White light all night long
White light all night long

National heritage, thy name is Ballarat.

I enter the town during the daytime for the sake of context. Ballarat, an hour's drive west of Melbourne, has always looked better in the light.

Until tonight, perhaps.

The drive up Main Road takes me past shopfronts and buildings from the Victorian era, each emblazoned with their year of construction. It's impressive how well-kept they are, even though they play host to businesses beyond imagination in Queen Vic's day.

I get a park outside a 24-hour gym wrapped in a shell from 1857, and step out to let the time warp wash over me.

It's hard to imagine it now, but Ballarat was once one of the most important cities in the British Empire. At the height of the gold rush, the city was the richest in the world.

So when a bunch of miners, sick of being bled dry by the greedy local government, took up arms and demanded electoral franchise, the empire backed down. It would have been easy to crush the rebellion, but after weighing up the pros and cons, the Crown decided that democracy was worth the fortune in gold coming from beneath Ballarat.

Revolution was averted, and the Eureka Flag, featuring the Southern Cross, was confined to the Museum of Democracy.

These days, the Southern Cross flag is more likely to be found on shoulders and the back of utes than up a flagpole. Main Road's nature strip features statues of Queen Victoria and George V. The capitulation is complete.

The only trace of Ballarat's rebellious colonial spirit is found in its abundance of pubs, and the abandoned state of the city's only temperance hall.

And of course, the amazing buildings. With a river of gold seemingly endless, the townsfolk crafted a cityscape that would reflect the wealth of its residents.

The gold money may be long gone, but exquisite architectural examples of Victorian opulence dominate and define Ballarat. Without the impressive Mining Exchange, Old Colonists' Hall or Craig's Royal Hotel, you may as well be in Mildura.

And Ballarat knows it. The city plays host to a staggering variety of fairs, fetes, festivals and fancy biennales every year. It's like Australia's largest venue - whenever an event comes to town, it comes to the whole town.

So it is this year with the White Night festival. Originally the "Stars of the White Nights" festival of Saint Petersburg, the light show has found great success in cities all over the world: Tel Aviv, Rome, Paris, and in Melbourne just two weeks prior. Tonight, White Night has come to a regional city for the first time.

As the late afternoon sun slowly sinks out of view, townsfolk are busily preparing shopfronts, laneways, parks and gazebos for the festival. From 7pm tonight until 7am tomorrow, Ballarat will be illuminated like never before.

Light shows will be projected onto Ballarat's architecture, pop-up bars and exhibitions will appear all over town, and some shops will keep their doors open for the whole 12 hours.

"As a new resident, it's exciting," says Fiona Sweet, director of Ballarat's 26th Foto Biennale, which will be held in late 2017. Originally from Melbourne, Sweet has made Ballarat her home as she plans her event.

"These festivals do have an impact on the people here; they love them. Everyone gets into it. There's much more cynicism in the big cities, but here it's a reason to celebrate."

Ballarat has long had an appreciation for the arts. The Art Gallery of Ballarat was purpose-built during the gold rush as a way to expose locals to art and culture from around the world. To further that cause, entry is free.

"The gold rush fortune allowed the city to buy a remarkable collection," says the gallery's marketing officer, Peter Freund. He gestures to a painting of some cows in a field. "Stuff like this has its own unique appeal," he says.

I stare into the slack, bovine eyes as I consider just how right he is.

At 7pm, the match is struck. White Night arrives in the form of a street parade led by a robot pulsing with brilliant light.

"This is amazing," says local lass Gail. "Look around, it's brought out the best in everyone!" She points to the cafe she's just emerged from. "I didn't even know this place existed!"

Like moths to a flame, 40,000 Ballaratians and out-of-towners with a taste for spectacle stand agape as colourful lightscapes dance across buildings and shopfronts they only thought they knew.

The Mining Exchange glows green and purple. The people's art gallery, lit up in orange and gold, has suddenly become an extrovert.

There are some strange omissions: The Mechanics' Institute is lit up only in white, while Ballarat's towering Town Hall is a blank. The band, playing an odd selection of blue-eyed soul, seems superfluous.

"Yeah, I don't know," says Lola, by day a performer at Sovereign Hill. "It's ok. I'm from Melbourne, didn't they already do this there?"

Sure they did, but did it look as historically spectacular? And was it as unifying?

Out here in the country, far from the city lights, the night sky is a rich, inky black. As the moon rises, that darkness gives White Night, and Ballarat, a chance to shine.


GETTING THERE: Ballarat is about an hour and a half northwest of Melbourne, either by car or train. It's only an hour's drive from Tullamarine or Avalon airports. Visit visitballarat.com.au for more info.

STAYING THERE: Quest Ballarat provides comfortable and spacious self-contained units in the centre of town. Visit questapartments.com.au for more info.

PLAYING THERE: Ballarat is a history buff's heaven: get along to Sovereign Hill or Ballarat East for a taste of the past. For the festive, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale is on from August 19 -September 17. Visit ballaratfoto.org for more info.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Victoria.


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