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Going Down?  A Working Mine in Bendigo

(Reprint from News: March 1, 2002)

February 19, 2002

 

The thermometer hit 100 degrees (well, o.k., 38 degrees centigrade) as I drove through the farmlands of northern Victoria that afternoon, and after listening to Lazy Harry’s CD for the third time (and getting a bit tired of "Waltzing Matilda," I must admit), I pulled into Echuca, a historic town on the banks of the Murray River.  Back in the 1800’s, Echuca was inland Australia’s busiest port and was, I guess, also a pretty rowdy place.  Today, Echuca is mostly a river resort town -- something like Yuma, Arizona without the RV's.  However, it retains a lot of its historic flavor. 

 

Being Australia's longest river and set in a desert-ish environment, the Murray is like a cross between the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers in the U.S. and Echuca was the scene of a lot of steamboat action back in its heyday.  You can still ride the steamboats there, which I did the next morning.  Listening to the paddlewheels slosh through the water while watching the gum trees on the banks of the Murray pass by was interesting, and for a time I felt like I was back in the 1800s.  

 

After spending a night in Echuca and taking the paddle-steamer cruise the next morning, I drove over to the gold-mining town of Bendigo.  Back in the 1800’s, Bendigo was the most active gold-mining town in Australia and, unlike a lot of old gold mining towns, Bendigo is still thriving.  In fact, with a population today of about 50,000, Bendigo is really hopping and the architecture here is quite impressive, with most buildings dating back to the opulent gold-rush days of the 1800’s. 

 

As I discovered in the Bendigo Visitor Center, there’s an active gold mine right in the middle of town called the Central Deborah that offers tours to the public.  I've been interested in gold mining ever since my ranger days in Colorado but I’ve never been inside a working mine, so I drove over to the Central Deborah and paid US$20 for a tour.  As it turned out, I was the only one on the tour, which was led by a couple of friendly retired miners named Roy and Brian.  After I donned my overalls and boots, Roy fitted me with a helmet light and the three of us got in a very tiny elevator cage and quickly dropped 300 feet straight down the chute.  During the rapid descent, Roy kindly suggested that I keep my hands inside the cage unless I wanted to lose them.

 

For the next two hours, I followed Roy and Brian through the mine, followed by a short break for tea, rolls, and jam while sitting at a picnic table 300 feet below the surface in the dark mine and talking into each other’s helmet lights.  As I learned during the tour, mining is VERY loud work, with air drills, rock blasting, and ore-carting, all of which (except for the blasting) I took a crack at.  It was an interesting tour and well worth the price… but I’m really glad I have a desk-job, because after spending two hours in the bowels of the Central Deborah mine, there’s no way in heck that I’d ever want to be a miner.  My ears are still ringing.

   

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Above left:  One of the many riverboats, or "paddle-steamers" as they call them here, on the Murray River in Echuca.  The Murray is like a cross between the Mississippi and Colorado River, and forms the border between Victoria (foreground) and New South Wales (background).

Above center:  Here's the pilothouse of the paddle-steamer I rode on the next morning.  Most of the paddle-steamers here, including this one, were built in the early 1900s.  Mark Twain would've loved this place.

Above right:  Big wheels keep on turning...

 

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Above left:  The historic port area of Echuca.  It was pretty darn hot in Echuca, but it was well-worth the visit.

Above center:  Railway station in Maryborough, near Bendigo.

Above right:  "Poppets" were used to drill shafts for hard-rock mining.  This is in Bendigo which, during the 1800s, was Australia's most productive gold-mining area.   

    

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Above left:  The Central Deborah is a working gold mine in downtown Bendigo.  Here's the change room where I donned my overalls, boots, and hard-hat.

Above center:  That's me ready to head down the shaft.  I guess most real miners don't carry cameras.

Above right:  Here's an old photo from my collection.  These are miners in Colorado during the 1880s standing next to their compressed-air drill.  They drilled holes into the rock, filled them with dynamite, blasted the rock, then repeated the process.  Gold miners today use this same drill-and-blast process.

 

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Above left:  Here's Roy demonstrating an air drill at 300 feet below the surface.  The spots are from the steady mist, used to capture the rock dust.  I operated the drill too, and my ears rang for quite a while afterwards.

Above center:  Roy operating a mucker, which picks up blasted rocks and throws them into a waiting ore car.  Like the air drill, this thing is incredibly noisy.

Above right:  It was an interesting two-hour tour.  Mining is loud, hard, and dangerous work... and I'm really glad I'm not a miner.

 

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