The Crazy Backstories & Backroads of Australia’s Gold Country.

We’re a fertile old land when it comes to growing rocks.

In more recent years it’s been iron and coal but the original mac-daddy was gold, a type of rock that does strange things to a man, and to a society.

The dirt we’re driving on is full of just as many stories as minerals.

Here’s a handful of historical tales that you’ll uncover when you crisscross the country enough times.

{Photo Credits: Carlisle Rogers, National Library of Australia, State Library of Victoria}



Striking It Rich Is One Thing. Keeping It Secret Is Another.

OK, so you’ve gone out on your own and found it, but how do you keep it secret?

How do you get it to the claims office 200 miles away, not just running the gauntlet through the Aboriginal frontier, but also with bushrangers and dodgy cops on your tail…
James Nash was jack of southern Queensland, and even of gold, he was making his way north to work on a station, especially as winter’s icy tentacles crept in.

The swagman was a veteran of failed gold-mining attempts at Bathurst and in the Blackall Ranges, where a shaft collapsed on him and he was dug out just shy of suffocation. Yep, he was getting out of there, taking his pick and his dog up north.

Nash camped along the Mary River and at lunchtime he filled his billy, noticing gold flecks, by dinnertime he had panned an ounce. The following day he moved further up the stream and the gold deposits just got crazier, with whole nuggets rolling around in his pan.

On finding the filthy lucre, Nash froze, he couldn’t believe his luck, but as the size of the find increased wherever he panned, so too did a great weight come over him.

He didn’t light a fire, he slept under shrubbery when he wasn’t working, and he hid from all passers by. When a curious Aborigine trundled through the bush and caught him in the act, Nash mimed that he was looking for copper but having no luck. “Barely making enough to eat,” he said, showing his ribs.

He went to Brisbane to cash his haul in, telling people that it was from way up in North Queensland. As he waited for his boat back home, people started following him through the city.

He managed to get back to his find with a new horse and dray, and there were already chancers hoping to knock him off, desperados willing to put a pick in to the back of his skull if it meant finding out the source of his nuggets. At one stage he had to stick his fist down his dog’s mouth to stop it from barking when someone rode by.

On his next trip into town he managed to get there before being offed, and he staked a claim officially, which meant his secret was out and he’d no longer be worth killing. But on the flipside, within a day there were teams of men following his tracks back to the Mary River, and one of the richest gold veins in Australia.

According to historian Hector Holthouse, overnight, the once-quiet bend in the Mary River “was pandemonium. Fights broke out over disputed ground, horses stamped, dogs yapped, and men cursed and yelled. By the Sunday it was a stampede, farmers walked off the land, the sugar harvest came to a standstill, and ships were left without crews.”

Offroad Gympie: Gympie couldn’t be better situated for an array of sandy and dirty driving, being smack bang between Cooloola NP, Fraser Island, Blackall Ranges, and Glasshouse Mountains.



High Drama In The NSW Lowlands.

As much as the Victorian goldfields were the home of the fair go, the NSW fields became famous for racial flare-ups, and an intense fight for what people deemed to be rightfully theirs.

It’s a legacy that still exists today whenever a rise in a minority upsets the change in employment, real or imagined. Think of more recent examples like the Italians in the 1950s, Vietnamese in the 80s, and Arab migrants in the 2010s.

It’s an easy target, something changes, and the idosyncrasies of another culture are pointed out as being different and dangerous to the status quo. Ground Zero being the Lambing Flat Riots, based in the Burrangong gold fields north of Canberra.

The Chinese were no strangers to gold mining, they were on the scene of all the Australian diggings and brought a know-how most ‘new chum’ Europeans weren’t savvy with.

The European novices would peg off a small stake and work solo, doing back-breaking work that rarely brought a profit, and when they did earn a little bit of scratch it was often spent on a soothing ale.

The Chinese did it in larger groups, working around the clock, and not spending any money.

Their success jolted many. As to why there were so many of them allowed here, well this was a British colony at the time. Britain had invaded China and taken over the opium trade and in return, they had drawn up a treaty between the two countries where they could both travel freely through each other’s country, knowing full well there wouldn’t be an influx of Chinese migrants to England. Australia was a different story.

