The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.
For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.
Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.
Serenity Writing Exercise
Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.
There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.
John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.
There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.
The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.
My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!
Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.
But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.
I’m sure others like me, come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.
Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…
However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.
John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…
When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air; the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.
When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…
His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.
When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.
When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.
I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –
‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’
‘They’re ducks, son.’
‘No they’re not.’
‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’
I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.
When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’
For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.
And this is a pelican –
Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.
Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.
Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.
Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.
Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.
Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.
Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.
The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive
perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…
Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more
discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat
I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise
they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!
So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.
Love for More Than One Place
When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?
After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.
Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.
I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.
The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.
The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.
My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.
I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.
I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.
Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.
When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.
At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!
My second duty stint last weekend for Open House Bendigowas at the Town Hall, Sunday morning. According to a tourist brochure on heritage buildings:
“If it was good enough for Denmark’s royal palace, it was good enough for Bendigo. German artist, Otto Waschatz decorated both, adorning Bendigo’s Town Hall interior with mythical figures and rich gold leaf. Outside, muscular ‘Atlas” sculptures support the clock’s weight. These are fitting fixtures for architect William Vahland’s greatest work (1878-86).”
Seeing these magnificent features a definite drawcard on Sunday, however, I don’t think the artist envisaged the hall being the registration point for cyclists involved in the second Bendigo Cycling Classic – hence the signs around the doorway asking for care and respect for the walls and floors.
The Bendigo Town Hall stands out and beautifully renovated in 2003, it is well cared for and was one of the many buildings representing gold-rush-era heritage.
Located in the heart of the city and built in the height of the gold rush period like so many of the other wonderful buildings, it is a remarkable legacy of a time when money was plentiful, dreams were big, and prominent townsfolk and those who made the decisions for the municipality ensured the wealth and splendour of Bendigo’s ‘golden age’ did not go unnoticed.
Town Hall: Council Chambers
Local architect WC Vahland was commissioned to redevelop the Town Hall and came up with a masterpiece that helped secure his place as one of the city’s most revered architects. The Town Hall interiors feature decorative plaster adorned with 22-carat-gold leaf, reflecting the stories the stories of a city built on gold.
In 2003, The Bendigo town Hall returned to the elegance and beauty of its 19th-century heritage after an extensive restoration and renovation program including plasterworks murals and gold leaf worked by skilled artists and artisans.
A snippet from another tourist promotion:
The name Bendigo originated from a world famous bare-knuckled boxer, William ‘Abednigo’ Thompson. A shepherd, on the Ravenswood run near Bendigo, he was handy with his fists and became renowned as a great fighter. He lived in his hut on a creek which flowed through the valley where gold was found. It is said that this shepherd, nicknamed ‘Abednigo’ lent his name to this rich goldfield – and the rest, as they say ‘is history’.
The Cornish Miner
Erected in appreciation of the endeavours of all the underground miners of Bendigo and District who created the economy from which grew a beautiful city thus leading to further developments and helping to provide the base for Victoria to become an industrial state.
Cornishmen and their descendants formed the majority of these miners. Erected by the City of Greater Bendigo on behalf of its Citizens and the Cornish Association of Bendigo and District 1996.
Open House Bendigo, 2018
On Sunday, between 10.00am and 1.00 pm, 179 people took advantage of access and traipsed through the Town Hall, joining 600 from the day before.
Jaws dropped at the old Council Chamber’s polished wood, rich leather, gorgeous wall murals and marble posts, rich gilded ceiling and pelmets.
However, despite a clear sign and my gentle reminders, I had to ask a couple of people more than once NOT to sit in the Mayor’s Chair or rub their hands over the wood and leather.
And it wasn’t young people who were the culprits but seniors who should have known about the damage human sweat can do to artefacts and that if hundreds of people were allowed “just one photo please of me sitting in the chair” the likelihood of damage is high. I’m sure if the mayoral robes had not been encased in glass, some people would have been tugging at the chain.
The policeman role aside, I loved the stories people shared with me and the many remarks of appreciation of the skilled craftsmanship and pride in the presentation evident in the old and new council chambers and the hall.
Two ladies talked about making their debut in the Town Hall – one in 1956, the other in 1966 when Mr Oliver (who happened to be her boss) was the mayor.
He let her sit in the mayor’s chair! She can remember the fear of the small group of girls waiting in the chamber before descending the staircase to walk the full length of the ‘great hall’ to be presented to the mayor (Mr Oliver). ‘It was terrifying,’ she said, never having been so exposed to officialdom and public scrutiny, it was a relief to dance the Charmaine, their presentation dance.
She explained the event to her grandchildren who listened with polite interest and I was struck with the fact that after more than half a century, her overwhelming memory is of feeling anxious and intimidated.
Another lady was proud to tell me her son-in-law painted all the gold lettering in the hall during the renovations. I wish she had been nearby when a rare negative interaction occurred.
An old man in a faux stetson wanted to know how much gold was in the paint and how much the gilding cost. He was disappointed I didn’t know. I told him to speak with Nathan, the Town Hall representative who was managing the numbers of visitors downstairs.
Cold eyes beneath the hat stared at me for a moment, before cross-questioning who I was and why I was there. I explained about Open House and that as a long-term volunteer from Melbourne I volunteered for this inaugural Bendigo event.
His response thick with sarcasm, ‘How very altruistic of you,’ as he walked away disappointed I couldn’t give him the statistics he wanted.
I was glad Nathan was there because there was so much going on and the visitors were constant. He had shown me around the place before the doors opened and when we looked into the current council chamber he warned that although most people are respectful to watch out for ‘anti-council’ behaviour.
From my position in the hallway, I could see inside the old chamber but also see the new chamber because the wall is all glass. I kept my eye on Mr Stetson – rightly or wrongly I’d earmarked him!
Impressed by its ‘grandeur’, many people asked me why the council had stopped using the old chamber and when I pointed out the obvious they could see the new room was much more suitable:
the old council chamber did not have room for the current number of councillors, staff or press or the modern day technological requirements
the old council chamber did not have room for a public gallery and ratepayers are allowed into most council meetings
the cost of maintaining the old chamber – regularly cleaning it and repairing any wear and tear if it was used would be much more than for the modern chamber
The new council chamber had rows of seats for visitors plus a gallery of photos of previous mayors.
The current mayor of Bendigo is female but in the early days of the city as the dozen pictures lining the walls reveal, the ‘founding fathers’ were male.
I can almost guarantee future depictions of mayors will not be oil paintings or photographs by prized photographers or placed in huge gilt frames. I even wonder if the mayoral robes will be donned – times have changed!
The early mayors were all active in business and community organisations, each leaving a distinctive legacy and exceptional worthwhile achievements that resonate today. A lady confided to me with pride that one of the mayors pictured – Cr JH Curnow JP, 1901 and mayor 1902-4, 1912-13, 1919-20, 1927-28 – was a relative and she had no idea of his achievements!
It Is Important to Acknowledge Mayoral Milestones
Thomas Jefferson Connelly, a solicitor, was elected mayor in 1887 – the first Bendigo native and the youngest man up to that time to hold office. He was born in Sandhurst and was 29 years old. He was president of the Australian Natives Association and a driving force behind Federation and a close friend of Australia’s second PM Alfred Deakin. Sadly, Connelly contracted typhoid fever as a result of overwork in his private practice and died at only 34 years of age leaving a widow and three children.
Ambrose Dunstan was one of Bendigo’s oldest Justices of the Peace and on many occasions was the assistant coroner. From 1891-2 he was President of Australian Natives Association. During his term during WW1 house numbering was carried out, 182 building permits issued and he unveiled the Soldier’s Memorial Statue, recently refurbished 2018.
“The news that the armistice had been signed by German representatives reached Bendigo about midnight on November 11th 1918. At 2am on November 12th, Mayor Dunstan read a message from the Governor-general on the steps of the Town Hall to a crowd of over 1000. The joyous peal of St Paul’s bells and the continuous tolling of the town clock awakened the people, who came to the city in large numbers. The mayor invited those present to give thanks and proceeding closed with the National Anthem. Peace had been declared.”
We are close to celebrating the centenary of that PEACE and thinking about the huge numbers of war dead and casualties still makes me weep. It is not an exaggeration to think almost every household would have been touched in some way and I can just imagine the joy of this spontaneous gathering in the predawn light.
David John Andrew another early mayor ‘led a very active public life and there were few movements in which he was not connected.’ Captain of the Bendigo Fire Brigade in 1898 he held that position until his death. Chairman of the CFA he ‘heartily devoted himself to the promotion of the best interests of firemen and the firefighting service generally.’Born in Scotland, he was prominent in the Bendigo Caledonian Society, the Victoria Scottish Union and the Masonic Order.For many years, as the Secretary of the Easter Fair, he was interested in the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Home and pursued the matter of sewerage strenuously. He believed when Bendigo was sewered the death rate would be lowered considerably and cited that in 1909 there had been 719 births and 548 deaths. He committed his life to humanitarian causes and during the years of the Great War, he organised support for Australian soldiers and prisoners of war.
Mayor William Beebe, MBE, continued as a councillor until ten weeks before his death in 1920 and was mourned by many including PM Hughes who sent condolences: “ My deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. Bendigo has lost a very worthy citizen and Australia one of her most loyal sons.” Beebe took the lead in patriotic movements and social, religious and philanthropic objectives hence being awarded the MBE.
Born in Sandhurst in 1857 he worked with his father as a stonemason, studied architectural drawing at the School of Mines and with his father designed and built several buildings during the 1880s. Later as an architect, Beebe was responsible for the ANA Hall, the City Markets, the Fire Station in View Street, the Royal Bank (now a restaurant) and Lansellstowe and numerous private homes.
Another young councillor (39 years), Mayor Michael Guidice (1922-24) directed his energy and faith to commercial enterprises for the advancement of Bendigo. Managing Director of Bendigo United Breweries he was associated with the moving picture industry from its pioneering days.
In 1913 he formed the Bendigo Lyric Photoplays and personally supervised the opening and work of the new Lyric theatre that year as well as being governing director of The Shamrock Hotel. He was a moving force in forming the Shakespearean Reading and Literary Society and assisted in the formation of the Bendigo Choral Society.
Mayor Ernest Vains (1924-25) was born in Kerang and started a Stock and Station Agent’s business in Bendigo. “Hehad a great capacity for work and attempted to attract industries…” Director of the Bendigo Sun and the Farmers and Citizens Trustees P/L, playing a prominent role in the formation of Bendigo Rotary Club in 1925. A keen outdoor sportsman, a member of the Bendigo Jockey Club, secretary of the South Bendigo Bowling Club and office bearer Golden Square Bowling Club. When retiring from office 1926, he noted four deaths ascribed to diphtheria and two from typhoid fever and overall 497 deaths and 689 births.
Mayor Frederick Niemann born in sale 1879 and mayor during the Depression years took a prominent role in retaining the railway workshops in Bendigo. He was one of the founders of the Advance Bendigo and North League and held the position of Chief Magistrate in Bendigo with many years of experience in commerce and industry.
