Sovereign Hill

16 Apr

Sovereign Hill

On Saturday, H and I took another weekend away. Our first stop was Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, a gold rush era living history museum and a very popular tourist attraction.

I’ve been to living history museums before and have always found them interesting. Sadly, Sovereign Hill was a huge disappointment. This is the first touristy thing I’ve done in Australia that I don’t really have anything good to say about it, other than the fact that the weather was great.

Some of the few items for sale that are actually made on site.

It’s $45 per person to get in, which is pretty expensive, in my opinion. At that price, you would expect not to have to pay extra for the attractions inside, but that wasn’t the case.

Sovereign Hill is a huge tourist trap. It’s filled with shops selling mostly Chinese made crap. Some things are actually made there by craftsmen, like the brass goods, but most of it isn’t.

Other than the shops, there isn’t much to do. If you’re a kid, panning for gold in a muddy creek might be exciting and fun- and the kids we saw doing it seemed to be having a good time- but not so much if you’re an adult.

Panning for gold seems to be the most popular activity by far.

There are two mine tours. One is a free twelve minute self-guided tour and they send you down in groups of 15. A recorded voice guides you along through the “mine” (it isn’t a real mine and never was) and the highlight of the trip underground is a short holographic video projection of a miner striking gold.

The second costs $7.50 per person and goes through yet another fake mine (even the rocks are fake!). There are three tours to choose from, but the only one that still had seats available was the Secret Chamber tour, which is about two Chinese brothers who found and then lost a fortune in the gold mines.

On this tour, you take a minute long train ride in total darkness down into the fake mine. The guide shows you a mine shaft with a lift and talks about how dangerous it was and how they often had young boys working down there in terrible conditions. Around the corner they show you a fake “lunch room” for the miners, which you can’t really see because there are 30 other people in front of you trying to peer in.

The highlight of the tour is the “secret chamber” of course. The chamber is carved out of fake rocks and you stand and watch as a short video about the Chinese brothers is projected onto the fake rocks. It was perhaps one of the most uninspiring, boredom inducing “stories” I’ve ever heard. And that’s it. Then you exit the fake mine on the train you came in on. For $7.50, you don’t get much. In America, you could see a feature length film in a movie theatre for that price. (Not in Australia, though. The going rate here is between $20-$25 for a movie ticket.)

The lone musketeer

The paid gold mine tour is one of the things they highly recommend if you have only two or three hours to spend there, as we did. I can’t imagine what you would do for more than two or three hours, though, without going completely broke. We spent the entire hour before our paid tour time wandering around killing time.

The have demonstrations throughout the day, but the crowd of people makes it hard to see anything unless you are first in line. H wanted to see the musket firing, which he thought might be neat, but again, it was pretty lame. One guy in a period costume takes his sweet time loading a musket and explaining to the children how a musket is loaded and making all kinds of silly child friendly jokes along the way. Then he fires the musket once and that’s it. Pretty anti-climactic.

The gold pouring

Probably the neatest thing we saw was the gold pour. We were first in line for the last demonstration of the day, so we got a good seat up front. The demonstrator explains how gold is purified and the process of pouring gold. He did actually pour a gold bar and cooled it and let a few people hold it. To me, it was neat because it’s the kind of demonstration you aren’t likely to see at too many other places. You can see blacksmiths and candlemakers and the like at any period themed festival or event, but the making of gold is probably pretty unique to Sovereign Hill.

But as I said, on the whole, the place was very disappointing. When I have been to living history museums in the past, they have been largely educational and entertaining, filled with costumed actors who make the town feel alive. I think that is an important element of recreating an historical town like that.

The totally empty Chinese miners’ camp

There were very few costumed actors when we were there. The only places we saw them were in the shops trying to sell things or giving the demonstrations. There weren’t very many walking around and of the ones we did see, none of them were playing the part of miners. There is a section where they have a Chinese camp set up and instead of actors, they just have recorded voices coming out of the tents. Why couldn’t they have Chinese actors in mining gear there? In fact, the lack of actors available to tell their stories of what it was like to live back then is, in my opinion, the biggest negative about Sovereign Hill.

They also have a lot of machinery and stuff that is just sitting there, non-operational, and it rather detracts from the feel of the place. It makes it feel more like an abandoned ghost town than a bustling mining town.

I’m glad I went there before having any children because otherwise I might have made the mistake of taking my kids and paying a small fortune for them to have an educational experience that doesn’t exist. I could foresee a day of hearing “Mommy, will you buy me this?” from bored, whiny children.

