150 years ago, on every eroded mountain and every pocket valley across the country, there could be heard that greatest of all iconic cries:
“DERE BE GOLD IN DEM HILLS!”
Hill End was founded on just such a shout. 86 kilometres from Bathurst, 195 from Dubbo, and 73 from Mudgee, Hill End remains very central… to nowhere. By the early 1870s, Hill End was the largest inland town in New South Wales, with a population exceeding 10000, including large families of Irish, English and Chinese. More recently, Hill End’s population has been counted at 166.
A town the size of Hill End is usually nothing more than a wide space in the road. I thought Hill end might be the same. Not so. The town, seemingly run by National Parks, has done a huge amount towards promoting its gold mining history, the iconic faces in town, the trials and triumphs of the Irish and Chinese populations (in particular the Chinese), and the town itself as a historical site. There’s a good variety of interactive entertainment on offer, from rough road buggies to hikes, gold panning and mine tours. There are also signs like this:
scattered around the place. I don’t know about you, but I see that and I am hit by a sudden, intense feeling of involvement in my surroundings.
We arrived in Hill End around lunchtime, parking at the spacious tourist info centre/ museum. I had a hellova trip. The road from Bathurst is rocky and windy. I imagine the roads from anywhere else are similar, and the only way to avoid motion sickness, if you get it, is to be dropped in to Hill End via plane. We walked around the outskirts of the museum while I worked off the nausea. Outside the museum had plenty to offer, from old rock crushing equipment to a great collection of wagons and carriages;
Although we’d called ahead to check the museum would be open (open every day except Christmas), when we got around to the front door we found they were closed for lunch. Fair enough. Thinking the museum was onto a good thing, Ryan and I consulted the maps and cut through a paddock into the road into the town centre.
The first remarkable thing about Hill End is the fences. Everyone has wooden fences. Not picket, just long strings of thin planks in various states of disrepair. I don’t know if it’s part of the done thing in the town, or if the fences are by some agreement, but they really are very effective in creating a scene straight from 1871.
The second remarkable thing about the town is that it’s impossible to get lost. It’s exceedingly easy to walk from one end to the other and right out the far side. The shops, consisting of a pub, a general store/ bakery/ take away store, and the tour headquarters, are found in a small clump of buildings at about the centre of town. There were a few other people about, most of them with the word LOCAL branded across their foreheads, and some with the tattoo I WAS BORN HERE AND I’LL DIE HERE. Well, just kidding about that, but they couldn’t have made it much more obvious! They were friendly enough and we took lunch in the bakery/ everything store with a few National Parks rangers.
View from the main street (but not of the main street). Over a tasty lunch we consulted the maps. Beware of the maps on the official museum propaganda as well as the dune buggy paraphernalia. They are not good maps. In fact the point of the museum map seems to be to make everything as jumbled and ill-scaled as possible. Hill End is easy enough to memorise via the Google map image, but failing that, grab yourself the brochure titled ‘Hill End Historic Site’, which contains a detailed map of all the cottages, walks, shops and etc in the area.
Even if you’re up earlier than we were, the shops around town are well worth a look. The general store contains a huge amount of local information, some fancy art pieces, and provides a real sense of local character. Portraits and stories of locals are continued after a fashion in the streets to the south of the CBD. Here you can take a photo tour, with photos in front of sites and cottages show what the place used to be like.
Well, I feel like I’m selling Hill End here! I’m not, and there were things I did and didn’t like about the place. However the effort that has gone into making the town an interesting tourist destination has paid off. The information is interesting, the sites themselves are interesting, and the cottages are very well preserved. It’s possible to rent some of the cottages out for months at a time, and they are apparently popular with artists and writers.
From the southwest end of town, we picked up the Bald Hill hiking track. This track loops around Bald Hill, where there were many large scale mining operations and also a separate community of Irish. Big stone walls, weirs and artificial banks can be seen all around the place. The photo plates continue, providing an idea of how the place looked full of stamp batteries and water wheels and active mines.
What’s left of the Irish town! You can see the plum trees there which were once part of an orchard. There are some brick foundations further towards town which were also part of this community.
