No fires here! Why the tiny town of Walhalla needs you to visit soon
Tucked in a lush valley in the Victorian Alps, the village of Walhalla is home to less than 20 people. A little more than a century ago, it was one of the world’s richest gold-mining towns, and what remains of it is faithfully preserved.
The gold ran out in 1914 and Walhalla (“Valley of the Gods”) was simply abandoned. For decades it was a ghost town, but when electricity was finally connected in late 1998 the town underwent a revival.
That year, Michael Leaney, a young man with a big vision, rebuilt Walhalla’s Star Hotel, which had been destroyed by an electrical fire in 1951, and breathed new life into the tiny town. The hotel was the catalyst for the town’s transformation and it soon developed a reputation as a terrific weekend getaway, just 180km from Melbourne, with a surprising number of things to do.
But now Walhalla is in trouble. The green valley in which it sits is in Victoria’s Gippsland region, some parts of which have been in the headlines recently because of the bushfires which have raged through them.
Although the fires have not touched Walhalla or the surrounding area, visitors are staying away to an extent that the town’s very survival is at risk.
After my recent blog post about the many places in East Gippsland that were still welcoming visitors despite fires in other parts of the region, Michael Leaney told me: “It’s fine to visit all areas of Gippsland, East, West, Central and South. All have been drained of tourists as warning messages failed to specify where fires were…’Gippsland’ was ablaze…far from the truth but the damage has been done!
“This place is like a ‘real’ ghost town at the moment…for all the wrong reasons!”
Now, Michael has made a plea to Australians – and particularly those who live in Melbourne or other parts of Victoria – to continue to visit, bringing the essential tourist dollars that will ensure businesses that support small towns don’t go to the wall because of misinformation.
In a video appeal on the Walhalla’s Star Hotel Facebook page on January 20, he appealed to visitors not to abandon the tiny town.
Showing an empty street behind him, wet and green from recent rains, Leaney described the scene as “pretty much normal”.
“Except,” he continued “there is nobody here. The town is completely empty, there’s no-one in the street…there are no tourists here at all, the hotels are empty, we are empty at The Star, even for this coming long weekend, we have one reservation – that’s all we have, one reservation. We have had multiple cancellations over the last month, even though it’s pretty wet here.”
Without visitors, he says, towns like Walhalla are in a desperate struggle for survival.
“We have a major problem. Towns like Walhalla are going to actually just die. Already a number of businesses have closed…simply because it’s not viable to operate at the moment.”
Although visitors did arrive in good numbers over the Australia Day long weekend at the end of January, it has not been enough.
“A relatively good long weekend does not make up for weeks on end of poor visitor numbers to the town and surrounding area,” says Leaney.
I’ve been to Walhalla several times, and rate it highly. It is a great day trip or weekend escape, as well as being a good stopover point to break the Sydney-Melbourne coastal drive. And the re-opening of the Princes Highway from Melbourne to the New South Wales border this week makes that drive even easier now.
Apart from its colonial charm, there’s plenty to do. You can take an interesting guided tour of the old gold mine, ride a vintage train through lovely bushland, explore the historic cemetery, potter in the small shops and museums, take a Saturday night ghost tour, or hike some of the many walking tracks.
Among the town’s lovely buildings is the elegant heritage-listed Post Office, built in early 1886, which survived the fire of 1888 that destroyed 30 buildings in the town, as well as a massive flood in 1891.
The Walhalla Goldfields Railway operates train rides through lovely bushland, from the historic Walhalla railway station to Thomson Station, 4km down the line. The journey takes you over six trestle bridges crossing Stringers Creek Gorge then winds down to cross the Thomson River Bridge to Thomson Station. There’s about 20 minutes to look around before the return train.
I was fascinated by the guided walking tour of the old gold mine, which dates back to 1865 and was once the richest paying mine in Australia, providing the wealth for many of Melbourne’s finest buildings. Friendly volunteer guides take you to the huge machinery chamber and past all the original gold workings. It’s a tour that gives an insight into the whole town as well as the mining process.
Walhalla’s Star Hotel has 12 air-conditioned comfortable guest rooms, all of a good size, some with verandas overlooking the street. There’s a restaurant and bar, with a wood fire for chilly nights. There’s also the Walhalla Lodge Hotel (also known as the “Wally pub”, open Wed-Sun), a caravan park and camping ground, and a number of self-contained cottages and bed-and-breakfast places to stay at.
The GreyHorse Café, next door to (and owned by) the hotel, has closed its doors on weekdays due to lack of trade. “Due to the lack of tourists in town, we have decided to close the GreyHorse Cafe mid-week in the short to medium term…basically to stop the bleeding of cash from the business,” says Leaney.
“We are not the only business doing this, and unfortunately the flow-on effect of the East Gippsland fires also has an impact on our much-valued staff and their families.”
As Tourism Australia launched its new #HolidayHereThisYear campaign to encourage domestic travel, Leaney added his voice to the appeal.
