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Aradale history tour scarier than fiction

 

If the authorities ever looked through the internet browsing history on my smartphone, they're going to find some strange entries.

I've been reading up about "lobotomies" and "surgery without anaesthesia" and "how to commit someone". And I blame Aradale Mental Hospital in Ararat.

After going on a two-hour ghost tour there, I had so many questions, which manifested into an internet wormhole about the history of Australian psychiatric treatment.

We no longer call a psychiatric hospital a lunatic or mental asylum, but for more than 125 years Ararat Lunatic Asylum - its original name - was one of three institutions in Victoria tasked with accommodating the state's mentally ill.

How authorities and doctors defined mental illness in the mid 1800s - and their cruel, patronising and patriarchal ways of treating people deemed "insane" - wouldn't past muster these days.

Its location - some 205 kilometres from Melbourne - and isolation from prying eyes means we may never really find out everything that happened here.

The asylum began welcoming patients in 1865 and continued to operate right up until 1998. It's now owned by Melbourne Polytechnic, who have repurposed parts of the complex, but it's hard to imagine it being anything other than an eerie, abandoned hospital.

The ghost tour, which takes you through a handful of the 65 buildings at the huge complex, is conducted mostly in the dark because it's too dangerous to have running electricity in some of the old buildings.

But for the most part, it feels like the long empty halls between thick walls and doors - so no one can kick them down - have withstood the test of time a lot better than the methods used by the people who ran the place.

Despite its name, the goal of the ghost tour isn't to see otherworldly spirits.

The asylum's disturbing history, told through anecdotes and tales, is eerie enough.

But the tour's focus on the people who once walked Aradale's cavernous halls is an interesting and engaging way to learn about what it was like for the 900 patients who stayed at the asylum every year for more than a century.

Did you know that back in the day, you only needed two signatures to commit someone, one of which could come from a publican?

Seeing Aradale at night, when we are at our most vulnerable, provides a rare insight into the final, agonising moments of the more than 12,000 people who died behind its walls.

Who needs ghosts when a tour guide acting the part of a stern, Victorian matron invites you to lie on the same cold metal slab where thousands of bodies were taken apart during autopsies by doctors who once thought anaesthesia-free surgery was the best way to treat a broken rib.

IF YOU GO

Two-hour ghost tours are held every Friday and Saturday at 8pm, or 9pm during daylight savings. Tickets are $40 per adult or $35 for children over the age of eight, who must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, www.www.aradaleghosttours.com.au or call 1300 856 668.

GETTING THERE: Ararat is located at the foothill of the Grampians, 205km or a two-and-a-half drive southwest of Melbourne. Aradale is a 3km drive from Ararat.

STAYING THERE: Seppelt Winery in nearby Great Western has several historic accommodation options. Bests Cottage was built in the 1860s and is the original home of the winery founder. It can accommodate five people for $140 per night. Book via the cellar door on (03) 5361 2239 or www.airbnb.com.au