Thank you, Mayor Niemann, for saving the railway workshops! I caught the train to Bendigo for Open House weekend. On the way, there were plenty of rolling green fields with emerald green grass to feed the grazing cattle, horses and sheep. No obvious signs of drought yet.
The Bendigo to Melbourne train line opened in October 1862 but the steam train then a different beast entirely from the comfortable and relatively smooth ride V-Line offers today.
Another mayor in the 1930s, Mayor George Bennetts built up the well known Bennetts Arcade Stores, one of the most progressive of its kind in Bendigo and later acquired by Woolworths. Bennetts was a keen bowler and member of Bendigo Golf Bowling Club, a Justice of the Peace and responsible for the Easter Saturday Street carnival.
There is a street sculpture by artist Maggie Fooke “After The Procession” dedicated on October 1993 and commissioned by the Bendigo Easter Fair Society. I didn’t remember seeing it on an earlier visit to Bendigo perhaps because it looks so natural! It was ‘refurbished and restored and presented to the people of Bendigo to celebrate the 140th Easter Procession on the 5th April 2010.
W.C Vahland the architect for the Town Hall, came originally from Germany seeking gold but stayed to practice his profession as an architect. How lucky was Bendigo!?
He may have struck out finding gold, but his legacy of fine buildings increased the wealth of Bendigo.
A comment on the refurbishment – a young man was keen to show me travel pictures on his phone. Inside the huge twin towers in Abu Dhabi, there are the exact same light fittings used in the hallway between Bendigo’s two council chambers – and he has seen them elsewhere!
And a final comment from an appreciative visitor to Open House at the Town Hall. She had visited ‘by default’ because like many people in Bendigo she wanted to see what had been achieved so far in the redevelopment of the Beehive Building, which was still a construction site and had been boarded up for several years.
However, her curiosity didn’t extend to waiting in a queue for over an hour and she was thrilled to come straight into the Town Hall, learn history she didn’t know and be amazed at the beautiful finishing touches on the walls and ceiling.
The woman was really enjoying the Open House weekend and agreed wholeheartedly with the current mayor, Cr Margaret O’Rourke,
“Bendigo has so much fascinating architecture that will be wonderful to share with visitors and residents alike.”
I’ve been volunteering for Open House Melbourne for over eight years. In that time, I have had the opportunity to attend workshops and learn interesting facts about architecture, design and heritage. I’ve visited buildings and appreciated aspects and behind the scenes rarely experienced by the general public.
Open House Melbourne is an independent organisation fostering a public appreciation for architecture and public engagement in the future of our cities.
Each year more and more buildings and events are added to this fabulous weekend. Last year they expanded to Ballarat and this year it was Bendigo. The two regional centres will probably ‘open up’ alternate years.
Both events were a great success with thousands of visitors to the buildings, not only from locals but many people making the trip from Melbourne to take advantage of the warm welcome from the regional communities.
In Melbourne, I’ve been privileged to volunteer at:
Each shift has offered unique experiences. Special ‘thank you’ events for volunteers, allowed behind the scene tours of the Phillips Shirt Factory, Lonsdale Street and Willsmere (the old ‘lunatic’ asylum).
Now open House has expanded, I’ve visited buildings in Ballarat (2017) and this year Bendigo, educating and enjoying myself in the process. The last weekends in July and October now regular dates earmarked on the calendar
Bendigo Beamed in Spring Sunshine
Bendigo was chosen as a significant regional hub creating an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to celebrate this wonderful city. It was a chance to view different architectural styles and learn about Bendigo’s rich history, its cultural attractions and to consider how future developments will impact the city.
Despite competition from several major events occurring at the same time (The Bendigo Agricultural Show, the second Bendigo Cycling Classic, and Bendigo Sustainable House) the support for the inaugural Open House Bendigo weekend was fantastic (11,000 visits across 23 buildings)!
The weekend provided a range of talks, walks, film screenings and workshops plus the buildings open for inspection and appreciation, all encouraging an exploration of the diversity and design of Bendigo’s built environment and history.
Bendigo was proclaimed a city in 1871, the year the Bendigo Easter Fair began – Australia’s oldest ongoing festival. I was rostered on duty at the Bendigo Tramways Depot, Australia’s oldest continually operating tram depot.
All Aboard For A Great Ride
The Bendigo Tramways depot was built in 1901 for the Electric Supply Company of Australia Ltd. At the time of building, the property also included what is today the Bendigo Woollen Mills, which housed the steam engines, generators and boiler until 1972. The depot was completed in 1903 for the operation of electric trams. (The first depot was constructed in 1890 near the railway station.) In addition to the tramway shed, the facility included cooling ponds, a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shed, elevator house, and other support buildings.
The Tramways Depot and Workshop may not have survived had it not been for the Bendigo community’s will to keep the trams running in Bendigo once they were shut down as a public transport option. This led to the introduction of the tourist tram service in 1972. The tourist tram service celebrates 46 years of service in 2018.
The Bendigo Tramways is known nationally and internationally for its heritage tram restoration capabilities and its rare collection of heritage trams. Trams from all over the country, including Melbourne’s City Circle trams, are all restored to their former glory in the Bendigo Tramways Workshop.
There were guided conductor tours on the hour led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Ian, along with a specialised in-depth pre-booked tour led by Luke, the Workshop Manager. However, when more people turned up, Luke kindly accommodated them and ended up with a group of 24 instead of 15!
The guides were extremely proud to point out the work carried out so far for the City of Melbourne refurbishing the famous restaurant trams and the vintage trams used on the free city tourist loop.
On duty from 9.30am to 1.00pm, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam in the gift shop/cafe. Pam warned about the dust from the imported plane trees and said a light breeze can blow the dust about and start people coughing. She spoke from experience and said if anyone did start coughing to suggest they go to the cafe and she’d supply a glass of water. Pam discovered the problem with the plane trees after going to the doctor thinking she had asthma or an allergy.
Many of the others working at the depot are volunteers. Ian was super knowledgeable, efficient – and passionate about trams like all the volunteers. He loved the people he met volunteering and said, ‘You know, I’ve met people from all corners of the world here. I met someone from Zimbabwe and we discussed their country. I wouldn’t have met him if I wasn’t doing this job.’
Steve, a volunteer driver, in a previous life was a stipendiary magistrate who loved trams! Another Ian was the driver who gave me a lift back to town. The tram was packed and I got to sit up front with him in the driver’s seat.
Ian has been driving the vintage trams for 17 years and when an unusual fault occurred he told me it was only the second time it had happened.
I had no idea the variation in controls until I wandered around the depot peeking inside all the different trams – some still in use, others being refurbished.
Each tram has an interesting history but without the work and passion of a team of volunteers, the tramways could not have achieved many of the major milestones and awards, especially winning gold in the 2016 Australian Tourism Awards or the Hall of Fame in 2014, 2015 and 2016 Victorian Tourism Awards.
No 7 decommissioned in the 1930s, became a sleep-out before being returned for restoration in 1988. In 2000, the body was stripped of any structural additions, cleaned and put on display.
Tram No 30 was driven by HRH Prince Charles in 1974. This Birney tram was built in 1925 in Philadelphia USA, for South Australia and operated on the Port Adelaide line until 1935. Purchased by Geelong it operated there as Tram No 30 before being transferred to Bendigo and used for spare parts. However, in 1972 it was restored to be one of the Vintage Talking Trams and became the flagship of Bendigo Tramways.
One of the volunteer conductors told me the story of Charles and Di’s visit. Princess Diana was standing on the balcony of The Shamrock Hotel where they were staying. Prince Charles knew she would be out there to wave and watch him drive past. He was determined she see him driving and was so excited he went through two red lights. Needless to say, they didn’t forward on the traffic ticket!
Tram No 44 was one of two trams restored especially for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust Centenary in 2010. Built in 1914 in Adelaide, South Australia for Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was sold to the State Electricity Commission of Victoria in 1951 for Bendigo operations and painted in green and cream livery of the SEC. Ten years later, repainted maroon and cream, it joined the talking tram fleet.
Tram No 84 has the most magnificent feature interior timber work of all the trams in the fleet. Built in Melbourne in 1917 for the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust it was later sold to the SECV in 1931 for operation in Bendigo. In 1935 it was configured to be operated by one man. It developed ‘excessive body movement’ issues and was withdrawn from service in 1965 and because of internal disagreements between supervisors didn’t return to use until 1975 when made operational by the Bendigo Trust to run on special outings. In 2010 it was refurbished to its original California configuration for the centenary celebrations of the Prahran and Malvern Tramways Trust.
Tram No 21, an M class tram was built in Adelaide in 1917 for the Hawthorn Tramways Trust. It was sold to the SECV in 1935 to operate in Bendigo. Retaining its one-man configuration it was repainted in the SEC livery of green and cream and ran until the closure of Bendigo’s public transport system in 1972. In 1992, it was repainted in the grey, white and blue livery of Hawthorn Tramways Trust to celebrate a significant event in the history of the City of Footscray. It operated as a Vintage Talking Tram until 2000 when it was removed to be restored to its 1930s condition. Thanks to the Bendigo Tramways Work for the Dole program it returned to service in 2005.
Tram No 29 was the focal point to save the trams from being dispersed and sold off when the Bendigo Tramways closed in 1972. State cabinet supported The Bendigo Trust’s proposal to run a tourism tram service using the SECV’s trams and tracks on trial until Easter 1974. However, the SEC had promised Tram No 29 to a museum in Adelaide without consultation or knowledge of the Bendigo Trust.
Community anger manifested itself in a mini-uprising and blockade to stop the tram being taken out of the depot with local businesses sending their vans and cars after the Mayor used the media to rally the citizens. The furore resulted in a ministerial committee and negotiations culminating in the entire fleet being sold to The Bendigo Trust for a ‘mere $1’ in 1977.
Relations between an aggrieved South Australian museum and the citizenry of Bendigo were later assuaged by the discovery of a sister tram, also a Birney, being used as a garden shed. Representatives of the Tramways trust negotiated the donation of this tram when the owners were promised a replica of a nineteenth century cast iron street lamp created by a skilful committee member.
The tram was restored with a grant from the State Government and presented to the Australian Electric Tramway Museum, Adelaide in 1976. Proving ‘all’s well that end’s well.’
It is mindboggling to see the before and after examples in the workshop – the state of donated or discovered trams, the craftsmanship and skill applied, and the finished product of beautiful polished wood and painted tram interiors.
Of course, the depot has a special supervisor overseeing the work –
The rescue cat, Birney joined the team in 2014. Originally, he was to catch mice but the sign on his office promotes him to Tramways Superintendent and of course, the Gift Shop has a range of souvenirs. I was lucky to see him at close quarters but with the increased visitors he wisely withdrew and found some spot in the sun far away from the madding crowds.
