“Are you looking for food?” asks Avam as we walk past his bar at Hill End’s Royal Hotel to the bistro. “My cook hasn’t turned up and there are no meals tonight” he adds.
What’s for dinner?
Besides a bag of crisps and a couple of chocolates, we have no food. Embarrassed, Avam offers to see what he can find in the kitchen so we can make a sandwich “at no charge”.
He lays out a loaf of sliced white bread, butter, tomatoes, hummus and individually wrapped sliced cheese on a table in the dining room and points us to the urn for tea or coffee.
While a bland sandwich wasn’t the meal we hoped for, we don’t go hungry.
Where we stayed
We’re in Hill End, an historic mining town an hour’s drive from Mudgee and Bathurst. The town is managed by NSW National Parks and we’re staying in one of their accommodation options, the Post Office Stables.
A small bluestone building with brick corners painted to look like sandstone, the décor has been carefully designed. In the kitchen, the old fire oven protected by a Perspex barrier, hints at harder times. A section of clear flooring cut into the wooden floorboards reveals original stone flooring.
A tight spiral staircase leads from the compact living area to the bedroom and toilet. The bathroom is outside.
We visit during the US election. With neither WiFi nor phone signal (Optus works but Telstra doesn’t), my husband remains glued to the television. I set off to explore beginning with the Heritage Centre.
Wandering the Streets of Hill End
Located in a restored 1950s rural fire shed, the photographic displays and screen projections provide visitors with a self-guided walk through life during the gold rush days. I pick up a visitor guide and set off to discover more.
Not following any particular route, I wind back and forth along streets with deep stone gutters crossed by little wooden bridges. Galahs take fright on my approach. A crimson rosella balances precariously on a wire fence while magpies caw in the trees.
Small original cottages in varying stages of disrepair stand behind rickety fences. Rusting cowbells hang from garden gates. Black and white photographs illustrate what homes and businesses once stood where, providing an insight into Hill End in the mid to late 1800s.
A man sweeps a metal detector from side to side over a section of his lawn. He stops, crouches down and carefully extracts something from the ground. Rubbing it gently with his thumbs, he inspects it and puts it in his back pocket.
In a nearby paddock kangaroos stand to attention, following my progress with their eyes.
Many artists including Margaret Olley, John Olsen, Jeffrey Smart and Brett Whitely spent time in Hill End, attracted by the landscape, simple homes and history. Haefligers and Murrays cottages are homes for artists in residence, a partnership program between NSW National parks and the Bathurst Regional Gallery.
Outside Hill End
Not everything of interest around Hill End is within walking distance and I drag my husband from the television for an exploratory drive. A field of lilac surrounds an old small caravan. Two kangaroos face each other, balanced on their hind legs their muscles straining with the effort. They begin to spar, grabbing at each other with strong spindly forearms, heads thrown back.
From Merlin’s lookout the old mine workings on Hawkins Hill are just visible. I wish I’d brought binoculars.
At Golden Gully, I walk along the creek bed fascinated by the columns of soft sandstone towering overhead. Rocks and trees balance precariously. Hand dug tunnels lead off into darkness.
Tambaroora Cemetery reveals more about the harsh conditions. One headstone reads “Alexander McIvor who was accidentally killed on Kraeman’s Claim in 1872”. He was 34. Kenneth Charles Miller died more recently (2007). He apparently “chased the golden goddess till the bitch wore him out”.
We wander around the Cornish Roasting Pits and the Valentine Mine, and then drive to History Hill Museum. The private museum is usually only open on weekends, but owner Malcolm Drinkwater says “if the gate is open, we’re open”.
Sporting a long white beard and broad brimmed felt hat, Drinkwater enjoys chatting to visitors and regaling stories of his life growing up in the area. The museum displays an almost overwhelming collection of mining and other artefacts accumulated over more than 30 years.
It’s been a big day, we’re hungry and head to the pub for dinner. That’s when we find out the cook hasn’t turned up.