps that we chance upon the cooking of Damien Jones at the nearby Lydiard Wine Bar, a refined dining room in the 1862 former Bank of NSW chambers. Who would expect a regional city to be spellbound by syrupy betel-leaf snacks of pink grapefruit, coconut, ginger and peanuts, all bound by caramelised palm sugar? It's part of a repertoire of Thai and French dishes that wouldn't go unnoticed in Paris or New York.

On inquiry, we learn that Jones, between stopovers at hatted restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, once worked for David Thompson in London as head chef at Nahm, the first Thai restaurant in Europe to receive a coveted Michelin star.

A Ballarat man with a young family, Jones has returned home and, for this, locals can be thankful. "I'm inspired by the places I've worked and I've always wanted to bring that cooking back to the country," he says. "Hopefully, one day, it will be a destination restaurant."

Our tasting banquet includes freshly shucked oysters with chilli and lime; a soft-shell crab and chicken salad; local ham with pickled walnuts and a warm mustard sauce; and a tender slow-cooked beef cheek (48 hours at 62 degrees) on a celeriac puree with smoked cherry tomatoes. We share a bottle of pinot noir from Ballarat's cold-climate vineyards and congratulate ourselves on finding this place. Mr Jones may just prompt a goldfields food rush.

Surprises continue on a morning walk around Lake Wendouree, the 1956 Olympic Games rowing site replenished recently after years of drought, when we come face to face with John Howard and Kevin Rudd. Both are hardheaded and hold a steely gaze, as the last two sculptures on the Prime Ministers Avenue of bronze busts. The tableau begins with Edmund Barton and includes Frank Forde, who held the top job for just eight days. It's an engaging display in the city's charming botanical gardens. My curiosity is especially aroused by the last five (Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard and Rudd) created by cartoonist Peter Nicholson and exaggerating each man's public persona. Next in line will be Julia Gillard. A position has been prepared for a granite pedestal.

Nearby is another avenue of no less significance: 3771 mainly elm and poplar trees planted from 1917 by women workers from a local textile mill to form the Avenue of Honour - the country's first and longest. A peculiarly Australian response to World War I, it runs for 22 kilometres along the former Western Highway, each tree planted for an enlisted soldier from Ballarat.

But it's not for the city's impressive collection of statuary or memorials that I've come, nor for its thriving food scene or wineries (although we do call in at Dulcinea Vineyard and quaff some very agreeable drops), nor even for the city's remarkable array of elaborate Victorian-era buildings. And we've not come for Ballarat's most famous tourist attraction, Sovereign Hill, a dress-up theme park recreating 1850s life on the diggings. I've come for a flag: an unofficial standard seen here on car number plates and stickers and raised on public flagpoles as an act of pride and defiance - and as a reminder of the blood spilt and injustices wrought on a fateful Sunday morning on December 3, 1854, at Eureka, now a suburb of Ballarat.

The original ensign is housed behind glass in a darkened room at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, where about 15 per cent of its annual 90,000 viewers nominate it as the primary reason for their visit. T-shirts and tea towels often sell out at the gift shop, especially when bikers visit.

"The Eureka flag, at first sight, represents Australian nationalism with its stylised Southern Cross stars," says historian Anne Beggs-Sunter, a lecturer at the University of Ballarat. "But after 150 years of stories and memories, the common thread in its tangled history is that it's a symbol of protest and action, of idealists striving to change political and social systems."

At the gallery, I learn of a continuing tug-of-war over the flag's custodianship - the gallery's board has agreed in principle to its long-term loan to the $11.5 million Australian Centre for Democracy at Eureka, under construction and scheduled to open early next year. And I also learn that the flag is currently in Adelaide undergoing a $100,000 restoration and is not due back in Ballarat until later this year.

When it was first raised on Bakery Hill, the Italian prospector Raffaello Carboni described the flag as being "all exceedingly chaste and natural". The Ballarat Times said: "There is no flag in Europe, or in the civilised world, half so beautiful." The Age even suggested that "the triumphant unfolding of the banner of the Southern Cross may not be so far distant as is generally imagined".

And yet, all these years later, I think I'm fated never to see it, never to cast eyes on its Prussian blue-wool backdrop, to count its stars, to have my very own Eureka moment.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.


Getting there Ballarat is 120 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. Trains and buses run directly from Tullamarine Airport. See airportshuttlebus.com.au.

Staying there The historic Craig's Royal Hotel at 10 Lydiard Street South has two-night packages from $395, twin share, including breakfast. Phone (03) 5331 1377; see craigsroyal.com.au.

More information Ballarat Visitor Information Centre, 43 Lydiard Street. See visitballarat.com.au.