While the rugged sandstone mountain ranges of the Grampians National Park will always be the major drawcard for grey nomads exploring Victoria’s central west, there is so much else to discover here.
The fascinating town of Ararat, located on the junction of the Western and Pyrenees highways, about 200 kilometres west of Melbourne, is a perfect example.
Nestled in a rich pastoral, wine and fruit growing district between a number of stunning mountain ranges, the former gold-mining boom town is blessed with glorious heritage architecture … and a host of unique tourist attractions.
It was the discovery of gold in 1857 that put Ararat on the map and, while its population may now have dwindled to around 10,000, the evidence of a grand and exciting past is everywhere. Of all the many historic building that lines the streets, none are more impressive than the former town hall, with its elaborate clock tower, which is now home to the Ararat Regional Art Gallery.
The abundance of parks and gardens, including the spectacular Alexandra Botanical Gardens, certainly add to the city’s appeal and it is no surprise that there are several caravan parks catering to the needs of travelling grey nomads and others.
It was a large group of Chinese miners that were credited with discovering the first gold here and the Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre pays tribute to their role in triggering Ararat’s growth. The centre is an authentic recreation of a traditional Chinese building, and its large collection of interactive displays and exhibits bring an exciting period of goldfields history to vibrant life.
A less celebrated chapter of the area’s past is the way in which it once treated the mentally ill patients who began living at the Ararat Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1865. The institution only closed in 1998 and, while it is currently shut for safety work, visitors can generally take tours around the abandoned buildings that once housed hundreds.
Similarly, you can take a guided tour of the J Ward Museum where the criminally insane were once incarcerated. The displays within these walls tell the story of those held here in often brutal conditions and of the many hangings, suicides, and escape attempts. Sobering stuff.
The exhibits at the Langi Morgala Museum – housed in a distinctive red brick former wheat and wool store – have been lovingly put together by a team of dedicated volunteers to offer visitors a great overview of the area’s rich history.
Talking of overviews, One Tree Hill Lookout, just out of town, offers sensational panoramic views over the surrounding mountain ranges.
For those inspired to get out and amongst it, the escarpments and waterfalls of nearby Mount Buangor State Park, and the rugged granite formations of Langi Ghiran State Park further to the east are high on the ‘to-do’ list.
And that’s all before we get out to those glorious wineries …