Ararat is an attractive old gold-mining town in the foothills of the Grampians, 203 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. With a population of about 8000, it is the commercial centre for an agricultural region producing wheat, oats, fine wool and wine. In prehistoric times the district offered rich pickings for thousands of years for the Tjapwurong Aborigines, whose heritage is reflected in Langi Morgala Folk Museum’s collection of weapons and artefacts. The Ararat Gallery is also distinguished by a unique collection of fashion and fabric highlighted by some magnificent gowns donated in 1991 by Lady Barbara Grimwade who was a prominent Melbourne socialite for many years. White settlement was spearheaded in 1839 by Horatio Spencer Willis who, with his family and stockmen, drove 500 head of cattle and 5000 sheep from Murrumbidgee. One day short of their ultimate destination, they camped on a hill, which Willis named Mount Ararat ‘for, like the Ark, we have rested here.’ Willis, it seems, not only had a gift for memorable one-liners. He is also credited with being the first squatter to use strychnine baits to cull the dingoes which preyed on his stock.
Ararat had a brief romance with gold after Chinese prospectors hit paydirt at the aptly named Canton Lead site in 1857. The gold soon ran out, however, and by the early 1860s the region reverted to the sheep grazing industry which gave the town its start in the early 1840s. Today the well-appointed, attractive town in the shadows of the spectacular Grampians remembers the short golden fling through the $3.2 million Gum San (Hill of Gold) Heritage Centre. The painstakingly researched and lifelike displays pay colourful tribute to the thousands of Chinese who flocked to Victoria in search of gold and contributed so much to the state and the nation.
Ararat's darker past is reflected in the macabre collection housed behind the 1860 bluestone walls of J Ward. The displays are drawn from the building's days as a hanging gaol and as an institution for the criminally insane. For a walk on the brighter side, visit the Alexandra Botanical Gardens with its lake, fernery, landscaped Japanese island garden and orchid glasshouse. The lookout on One Tree Hill presents breathtaking views to the Grampians and Mt Langi Ghiran, the Aboriginal name for the yellow-tailed, black cockatoo.