“I would really like to put a call out to everyone to get out and get to towns that have been not just directly impacted but those that are getting the flow-on effect of people just staying at home.
“In 2020, I would like you all to make a vow: ‘can’ your overseas holiday. If you are going to Bali – don’t! Travel around regional Victoria, regional New South Wales, go to South Australia, go to places that have been affected by the bushfires, but also to the towns that have been affected by the knock-on effect.
“We really hope this situation improves soon or we’ll be gone for good, it’s as simple as that folks.
“Any business, whether it’s Qantas or Bunnings, needs a certain number of people walking through the door to be viable.”
So please…don’t let the lights to out in lovely small towns like Walhalla. Make that pledge and visit them – soon! #HolidayHereThisYear
A Glass Half Full last visited Walhalla in 2015 and stayed at Walhalla’s Star Hotel as a guest of Tourism Australia. The hotel is also featured in her 2010 (out of print) book, Great Australian Pubs.
25 Responses to “No fires here! Why the tiny town of Walhalla needs you to visit soon”
This is indeed a great place to visit and stay.
Too bad that the fire caused trouble for the hotel.
I wish there will be more tourist coming to this place.
I hope so too! And if you’ve been there, you’ll know exactly what I mean about how great it is. So many stories connected with this tiny place!
Even by looking at the images above, I could tell that this place is wonderful. This will be one of my destination someday.
Oh gosh, so gorgeous
Yes, really…like a postcard town, but without any “theme park” or “movie set” look about it.
Thank you so much for posting this beautifully written piece. I was in NSW recently and saw the immense impact of the bushfires. I went to Ulladulla to support their tourist industry and the streets were deserted. I am encouraging people in the UK to consider visiting Australia. Just a thought-it would be good if international airlines would offer subsidised flights to Australia to encourage tourists to visit.
There are so many places that need this kind of help, really. Small towns really struggling in the aftermath of the fire emergency. Every visit, every dollar spent, really helps.
I live in the US so my chances of visiting this historical town is pretty much nil. I wish I had the money to do so though. I have alerted people who follow me on Twitter though, hoping that helps a little.
Yes, I realise that many readers aren’t in a position to visit – but it’s a story that explains the sometimes overlooked effects of the bushfire crisis in Australia. Thanks for your sharing, every little bit helps!
It looks amazing! Wish I lived closer to do a weekend trip.
So do I! It’s a fabulous little spot.
Unfortunately Michael Leaney helped create this problem.
Walhalla used to have people camping along both sides of the road leading into town which brought a lot of tourism in. To ensure people would instead pay for accommodation in the hotel instead of staying in town for free, he was quite vocal and had camping banned in the town.
Most campers ate at the Lodge Hotel instead of the Star Hotel, so I guess he felt that by keeping those people away, he wouldn’t be damaging his own business.
I used to regularly visit the town and chat, eat and drink with the locals, but I haven’t been back in a decade due to the changes that were made.
I’m not sure that changes made 10 years ago can be blamed for what is happening today. The issue here is that people who might visit parts of Gippsland not affected by the bushfires are staying at home. It’s not just about Walhalla – this is just one example of the impact that the fires are having on tourism generally and particularly on small businesses in regional areas of Victoria, NSW and South Australia in particular. And as The Star Hotel only has 12 rooms, I don’t think the roadside free camping would really affect hotel business. Campers can still use the camping ground.
Used to be horse rider’s would go there every year and camp for the weekend but they were told they are no longer welcome. Guess you reap what you sow.
We were there just after the long weekend. Nowhere to get a coffee or beer. It’s a shame they have had to close businesses during the week
Yes, it is a shame. I’m sure that if things improve for the business (i.e., more people visiting) then the cafe will return to its normal hours….it’s just a matter of time. Meanwhile, as the story says, it’s a matter of survival.
Great post, I’m encouraging my international readers to visit Australia too – we have so many wonderful places and people who rely on tourism and with our borders now closed to China we need it more than ever.
Is there any dog friendly accommodation there? My dogs are my favourite companions, and I much prefer to travel with them then without. They are both well-behaved, and have previously stayed in hotels and motels that were dog friendly in Sydney and elsewhere. I would really love it if Australia could become a lot more like Europe in relation to allowing dogs to go more places and on more public transport. If anyone knows of any good dog friendly accommodation in Walhalla I would love to know about it as it’s not that far for me to get there and I would happily go for a few days…
I’m really not sure, Kerry, but the best way to find out would be to email the hotel and ask them. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!
I enjoyed reading your article. thank you for the information so I know the conditions there. the local government must actively promote this area so that the economy returns to normal.
A paradise on the earth. Thank you for this lovely post.
Have a wonderful day!
Thank you! Yes, a beautiful place. Sadly the hotel has temporarily closed, but the recent lifting of local travel restrictions in parts of Australia gives a glimmer of hope.