One chapter of my book tells of the time when, for 5 years, I lived in a friend’s old caravan, homeless, penniless, jobless and unemployable.
I became active in the town and, following a series of articles I wrote on the gold rush history of the area published in the local press, an annual Swiss-Italian Festa was organised by the owner of the general store. As far as I know it’s still held mid-year today as a popular tourist attraction in Hepburn Springs, Victoria.
In the mid-1800s, at the height of the Gold Rush in Australia, the area attracted thousands of Swiss-Italians. They said the hills reminded them of home.
Most of them were men. They left their families in the hope of striking gold and returning home wealthy. Many borrowed money for the journey from relatives or the government.
In the early 1860s Swiss-Italians made up over ten percent of the population there.
Not many of them found gold. Some returned home broken and disappointed while others moved on to the goldfields of New Zealand and California.
A good many remained, however, to take jobs with the larger miners or to set up in business as publicans, merchants, bakers, millers, butchers and administrators.
The farmers among them purchased cheap government land and attempted to duplicate their self-sufficient homeland lifestyles in the countryside. They built farmhouses of stone, handmade brick and rubble in the typical rural Swiss and Italian style, most with wine cellars and cheese rooms and often named after their home towns.
They planted vineyards, raised cows and pigs, produced milk, butter, cheese and sausages, grew wheat, fruit and vegetables. Many of their farmhouses remain, either in ruin or occupied by their descendants, giving the area a unique European flavour among the native eucalyptus trees of the Wombat Forest. Italian ‘bull-boar’ sausages, made from beef, pork and herbs, are still sold by the local butcher and homemade pasta can be found on the menu at many restaurants.
Standing sentinel as you drive into the small town is the Old Macaroni Factory, a monument to the true Italian spirit. Well, doesn’t every Italian community need an inexhaustible supply of fresh pasta?
Long before the Gold Rush, many thousands of years before, the aborigines knew of another kind of gold to be found in the area – the naturally carbonated mineral springs that emerged in the ground everywhere. To the local Jajowurrong tribe this was known as an area of healing.
As it became for me when I made it my home.
Read more of my incredible story in ‘Back to the Wall’.