A Bit Of History Puts Trams In Context
With the advent of electric trams and extended tracks ‘housewives’ moved away from their local shops in the suburbs and bought goods in the heart of the city at a time when shops didn’t close until 11 pm on a Friday night, along with many hotels. ‘As a result, there were many wavering legs on Friday evenings trying to negotiate the flagstones of Pall Mall in a desperate attempt to catch the drunk express home.’
I had to get at least one picture of myself on a tram and chose No 8 – it was a number 8 to Toorak that gave me the inspiration to write A Ticket to Vaudeville,the first short story I received payment for when it was published in The Weekly Times in the 80s – ironically that newspaper’s head office is in Bendigo.
Bendigo’s first people, the Dja Dja Wurrung
The Dja Dja Wurrung Tram takes passengers on a journey of discovery into the unique and fascinating traditions of Bendigo’s first people. The Dja Dja Wurrung, one of the five communities of the Kulin people, a federation of five distinct but strongly related communities, which also includes the Boonerwrung of Mordialloc and other southern bayside places.
All Kulin had as their defining social moiety either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the crow. Long before they had contact with the European world, they had complex trading networks sharing stone axe heads and highly crafted possum-skin cloaks and other examples of useful craftsmanship and art.
Archaeological evidence shows their connection to the land extending beyond 40,000 years. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 people, speaking over 30 languages lived throughout Victoria when Europeans arrived in 1835.
Rapid colonisation, the stealing of Aboriginal land, and the destruction of families by murder and disease forced Aborigines onto missions resulting in a loss of language, traditions and more lives – a cruel devastating and violent period of history.
Today the 25,000 plus Aboriginal people who live in Victoria are concerned about self-determination, maintaining their culture and restoring their lands.
The tram is a moving lesson and illustration of Dja Dja Wurrung culture and painted on the roof sides there is a host of information proudly showing their customs and practices are alive and respected – keeping them connected to the past, the present and the future. Their cultural heritage recognised and protected as a celebration of identity and community.
Even the upholstery tells a story.
Recognition and Settlement Agreement
In 2013, the Dja Dja Wurrung peopleentered into an agreement with the Victorian Government recognising them as the traditional owner group for this country. The agreement recognises Dja Dja Wurrung people as the traditional owners of Central Victoria and binds the state of Victoria and the Dja Dja Wurrung people to a meaningful partnership founded on mutual respect. The list of recognised Apical Ancestors is also on the tram.
The Dja Dja Wurrung have lived on traditional lands and cared for country over many thousands of years. Country is more than just landscape, it is more than what is visible to the eye – it is a living entity, which holds the stories of creation and histories that cannot be erased. The Dja Dja Wurrung have nine aspirations for their country, including…
Rivers & Waterways
Our rivers and waterways are healthy and meet the needs of our people and land.
Our upside-down country is healthy again (healed from the effects of mining).
Every Dja Dja Wurrung person is happy, healthy and secure in their identity, livelihood and lifestyle.
Djandak (a traditional way of business)
We have a strong and diverse economic base to provide for our health and well-being and strengthen our living culture.
As our country’s first people, Djaara have an established place in society and are empowered to manage our own affairs
All crown land on Dja Dja Wurrung country is Aboriginal title and we are the sole managers.
Along with illustrations and stories of the creators, there were details of the following native animals:
GNANA-NGANITY (bat) -There are 77 bat species in Australia. Bats are nocturnal and are the only mammals capable of sustained flight. They use echolocation to navigate during the night and to find food. They are natural pest controllers as 70% of them live on a diet of insects. A baby bat is called a pup.
MUMUMBARRA (bee) – There are over 1600 species of bees that are native to Australia. Native bees are smaller than European bees and many of them don’t sting. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green and also black with blue polka dots, and can range from fat and furry to sleek and shiny.
BALAM BALAM (butterfly) – Australia is home to more than 400 species of butterfly. A butterfly does not eat but receives nutrients from drinking nectar and pollen from flowers and plants.
MUR-MURRA (dragonfly) – the dragonfly is an aquatic insect and spends most of its six-month life near the water. There are 320 known species of dragonfly native to Australia.
GALIYT (witchetty grub) – Witchetty Grubs are mainly found in central Australia. The grub is the larvae of the Cossid Moth. Witchetty Grubs can grow up to 12 centimetres long and are eaten as part of Aboriginal diet.
DUM (frog) – The frog is the only native amphibian to Australia and tends to live near wetlands as their skin needs moisture. Depending on the species some have a special slime coating and others can burrow into the ground to keep moist.
GUWAK (kookaburra) – the kookaburra is the largest member of the Kingfisher family of birds. They eat small mammals, lizards, snakes and insects. The laugh of the kookaburra is actually a call to mark their territory.
BARRANGAL (pelican) – The pelican is found throughout Australia. They can fly 3 kilometres above the earth. Their bills can hold up to 13 litres of water and they can eat up to 9 kilograms of food each day.
WIRRAP (cod) – fish were an important part of the Dja Dja Wurrung diet and were caught in different types of traps made from rocks or nets. The Loddon and Campaspe Rivers are where Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors lived and many types of fish were found in these waterways.
BARAMUL (emu) – Baramul is fast and can run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The female lays eggs and the male emu sits on the nest to hatch the young. Mu equality! The noise that the emu makes in its throat can be heard 2 kilometres away.
YULAWIL (echidna) – The echidna is one of two monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. The other is the platypus. Both animals feed their babies on milk. A young echidna is called a muggle. Echidnas live for around 45 years in the wild.
DUAN (phascogale) – A phascogale is a relative of the quoll and Tasmanian devil. Their diet consists of insects, spiders and centipedes. They will also eat nectar from the ironbark flowers. The male phascogale dies at around one year of age, just after breeding season. The phascogale is a shy animal and has a very bushy tail.
I retired to magnolia-on-view, the Airbnb I was sharing with friend Susan whom I met volunteering for Open House Ballarat and reflected on an amazing morning and all the new cultural and historical information absorbed.
The atmosphere in my little corner of Bendigo friendly, relaxed, and fun. I was surrounded by positivity and people giving back to their community. Ian and I both agreed, volunteering for something you love gives you energy.
I met up with Jack who lives in the redeveloped Willsmere and who had been our tour guide for the place. He remembered me. A nice compliment considering as a grey-haired senior I’m often considered to be in the realms of the invisible and irrelevant now…
I laughed with a couple of locals – a retired gentleman who lived in the same street as the Depot but who had never visited. It took Open House Bendigo to change his ‘will do one day’ into ‘will do today’ and he’d brought along a son and grandson who now live in Melbourne!
I met Sandra, a writer and editor who has just moved to Bendigo. She volunteers and writes biographies for people in palliative care.
The weekend was exceeding expectations and making me forget the ache in my ribs from an unfortunate car accident a few days before.
I checked the roster and prepared to open another door!
I often use time like this to either wind down by reflecting and writing or observe and write – as I tell my students to do – never miss an opportunity to gather material for stories and poems!
It had been a memorable day. The first real hint of spring warmth in the air and I informed my boss of my intention to retire from Godfrey Street at the end of the year. I’ve decided to apply for the aged pension and ‘retire’ from most paid work.
Instead of teaching and travelling between neighbourhood houses, I will only teach at Chelsea – and not until second term 2019 – giving myself a transitioning period to work out how to stay connected with community, teaching, writers and the craft of storytelling I love.
Sitting and sipping coffee brought relaxation and a sense of relief – I’d made a decision I’d been avoiding although discussed aloud with family and close friends.
The times and life definitely a’changing!
It has been a long winter – everybody I meet says so and I have to agree, so how wonderful to feel the warmth of the sun – it energised me to be more positive.
Sunshine makes you feel better and brightens the day, especially if you work indoors like me – and so much of writing is expressing inner thoughts, delving into dreams, fears and phobias along with fantasies, imaginings and ideas… classrooms become incubators and separated from ‘outside’.
A breath of fresh air does wonders in more ways than one and I always appreciate walking or using public transport to stay grounded in reality. Having breathing space before and after work and on a sunny day, the walk a senses overload.
Albert Street to Mordialloc Station at this time of year reveals blossoming trees and flowers blooming in various gardens, including my own.
The magpie trill competes with noisy minors, and the wattlebirds have returned to caw loudly while clawing back their territory as the grevillea and bottlebrush bud. The air is perfumed with apple and plum trees along with camellias and the perennial geraniums.
The garden at the community house in Bentleigh tended by volunteers and is delightful in spring.
The walk from Bentleigh Station up Centre Road to Godfrey street perfumed with a variety of eateries and a more pleasant stroll after State Government and Glen Eira Council’s efforts to beautify the shopping strip ‘back to normal’ after the upheaval of the level crossing removal.
If I hadn’t taken pictures and documented that massive infrastructure project memories would fade as to how it looked.
Recording Memories Important
That’s what I love about my Life Stories & Legacies class – in fact, all my classes where people write their recollections. So many different perspectives and experiences.
Trish, a student in my Mordialloc class several years ago recalled a memory about Bentleigh when I gave an exercise about a milestone most of us are eager to celebrate:
‘What do you remember from childhood when you reached double figures?’
On my birthday, the day was sunny – good things happen on sunny days, especially if a Sunday. We lived in Richmond and I was told we were moving to the country. I felt happy and excited because there would be cows and horses. We climbed in the family Buick and drove off to Bentleigh – that was ‘the country’ in the 1940s. It seemed a long drive with outer suburbs just developing and no traffic worries. The house was unfinished and surrounding paddocks our playground. Horses from Mentone intruded into the paddocks sometimes and I was scared of being trampled.
The lady at end of the road had a cow and chickens and I remember the taste of frothy warm milk straight from her cow. Francesco street was where we lived and Mrs White our only next-door neighbour. There were vegetables growing nearby and goods were delivered by horse and cart so plenty of manure available for growing. Whenever I smell the pungent aroma of horse manure, I remember moving to live in Bentleigh when I was ten years old.
There will always be critics of development and change (there are some I don’t like) however, Premier Daniel Andrews’ legacy of upgrading, building and planning much-needed infrastructure for our public transport system is amazing and long overdue. Hats off to the engineers and workers who carried out the vision.
A witness to the important change in Bentleigh:
The bottom two tiers of the MCG could have been filled with the earth excavated from under the McKinnon, Bentleigh and Ormond level crossings once intensive digging began for rail under road trench.
The Level Crossing Removal Authority estimated 150 tipper trucks left the excavation sites each hour as 500,000 tonnes of earth was moved to a Heatherton tip in the initial ten days.
Construction crews of 1000 plus workers toiled around the clock to minimise inconvenience and get the Frankston services running. The job completed in 37 days instead of the scheduled 94!
Short-term pain for long-term gain.
A great new station.
It may come at a political cost because people dislike disruption to their routines and with an election looming whinging from naysayers will be funded and organised by political opponents, but as someone who has never owned a car and with a great belief in living sustainably, I’m glad the state government has made investment in efficient public transport a priority.
