CRUISING along the lake, taking time to let it really soak in, allows for a whole new perspective on Ballarat. When Golden City Paddle Steamer tootles along at five knots, with a warm breeze behind her, that is the moment trainee driver Graeme Hodgson says she is at her most glorious.
The lake beauty has been back out on Lake Wendouree for four years now, a lovingly and carefully crafted exact replica of the original Golden City, which had been ravaged by fire when extensive restoration works were all-but-complete in 2006.
Gradually, she is re-establishing her place on the water and seeking new opportunities to show-off Ballarat’s beauty.
There has been plenty of nostalgia shared in the tilt to Ballarat’s past but Golden City Paddle Steamer Museum Society members are also working to create new memories among locals and tourists out on the water.
So much work went into the new model. It took more than 200 hours and $310,000 to build the Golden City from scratch, with barely anything left after the original boat was gutted.
It is also taking time to run Golden City again at her full potential.
Skipper Bob Wuestewald drives her on Sunday afternoon and the society is in the process of training up five more drivers in a bid to get Golden City cruising more often.
“The boat itself at the moment is underutilised. People often say to us they rarely see the boat out, but we are hoping to build up trips,” Mr Hodgson said. “People who went on the old (boat) remember Sunday school trips or their courting days, travelling through a romantic Fairyland. But we want to appeal to new generations, too.”
Golden City struck a deal last summer with a Melbourne touring company that concentrates on Chinese tourists. The society hoped to renew this partnership after Christmas to build on what had been at least one full boat ride a week.
Chinese visitors led the boom in international visitors to Victoria in the past year, according to the latest International Visitors Survey released this week. They are spending more than double any other nationality visiting the state. Ballarat attracted nine per cent of tourists to the state, benefitting from being part of the Great Southern Touring Route, which includes the Great Ocean Road and Grampians.
But Golden City also aims to increase pick-ups of locals and out-of-towners enjoying a day by the lake.
The paddle steamer’s main boarding point is near Pipers by the Lake, an area popular with people out walking, barbecue events or families in the playgrounds.
“You can really see Lake Wendouree from a different perspective,” Mr Hodgson said. “The amount of birdlife is most incredible – water hens, musk ducks and last year a pair of white cranes. It’s the things you don’t always get to see about the lake.”
Paddle steamers have long been a loved attraction on Lake Wendouree. There was once even a double-decker steamer that graced the waters.
Golden City was launched in June 1885. She was the only long-term survivor of a fleet of steamers under Thomas Gill that worked Lake Wendouree for 100 years. She was sold in 1966 to work in the Carribbean Gardens in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs for 21 years before an Apex-led campaign brought her home.
The original designer's grandson George Brookes, a retired coach builder, guided volunteers through extensive restoration works from 2002.
READ MORE: Golden City Paddle Steamer gutted (2006)
Fire tore through the shed where the boat was housed during restorations in March 2006. Works on the 121-year-old steamer had been all-but-complete.
About 40 firefighters battled the overnight blaze, with The Courier reporting crews having "no chance" to save the shed or its contents.
Thomas Gill’s grandson Chris told The Courier it felt like losing a family member.
Strong public and government support had money raised for a replica by June. Volunteers were emotional when then-Victorian Premier Denis Napthine helped launch Golden City in hr glorious return in November 2013.
MORE PHOTOS:See Golden City’s glorious return
Ballarat mayor Samantha McIntosh stepped out on Golden City’s deck early last week to show Australian National Maritime Museum designer Heidi Riederer a little piece of the city’s history.
Ms Riederer’s in-kind visit from Sydney will help the City of Ballarat and Golden City society to help tell the lake’s history, including its feature boats.
They stepped aboard at Gills Boatshed, where the original Golden City steamer once moored.
Cr McIntosh said it felt a little like stepping back in time.
“The ways it’s built really reflects the old Golden City – the old seating, everything, there is great attention to detail,” Cr McIntosh said.
“In the past 150 years we’ve had so much water activity and vibrancy on our lake. It’s important to keep that alive and to really explore what this city has to offer.”
Trainee driver Graeme Hodgson said he liked to give passengers a little running commentary on the 35-minute loop of Lake Wendouree.
Mr Hodgson likes to share a little about the lake's wildlife and nearby iconic buildings. He said you never knew who was on board and what stories they might be able to share and add to on the journey.