The Chinese miners arrived in the colony as legally as Englishmen, they generally kept to themselves too which infuriated failed miners even more.

And as the Chinese became more successful, political groups rose saying that they wanted restrictions on the migrants working the fields. While British, American and Irish prospectors also sent most of their their profits back home, they looked much similar. It was as simple as that.

At seven different NSW mines, banners called for caucasian miners to “Roll Up!” and rid the fields of these ‘parasites’.

At Lambing Flat, over 2000 men showed up brandishing picks, fists and shovels and waged war on 200 Chinese, bashing them, robbing them and destroying their camps.

It was a day of such ill repute, that Lambing Flat eventually had to change its name. (These days it’s known as Young.)

It also became a flashpoint for how the colonies would deal with immigration from here on in, showing that the young colony preferred to hold on to Europe’s apron strings rather than remotely embrace the geographical neighbours in Asia.

As a result of the unrest, the governments of NSW, QLD and WA all passed legislation restricting the amount of Chinese allowed to work and live in each colony. It was a precursor to both the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, and the White Australia policy.

Offroad Young: Some serious offroad clout around these parts with the Brindabella Ranges being just an hour south. This is an area thick with national parks, state forests and fire trails.



Engineer, Preacher, Bushranger.


When it comes to bushrangers, some just didn’t put enough effort into their names. I’m looking at you Frank Gardiner and Alex Pearce.

But having a fabulous title is one thing certainly not lacking from Andrew Scott’s CV, having designated himself as “Captain Moonlite.”

While it might not have struck particular fear into Victoria’s policemen and gold miners, it certainly gave them something to think about when they were being robbed of their bullion.

The Irish Moonlite was one of the best-educated men in Victoria and was adept at staying one foot ahead of his quarry.

He had studied engineering in London and his military mind had seen him in demand in colonial wars in Italy and NZ. Although hyper-intelligent he was never able to make a high posting to captain or colonel because of his quick temper. And basically he felt ripped off.

He was easily bored and he had a penchant for money and shiny things, and when he arrived in Australia he took to the Bendigo and Ballarat gold fields looking to fill these holes.

What was even more mysterious was that he was from a rich family and was working as a preacher while also leading a double life as a daring bushranger. He first signed off as Captain Moonlite when he knocked off the Egerton bank’s gold deposits wearing a cape and mask.

The Australian Zorro then took his bullion to Sydney and partied, his massive gold stash not raising too much concern with authorities, such was the amount of gold being pulled from the Victorian goldfields.

He bought a yacht and lived on it in Sydney Harbour with his pals, drinking and gambling, and after a while authorities started to wonder where the strange preacher’s money was coming from.

They traced it back to the Egerton gold heist and the flamboyant bushranger defended himself in court. It was the best show in town, as documents from the ANU attest: “He cross-examined with ‘shrewd and pertinacious questions’ and amused the crowd with his facetious remarks.”

When they locked him up, he escaped and the legend of Captain Moonlight grew.

Even when they recaptured him and he did 10 years in Pentridge, the notorious gold thieving preacher kept the colony talking.

When he got out, he returned to respectable jobs like engineering and writing, until he got bored again and put a gang of hombres together and they roamed the Gundagai gold fields.

When his accomplice was shot down during a heist, the distraught Moonlite was captured while crying into his pal’s dead body, professing his undying love, something The Monthly recently revisited in their article ‘A Queer Bushranger – The Tale of Captain Moonlite.’

The gold thief’s s final wish before he was hanged was to be buried near his dead bushranger pals. Over a hundred years later, Moonlight’s bones were indeed moved from Sydney, and he is buried near his friends in Gundagai.

Offroad Bendigo: Only an hour and a half out of the big smoke, you can still go on a solid 4WDing jaunt through rich valleys and tracks such as the Widow Maker, Maiden Gully, Pyrenees, Epsom Quarry.



Wake Me When The Gold Rush Is Over.


Surely those bearded cowboys didn’t find all the gold back then? Surely there’s still plenty of gold in the ground?

In the years since the gold rush, mining multinationals have used every scientific advance to extract the shimmering riches from our gold veins, using things like cyanide bombardment and magnetic exploration planes.

And yet still the spirit of the modern chancer lives on, these days under the auspices of a high tech Minelab metal detector.

