At its peak, Walhalla was a booming mining town with a population of 5,000. When the gold dried up, so did the inhabitants. Today, Walhalla has an official population numbering only 17. SASHA NAOD made it 18.
Put the heads of David Lynch and Tim Burton together down under, and chances are they would conjure up a town like Walhalla. A former goldrush boomtown in Gippsland, in Victoria’s east, Walhalla is equal parts Twin Peaks and Beetlejuice, with a roster of quirky townsfolk to boot, including names like ‘Mongrel Marilyn,’ a miner called Shane who’s convinced there is still gold to be found in the hills, and a cook who lives 100m away but still drives to work.
You’ll find Walhalla deep in the Baw Baw ranges. The town can be reached through a single (and only recently bitumenned) road, or via a rickety retro railway which snakes its way at snail’s pace through the Stringer’s Creek Gorge. Recently renovated at a cost of over $4m, the railway provides a quaint entrée to a town that is quickly gathering approaching its second boom and rush – only this time, ‘there’s tourists in them there hills!’ is the cry.
- Walhalla fact #1: Constructed in Walhalla’s heyday, the town’s historic narrow gauge railway took eight years of manual labour to build. When it was finally finished, Walhalla’s hills were declared barren and ‘Most’ town turned into ghost town. Fortunately, the train provided residents with an easy way to move their homes and belongings.
From there it only gets more bizarre. Walhalla’s cemetery is one of the first landmarks you’ll see as you approach the town centre. Perched atop a cliff-face, it’s built on a 45 degree hill and comes complete with white picket fence and cursed graves.
- Walhalla fact #2: Because of the steep incline in the cemetery, graves were not dug six feet under so much as six feet ‘into’ the hillside. Coffins were deposited into their gravesites like drawers and then sealed up
Enter Michael Leany, the man who is something of a mastermind behind Walhalla’s second coming. He has a list of yarns as long as his arm about the town, its people and history, and he also has the rather unique claim of being Walhalla’s only gay in the village – in a population of 17.
“Most people just don’t give a toss,” he says. “The really don’t.”
Daily, Leany has to negotiate seemingly dangerous waters when dealing with the secretary of the local Tourist Association who is a devout Baptist (“we get on really well”), and blokes with tatts who wouldn’t look out of place in a shipping yard.
“I’m just part of the furniture now,” says Michael confidently. And we’re assuming a polished leather ottoman here.
A former city-slicker, Leany stumbled across Walhalla 14 years ago when the town had no electricity or phone lines. He says matter-of-factly that he “saw and ad for property in the paper and bought it.”
- Walhalla fact #3: In 1886, Walhalla was the first town in Australia to have electric street lights. The town’s electricity supply was ultimately switched off in 1911, and only recently powered up again in the last couple of years.
Today, Leany is the owner and operator of Walhalla’s beautifully refurbished Star Hotel, which maintains a steady occupancy rate throughout the year and keeps its owner busy enough to forget the fact that he’s the town’s black sheep.
“I saw opportunity here,” says Michael. “I had a house first, and from having the house over the years, I learnt a lot about the town.”
“More than anything, it became apparent that Walhalla was a place where I could get in the ground floor, both in a business and financial sense.”
Land in Walhalla cost Leany virtually nothing, and his renovation of one of its prime properties has made him a modern-day pioneer in these parts.
“This kind of start-up has its good sides, for sure, but the downside is that you have to do everything from scratch.” An urbanite through and through, Leany used to live in Fitzroy and work in media in Prahran before taking the fast lane away from city life. As such, he readily admits that renovation to him meant painting a room, but dived into the challenge of rebuilding a hotel head-first.
Because most of the former townsfolk left Walhalla after the goldrush with their houses (by train to be precise), there’s not much in the way of buildings in Walhalla, save for the Hotel, a handful of shops and a Fire Station … on the river.
- Walhalla fact #4: In boomtime, property was hard to come by in Walhalla, and it wasn’t until there was a fire that residents knew that they’d forgotten to build something. So to account for the shortage of space and the need for a central fire station, one was promptly built in the centre of town and the only place available: on top of the river.
Today, Leany wouldn’t have it for anything else. The only thing he misses about the city are “traffic jams and not having a car space.” His long-term partner John, works in HR in nearby Sale, and commutes regularly to the Hotel to spend the weekends.
“I think Walhalla’s very pretty,” Michael reflects. It definitely has that unusual edge to it. It stands out from the crowd.”
With the ferocity of a religious zealot, Michael makes it known that he is determined not to sell out, and let Walhalla become “too slick or too cutesy pie.”
Mention the word ‘caravan’ and Leany rolls his eyes and groans “It’s not a theme park,” he asserts. And there’s only one man in town who’ll make sure it will stay that way.
This article originally appeared in Melbourne Star.