As the mania for gold escalated, the roads to the diggings became congested as people sought to make their fortunes. From Melbourne, George Earp wrote, ‘F___, in common with almost everybody in town, is gone to the diggings. They go in parties provided with spades, a tent, a wagon, cooking utensils, &c., and a cradle, a machine for washing and separating the gold from the earth.’ Befitting their wealth and financial means, some travelled to the diggings on a horse and dray, others with bullock wagons or ox carts. Many walked, pushing handcarts, or carrying their meagre possessions on their backs. As Melbourne receded behind them, the road became littered with the debris of an itinerant population as broken carts, dead animals, and increasingly cumbersome goods were abandoned by the roadside.
With few made roads, the two-day journey to the diggings was arduous. William Howitt commented, ‘it is an easy thing to say “I’ll go to the diggings;” but no one knows what it means till he has tried it.’ Dust swallowed the people in summer, while in winter they were forced to wade through pools of mud and free themselves and their vehicles from endless bogs. Water crossings had to be navigated as bridges were scarce – a task that could be dangerous after heavy rains when the creeks and rivers swelled. Despite the heavy traffic, administrators did little to improve the conditions of the roads. In some areas, logs were laid down across the road, creating a corduroy effect, but the result was so punishing on vehicles and people that it was largely ineffective. In 1852, Howitt criticised the government for the deplorable conditions of the roads when he wrote, ‘the diggers, and the carriers of the supplies of their necessaries of life, whom the Government were in such haste to tax, are left to make their way up the most terrible roads conceivable, as they can.’ He went on to write, ‘there is scarcely a wooden bridge over a gully; and there is not a dangerous piece of hillside or precipice where the Government spade or pick had left its trace.’ Many travellers chose to make the journey before or after winter as the roads in that season became, at times, almost impassable. In the winter of 1852 the roads were so bad that it took seven or eight days to reach Mount Alexander from Melbourne.
The route to Mount Alexander departed Melbourne from Flemington’s Mount Alexander Road. Initially a squatter’s track, the route became well worn as people travelled to Keilor and then on to Diggers Rest, where they made their first night’s camp. The next morning, they consumed a meal, packed up their supplies, and departed for The Gap, and from there on to Gisbourne, where a second night’s camp was often established. Beyond Gisbourne stood the menacing Black Forest, where bushrangers were reported to hide and rob passing travellers. Seweryn Korzelinski heard that bandits ‘sometimes tie their victim to a tree and leave him to ants, mosquitoes and hunger. Very rarely is the unfortunate found in time, more often one finds a skeleton tied to a tree.’ As a consequence, the Black Forest was usually only attempted in the daytime or, if navigated at night, only in large parties. From the forest, people travelled to Woodend, and on to Sawpit Gully (Elphinstone), where they took the turnoff to Mount Alexander.