But imagine if you used one of these things and struck it big. Not someone’s rusty watch but a  giant cauliflower of a gold nugget.

This happened in 1995 when an amateur fossicker stumbled on a 25kg rock that looked a lot shinier than the others he’d been banging his metal detector into in a dormant creek that he had a hunch about.

It wasn’t all hot luck though, our mystery fossicker happened to be just outside Kalgoorlie, in the aptly named Goldfields region, and he knew what he was looking for. His find being not too far from Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit, a gaping gold mine that’s expected to stay open for another 15 years.

For years, the solo miner kept the giant nugget under his bed, a one-way ticket to a better life. He wasn’t too fearful of theft at that stage because no one would believe it was real even if they saw it.

When he finally decided to cash it in, he decided to go through a broker in the US, hoping it wouldn’t make the news in WA. When the spiky slab was caught up in customs on its way out of the country it caused an immediate sensation.

His hopes of secrecy were dashed when the nugget was verified – there was only one bigger in the whole world, and his $2 million find was international news.

When the nugget eventually made it to The University of Southern California for examination in 1999 it was deemed to be “80 to 90% high purity gold”, and the Australian government insisted the 30cm rock remain at home due to its cultural significance.

The early name given to the rock was “King of The West”, until it was bought by a local mining company and kept in the foyer as the “Normandy Nugget”. When Newmont Mining bought Normandy Mining a couple of years later, they housed it in the Perth Mint’s gold museum.

Perhaps fearful his gold reef would be discovered, or scamming relatives might come out of the woodwork looking for a loan, the identity of the lone fossicker has never been revealed.

Perhaps he’s still out there somewhere in a caravan on the edge of the Great Victorian Desert with a couple more of these things stashed under his bed.

Offroad Kalgoorlie: The Goldfields region is all 4WDing for the most part. Around town you could do worse than a solid hit-out on the dunes at Lake Douglas, and further afield you’ll find the open expanses of Cowarna Downs Station.



The Seeds Of The Eureka Rebellion.

It’s animal instinct to survive. But what makes us truly human is what we do once we gain freedom.

Most gold diggers were poor migrants, ex-convicts or chancers trying to support young families, so, just what did they want done with the improvements that came with a mining boom?

Oddly enough, it wasn’t just self-interest. The struggles and the wealth accrued in the fields of Ballarat were the birth of the Aussie notions of equality, democracy and the concept of a fair go.

From the Victorian gold rush, stretching to the 20th Century, a new era began, known as Colonial Liberalism, an era that focused on using the new-found wealth to actually build a new country from the ground up, with schools, railways, roads and fair pay.

They were led by the Chartists, migrant English diggers who were anti-communist, anti-royalist, and wanted to see a land where you could get an even break that was not possible back in their homeland, where an immovable class system still ruled the roost.

They espoused a fair Australia that looked after the middle and working classes, rather than big overseas interests.

On the other side of the same coin, the Ballarat goldfields also gave birth to workers rights with the Eureka Stockade, the early seed of the Labour Party. It was a workers’ movement with global repercussions, with Victoria being the first place on earth to introduce the eight-hour day.

The Eureka Rebellion came about when solo miners saw the government slap huge taxes on anyone getting a miner’s licence. The individuals banded together to form the powerful Ballarat Reform League who protested the cash-grab. Then the government sent the military in and all hell broke loose. You were either fighting for the ways of the old country, the conservative landed gentry; or fighting to create something different in a new country.

None other than Mark Twain wrote that the Eureka Rebellion was: “The finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution—small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.”

So there you have it, the gold rush of Ballarat was responsible for incorporating many aspects into modern Australian politics – the worker focus of the Labour Party; and the ‘liberal’ (as opposed to the ‘conservative’) element of the Liberal Party.

It’s easy to bag both of the major parties but despite them straying into the fields of self-interest and job preservation, they both actually came from a place of integrity.

It’s up to us, the voters, to keep the bastards honest to the original gameplan. For the fair go. Because ever since the gold rush, that has been one of the defining characteristics of being Australian.

Offroad Ballarat: The main game here is the Grampians. The national park and surrounding areas are home to red letter trails such as Victoria Range Rd, the Goat Track and the Chinaman’s Creek Track.


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