Into the Golden Hills

On our second day in Gippsland, we travelled north to explore the area around the Mt Erica and Walhalla.

On the way, we took a short detour along very a narrow mountain road, with steep sides, to the site of the old gold mining area of Coopers Creek. There is nothing there now apart from a few relics and two nice camp grounds. This is a very scenic spot on the Thompson River that would make a fine swimming hole in summer. It is where we planned to have a special picnic on Valentines Day before we had to return home because of another short virus lockdown.

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Alluvial gold from a copper, silver, gold and platinum deposit in the area was found in the Thomson River upstream of Coopers Creek and resulted in a number of mining claims being made in the area during the Victorian gold rush. However, very little gold was actually discovered there. It was the discovery of the first copper deposit in Victoria, in 1864, which led to the growth of a small township here. Initial smelting conducted in Coopers Creek was unsuccessful and unprofitable due to lowered copper prices and the large quantity of firewood being consumed in the process. Mining continued until 1910 when the market for copper collapsed.

A few kilometres further into the mountains is the picturesque and historic gold mining town of Walhalla. It is nestled in a steep sided valley at the southern edge of the Victorian Alps,  During the gold rush of the 1860s, Walhalla was one of Australia’s richest towns and a mecca for thousands of gold seekers. While the town is now home to only a handful of permanent residents, tourism has taken over and Walhalla receives around 100,000 visitors each year. People come to step back in time to visit this beautifully preserved village full of heritage buildings including old hotels, shops, school and churches. One of these is the rotunda in which the miners brass band played regularly.

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I always wonder just what made people originally come to a  very remote place like this. Was it specifically to find gold? Or, was it that someone just had a sense of adventure and explored remote places to see what they could find? In the 1860’s this place was about as remote as you could get!

During the mining period from 1863 to 1914, the town had 4000 residents. Around 72 tons of gold were extracted from the mines in this area! Thats a little over 2 1/2 million ounces. At todays price of $A 2,290 per ounce, that’s a value too large for calculator to work out! Actually, it’s $A 5,725 billion – enough to make anyone wealthy.

In the early 1900s, a narrow gauge railway was constructed from Moe to Walhalla. A small tourist train now runs along the final stretch of the old route from Walhalla along Stringers Creek Gorge to Thomson Station, on three days per week. While the original trains were hauled by little steam locomotives the train is now powered by small diesel locomotives that were originally used in the open cut coal mines in the Latrobe Valley.

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After a picnic lunch, we drove up to the Mt St Gwinnear carpark. This has lots of memories ori.es for me as it was the starting point for a number of bush-walking trips that I did across Mt St Gwinnear and Mount Phillack to Mustering Flat. This was a broad and flat swampy area where the mountains cattlemen would muster their cattle that had been grazing in the nearby alpine areas and drive them down to lower altitudes before the winter snows arrived. The road is a winding dirt road through beautiful forest with tall eucalypts and tree ferns. I really love this country!

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Not far from where we are staying is the Yallourn Power Station – one of several power stations in this area that generate electricity for Victoria. They are located at the edge of an enormous deposit of brown coal (lignite). 

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Within Gippsland, the Latrobe Valley has an estimated resource of  close to 65 billion tonnes which equals 25 per cent of the world’s known brown coal reserves. Brown coal seams are up to 100 metres thick with multiple seams often giving nearly continuous thickness of up to 230 metres. Seams are typically located under only 10-20 metres of overburden. Each of the open cut mines use enormous dredges to cut into the coal face. Small trains then carry the coal to various power stations to fire the generators. Undoubtedly, as we become more environmentally conscious, these power stations will close and replaced with various forms of renewable energy.

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These beds of coal were laid down in the Oligocene to Eocene periods, some 30 to 50 million years ago in what must have been one enormous swamp.