Now, admission to Sovereign Hill also includes admission to the Gold Museum. I imagine there are some authentic items there and it is probably a lot more informative. We didn’t go because we didn’t have enough time and we were pretty burned out on the whole thing. I’m not a big museum person, myself. Since I didn’t go, I can’t say how kid friendly it might be or how interesting it is.

Another “must do” if you only have a few hours, for $5 per person. Funny how all the “must do” activities are all the ones that cost extra.

I was told by our bed and breakfast hosts that they do a sound and light show twice a night where they re-enact the Eureka Stockade, complete with burning buildings and the like. I might have liked that a bit better. We considered going, but it was an additional $55 per person and no one at Sovereign Hill had really been able to explain to us what it was or why it was worth seeing, so we opted not to go. Since my knowledge of Australian history is quite spotty, I would likely have gotten more out of seeing a reenactment than just wandering around a fake gold rush town. If it hadn’t been so expensive and we hadn’t already been feeling ripped off, we probably would have gone.

Instead, we went on a ghost tour of Ballarat (post forthcoming).

7 Responses to “Sovereign Hill”

  1. astimegoesbuy April 17, 2012 at 2:37 pm #

    So sorry you had such a poor experience in Ballarat. There are so many great things to see and do around the area. Sovereign Hill is by far the most touristy. I could go on for days but would likely get myself in trouble! I do hope you had a better time on the Ghost Tour! Everyone I know who has gone has loved it…of course they have also probably had a few to drink before!
    When I first moved to Australia and to Ballarat I found seeing the Eureka Flag at the Art Museum and going to the Eureka Stockade more informative but the Stockade is all torn-up right now so you wouldn’t have been able to get there either. 😦
    The best bits about Ballarat history can be found in walking around town (Sturt Street and Lydiard Street and looking at the architecture…it’s just beautiful.
    Not to mention, there are a few little wineries around that make a lovely Pinot Noir!
    Hope your story has a happy ending.

  2. Toon September 30, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    Be glad you didn’t blow an extra $55 on the Sound and Light Show. My friends went and said it was literally just sound and light. No actual actors re-enacting anything at all, which is what I and most others would expect from something they are trying to pass off as a ‘re-enactment’.

    • housewifedownunder September 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

      Yes, they told us it was a re-enactment, too, and that it was worth seeing, but we just felt like spending another $100 on a place that had already failed to deliver was just too much. A true re-enactment would have been cool. I don’t know very much about Australian history and would have loved to see something like that, but I was very skeptical, since I hadn’t really learned anything the whole day at Sovereign Hill. It still ranks as the biggest disappointment in my Australian experience so far.

      • william November 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

        i find it pretty sad that you have this view of Sovereign Hill, this was a place that some of my best childhood memories are from, i am now 27 and just got back from a 2 day trip there with my girlfriend who had never been there before her self, and i guess i feel sorry for you that you missed out when you went, but i also feel sorry for what this place once was and that i was able to share what i remember from Sovereign Hill with my girlfriend and i was able to get her to fall in love with this place as well, i’m really not sure if i should bother to say much because you have already had you time there and nothing will change that, but i will say, the town is not fake as such, the mines are real, just the one’s you went down are the new one’s and yes what you see after you first get off the tram ride is fake, but everything from there on is a real mine shaft and has many more under it, also there is a window built into the road of the main street of a real mine shaft found in 1995 after it had been filled in at some time between 1851 and 1861 and later collapsed in, at the end of the day the fact is, the place has changed a fair bit in the last 20 years, everything was once hand made, thing’s were more real back then, but to say the place as a whole is fake is wrong, A LOT of people you also would of seen dressed up there do it for free as a volunteer because they love the place, it would also seem you didn’t give many thing’s a try like the bowling (it’s free) or the candle dipping, there are many thing’s to do there even if you are not a child

  3. Alan January 1, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    We went there just after Christmas and had a great time, even though it was crowded. Our kids enjoyed the gold pouring, candy making, candle dipping, old schoolhouse, panning for gold and the free tours. We didn’t go into any shops and didn’t buy anything except the candles for the candle dipping. Basically, it is a kids’ attraction. If you are an adult travelling without kids, you will be bored, but otherwise it is a great place. The one disappointment was the “zebra” in the Main Street at 12:45 – definitely not worth standing around hungry in the hot sun for that one.


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    […] a disappointing experience at Sovereign Hill, we checked into our bed and breakfast accommodations where our hostess recommended to us a nice […]

  2. Walhalla – An Australian Gold Mining Town | Housewife Down Under - June 7, 2013

    […] highlight of our visit was the tour of the gold mine. Walhalla isn’t like crappy, rip-off Sovereign Hill with all its tourist traps and fakery. Walhalla is the real deal. It’s not a living history […]

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