Rich seam of history

King coal... historical remnants are clearly visible in Wonthaggi's reopenned underground mines.
King coal... historical remnants are clearly visible in Wonthaggi's reopenned underground mines. 

Kate Nancarrow descends into tunnels with a wealth of clues to mining's gritty past.

Deeper into the earth we go, down a dimly lit shaft that connects a 103-year-old Gippsland town to its beginnings, and to the 150 million-year-old black coal deposits that prompted its creation. Each step takes us away from today's comforts and freedoms to tougher times.

We're being guided into a reopened section of Victoria's former State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi. The east area coalmine is one of 12 - made up of almost 5000 kilometres of tunnels - that form an underground ring around Wonthaggi, and another world, one where miners toiled long and hard, for relatively little.

Wonthaggi is a town built on coal and for coal, established in 1909 to service Victoria's first state-owned coal mine, in a socialist-style vision from a then conservative state government. Originally conceived to overcome Victoria's dependence on Hunter Valley coal, Wonthaggi's mines delivered 17 million tonnes of coal in their 59 years, all dug and chiselled by hand. Today, the three ages of this working man's town meet at a new visitors' centre established by Parks Victoria - focusing on early 20th-century mining, the 150 million-year-old coal and its survival after mining. Above ground, the new visitor centre has a cafe, gift shop and theatrette, and sits amid parkland with picnic tables and barbecue and with plans for a pizza oven. Outside, visitors can do a heritage walk, explore a typical miner's cottage and garden, visit Cobber the pit pony and delve into a museum of memorabilia. Underground, visitors walk in the early miners' shoes, and it is a humbling experience.

I'm also descended from Cornish and Welsh miners who arrived in the 1850s, lured by gold, and, like many Australians, I'm only a generation away from hard manual work and the struggles of working-class families. But at the mine, I feel like a soft-handed office worker travelling with two sons who lead easy, inner-urban, middle-class lives.

Victoria's, and Australia's, economic progress has been long entwined with mining, from the gold that gave prosperity to Ballarat and Bendigo to today's minerals boom. Nearby, the Latrobe Valley is a high-tech powerhouse of open-cut mining (albeit controversial), but Wonthaggi's mining was a humbler, grittier affair; miners dug by hand and were paid per tonne for the amount of coal they could remove each day. As we descend further into the mine, left almost unchanged since it was operating, we delve into a world of hard work, tough conditions and low pay. As our volunteer guide pauses to point out areas where the roof has been reinforced - needed because it was at risk of collapse - the reality becomes clear. Further along he points out modern gas sensors, "sniffer pipes", for visitor safety, but a reminder of the volatility of mines. As we continue, we pass a box set to one side of the tunnel - a toilet, where miners would sit, with their head lamps snuffed for privacy.

We arrive at what the guide laughingly calls the lunch room - an alcove with nothing but dirt floor and walls with embedded timber and a few nails protruding for the miners to hang their lunch bags, away from the rats.

Eventually we reach the remnants of coal. We're shown a once-rich seam - which would have been relatively easy pickings. Mere metres away, however, there's a low rock ledge with a narrow vein of coal underneath. The overhanging rock couldn't be removed for fear of collapse, so a miner would have had to lie on his back trying to chip coal out from over his shoulder.

Our guide gives us pieces of black coal, ancient and amazing, and points out small leaf fossils embedded in one wall. We're down as deep as we'll go, 60 metres below the surface, but we've travelled hundreds of metres through the tunnels. An hour into a 90-minute underground tour, our guide switches off the lamps briefly so we can feel the darkness. Not lovely. Then we hear of the 1937 methane gas explosion that killed 13 miners in Shaft 20, an explosion heard all over Wonthaggi. Finally, it's time to be winched to the surface - we get into a converted skip transporter that once carted coal - and head for the light.

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Kate Nancarrow travelled courtesy of Parks Victoria.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Wonthaggi is 135 kilometres south-east of Melbourne and a 90-minute drive via the South Gippsland Highway.

Visiting

The State Coal Mine is at Garden Street, Wonthaggi and opens daily, 10am-4.30pm except Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day.

Underground tours run daily at 11.30am and 2pm. Adult entry, $18; children ages five to 15, $9; students 16 and older, $15.30; children four and under, free; family, two adults and two children, $45.

Phone

Parks Victoria, 13 19 63, see parkweb.vic.gov.au.

Staying

Wonthaggi Cottages. A three-bedroom former miner's cottage, much updated, is in the centre of town and costs $170 a night, a couple. Children an extra $15 20 Baillieu Street, Wonthaggi. Phone 5672 3346, 0407 364 603, email wonthaggicottages@gmail.com.