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Ballarat Heritage Weekend is a retro-futuristic celebration of bold music and big beards

“Ballarat Heritage Weekend will showcase the opportunities we’re tapping into to build a better Ballarat for the millions of tourists who will continue to flock to our city.”

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Tony Evans

What’s old is new again – or is it the other way around? Across two days, Ballarat is throwing open its doors for a festival that brings regional history together with virtual reality and robotics.

Mayor Samantha McIntosh says Ballarat Heritage Weekend should be seen as a celebration of Australian innovation, embodied by technologies old and new.

“As a city, we do technology well, and Ballarat Heritage Weekend will showcase the opportunities we’re tapping into to build a better Ballarat for the millions of tourists who will continue to flock to our city,” McIntosh explains. “Over this spectacular two-day event, I encourage you all to embrace the past innovations and learn more about how technology will advance our city for the better.”

Ninety minutes from Melbourne by car or V/Line, Ballarat includes many landmarks of colonial and Indigenous history, such as the Ballarat Gaol, from which flamboyant bushranger Captain Moonlite escaped in 1872. The gaol’s legendary underground cells, usually inaccessible due to lack of air and the danger of cave-ins, are now being digitally opened to participants in the Up and Under Virtual Experience. Visitors who don an Up and Under virtual reality headset will be able to explore Ballarat Gaol’s hidden passageways without having to worry about the bluestone walls falling in on them.

“One thing our city prides itself on is its heritage buildings,” McIntosh says. “Now, with the assistance of technology, you will have an opportunity to see these in a whole new way – a virtual reality way.”

The Up and Under Virtual Experience is narrated by historian David Waldron, author of Snarls From the Tea Tree and other studies of folklore and Gothic Australiana.

Visitors wishing to take a tour in the analog world can stop in at Ballarat’s Regent Cinema, an example of Jazz Age architecture that can show you The Avengers or an extensive collection of vintage projection equipment, depending on your taste. Ballarat is also notable as the site of a 19th-century Anglican cathedral, as well as mainland Australia’s oldest synagogue. Tours of the Ballarat Synagogue focus on the characters, both real and semi-legendary, which populate the history of Victoria’s Jewish community.

For those interested in the mysterious and disturbing side of Australian history, but don’t want to spring for a ticket to Norfolk Island, there’s the Ballarat Ghost Tour. Run by Eerie Tours, this walk through the city’s alleyways focuses on Ballarat’s well-preserved Gothic architecture, as well as the darker episodes of the chaotic Victorian gold rush. Eerie Tours also runs a “Murder Bus,” which gives visitors a quicker jaunt among the sites of the gold rush’s most famous murders.

Free tours include an art walk put on by Soldiers Hill Artist Collective, showcasing new creations by local artists, and allowing visitors to view the private studios of Ballarat’s most prolific painters and sculptors. Tours of the Chinese section of BallaratNewCemetery will focus on the cemetery’s historic GumLoongFriendshipGarden and Moongate, as well as delve into the cultural influence of Chinese settlers on Victoria’s European community.

For kids who find history walks yawn-inducing, there’s the Robot Workshop held at Ballarat’s town hall. Participants in this workshop will learn about the history of robotics and have a chance to assemble their own robots from components, all under the instruction of a chrome-plated automaton named Tubby. For kids and adults who prefer old-school technology, there’s the option of a leisurely 45-minute journey from Ballarat Railway Station pulled behind a steam locomotive.

Visitors with a thirst for competition can download the Goosechase app to participate in a smartphone scavenger hunt that will end with one lucky – or determined – searcher winning a $1,000 virtual reality experience.

On the more whimsical side of things comes the Beard and Stache Competition, which will have Victoria’s Ned Kelly and Tom Selleck look-alikes preening their facial hair for $1,000 in prizes. First held in 2016, the competition is quickly becoming a tradition.

On her beloved city of Ballarat, McIntosh says there’s been a host of changes over the past century. “And it doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon,” she says.

BEAT'S TOP PICKS FOR THE WEEKEND

Beat and Stache Competition

Hipsters rejoice! Owners of long beards and luscious moustaches stand to win a share of $1,000 in prizes at Ballarat’s annual Beard and Stache Competition. Hosted at the HopTemple, the Ballarat Beard and Moustache Union will judge entrants across four categories: full beard, moustache, partial beard and Verdi – a close-cut beard style. The non-competitive “just for fun” category is open to everyone from men with soul patches to women with stick-on beards. The iconic fuzzy-faced comedian Nick Cody will entertain with a stand-up act, and barbecue and craft beer will be available, even to the clean-shaven. Children will also be able to receive their own moustaches from face-painters throughout the afternoon while the competition will also be accompanied by a market and other entertainment. Ballarat Heritage Weekend attendees are encouraged to uncap their tins of beard wax and register for a shot at a place in Ballarat’s hair history.

100 Years of Music

You can boogie to hits old and new at an event that combines disco and rock with ragtime, grunge and everything in between. With a setlist consisting of one track from each year since 1918, 100 Years of Music will be an opportunity for weekend attendees to cut loose and experience Australian history on the dance floor. Fans of the truly vintage will want to stop by on Friday May 25 for tunes from 1918-1959, while more modern musical fare will be served up on Saturday May 26. The event will take place on the expansive dance floor of the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute. With performances from a variety of local musicians, 100 Years Of Music will be a rare chance to experience the evolution of musical technology and technique on fast-forward. Anyone wishing to experience this unique form of musical time travel is encouraged to register in advance, as space at the Mechanics’ Institute is limited.

Up and Under Virtual Experience

Walking tours can be so pedestrian – why not go on a tour of Ballarat that takes you from the city’s underground prison cells to the top of its clock tower? This year, Up and Under allows visitors to don a virtual reality headset that will guide them through all the city’s nooks and crannies. Participants will explore Ballarat’s complex convict-era underground tunnels and ascend the city’s tallest towers for panoramic views. The historic Ballarat Gaol will be of special interest to headset-wearing tourists, as virtual reality lets them step into inaccessible underground chambers and learn about the gaol’s history, which includes the jailbreak of infamous clergyman-cum-bushranger Captain Moonlite. Up and Under is a new project created by Digital Heritage Australia in collaboration with the City of Ballarat, featuring the narration of local historian David Waldron. Images of Ballarat used in the virtual tour combine high-resolution modern photographs with historical images for an immersive and compelling experience.

Ballarat Heritage Weekend will take place on Saturday May 26 and Sunday May 27 at various locations across Ballarat. For more details on the full program head to the official Ballarat Heritage Weekend website.