Climate change already wreaks havoc, Melbourne’s roads are clogged, reliable public transport the most sensible and sustainable way to move people.
By removing level crossings, adding new lines, linking suburbs, creating a reliable coordinated transport mix – all of these will help a cultural change.
And at Bentleigh as in other level crossings, it will save lives as an extract from one of the Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies, Off The Rails illustrates.
Jeff Lasbury operated the kiosk on Bentleigh station for several years :
Monday, March 23rd 1998 was like any other day until 8.00 am when I heard the train horn blast, a woman scream, and a sickening thud accompanied by the hissing sound of the air brakes being applied by the train driver.
I opened the kiosk door and poked my head out to look down the ramp to the level crossing praying no one had been hurt. I could see nothing untoward and breathed a sigh of relief. I stepped out of the kiosk but decided to turn back because the train had pulled into the station as usual, when I caught sight of a body lying on the tracks almost directly in front of me.
I looked again… everything appeared unreal, an eerie silence descended. It seemed a long time before someone found something to cover the body of the young woman. I assumed the body female because of the scream I had heard but minutes later a hysterical woman came to the kiosk window and between sobs explained it was her screaming. She had witnessed a young man hit by the train.
Overwhelmed with sadness, I felt numb, and struggled with disbelief…
The young man had been a customer and recently celebrated his 18th birthday. That morning, his mother dropped him off near the station because he was running a bit late. The boom gates came down and the lights were flashing, however, like many pedestrians, he crossed the first line because no train was on that line, but there were two more tracks to cross. Worried about missing his train, which neared the station, he crossed the barrier, looking in the direction of his approaching train ignoring the other way. He walked into the path of the city-bound train, which he probably didn’t hear coming because of the Walkman plugged into his ears.
Floral tributes appeared at the level crossing the next day, and a day later, the wire fence in front of the kiosk blossomed with more. Most were single flowers, some not particularly beautiful but left by people who knew and loved the young man, all touching tributes to a tragic lost life…
Some years later, a young woman walked past the kiosk to the ticket machine further up the platform. She took a little time to get her ticket and then came back past. She lost her life in exactly the same way as the young man.
Almost every level crossing will have a similar tale to tell or examples of near misses – I won’t miss the Centre Road level crossing or its clanging lights and boom gates.
A tragedy is far away from my thoughts walking Centre Road on a sunny day, the chaos of mounds of dirt, grunting and growling heavy machinery, buses replacing trains, the traffic and pedestrian diversions are all in the past too.
The new station functions well – toilets and waiting room at street level, a lift and ramp plus stairs – facilities appreciated by everyone, not just rail users.
Murals and music and a delightful community meeting place also appreciated.
I loved the piano that stayed for some time and the many people who took advantage of the freedom to tinkle the ivories… especially the ones who had talent – they attracted smiling listeners, including me.
New cafes and shops have opened and old ones refurbished. Outside tables always abuzz with the old and young plus plenty of canine companions.
The disconnect of Centre Road caused by the level crossing now gone and people (including myself) visit shops and cafes ignored before.
What will 2019 bring?
I freely admit there will be a period of adjustment for me because I’ll miss the twice-weekly trips to Bentleigh and the community house.
I’m always surprised how easily workplaces you like become a second home but I’m looking forward to spending more time focusing on my own projects ‘at home’ and Bentleigh is only a train trip away!
On Sunday, I took part in Open House Melbourne again – another year of memorable experiences. The weekend the showcase event of an organisation committed to ensuring cities remain sustainable and livable, that people care about architecture, design, historical significance, and community values and stay engaged with their environment.
Each time I learn a little more about the history of this wonderful city as well as making the acquaintance of many delightful people. In the past, volunteers identified by a brightly coloured scarf and badge but this year we went for a ‘faux tradie'(?) look – a one size fits all fluoro pink vest!
The day always wonderful but the weather not always so…
July-August still winter and this year mercurial Melbourne let us know it.
Sunday, a particularly bone-chilling cold day with a consistent arctic wind from Hobson’s Bay visiting as intermittent squalls in the afternoon to remind us what season it is!
I was a building volunteer at The Esplanade Vaults in beachside St Kilda and although I’ve walked past this historical treasure many times (especially on Sunday when I got hopelessly lost and disoriented because I got off the tram one stop too early!) I never knew the vaults existed, or their significance before I was rostered on duty.
Apologies for my ignorance to all those who lived in, or frequented the popular tourist destination of St Kilda, and perhaps loved the shops ‘among the arches.’
They existed for a good part of a century before they were bricked up in the 70s because road widening narrowed the footpath and made access a hazard.
Almost 900 people visited ‘the vaults’ over Open House weekend, with almost half of them on Sunday – many blown in and appreciative of the dryness inside, if not the lack of heating and other creature comforts.
What remains is but a hollow shadow of the popular shops many remember but interesting to see inside because of their history.
The vaults date back to 1891 when public transport on the Upper Esplanade, St Kilda was upgraded to a new cable tramway replacing the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company’s horse-drawn omnibus.
The roadway widened to accommodate tram tracks and included in the design was the ‘provision for ten shops with arched ceilings, the walls raised to hold the road above.’
The shops had verandahs and faced the St Kilda Baths on the Lower Esplanade. The St Kilda City Baths still there and I can recommend their friendly staff and coffee and cake. The older photo below of the Baths circa 1933.
The shops among the arches sold a range of merchandise suited to the location including ice cream, nuts, confectionery, haberdashery, and fish and chips. The walls are hollow and thick and it’s amazing how the noise is deadened. Nowadays trams and other traffic are constant above the shops and the road outside but are muffled to be almost unheard in the vaults.
The doors have wooden lintels and you can see the thickness of the walls. It is obvious what parts of the vaults are the original 1890s bricks and the more modern bricks used to seal them.
One of the visitors to the site on Sunday who looked about my age, perhaps older, told me a story about his childhood:
‘You know one of those shops just around the corner used to be a fish and chip shop. I’d ride my bike down here and buy some fish and chips, then leaving my bike leaning against the shop wall I’d cross the road and spend several hours on the beach. Didn’t matter when I came back my bike was still there.’
His nostalgic story ended on a wistful note, ‘No need for locks in those days…’
The City of Port Phillip Values Its Heritage
Only some of the original shops can be accessed and 2016 was the last time the Council opened them to the public. Sandra, a representative from Port Phillip Council’s Heritage Centre had set up a table to promote their local history and heritage program. It was an added bonus to have people knowledgeable about the city on hand.
My daughter lives in East St Kilda and I’m looking forward to warmer weather to follow detailed guides to five interesting walks:
Immigrants Trail (4 kilometres – 70-90 minutes)
Foreshore Trail ( 11 kilometres – 3 hours)
To Market To Market (1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
Around The Hill ((1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
Solar System Trail (5.9 kilometres – 90 minutes)
This last walk intriguing and the result of a 2008 project with the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Lonely Planet Foundation, City of Port Phillip, Monash University, artist Cameron Robbins and Scienceworks!
St Kilda’s Built Heritage
The shop verandahs were removed in the 1950s but it wasn’t until the 1970s they were bricked up because of the widening of Jacka Boulevard.
Inside the vaults, on Sunday, there was a slideshow of historical pictures on a loop. Various views of St Kilda lit up one wall and old photos were fixed on the walls in another room. Sandra lamented there were no pictures of the shop interiors, or indeed close-ups of the shop fronts when they were thriving.
I’m sure there are snapshots in some family albums and perhaps one day they’ll be donated to a library or museum. Until then, people visiting just have to use their imagination – and everyone agreed the shop owners must have been expert at using space because the vaults are small. No wonder they needed the verandahs and a wide footpath!
There was a volume of a history of St Kilda for sale plus some postcards and I bought these to share with my writing class, especially those who are writing life stories and memoir. Those who write historical fiction will find them a good resource too.
The detail of the fashions on postcards, what people are doing, the landscape or seascape, expressions on faces – all fodder for a writer to mine.
When I went to class on Monday, I showed the postcards to student Heather (90 this year) and lent her the book because I remembered a story she wrote about trips to St Kilda and having pony rides on the beach. The period the book covers, 1930 – 1983.
Heather was thrilled, emailing me Monday night:
Am so enjoying the book. Found the name of our swimming coach, Alex Sauter who ignored me and spent all the lesson on my brother. What a wallow in old memories!
love and thanks Heather
Nothing wrong with wallowing in memories and the indigenous people of St Kilda have stories and legends too which we often forget when discussing the history of places. Stories and buildings from European settlement are only a small part of Australia’s history.
‘St Kilda’s’ Story Thousands Of Years Old…
Open House recognises this by stating:
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY
Our programming exists on what always was and always will be the land of the people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging, as well as to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the wider Melbourne community and beyond. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded in Australia and we try to be mindful of this in everything we do, given our focus on the modern built environment.
The vaults are what remains of the engineering structure of the 1890s and came about as part of the embankment works and built into the supporting wall for the cable tramway.
However, local historian and conservationist Meyer Eidelson who wrote the guide to some of the walks I’ve mentioned was interviewed about the vaults in 2016.
In 1841, Derimut a leader of the Yalukit Willam who owned the land European settlers claimed as their own was bitterly disappointed by this theft. He cursed the settlement saying one day blood would rain from the sky and all would be swept away.
The shoreline of beach sands and the tea-tree grove is the traditional land of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung. Legend tells of a grinding site for axes on the foreshore and also that the creator Bunjil who protects the Kulin Nation and travels as an eagle, placed rocks to stop floods and protect the indigenous settlement. Meyer believes the original foundation of the Upper Esplanade could be part of the network of those sacred rocks.
There is also more recent mythology about hauntings, victims, vampires and numerous intriguing ghost stories.
All believable when inside the vaults.
Light from the tiny vents creates shadows that dance across the floor and up the walls. The effects of the changing light from outside, the glow of artificial light inside, and the vibration from above and the steam of cars alongside plus the wind whistling through the arches interesting enough during the day but would be a dramatically different mood and atmosphere in the evening.
On Sunday, as the foreshore and streets filled with families and others enjoying Open House, I recalled how St Kilda’s history is chequered with various murder stories, not to mention periods where almost every story was negative – either about drugs or prostitution.
The year I volunteered and was on duty at nearby Edgewater Towers, many of the stories centred around its suitability to feature in fledgeling Australian TV crime dramas because of the notoriety of some St Kilda residents!
I guess it would not be too difficult to imagine the worst if you were alone in one of the dank vaults. (Although they are surprisingly clean and free from the ‘back-alley/abandoned building’ aromas of rodents, rubbish and rotten food.)
Probably, because they have been sealed. Also with no plumbing connected and extremely thick brick walls, any living creature looking for residence would be birds through the top air vents – and yet there was no evidence inside of them.
However, there was a time when people did squat in the vaults and contrary to the general adverse image of people living rough, whoever claimed these catacombs as home left evidence of trying to decorate and soften the harsh reality of cold, rough bricks and concrete.