We opted against climbing the hill, looping around via the bridge. Until the point of Bald Hill Tourist Mine (if the tourists are stuck in the walls or what I don’t know) the track is well maintained. Past the track, down into the creek and heading uphill into Irish town, the track is virtually lost. For example;
Now you might think you can see the track here, as we did. This is the remains of the upper part of Chappell’s Dam and spillway, and the brick wall is all that’s left of the expansive Chappell’s Stamp Battery. The thing about this picture is, you can’t see the track here. At all. What looks like the track is just animal crossings or other lost hikers. After wandering around here for a while, totally lost for signs in the criss-crossing tracks, I spotted a photo plate up on a ridge, and we headed for that. It may be worth mentioning that at one stage before this you will lose all indication of the direction of Bald Hill Track. The signs will indicate you are on Bridle Track. You aren’t. Bridle Track is a 4WD road. You’re still on Bald Hill Track and when you finally fight your way past the millions of kangaroos and goats to the photo plate on the ridge, then you will know it.
Down the last of Bald Hill, which contains several covered mine shafts, back into town, we took a different street towards the CBD. Here we could see the foundations of the old churches. This conifer was sprouting beside the rubble of the Presbyterian church. Just before the CDB, there is a double storey place called Northeys. On the Northeys ground there used to be a girls’ school run by a Miss Talbot. The rate for tutelage was 5 guineas a term, which I don’t know much about paying in guinea pigs, but seems pretty steep. Ryan and I joked that if you wound up in Hill End attending an expensive girls’ school then it would undoubtedly be Talbot’s School For The Damned.
Okay! So finally, the museum. We said hello to the locals on the way back past the pub and climbed the apparently wheelchair accessible Hospital Hill. I don’t know what kind of wheelchair you’d have to be piloting to climb Hospital Hill, but right now I’m telling you it will need an engine. At least a v8. And possible chains like you’d use for the snow.
We paid our $2.20 each for admission to the very friendly receptionist. The guest book revealed the museum receives a steady 2- 3 visitors every day. I imagine the lady was a volunteer, otherwise I wouldn’t mind knowing the secret for living off less than $40 a week and not going out of your mind from loneliness.
While it’s true there were some very interesting Hill End family trees, stories and portraits, bar equipment, old clothes, cameras, art works and etc about the place, the real heart of the collection lies in the fact that the museum was once the hospital. There is a fantastic collection of old medical equipment here, and I really cannot emphasise how glad I am that modern medicine has progressed from this:
Delivery table, and these:
fully legitimate surgical tools, and these;
bottles marked POISON, and, most of all;
this horror labelled ENEMA EQUIPMENT. Just how badly would you need an enema before you considered being subjugated to that?
Our merry tour of the hospital of horror done, we piled ourselves back into the car and took the Mudgee road out of town. A few minutes down the road we found this beautiful place;
Golden Gully. It was here the Chinese mined for gold. The Chinese used different techniques than European miners, digging round tunnels instead of square, for the duel purpose of keeping out ghosts and the lack of need for supports. I have no idea how the Chinese mine in Minecraft. But in a world where circles are possible, they did quite well.
On the top here you can see the marks of tools and also the distinct shape of the tunnel. The water coursing through here may have expanded the lower channel to its current shape. These shallow mine shafts are secreted everywhere around the area.
Picture of the Day 48: Ryan under the Golden Gully arch. It’s a beautiful and surreal place. The photos here are of the wider spaced gullies, but there are plenty of offshoots just wide enough to pass through. Blocks of land sit like islands between the deep channels. There are caves, shafts and natural waterholes everywhere. The ground is a mix of clay, small rocks, large quartz deposits (which signalled the gold veins the Chinese searched for) and sandstone. But it really is largely clay, and the gully walls have taken on these awesome shapes, pillars and stalagmites all gouged in tiny spirals and waves. Trees sprout on the islands of land. To navigate this place would be a challenge for any explorer. To be in such a place during heavy rain would be disastrous – the holes everywhere, the sudden rush of high water, the impracticality of climbing a vertical mud wall…
But look at me. I’m crazy. I’d do it. XD
We spent less than an hour looking around Golden Gully, but it was doubtlessly my favourite part of the day. I’ve never seen terrain like it, and in the late afternoon it was an incredible, glowing, enigmatic place. We couldn’t help but feel for the Chinese miners squirming into narrow shafts. But to see the remains of their work was wonderful. They could have been here yesterday.
The trees have it tough, too! This root extends four or so metres up a cliff face to help the tree grip an ever retreating bank.
So that was our big day out in Hill End. We came home very satisfied. I drove, it was much better. There were things we didn’t do, like the dune buggies and fossicking, and things we didn’t see, like the larger museum. I don’t know if I’d go back to Hill End for those reasons alone. However, there certainly was plenty to see and do, and whether you go alone or with a family, I believe you could get a good two or three days’ entertainment out of the place.
Longer than that? As it said on the wall of the general store: you have to be buried in Hill End before you’re a local.
Until next time!