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.