On Sunday, I encouraged the children who accompanied their parents, to look for the hidden (and some not so hidden!) objects pushed or stuck into cavities in the walls:
marbles, pieces of crockery, plectrums, mirror tiles, old rusty tin, pencil, CDs… a heart image…
A great place to have a writing workshop – perhaps at night with candles flickering…
Who put the objects there and why?
Were they found objects or had more significance?
How long were the people there?
Where did they go?
When I finished my shift for the day I was faced with the reality of watching a man settle himself on a bench for the night next to the vaults, his bright orange checked blanket belying the misery of his homelessness. The view of the foreshore and bay more a curse than a joy as a promised storm rolled in on the bruised clouds and I couldn’t imagine how cold his night was going to be.
I was reminded of two other issues in the public arena during the afternoon:
Outside the baths, a timely reminder to ‘ditch plastic bags’ while sharing information about how traditional owners used plants.
Also, on duty at the vaults was Armah, a security guard originally from Ghana. We had a wonderful discussion about the fact Africa is a continent, not a country and how he has lived in Melbourne 21 years and never been in a gang!
I showed Armah a funny clip of the Ghanaian parliament which is doing the rounds of Facebook and he couldn’t wait to get home to tell his family and share it.
Armah has been back to Ghana a couple of times to visit family but like most migrants happy here, he considers that Australia is home.
I wish Dutton, Turnbull, Bolt, Guy et al – the pathetic politicians who dog whistle and use racist slurs to get votes could have chatted with Armah and hear the damage such targeted remarks do to communities.
Cold and tired, I caught up with my daughters for a cup of tea and a chat, sharing the memories triggered by my few hours in St Kilda.
I learnt to ice skate at the famous St Moritz rink along with thousands of other Melburnians in my age bracket.
I attended dances and functions at the St Kilda Town Hall.
Mordialloc Writers read at one of the first St Kilda Writers’ Festivals
I’ve visited numerous friends who live in different parts of the suburb
I still recall with fear my first visit to Luna Park and the terror of the scenic railway ride!
As I replied to Heather – there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in memories!
There is another post doing the rounds of Facebook –
The someplace may even be close to home. I wonder what building I’ll be allocated next year…
Who will I meet? What will I learn? What will I remember?
How many degrees of separation will there be… and will the weather be kinder!?
I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.
I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.
I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.
How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.
All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.
Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?
Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:
Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”
The Physical and Metaphysical
There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.
I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants, “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”
She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!
Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.
She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.
When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.
Decisions to make.
To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)
But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?
Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.
It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.
Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:
But where do you go to my lovely When you’re alone in your bed Tell me the thoughts that surround you I want to look inside your head
No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!
The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.
Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces
By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.
I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.
“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”
I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…
As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!
Day Two In Mongolia
I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.
The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.
“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”
The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include: 220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!
However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described:
Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.
The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…
Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…
… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.
The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….
At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?
But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’
The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!
fire in centre
flask of hot water for tea
When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.
Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.
It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.
A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.
Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive. The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.
There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.
I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.
A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:
Idopt a tree
Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.
save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
increase the number by replanting
provide botanical education
Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.
Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.
I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter. However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it. New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed.
Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia.
A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.
I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:
no sight or sound of another person,
a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
and hilly peaks draped with snow.
A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.
Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?
I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!
basing inside the ger
inside squat toilet
Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders. I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.
Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.
After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!
Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”
An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground
river tributaries appear
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…
A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…
Notes By Candlelight…1
Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.
Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.
Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.
I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.
On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!
I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” soin modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!
When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)
The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!
My Aussie Childhood
I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound
kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.
Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’
Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.
Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.
Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!
The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.
But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.
A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!
Notes By Candlelight…2
More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.
That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!
Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?
The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!
Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.
Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?
A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.
My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…
is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?
There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.
People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.
Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected.
Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism.
In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell. I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.
The rocks materialising into shapes – eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.
Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.
Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation?
Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?
I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather
I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life
There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.
Joy Mills, Release into Light
The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.
There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm!
Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.
No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.
Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.
What about ticks?
Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg. I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.
Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case! When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome.
No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.
And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.
Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)
This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)
The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.
There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.
In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.
Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
I remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.
As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.
Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.
He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed. I assumed it was to pee in if needed.
Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!
The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…
A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.
Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.
Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.
A Visit With A Nomadic Family
Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children.
The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.
A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!
It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.
This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.
They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!
A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.
The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.
Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.
As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.
I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.
The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me.
Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.
There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.
When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)
To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.
Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.
The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!”
On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.
Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.
However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –
‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!
Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?
Day Two – Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue and Museum Complex
The drive to the outskirts of the city and beyond revealed the vastness of the country and scenes confirming western assumptions. Miles of dusty, brown and sandy soil, hills and distant mountains bare of greenery after winter snows.
There were horses, goats, sheep, yaks and cattle grazing – all chewing pasture I couldn’t see from the car! Individual gers and clusters in camps dotted the landscape – at last, the something different I’d hoped for.
Chinggis Khaan a revered leader in the past and today. He and his sons ruled during the ‘Great Khan’ period in 13 and 14 centuries. The 40-metre statue built to honour his achievements, not only for Mongolia but his extensive empire, which influenced half of the known world.
The visitor complex is 10 metres tall with 36 columns representing the 36 Khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khaan and designed by sculptor D Erdenebileg and architect J Enkhjargal, it was erected in 2008.
It is the world’s tallest equestrian statue and has the certificate to prove it!
On horseback, Chinggis Khaan faces east towards his birthplace, holding the golden whip, which according to legend he found on the bank of the Tuul River at Tsonjin Boldog, the site of the monument. It is 54 kilometres east of Ulaanbaatar and a must-see for anyone visiting Mongolia.
A closer look
Bemba and Ada
The statue can be seen for miles
Chinggis Khaan or who we, in the West, refer to as Ghengis Khan was an impressive leader and achiever. I had no idea the Mongolian Empire extended to almost half the world. So many ethnic groups, cultures and religions under the Mongolian umbrella.
Art, Culture, Traditional Craftsmanship On Display
Cultural influences from Turkey, Hungary, Persia, China and beyond were peacefully incorporated. Gifts to the world from his era include games such as chess, knuckles (bones), the precursor of puzzles like the Rubik Cube (invented 1974 by a Hungarian), embroideries, beadwork, tapestries, silk costumes and painting, horsemanship, intricate leatherwork, metalwork and more.
Exhibitions cover Bronze Age and Xiongnu archaeological cultures and fossil finds. Traveller accounts describe the welcome and easy trade and great organisation and tolerance across borders.
A lesson in real greatness for Trump and current world leaders perhaps!
Chinggis Khaan, also regarded as the greatest military leader in world history although only commanding an army of 100,000 soldiers.
How did he manage to conquer and control countries with populations numbering millions and his dynasty last 150 years?
Some say it was because he felt a great love for his family and his people and would sacrifice his life for them. Others that he was clever and in love with learning.
Since Mongolia parted company with Soviet Russia in 1991, the legend of Chinggis Khaan and his legacy have become increasingly important as part of the Mongolian cultural identity and national pride.
It is also important to those Mongols living in other states, established in Chinggis Khaan’s time such as Afghanistan (the Hazaras), parts of China and the old USSR. His successful leadership and rule, the establishment of law and unification of nomadic societies, a constant source of interest to academics and historians.
The following poem was published in a university paper in Inner Mongolia about the Yunnan Mongol community who number under 7000. They identify as Mongol yet only came to the attention of Chinese officials and academia in the late 1970s.
We Are the Sons and Daughters of the Steppes: Children and Grandchildren of Chinggis Khan
We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Under the military standard of Zandan,
riding horses and holding bows, we fought
across vast lands of the North and South.
Passing the steppes on our magical horses
and crossing the Jinsha River on (inflated)
leather bags and bamboo rafts,
we camped at the Ka Qu Tuo Frontier,
under the military standard
We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
We planted trees and set up schools and promoted
culture and civilisation, and our awesome
cavalry maintained peace and harmony.
Under the leadership of Zandan
we guarded the southern frontier.
We are the sons and daughters of the steppes,
children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan.
Zandon was the son of Altemur, commander of the Mongol Yuan troops during the Yuan dynasty, his HQ at Qutuo Pass.
(The Yunnan Mongols renewed interest in genealogy similar to that of the African Americans inspired by the novel Roots. They want their children to be able to speak and read and write Mongolian and have imported teachers.)
Chinggis Khaan was a deeply spiritual person but also practical. The changes he brought to the world long-lasting. He encouraged widespread education.
In his time, people wandered freely, traded, mixed and learnt from each other, sharing ideas as well as goods. Nomadic peoples who glanced at the horizon, ever-mindful of Mother Nature, knowing instinctively where and when to move to survive.
Many still do this today in modern Mongolia, respecting tribal or clan connections.
In Europe and other parts of the world, there is so much suspicion, fear and hatred of the other. Border forces and farces. Freedom to travel not a given anymore. Permits needed to build houses never mind move across country with all your goods and chattels!
What would the world look like if Chinggis Khaan had never lived?
Interesting to speculate and those thoughts and much more enriched my visit as I examined exhibits of everyday utensils, clothes, belt buckles, knives, tales of sacred animals, ancient tools, religious artefacts and objects made or gilded with gold.
Outside in the grounds, I was at last up close to a traditional ger albeit dwarfed by statues representing Mongol warriors – the army that protected Chinggis Khaan and also advanced his empire.
From the top of the main statue, the view is stunning and gives you a perspective of the size of Mongolia – vast swathes of dusty plains and snow-capped mountains sparsely populated.
Few trees survive here because of the wind.
At the ger, a little boy three or four years old was fascinated by my speech. He overheard me speaking and approached us to ask Ada,
“How is she talking? What is she saying?”
I smiled and said, “Hello.”
He mimicked me, “Hello, hello.”
Then grabbing his little friend by the arm, he followed me repeating, hello. Perhaps my Scottish accent was a new experience!
I’d smile and answer, “hello” and they’d run a few feet away or to their parents but always returned to dance around us, repeating “hello“.
Ada went into teacher mode and after a quick lecture to the boys in Mongolian, which I assumed was on courtesy, she sent them packing with a critical look at their parents.
The boy and his family left to annoy the man with birds of prey on display.
In the shadow of the horse statues, it was easy to envisage the scenes that inspired the art work I bought from the young artist in Sukhbaatar Square. The image of Chinggis Khaan painted on leather and the two watercoloured cards, contrasting day and night, evocative of the period as were many pictures in the complex.
All this public reverence of Chinggis Khaan is relatively new and linked to Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet Union, although his importance to traditional Mongolian culture never faltered.
The symbol as such has shown not only an amazing level of tenacity but also a high degree of adaptability in taking on new meanings in relation to different historical contexts and different socio-political entities. For the Mongols, it has evolved from a symbol of imperial legitimacy and privilege grounded in absolute kinship ideology and relevant exclusively to the Golden Descendants, to a potent symbol of ethnic/national identity shared by Mongols all over the world, just as the historical Mongols have gradually evolved from an empire of tribal confederation to a nation of and ethnic entity of solidarity. Thus the claim “we are the children and grandchildren of Chinggis Khan”…
Chinggis Khan, From Imperial Ancestor to Ethinic Hero, Almaz Khan
A famous Mongolian rock group, Hongk composed a song about Chinggis Khaan and performed it in March 1990 at the time the new Mongolian Republic was being formed.
Forgive us for not daring
to breathe your name.
Though there are thousands of statues,
there is none of you.
We admired you in our hearts
but we dared not breathe your name.
The Equestrian Statue and Complex, plus the statues in Ulaanbaatar have rectified the suppression of this important symbol of the Mongol during the Soviet period.
(Founded in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was, until the breakup of the USSR and its empire in 1991, the oldest Eastern Bloc country as well as the second oldest socialist country in the world – after the USSR. Despite political and economic dependence on Russia, much of the national culture enjoyed autonomy and protection.)
There is also a resurgence of Mongolian language and traditional script and a recognition Uighurjin Mongol script has carried history, culture, traditions and customs and fortifies Mongolian independence.
Written vertically, the characters take different forms from the beginning, middle, and end of the word. The oldest existing text believed to be on Chinggis Khaan’s Stone– the replica outside the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and the original at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
Mongolian script is not only a writing system but an art form with meaningful strokes. The script’s “tig” strokes were developed in various styles, resulting in an almost abstract style used in calligraphy nowadays.
Huge examples hang in the foyer of the complex with the rich heritage of Mongolian manuscripts categorised into three categories: religious, historical and folklore.
When the Russians influenced Mongolia, the Cyrillic script became official for public buildings and street names and in schools but Uighurjin is making a comeback.
I watched a young girl demonstrate the script and for a couple of dollars, she wrote my name, which looks much more impressive than it does in English!
In between being immersed in the ancient culture, absorbing historical facts, and the context of impressive and expansive exhibits there were interactions with people, like the little boy.
I discovered I wasn’t the only one scared of heights yet determined to climb to the top of the equestrian statue. I chose the stairs and reached the top to a breathtaking view. A lovely family took pictures of me and I of them while we huddled and clung to the wall to make sure the gale force wind didn’t blow us across the steppes.
Outside there was a wedding party using the monument for stunning photographs of their special day just as many Melburnians choose Parliament House or Federation Square or other iconic sites.
Watching the wedding party prompted a discussion with Bemba and Ada.
Bemba is the youngest of eight siblings. She is not married and has no children.
Ada is one of five siblings. She married but did not have a traditional big wedding. She has two children. A daughter lives in Melbourne and is studying her Masters in International Accounting at a QUT campus. Ada taught Russian and English in secondary school before working as a tour guide.
Mongolians traditionally had big families but like westerners, they have fewer children nowadays probably a maximum of three. However, the family unit is still everything.
Ada was born in a ger and grew up in one. Her parents have ‘returned to country’ some distance from Ulaanbaatar and at 76 and 80 years old they have moved into their first house and will enjoy the comfort of permanence, running water, and an indoor toilet.
Carving of mythical creature on pipe
a giant boot in traditional style
I returned to the complex to visit the toilet and through a joint doorway, the backs of men could be seen as they urinated. Ah, cultural quirks and customs. It reminded me of a visit to France in 1984 when a similar design was used in several places we stopped.
One last look at the magnificent foyer, the beautifully carved pipe resting on the wings of a mythical beast and a photo opportunity beside the giant traditional boot.
Before leaving for the Terelj National park, I bought a card in Mongolian script as a memento.
A silhouette of a horse galloping free beside the word for joy.
I’ve been home from my travels for over a month and several people have asked ‘where are the posts about your trip?’
How to start – to write to please readers, as well as myself – to do justice to my experience. To rely on a memory that doesn’t work as well as it did when I was younger!
I have Facebook posts and text messages written in a hurry and scribbled journal notes hard to read.
Whenever I travelled years ago and sent letters and postcards home, Dad said I wrote like a trained spider. Well now, with years of tapping keyboards, the spider is no longer trained!
Unfortunately, my plans to use the top shelf Lenovo tablet the girls bought for me, did indeed, as best laid plans do ‘gang aft a gley‘! Memo to travellers – don’t take new equipment unless you have more than one quick lesson from people more capable than yourself.
Thank goodness for the photographs on my Samsung phone – too many in this digital age – but they do jog the memory. Thank goodness too for Google Drive storage and a daughter with patience to save data to a separate hard drive.
The photographs will help create cameo narratives, something I’ve been encouraging my life story students to do this week.
WRITING MEMORIES FROM A PHOTOGRAPH
Examine a photograph, put yourself back in that moment, consider what was going on in your life at the time, what we don’t see before or after the photograph was taken, and write… great for family albums and scrapbooks, but the method will also help write life stories towards a memoir or autobiography and family history.
And I can recreate my travels.
I’ve mentioned before that I trace an urge to travel, and the restlessness and curiosity I’ve always felt about the world, back to childhood. Absorbed in the contents of a set of children’s encyclopedias, Dad bought from a door-to-door salesman in 1960, I wanted to see all the lands the colourful flags represented.
Most of the pages and photographs were black and white, but in one volume, the block of full-colour photographs detailing flags a magnet for my curious eyes.
Many a dreich (bleak) day in wintry Greenock brightened by tracing and drawing the flags. Imagination fired by the unusual names of various countries giving a glimpse of the world beyond Scotland.
Where were these lands? What were the people like? How did they live?
This extract from the introductory page, taken to heart:
You will find some day, my young friends that, though words pretend to say what you mean, they do not say what you really mean at all, and I do not know of any words that can tell you all I want to say to you and all that this book means to me. Yet it is your book, and the story of it belongs to you…
…the great wonder of the earth. What does the world mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still?
… “Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!”…
That is how our book began… it is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. This is what we will help each other to be.
Your affectionate Friend, Arthur Mee
from The Children’s Encyclopedia founded by Arthur Mee
YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO CROSS ITEMS OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST
At almost 64 years of age, I set out to realise a childhood dream to travel the Trans Siberian Railway. To explore another part of ‘the great wonder of the earth.
My starting point Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city.
After engaging Flower Travel, the experts on such a journey, I planned the kind of trip I wanted with their agent Heidi Mason, who did a fantastic job.
I love history, I wanted to travel as much as possible using local trains, not be stuck with tourists.
I had a limited budget and was not precious about staying in fancy hotels but where possible I wanted access to clean toilets and showers.
Most of all I wanted to travel safely – my days of freewheeling, trusting everything to work out or hoping there’ll be accommodation available gone with my youth!
However, when the plane touched down on April 1st, with all the cultural connotations that date has, a little voice whispered are you an April’s Fool?What on earth are you doing here alone? What if no one meets you?What is Plan B?
I queued at Immigration & Customs clutching passport and visa, plus hotel details and proof I’d depart in a few days and prayed the officials spoke good English.
If it is one regret I have it is a lack of ability with other languages, although even expert linguists say Mongolian is difficult to learn! I downloaded the free Google Translate App for Mongolian and Russian but speech output isn’t available for Mongolian so you can’t hear how the words are pronounced – or have a conversation with someone via the App.
My fears of failing to communicate groundless because there is a growing knowledge of English in Mongolia and Russia and I discovered I mime very well – especially in situations that are universal to people regardless of where you live!
I didn’t sleep much on the Air China flight from Melbourne to Beijing – who can these days travelling Economy Class? At a little over five feet and a size 12-14, I still felt squashed on the plane. I’m sure the designers of aeroplane seats missed their vocation as torturers.
My flight almost 12 hours, plus the obligatory sleepless night pre travel and the queuing and security before the flight – a standard recipe for exhaustion!
Fatigue kicked in and the reviving blast of cold air disembarking from the plane at Beijing and walking across the tarmac to waiting buses soon dissipated.
The two hours in transit in China taken up with queuing for the toilet (my first stop), negotiating more security, and ensuring the right path to the Transit Lounge, puzzling over the instructions to access free WiFi, and double-checking I was in the right queue to check-in for my flight to Ulaanbaatar.
It’s disconcerting and confronting listening to announcements in a language you don’t know and hoping when English is pronounced you understand what is said. Ditto for signs that are not always multi-lingual despite being in a place like an airport or train station.
I didn’t attempt to buy a coffee but dry-mouthed fear made me search for a much-needed cup of fresh water. Not as simple a task as you’d think.
Technological expertise needed everywhere nowadays – even to use simple vending machines.
I felt empathy for the waves of foreign nationals I see floating around Melbourne Airport.
Was I wearing a stunned mullet look or one of fearful confusion as I struggled to find the code for wifi and also fill a cup with water?
Try taking a picture with a queue behind you and before the screen disappears
A machine for drinking water
Ah, instructions in English
TRAVEL LESSON NUMBER ONE:
Never underestimate how quickly confidence, ability, and good judgement disappears with culture shock and the effects of lack of sleep!
A smile and courtesy never go astray. What a relief to see a white paper sign with “MRS NEIL” in bold black ink, held aloft by a casually-dressed woman wearing a polite smile.
I’ve watched this scene in countless movies and it was repeated throughout my travels in Russia. Thank you,Heidi Mason, your planning worked to perfection!
Bemba, my driver for Mongolia, a most welcoming sight at the airport! She apologised for her ‘poor English’.
‘Please don’t apologise, my Mongolian is non-existent!’
Two minutes later, the old man who accosted us in the car park not so polite or apologetic. Dressed in traditional garb, he thrust 3 stamped postcards at me.
“Buy… buy… bargain.”
His long hair, moustache, and beard reminding me of Hollywood’s Fu Manchu. I tried to remember the worth of the handful of Mongolian notes I’d converted before leaving Australia but he knew what currency he wanted.
I gave him a couple of US dollars as Bemba stepped between us and hurried me to the car.
Dismissed, Fu Manchu left to harass someone else and I stared at three unspectacular postcards with stamps of different value.
Now they’re a reminder that no matter where you go in the world there will always be someone spruiking. Tired, gullible tourists not yet acclimatised easy prey.
Tree of Gobi, Sum Khukh Burd, Dundgobi and Reindeer herder are not the Mongolia I experienced but the postcards indicative of parts of the amazing country.
From the airport, snow-capped mountains in the distance hinted at the wild Mongolia I’d read about and probably home to the reindeer of the postcard, but as we headed for the city proper the rows of new apartments and sprouting high rise buildings reminded me of China 1979!
Evidence of construction, modernisation and development lined extra wide streets still showing clumps of snow leftover from a recent blizzard.
In fact, the day beneath a deep blue sky and wandering wispy clouds, warmer than I expected. Bemba pointed to her short sleeves with a grin as I sat in the back seat, sweltering in layers of a vest, top and fur-lined coat. What happened to the -6 degrees I’d been warned to expect?
A glimpse of a traditional ger and an impressive sculpture of a camel train stirred excitement and anticipation. I’ve made it to Mongolia and tomorrow night I’ll be sleeping in a ger.
Hotel Nine, my accommodation for the first night, advertised as central to ‘nature, culture and temples… 400 metres from Sukhbaatar Square,’ a 14-kilometre drive. Long enough to observe buildings, people, and the heavy traffic.
Bemba said peak hour was over yet the traffic manic! Most cars are second-hand Japanese or Korean.
Various measures introduced to deal with traffic congestion and pollution caused by petrol and diesel fumes have had limited success. Restrictions designed to encourage fewer cars on the road are circumvented.
In the city, you can only drive on the days your number plate allows – no exemptions. The week divided into days when only cars with even number plates can drive and other days for odd numbers.
People get around regulations by having two or more cars. Even the travel company chauffeuring me!
The view from the car revealed an Ulaanbaatar similar to many cities in the west.
I couldn’t wait to shower, stretch on a bed, and with a cup of tea in hand, plan the rest of the day to discover what makes this city different.
Day one of my ‘inspired journey’ began at 11.00 am.
Hotel Nine’s advantages: on-site restaurant, free WiFi, flat screen TV, kettle and tea-making facilities, private bathroom with bathrobe, slippers and free toiletries.
A little voice said ‘Enjoy this comfort zone while you can!’ The facilities excellent but the friendly staff the greatest asset.
The young male receptionist thrilled to meet an Aussie. His rugby coach in high school from Sydney. He still enjoyed the sport and hoped one day to travel overseas.
When I asked where the nearest bank was to exchange money, he checked on the Internet but also rang a friend to double-check opening times because it was Saturday.
He explained the route on the tourist map of the city. We agreed that the scale of maps in most tourist brochures inaccurate and often misleading so he printed off easier to read instructions.
Despite this diligence, I still got lost!
I confess to getting lost and confused at least once in every city I visited. Map reading, not my best skill.
However, I always managed to correct mistakes and when lost, discovered wonderful gems I may otherwise have missed.
Ulaanbaatar that first day no exception and with each find, I thought of those silver linings Mum used to talk about.
April 1, 2017 – texting daughter, MaryJane
Hi, Love. In Mongolia and met at the airport. So far so good.
At hotel. Only one bar of wi fi. I’m going to have a shower. Will keep trying to phone then I’m going for a walk before dark. What time is it there? Don’t want to wake you too early. Or miss you if going out. xx
MaryJane to me
It is 4.05pm here on Saturday. What time is it there?
It is 1.51 in afternoon. China is 3 hours behind and Mongolia is 2.
Flight better than expected although not much sleep. Security a bit of a nightmare and confusion but thank goodness I didn’t have drama like some people. Muslim women had headscarves poked and prodded. Pretty used to it all now. My prosthesis caused issues at Melbourne with a new machine that body scans. The young man so embarrassed when I explained anomaly on the screen. He asked a female to body-search me. Thank God China and Mongolia do not have that super-duper technology yet.
A Stroll in Ulaanbaatar
In search of a bank, I discovered a vibrant city with wide streets and impressive buildings. The hotel conveniently located and with a grid design the central city easy to explore.
STATISTICS FOR ULAANBAATAR & MONGOLIA
The current population ofMongolia is 3,056,876 as of Sunday, August 13, 2017, based on the latest United Nations estimates.
Mongolia population is equivalent to 0.04% of the total world population.
Mongolia ranks number 137 in the list of countries (and dependencies) by population.
The population density in Mongolia is 2 per square Km (5 people per square mile).
The total land area is 1,582,339 square Kilometres (610,944 square miles)
72.4 % of the population is urban (2,209,488 people in 2017)
The median age in Mongolia is 27.6 years.
The population of Mongolia will be increased by 145 persons daily in 2017. (As opposed to the population of Australia will be increased by 1 053 persons daily in 2017.
The population of Ulaanbaatar is 844,818
From the hotel room, I saw some examples of the public buildings built when the Soviets were in charge, especially during Stalin’s time. Mongolia gave Russia short shift during Perestroika and now as old buildings are replaced with new there’s an even greater move to privatisation to attract investment but also to move away from sameness and serviceability being the criteria.
Fascinating photos, please keep them coming! That’s interesting architecture, sort of like a Chinese riff on those houses in Bloomsbury with a colonnade linking them all together.
Friend Lisa on Facebook :
Mongolia is proud to be democratic and voter turn out is 87% although not compulsory. The transition to privatisation has winners and losers and the current government still coping with the aftermath of GFC, Russia’s push to regain ground lost and of course, China forever an uneasy neighbour considering their past history.
The building Lisa referred to was The National School of Music and Hotel Nine being in close proximity to the Arts precinct meant I walked past it every time I left the hotel.
I heard lovely strains of classical music float from open doors or windows and saw a stream of young people come and go.
A walk to Sukhbaatar Square a delight. Families, teenagers, tourists, and artists touted their wares. No doubt a typical Saturday afternoon. It is a huge space and despite plenty of activities, there were large tracts of emptiness.
Western dress the norm and from a distance, I could have been in an Australian city, but up close government buildings and statues paid homage to Chinggis Khaan and other legends of the Mongol!
People were friendly, they posed for photos and took ones of me. Mairi Neil was there!
The streets were clean. Many rubbish bins included ashtrays, also dual bins encouraged recycling. An Eco toilet in the park built alongside a special place for smokers. What an innovative idea – I never saw anyone walking around smoking.
However, my eyes started to sting and water. I thought it was the slight wind and a change of temperature so persevered but I began to long to be indoors.
I found the bank – or a bank. ( I did get lost.)
Converted some of the US dollars I’d been advised to bring to colourful Mongolian tögrög.(tugrik)
Main mission accomplished, I negotiated the busy intersections by attaching myself to locals and crossing with them because despite traffic lights the cars seemed to be able to turn regardless of whether it was red or green. An absence of road rules I understood made me nervous!
At last, I found the National Museum and before even going inside to see their fabulous collection of historic and ethnographic artefacts, I fed my love of history and art.
There is an amazing sculpture to the victims of political purges common under Stalin, a replica of a stone praising the great Mongolian leader Chinggis Khaan, ancient carved deer stones and a huge temple bell signifying the country’s links with the established religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.
The Mongol Empire was the largest land empire and the second largest overall empire in world history.
The most famous Mongolian, the powerful Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan). He brought together the tribes and clans of the Mongols to establish an empire. The Mongols ruled most of Europe including Eastern Europe, Iran, Central Asia, part of south east Asia, and all of China.
The Mongolian people share many customs with nearby Turkic peoples. The most obvious being that both live in yurts, which Mongolians call gers. They have nomadic traditions, the horse a central feature in their culture, and many still practice Tengriism (Turko-Mongol shamanism).
In addition to its historic and linguistic importance, this carved ‘stele’ replica gives an explanation of the successful Mongolian military campaigns of the 13th century. The inscription dedicated to the son of Khasar, Chinggis Khaan’s brother.
The stone found in eastern Siberia in 1818 and removed from Mongolia to St Petersburg in Russia in 1936 where it is still in the State Hermitage Museum. I wonder if Mongolia has ever demanded the original be returned?
The inscription translated as:
“While Chinggis Khaan was holding an assembly of Mongolian dignitaries, after his conquest of Sartuul, Esunk, he shot a target at 335 alds” (530metres).
No wonder he is revered as a great warrior!
The Temple Bell an important symbol of the importance of Buddhism, the major religion in Mongolia. Stalinism tried to wipe it out but it has survived and thrived.
One of the most powerful pieces of art I’ve experienced was in front of the National Museum with this explanatory plaque.
VICTIMS OF POLITICAL PURGES MEMORIAL
The decision to erect a memorial to the victims of political purges was made in 1991 and in1997 the monument designed by L. Bold was unveiled in front of the National Museum of Mongolia. The black cubic structure symbolizes oppression and grief, and the figure of a broken human torso with the head soaring upward reflects the tragic fate of the condemned yet their resolve and hope to seek the truth in light. The empty space between the frame and human figure reflects the idea that this historic tragedy shall never be erased or faded from our memory. This monument is considered the first work of modern art to be constructed in Ulaanbaatar after 1990.
The deer stone carvings discovered by a joint Mongolian-Russian archaeological team at the site of Surtiin Denj, located in Burentogtokh surn of Khovsgol aimag, in 2006. Some of the images, including a pair of fish and a spoked wheel, are rarely depicted on deer stones in Mongolia and Eurasia!
Mongolia is home to multiple types of paleontological findings, including rare species, ancient plants, and rare minerals. Various types of animals and plants, some never found in any other country, have been living in Mongolian territory for thousands of years. It’s a great place to find fossil dinosaurs and other extinct creatures!
So was it irony or serendipity that saw me spending my first night in Mongolia, relaxing on the bed, sipping a cup of soup and watching the latest movie creation from JK Rowling’s books?
I completed much more than the requisite 10,000 steps to keep fit that first afternoon walking around Ulaanbaatar and I didn’t need rocking to sleep.
Well rested, next morning, I was downstairs before the pick-up time of 9.30am to breakfast on muesli, fresh fruit and English Breakfast tea and start day two:
A tour of the Gandan Monastery Complex
A visit to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue
transfer to the Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National park
I met Ada, my guide for the next three days but before we did any sightseeing I had to get help for my eyes, which had ached all night and started to weep the minute I stepped outside. Was I allergic to Mongolia? Or the residue of sweet incense permeating the hotel walls?
We called into a chemist a few moments later. Bought some eye drops. What a relief.
Ada explained my problem and I was given the drops with the assurance they’d work. And they did. It was the pollution in the air irritating my eyes.
Like a throwback to 1979 China! Mongolians living in the suburban ger camps burn fossil fuels like coal as well as wood, they also burn a lot of rubbish like old tyres to save money. The seasonal wind made the smog deceptive but it was there and my eyes detected it.
Thank you, Ada, I would have taken forever to track down a chemist and explain my problem!
I returned to work on Tuesday and of course, my writing students wanted to know how my trip went likewise friends and family.
I’ve been overseas for 96 days – a whole term – and as I return to timetables and responsibilities the best way of sharing such an amazing trip is writing about it.
The reflections won’t be chronological or a travelogue but flashbacks and memories in the form of anecdotes, poems and essays. They’ll be triggered by words, sounds, smells, tastes, events, people, postcards and photographs (I took too many!) and whatever else inspires me.
Where did I Go?
I flew to Mongolia and travelled the Trans Siberian Railway to Helsinki and then London – a journey that’s been on my bucket list for years.
I visited family and old friends in England staying in London, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Colchester, another town with strong links to Roman times. I spent time in Barnes, Bath, Bibury, Burford and Bourton-0n-The-Water and other places with names beginning with a different letter of the alphabet!
I visited friends and family in Scotland: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Renton and Cardross and surrounding localities like Inverurie, Loch Lomond, Loch Carron, Rhu, Helensburgh, Oban, Plockton, Inverness, Culloden and Falkirk.
I visited the Isles of Skye and Arran researching family history and revisiting my own past.
I toured Orkney and Shetland islands -to cross another item off my bucket list.
I could be flippant and say ‘why not?’ however, that wouldn’t be helpful writing this blog post or to those reading it.
Fulfilling several travel dreams high on the list of answers.
(I blame my father for my wanderlust. He bought a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias when I was seven years old. The ten volumes captivated and fascinated. Reading chapters sowed seeds of restlessness and cultivated a desire for knowledge and adventure. )
I like challenging myself to ignore limits of ageing and osteoarthritis and I wanted to regain the confidence lost after my mastectomy. As my baggage label announced ‘adventure before dementia’ – the fear of that disease ever-present since my Dad’s diagnosis and death.
Life had become predictable and enthusiasm for writing projects disappeared. I feared my teaching was stale. A change was needed, echoing Gough Whitlam’s campaign, it was time.
Time to introduce some excitement, step into the unknown, travel to different time zones, open up to new experiences and ways of thinking.
Ignore the negativity and prove to myself and others that the world has more people with good intentions and good in their hearts than the constant sensational news reports would have us believe.
How To Survive Strange Beds
Mairi Neil July 2017
‘to sleep perchance to dream…’
Toss and turn, turn and toss
an uncomfortable trampoline
too narrow mattress or oversized
tangled in unfamiliar sheets
repress a tortured scream
as thoughts unbidden creep
a monstrous murky mist
–is the bedding clean?
Facebook flickers, Twitter tweets,
parading a plague of bed bugs
supported by a stream of
suited and serious newsreaders
backdropped by dinosaur-sized bugs
horror story feeders
hidden cameras reveal cleaners who don’t clean.
passport checks evaded
no fear of armed border guards
x-ray machines and scanners
no match for expert subterfuge
who sees intestinal worms
bed bugs, or flea circuses?
Counting sheep to sleep
but head hits
brick pillow or fluffy mountain
Never an in-between too hot too cold too salty
the cultural story we know Air-conditioning? Heater? Open window? Ah, fresh air!
Silence is golden
until jet engines roar
jumbled voices amplify
motor mayhem, frequent footsteps
a cacophony of chaos
thin walls, rattling doors
barking dogs prowling cats
jet-lagged overactive brain…
Insomnia insinuates interrupts
the comfort zone of relaxation to sleep perchance to dream…
I wrote this poem in class after an example in an 11-part primer on writing contemporary poetry, available online from Mslexia Magazine.
Your subject will never be new – it’s all been done before. But a contemporary poem must offer a fresh take on its theme. You need to surprise your reader and force them to look at the world in a new way. You can do this by creating some frisson in your language, with a startling metaphor or unusual syntax. Or you can approach the topic from an oblique or unexpected angle.
Linda France, Mslexia’s Poetry Advisor 1999-2005
I’m not sure if I succeeded the way Linda France would approve but one of the complaints/comments made to me and by me was having to adjust (or not) to ‘strange’ beds. And one of the wonderful delights of returning home was the familiarity and comfort of my own bed where of course I dream of travelling!
It may be a first world problem or middle-class obsession but the fear of ‘picking up something’, whether it’s skin irritations, tinea or gastro, a common topic of conversation among seasoned travellers and casual tourists.
I exploited these fears in my poem, however, I never had to worry at any time in my recent travels despite sharing berths on trains and ferries, sleeping in a Mongolian ger, a Russian homestay, and a variety of hostels and hotels.
Plenty of mattresses and pillows to get used to and I’m grateful for my osteopath’s muscle massaging technique since I returned. It helps my body get over the inevitable tossing and turning in strange beds and the hauling, lifting, packing and unpacking of luggage during the last three months.
Poetry With A Purpose
We’re doing poetry this term at Godfrey Street as we prepare to create the annual calendar where writers respond to the work of artists at the House.
Although the calendar requires haiku or terse verse, other forms of poetry will be studied and attempted as we learn the techniques of the craft: style, imagery, lines, punctuation, rhyme, rhythm, sound, stanza, subject, title and voice.
Your Turn To Write – We Tried This In Class
Adapted from an exercise recommended by Linda France:
Think of something you’d like to do. Choose an activity with various stages or metaphorical layers:
fall out of love, learn to love, find a new hobby, learn to fly like a bird, swim with dolphins, exercise in a pool, sing in a choir, sing in the shower, dance with strangers, dance like no one is watching, dance through life, meditate, lose weight, save the world, cope with bad service, use public transport, recognise happiness…
■ Give your poem a title of the form ‘How to…’ (fall out of love, swim,
etc.) and write a set of instructions, addressing the reader directly and guiding them through the process, or an experience – or whatever you want to do. This is your poem, just be authentic.
■ Use everyday language, but avoid clichés.
■ Focus closely and include lots of physical detail. Think strong VERBS, concrete NOUNS.
■ Include some reported speech.
Have fun and challenge yourself, like I did writing a poem about an aspect of travel. When I was on Orkney I discovered a wonderful photographer and poet, Edwin Rendall.
Edwin’s work appears on cards and bookmarks and this short verse coupled with his photography I particularly love – perhaps with practice, I’ll be able to create something similar to convey my memories.
(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that the content and some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)
NAIDOC WEEK 2017 – 2-9 July
NAIDOC – National Aborigines & Islanders Day Observance Committee organises celebrations every year in the first full week of July.
This year the theme “Our Languages Matter” emphasised and celebrated the role that indigenous languages play in cultural identity by linking people to their land and water and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.
Last year, encouraged by my good friend, writer, and award-winning blogger, Lisa Hill, I reviewed books in the ever-increasing catalogue of indigenous literature. Lisa hosts an Indigenous Literature Week on her ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.
Most people I know who travel Australia will not have read this 1988 publication. It was an expensive coffee table book years ago but well-produced with an intensity of detail and gorgeous coloured photographs of iconic Aussie landscapes!
Some of the information is confronting, but all of it enriching. Adding to that important store of human knowledge. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the landscape of our continent and of many of the places you already know, and perhaps you may look differently at many of the debates around Aboriginal Land Rights, Australia or Invasion Day and the importance of retaining and teaching language and culture.
The book is –
A pictorial guide to Highway One, Central Australian and Tasmanian sites and places important to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life; includes history, art, religion of particular clans, present communities and organisations, biographies; many archival photographs.
Here is a snippet about Hamilton near Geelong, the map showing many different language groups in that corner of Victoria alone – nine clans – how many of these languages left?
To learn about the history of our country from those who have been caretakers for thousands of years, to learn about the spiritual places holding their sacred stories makes it a special traveller’s guide. A book worth reading again and again. To be read for understanding and appreciation, not for directions or entertaining experiences.
It is not a Lonely Planet guide or RACV road atlas!
However, it’s worth putting in the caravan, camper trailer, or four wheel drive if you’re touring ‘grey nomads’ or a family that tours together. This is the history not taught in our school curriculum, or just beginning to be included.
Not necessarily bedtime reading (unless you have a big bed and plenty of elbow room) but sitting around the campfire or when having a BBQ in a campsite, you can share the knowledge and/or book.
The book tells of many nations, clans and groups adapting to life in temperate coastal regions, tropical rainforests, living by inland waterways or mighty rivers, travelling wild coastline and surviving the desert by trading with other clans.
… the Mitakoodi people in the Cloncurry district used a small type of net which they obtained in trading from the Woonamurra people who lived to the north. The Kalkadoons acquired kunti (porcupine or spinifex grass gum) from the Buckingham Downs region to the south.
(Visit the Kalkadoon Cultural Centre located at Rotary Hill.) page 144
Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia is the first book ever to offer a personal, Aboriginal vision of this, the world’s greatest island.
Through over 300 stunning colour pictures and 150 black and white archival photographs, many of which have never been published before, and through the words of one of this country’s best-known and most respected Aboriginal people, this unique book takes the reader on a journey around the continent, an unforgettable journey that reveals an Australia rarely experienced by its white inhabitants.
Creation stories are told and although most Melburnians are aware of Bunjil the eagle it’s fascinating to read slightly different versions and explanations for Port Phillip Bay, Mornington Peninsula, and the River Yarra’s twisting trail from Warrandyte.
This extract about ancient bones discovered in 1965 rivals the speculation about burial sites in Orkney and Shetland, where I just spent two weeks exploring.
I was 12 years old in 1965 but can’t remember hearing about this at school or university when I studied Australian history.
Jane and I knew Burnum Burnum in the 1970s although he was first introduced as Harry Penrith. We saw his transformation after seeking to get closer to his Aboriginality he researched his family and took his Grandfather’s name.
A member of the Stolen Generation, he could finally be himself – Burnum Burnum!
Here is part of the Foreword…
For me this book represents a lifetime’s work, a journey to find my own roots in this great country. I was born in 1936, under the family gum tree at Mosquito Point, by the side of Wallaga Lake. But, under the policies of the day, I was seized by government officials and separated (at 3 months) from my family. For the next ten years, I grew up on a mission near Nowra, before being moved to the Kinchela Boys Home, near South West Rocks, where I became the first Aborigine to gain a bronze medallion in surf life-saving. My sister was sent to Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home, separated from me by more than 1600 kilometres…
This book is… an attempt to give the traveller a chance to view this extraordinary country as it was seen by the original Australians… Modern ecology can learn a great deal from a people who managed and maintained their world so well for 50,000 years.
… Australians are gaining a new pride in their real heritage, the one which covers 2000 generations. The story has an inevitable edge of sadness, as we understand the process and pattern of dispossession suffered after 1788. This material has been included not to provoke guilt, but to give a perception of the extraordinary differences between the original Australians and the invaders who came in 1788.
In most areas of early contact, they were greeted warmly by the Australians, who had no idea that these strange white people intended to stay…
In Europe, as people developed their civilisation from the caves to the cathedrals, they left clear evidence of their achievement for future generations to admire. In Australia, the land itself is the cathedral and worship is not confined to any four walls. Each step is a prayer and every form in the landscape – and everything that moves in it – was put there specifically for the people to use and manage…
I hope the reader will find no bitterness in the story; the past cannot be turned back… The challenge of the future is… an acceptance of the past, the first step to a positive future… no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape.
This book resonates more with me now than when I bought it all those years ago because of the special connection to Harry/Burnum Burnum. I’ve finished a personal trek myself, returning to my birth country (touched upon in a previous post).
My father was Scottish and my mother Irish, and I visited Scotland and Northern Ireland retracing their childhood influences, and my own.
Here are Burnum Burnum’s thoughts:
All around Melbourne, the spirit of my great great grandmother is written on the landscape. When I drive through eastern Victoria I do so with a great sense of reverence, dreaming my way through the landscape of my ancestors and my birth, I can feel the spirit of my ancestors in many places.
This book weaves a rich tapestry of people, places, flora, fauna, history, mythology, reality and Dreamtime.
Forever relevant, it will earn its keep on your bookshelf for generations.